Monday, November 29, 2010

Have a Full (But Not Stuffed) Holiday Season

Tip of the Week, November 21, 2010

During the winter holiday season, perhaps more so than at any other time of year, there's a fine line between indulging and overdoing. Indulging makes the holidays more fun. (Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes and several kinds of pie? No thanks!) Overdoing can leave you feeling stressed, guilty, and worn out, possibly with an ailing bank account, a disheartening number on the bathroom scale, and a frustratingly cluttered house.

As we get into the holiday season full swing, here are some guidelines to keep in mind to make sure you can squeeze the most out of the celebrations ahead without winding up literally or figuratively stuffed.

Go for Quality Over Quantity
There seems to be more of everything floating around in November and December: more food, more drink, more social events, more chances to spend money. Taking advantage of all that more is a speedy way to wind up overwhelmed. Instead, choose to indulge in whatever's more meaningful, more special, more unusual, or more enjoyable. Rather than agreeing to attend every holiday event you're invited to, opt only for those you know you're likely to enjoy. Want to keep your food and drink indulgences in check? Steer clear of treats you can get year-round and instead enjoy those that only appear during this season.

Take It Slower
It can be all too easy to blaze through a big holiday meal and end up so full it's hard to move, or to spend more on gifts than you intended to because you're racing through the store trying to get your shopping done. Ramping down the pace of seasonal activities can prevent overstuffing. Take time at the dinner table to talk with those around you, really enjoy the taste of what you're eating, and gauge how full you are. Be more deliberate when you shop by showing up with a list of what you're looking for (drawn up before you hit the stores), and then stick to your guns.

Make Some Simple Trade-Offs
The one-in, one-out rule of organizing is a great one to keep in mind throughout the holidays: to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed and overstuffed, get rid of one thing for each new thing that comes in. This applies to actual stuff and to activities, treats, and commitments. Receive a new set of pots and pans as a gift? Pass the old set along. Decide to eat whatever catches your fancy during Thanksgiving dinner? Cut back a bit on rich foods during the following week. Agree to make cookies for a bake sale? Enlist someone else to take on one of your other responsibilities so you don't wind up frazzled.

Don't Try to Keep Up With the Joneses
Finally, before you get deep into the holiday season, take some time to figure out how you want to celebrate, and then honor that over the coming weeks. If your friends and extended family have big, multi-course Thanksgiving meals but you'd prefer a dinner of lasagna, salad, and wine with a few close friends, go for it. Rather decorate your home with some seasonal greenery and a small handful of cherished family decorations than craft ornaments by hand and give each room its own theme? Do it. The holidays will mean more to you if you celebrate them in your own way rather than trying to adhere to other people's standards.

I hope you indulge a bit during the holiday season; for me, it's part of what makes this time of year so much fun. Put the guidelines above to use to help make sure that indulgence doesn't become overstuffing and overwhelm.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Do It Now: Upgrade Your Food Storage

Tip of the Week, November 14, 2010

Whether you're hosting guests for holiday meals and parties, planning more food prep as the holidays approach, or are simply ready to stop doing battle with dozens of mismatched plastic tubs and lids, now is the ideal time to upgrade and reorganize your food storage containers. This might seem like a fluffy project in the face of everything else clamoring for your attention over the next few weeks, but it's a relatively low-effort endeavor will save you time, annoyance, and quite possibly spoiled food.

Here are two common types of food storage containers, and how to update them.

Storage Containers for Leftovers
If you have a drawer, cabinet, or shelf overflowing with excess plastic storage containers, you're in good company. Ditto if several of those containers don't have matching lids--or if you have a whole mess of lids without containers--and if any of them are semi-melted from one too many times in the microwave, stained with tomato sauce, or just plain tired.

Upgrades
  • Ruthlessly weed out any containers that aren't in top shape. This includes those orphans without lids, lids without mates, and containers that don't close, are damaged, or are dirty beyond cleaning. Also be realistic about how many containers you truly need; unless you regularly do a lot of cooking at once or use multiple containers on a regular basis, you should be in good shape with somewhere between 12-20 pieces.
  • Strongly consider updating part or most of your collection to glass containers. These are generally sturdier than their plastic counterparts; can safely go into the freezer, microwave, oven, and dishwasher (which is not true of many plastic models); and don't absorb odors and stains the way plastic can. I like Pyrex's containers, which come in several shapes and sizes and are inexpensive.
  • If you prefer to stick with plastic, or simply want to have a few plastic containers on hand, go for a set that's designed to neatly stack or nest. Rubbermaid has some good options.
  • Planning to send guests home with leftovers this season? Stock a few (and I emphasize a few!) plastic takeout containers in good condition, or buy a few sets of inexpensive Ziploc or Glad containers that you won't mind parting with.

Storage Containers for Dry Goods and Pantry Staples
In working on kitchen organizing projects with clients, I come across a lot of preventable messes (like bags of flour that leave piles of white in cabinets) and a LOT of food that gets wasted because it's forgotten about in the depths of the pantry or because it goes bad before it's eaten, like bags of pretzels that go stale because they're not re-closed tightly. While I think transferring every last bit of dry food to its own storage container is overkill, I do think choosing a few reliable containers for pantry staples, perishable snacks, and mess-prone supplies is a good way to go.

Upgrades
  • Decide what should go into containers. Before you invest in anything, take a close look at what's in your cabinets to determine what would be better stored in a container. Common candidates: flour, sugar, bagged pasta, bagged snacks (like pretzels), dried beans, and any dry supplies you buy in bulk.
  • Want to see what you're storing? Opt for glass or clear plastic containers, like the ones pictured above (which are part of Ikea's Burken series). Unless you have ample counter or shelf space, you may be better off with square containers, which will take up less room. Regardless of the material you choose, consider labeling your containers so you (and others in your household) will remember what's in each.
  • For staples like flour, sugar, tea bags, and coffee beans, check out Simplehuman's Slim Canisters, which come in 5 different sizes. I was recently introduced to these, and I'm in love. They have a handle on the side, open with the press of a button (leaving you with a free hand), have a designated spot for a label on the top, and--perhaps my favorite feature--have a liner that comes out for cleaning. They're also attractive enough (depending on your style) to keep out, and have a finish that repels fingerprints. The downside? They're not cheap, but they may be worth the investment for the staples you use most often.
  • Finally, for simple, easy, effective storage, pick up a few Mason jars, or clean and repurpose other glass jars (such as those that once held jam or honey). Just make sure to opt for containers with no chips, major scratches, or ill-fitting or rusted lids.
Take some time this week to weed out your old, tired, ineffective food storage containers and replace them with some new models to get your kitchen and pantry in shape for the holidays ahead.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Overcoming Overwhelm

Tip of the Week, November 7, 2010

In recent weeks, a phrase I learned in high school French has been popping into my head over and over: "Jamais deux sans trois," or "Never two without three." In other words, when it rains, it pours--and wow, has it been pouring at The Organized Life HQ lately, with multiple large projects, day-to-day busy-ness, planning for the upcoming holidays, and working on a new business venture all clamoring for attention at the same time. It's all been a bit overwhelming, to say the least!

It's tempting to deal with overwhelm by retiring to the sofa with a glass of wine to watch back-to-back episodes of The Office on Hulu (which is exactly what I do on occasion), but ultimately, it's much more effective to work through the storm of whatever's demanding your attention to get back into the clear. Here are 5 ways to do that.

#1: Take Care of the Task-Related "Noise"
One of the big contributors to overwhelm I see in my clients and myself is a whole lot of "noise," in the form of small tasks that likely aren't the main thing you're facing but that are annoyingly hard to ignore--and, of course, the more you try to ignore them, the louder the noise they generate becomes. Sometimes taking care of these small tasks first (paying bills, making appointments, running errands) can help clear your head and make it easier to focus on bigger stuff.

#2: Lower Your Standards
Another common cause of overwhelm is trying to do a task or project not just well, but almost perfectly. Striving for greatness when you can barely keep up with all that's happening in your life is a recipe for stress and burnout, which will make it even harder to much done at all. When you find yourself overwhelmed (and this is doubly true during the holiday season), give yourself permission to cut a few corners and focus on getting things finished, not necessarily doing them better than--or even as well as--they've ever been done before

#3: Change Your Surroundings
It's easy to wallow in overwhelm when you're stuck in one place. Trying to force yourself to remain at your desk until you finish a huge client report that's driving you crazy, for example, is about as effective as requiring a kid to remain at the dinner table until he finishes his squash--which is to say, not very. Instead of spinning your wheels in one location, give yourself a temporary break and go somewhere else: to a cafe, for a quick walk, or even to another room in your home or office. The change in surroundings can help give you perspective, and can also help re-energize you to tackle the tasks at hand.

#4: Clear Away the Clutter
When I'm overwhelmed, few things make that feeling worse than being surrounded by disorganization. I don't need everything to be in picture-perfect organizing systems to feel back in control, but I do need to be able to see more than a third of my desktop, and not encounter a sink full of dishes each time I go into the kitchen. My solution: I set a timer for 10 minutes or so and do a bit of triage, getting the dishes done, bringing at least a hint of order to my desk piles, and doing a few other super-quick tasks to feel more in control of my space and my stuff again.

#5: Chip Away
Those of you reading this Tip by e-mail will realize that I sent it on a Tuesday night, when normally it reaches you on Sunday. Why? Because in the midst of an utterly overwhelming week, I couldn't find a solid chunk of time to put fingers to keyboard and write this entire article at once. Instead, I've been chipping away at it for the past few days: a paragraph or two between phone calls, client meetings, errands, and sleep. In my experience, overwhelm only gets worse when you attempt to finish a task or project--one that's contributing to the sense of overwhelm in the first place!--in one go. Instead, work on it in small chunks. Yup, your progress will be slower, but you will eventually get it done, and you'll preserve a bit more of your sanity in the meantime. You'll also be much less likely to feel so bowled over that you throw up your hands and abandon the project entirely.

The next time you feel overwhelm creeping up on you (or running straight at you like a wild animal on fire), put these five techniques to work to keep your stress level in check and get yourself back in control ASAP.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

5 Things to Weed to Get Organized for Good: Part 2

Tip of the Week, October 24, 2010

In last week's Tip, we looked at two of the biggest obstacles to getting and staying organized: shame and guilt. This week, we'll explore three more things it's critical to weed out in order to achieve lasting organizing success.

#3: Perfectionism
While there's some truth to the phrase "If something's worth doing, it's worth doing right," what's often easy to forget is that "right" doesn't mean "perfectly." Putting off an organizing project because you don't think you have the supplies or gadgets you need to wind up with a Martha Stewart-esque result (perfectly labeled, color-coded, and accented with ribbon), or because you're worried you won't make the best possible decisions, means you're likely to put off the project forever.

Perfectionism can be hard to let go of, but overcoming it is critical if you're to make any real progress on the organizing front. Challenge yourself to shift focus from doing a project perfectly to doing it in a way that's realistic and satisfying and allows you to reach your organizing goal. And stop comparing your organizing systems to others', especially those in the pages of magazines. Unless you also have a team of assistants and stylists at your disposal, you're unlikely to wind up with similarly picture-perfect results.

#4: Unrealistic Expectations
Quick progress and overnight change are incredibly gratifying--and when it comes to organizing, they're also incredibly rare. While it's entirely possible to make great organizational strides over the course of a few hours of work, in most cases it takes more time and effort to really complete a project. Undertaking an organizing job with unrealistic expectations--say, that you'll be able to clear out many years of clutter in a few hours--will put you on the path toward disappointment, and can make you much more likely to want to abandon the project when you don't see the results you hoped for.

In every case I've ever seen, the disorganization a client wants to tackle didn't happen overnight, so it follows that returning to an organized state isn't instantaneous, either. Be realistic about how much time and effort your organizing project will require, and then schedule and pace yourself accordingly.

#5: A Sense of Failure from the Start
The final culprit that can sabotage organizing efforts is the belief that you're destined to fail no matter what you do. Perhaps you've never felt comfortably organized at any point in your life and don't see why that would change now. Maybe you don't think you have the skills required to successfully undertake an organizing project. Or maybe others have told you that you're not going to succeed, and you've taken their words to heart.

While it's true that getting organized for good does involve certain skills (such as being able to make decisions, and determining where things should go), and that some people are naturally more organized than others, with the right knowledge, structure, and assistance, organization is within your reach. Rather than resigning yourself to failure from the get-go, focus on what you need to succeed: someone to help coach you through the decision-making process, for example, or guidance on how to break down your organizing project into reasonable pieces so it's not one big overwhelming mass. And then arm yourself with that knowledge or enlist that help.

Letting go of the belief that you're destined to fail--as well as bidding adieu to unrealistic expectations, perfectionism, guilt, and shame--will make you much more likely to achieve lasting organizing success. Before you undertake your next organizing project, weed out these five obstacles, and replace them with the belief that you can succeed.