Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Plan a Get-It-Done Day

Tip of the Week, March 20, 2011

While I'm generally pretty good about tackling the tasks that require my time and attention, there are some notable exceptions, like those shoes that have been lingering in my front hall waiting for repair for longer than I care to admit and the art print I've been meaning to get framed for what we will just gently call a long time. These tasks tend not to get done because they're not critically important, and because they require planning and coordination it can be hard to muster in the course of a busy week.

So I'm inspired by an article by Danielle Claro in the latest issue of Real Simple, in which she details the "Unprocrastination Day" she undertook with a friend to knock off a bunch of these same kinds of tasks. What a great idea: enlist a buddy who also has stuff lurking on his or her to do list for a day of no-excuses, no-holds-barred get-it-done time.

If, like me, you'd benefit from a burst of productivity on the tasks and errands you've been putting off, here are some pointers on planning your own Unprocrastination Day.

  1. Find a partner. While it's possible to have a solo get-it-done day, you'll almost certainly find that it's easier and much more pleasant with someone else. Look for a friend who can help keep you motivated and on track, and who has his own stuff to accomplish so that the support goes both ways.
  2. Choose a date. If your schedule is flexible, try planning your get-it-done day on a weekday, when there will likely be fewer distractions clamoring for your attention and smaller crowds at the places you need to visit to tackle your errands. Weekday not feasible? Aim for a Saturday or Sunday that's as free as possible of other events and obligations.
  3. Make a list. In the lead-up to your Unprocrastination Day, create a running list of all the things you'd like to take care of. For those that require help from someone else--say, getting shoes repaired or a piece of art framed--do some research before you set out so you'll be faced with as few obstacles as possible on the big day.
  4. Deal with logistics. To keep your get-it-done day as distraction-free as it can be, aim to enlist others to take care of things like caring for kids or pets while you're out and about. Even if you're planning to spend part of the day taking care of tasks at home, it's well worth finding ways of keeping potential attention-grabbers at bay. Also, be sure you have any gear or supplies you need to get things done, whether that means a car large enough to hold the stuff you'll be schlepping around or folders and labels for setting up that filing system you've been avoiding.
  5. Devise a plan. Just before your get-it-done day, come up with a game plan: when and where you and your friend will meet, which tasks you'll tackle first, when you'll take breaks throughout the day, and so on.
  6. Start your day with motivation. To kick things off on an up note, consider meeting for breakfast or coffee before you begin.
  7. Be ready to roll with the punches. As ever, your best-laid plans may be foiled by forces beyond your control. Not being able to finish every last task you set out to do doesn't mean the day is a failure. By the same token, though, don't let one hurdle (like unexpectedly discovering that a store you planned to visit is closed) derail your whole day. See if you can find an alternate way of completing the task at hand, and if not, simply move on to the next one.
  8. Review and celebrate when you're done. Finally, at the tail end of your day, take some time to review what you've each accomplished, along with any facts you picked up throughout the day that might be helpful in the future. (Your local shoe repair guy offers pick-up and delivery for a few bucks more? Good to know!) Then enjoy a glass of wine or a dinner out as you admire how much you've wiped off of your to do list.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Letting Go of Sunk Costs

Tip of the Week, March 13, 2011

Think about the contents of your closets, drawers, cupboards, and shelves: what's lurking there not because you need it, use it, love it, or even necessarily want it, but simply because you "paid good money" for it and are therefore reluctant to get rid of it? As a recent article on LearnVest (a website with resources and information on finances and money management) explains, holding onto something-or doing an activity you don't really want to do, or-only because you spent money on it means you're getting caught up in a sunk cost.

Recognizing sunk costs, making peace with dealing with those you've already encountered, and learning how to avoid them in the future will help not only ease strain on your finances, but will also let you take a new approach to decluttering.

What Are Sunk Costs?
According to the LearnVest article, "'Sunk costs' is the economic principle that what you have spent is already gone." That is, whether you regularly wear the $200 sweater you bought or never wear it, you've still spent $200. Keeping that sweater around without ever wearing it means, as psychiatrist Robert Leahy explains, means that you're "honoring the sunk cost" of the item.

Holding onto things that represent sunk costs may make you feel like you're somehow getting your money's worth, but chances are that won't happen; instead, repeatedly encountering items on which you feel like you've wasted money will simply bring up regret about that wasted money time and again.

I see this happen with my clients on a regular basis: when we work on sorting and weeding, they'll come across stuff they've been keeping in an attempt to honor or overcome the sunk cost. What adds insult to injury is that each time they see this stuff, they feel guilt, regret, annoyance, or frustration at the money they spent on it.

Making Peace with Sunk Costs
The hard truth about sunk costs is that trying to squeeze value out of them almost always backfires. You won't feel any better about the $200 you spent on that unworn sweater by letting it loiter in your closet, taunting you each time you see it. Though it's by no means easy to cut your losses and let go of items that represent sunk costs, doing so will not only free you of clutter, but will also allow you to let go of the negative emotions that come along with expenses you regret.

The first step in making peace with sunk costs is recognizing them: What are the things you're keeping (or the activities you're allowing to remain on your calendar) only because they cost money, not because they're actually useful or appealing to you? Once you've determined your sunk costs, commit to letting go of them, whether by donating or selling them (or, in the case of events or activities, by canceling or simply avoiding them), and also to giving yourself permission to let go of any anger, guilt, shame, or remorse that go along with them.

Finally, recognize what caused the sunk costs in the first place: were they impulse buys? Things you acquired without really considering whether you wanted or needed them? Things you spent money on because you felt pressured to do so by someone else? Understanding what's behind your sunk costs will help you steer clear of similar mistakes in the future.

Avoiding More Sunk Costs
After you've let go of and made peace with your past sunk costs, focus on avoiding more of the same. Carefully consider new purchases, especially expensive ones. If your sunk costs were triggered by pressure or negative encouragement from someone else, aim to avoid allowing your purchasing decisions to be influenced by that person going forward. Did you buy sunk costs items on impulse? Try instituting a 24-hour waiting period before making non-critical purchases so you'll have the chance to approach them more clearly and rationally.

Recognizing, making peace with, and overcoming sunk costs you've already encountered can be important steps in uncluttering your life. I often see clients who decide to part with sunk-cost stuff gain the confidence and motivation needed to clear out other unwanted stuff from their lives. They also tend to feel happier and more in control when they've gotten past the related negative emotions.

In addition, once you recognize what's behind your previous sunk costs, you'll be well positioned to avoid new ones, which will help keep future clutter at bay-not to mention help keep your finances in check.

Here's to letting go of your sunk costs and finding more fulfillment in the things and activities that deserve space and time in your life because they're useful, meaningful, and enjoyable to you, not just because they cost money.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Organizing E-mail, Part 2: Storing Messages

Tip of the Week, March 6, 2011

Last week's Tip offered advice on how to clear your e-mail Inbox of unwanted and unneeded messages. This week, we'll take a look at how to store and categorize the e-mail you've decided to keep so it's easy to find again when you need it.

Using Folders
Because e-mail doesn't have a physical presence and doesn't take up any actual space on your desktop or in file drawers, you may not think of messages as being things you'd organize into folders as you would papers and other hard-copy documents. However, using folders in your e-mail program, just as you'd do for physical files, is an easy, straightforward way to keep your Inbox from being overloaded and to store messages so that they're easy to find again.

The actual steps for creating e-mail folders vary from program to program, so it's worth referring to your program's Help for specific instructions. Here are some general pointers for setting up effective folders:
  • Start by getting a sense of how many--and what--folders you need. If you have only a handful of messages to store at any one time, two or three folders with general categories (say, Newsletters and Correspondence) might be plenty, while you're likely to want more--and more complex--folders if you have lots of messages to keep.
  • Take a look through your Inbox to brainstorm folder categories. Based on the messages that remain in your Inbox once you've sorted and weeded, jot down some rough folder categories that make sense to you. As always, when thinking about what to call a folder, ask yourself, "What word or phrase would I think of if I were looking for these messages?"
  • Start broad, then get more detailed. Rather than having 20 different folders, each with one or two e-mail messages, start with a few general folders, and then add new (and more specific) ones as you continue to work on storing and categorizing your e-mail messages over time.
Using Rules and Filters
Once you've created folders, you're ready to move messages to them from your Inbox. If you're dealing with a big chunk of mail, you may want to use rules and filters to make this process easier. In essence, rules and filters let you specify what should happen with e-mail messages that meet certain criteria. For example, if you've set up a folder for newsletters and want to save past Tips of the Week to it, you can create a rule indicating that any messages from my Tips e-mail address should be moved to your newsletters folder. Once you set up that rule, your e-mail program will automatically find and move messages from this address.

You can also create rules and filters for new or incoming e-mail so that messages from certain senders are automatically moved to certain folders, which can help keep your Inbox more manageable.

Again, the steps for creating rules and filters vary from one e-mail program to the next, so refer to the Help in your program for specifics.

Using Color-Coding, Flags, and Tags
While it's helpful to move as many messages out of your Inbox as possible--especially those that aren't current or active--it's likely that there's at least a handful of e-mail worth keeping in the Inbox, either because you haven't fully processed it yet or because it relates to something you're actively working on or waiting for.

To help prevent the messages that do hang out in your Inbox from becoming one undifferentiated blob, consider using visual or textual cues, such as color-coding, flags or stars, or tags or labels. These cues make it easy to group similar messages and to specify what needs to happen with them: you might, for example, have a "Phone Call" tag that you apply to any message you need to follow up on by phone, or maybe you'll assign green color-coding to all of the e-mails related to bills you need to pay.

To keep Inbox clutter at bay, and to prevent these visual and textual cues from becoming ineffective background noise, be sure to take time each day (or, at the very least, a few times a week) to delete or move any messages that no longer need to be in your Inbox and to remove or update any cues that may no longer be accurate (say, changing the "Phone Call" tag to "Waiting for" on messages you've followed up on). A few minutes of Inbox maintenance on a regular basis will keep your system organized and running smoothly.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Organizing E-mail, Part 1: Sorting & Weeding

Tip of the Week, February 27, 2011

E-mail may never clutter up your physical space as postal mail can, but it can nonetheless be the cause of stress, frustration, and headaches when it piles up. By getting control of your e-mail, you can help ensure that it becomes the tool it's meant to be--one that keeps you in touch and informed--without causing overwhelm.

The first step toward creating a functional organizing system for your e-mail is, of course, weeding out those messages you no longer want or need. Here are some criteria and pointers to help you slim down your Inbox and get rid of digital cruft.

Where to Start
Often, it's easiest and most effective to start by sorting and weeding your oldest e-mail messages, as they're the least likely to be timely and relevant, and many of them may be outdated. If you have a very large backlog of e-mail, you may want to create a general Backlog folder to hold the messages you want to sort through so they don't clutter up your Inbox and become overwhelming.

I recommend starting with 20-30 minutes of sorting, which is generally enough to allow you to make some progress but not so much that you'll get bored or worn out. If you're still inspired, keep at it; otherwise, take a break and come back for another 20 minutes or so later.

Creating Guidelines
As when you weed other kinds of things, it's helpful to have some guidelines up front for what you're ready to part with and what you'd like to keep. Here are some of the types of e-mail messages I delete when I'm weeding:
  • Messages I didn't want to receive in the first place (spam, of course, but also newsletters I didn't sign up for, unwanted Forwards, and so on)
  • Messages with out-of-date info (on, say, events that have already passed)
  • Informational messages (like newsletters) I've already read and am unlikely to read again
  • Informational messages I haven't read that are more than 2 months old
  • Messages I've skimmed and don't want or need to do anything with
  • Messages whose info is available elsewhere
  • Earlier versions of messages that have become part of longer threads (that is, if a client sent a message to which I replied, and then the client responded to me, I will keep only that most recent message--which has all three bits of correspondence in it)
Delete Away!
With your guidelines in hand, review the contents of your Inbox with a finger over the Delete key on your keyboard, ready to pounce. Because so much e-mail tends to linger as reminders of things you have to do, try doing this exercise with your To Do list at your side; when you come across a message you've been keeping only because it reminds you of something you need to take care of, write that task on your To Do list and then delete the message (or, at the very least, move it out of your Inbox to a folder).

As you sort, try not to get too caught up in the contents of messages: if there are long e-mails you want to read, for example, skim a few lines to be sure they're worth saving, and then move them to a To Read folder in your e-mail program. Also be on the alert for distractions, such as clicking on a link in a message and then getting engrossed in tooling around online. If you need to, set up a folder for Sites to Visit and store there any messages with info about things you want to check out online.

As you work, think of your e-mail Inbox as you would a physical Inbox on your desk: ideally, it should hold only those messages you haven't yet reviewed or that you're actively working on. Clearing out the stuff you no longer need, and moving to folders anything you want to keep as reference, will make it easier to get a handle on what's truly active and current for you.

Next week, we'll look at ways of storing and organizing the e-mail messages you opt to keep. This week, set aside some time to create your own sorting and weeding guidelines, and then to put them to use decluttering your Inbox.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Clean-Slate Organizing

Tip of the Week, February 20, 2011

For all of the stress that moving house involves, it offers at least one clear benefit: when you're starting from scratch, you can take the opportunity to create completely new organizing systems, deciding where things should go based on how you plan to use each space, how much stuff you have to store, and how much storage is available to you.

While it can be challenging to build a system from scratch, it can also be freeing, because you can approach it in a very different way than you would if you were trying to make changes to one that was already in place. Rather than having your perspective cluttered, literally and figuratively, by existing stuff, you can start fresh.

Of course, it's not realistic to move each time you need to take on a new organizing project, nor is it necessary. By applying what I call clean-slate techniques, you can reap the benefits of starting from zero at any time. Here's how.

Step 1: Choose a Small, Specific Spot
Start by selecting a very limited area you'd like to work in-the more specific, the better. For example, rather than focusing on your entire home office, pick one area within it: a set of bookshelves, for example, or your desk drawers. Depending on how much stuff you're dealing with, you might opt to go even smaller, focusing on just one shelf or drawer.

Step 2: Wipe the Slate Clean
Once you've chosen your area of focus, clear it out completely: take all the books off your bookshelves, for example, or empty the contents of your desk drawers. Don't worry about deciding what to keep at this point--that'll come soon. During this step, your objective is just to remove everything from the spot you'll be working on. If you'll be tackling this project over time, have a few boxes or bins on hand as temporary storage.

Step 3: Get Clear on Your Requirements
With the space cleaned out, think about what you'd ideally like to store there, and how it would be organized. For example, you might decide that the bookcase in your home office should be dedicated to work-related books and magazines, and that you'd like to organize them by subject. Having a solid sense of what you want to use the space for will make it easier to get a usable system in place.

Step 4: Decide What Goes Back
Now for the biggest push: determining which of the things you've cleared out of the space really deserve to be put back. Take a different perspective here than you would with traditional sorting: rather than focusing primarily on weeding things out, emphasize consciously choosing what to keep. In order for anything to merit a spot in the area you're working on, you must consciously decide that it's definitely worth keeping. If it's not, set it aside for donation or disposal. If you're not sure, create a Not Sure box or bin to stash it in temporarily, making sure to revisit it before the end of your project.

Step 5: Organize According to Plan
Finally, when you've consciously chosen everything you'd like to keep, organize and store it according to the simple plan you came up with in Step 3. This is also a good time to figure out what, if any, organizing supplies you might need to finish off or enhance your system. (On those office bookshelves, for example, you might want bookends, or subject labels on the edge of each shelf.) Make any tweaks necessary to get your system feeling functional and complete and voila! You're done, and can move on to the next area you'd like to tackle, starting the process over again.

This clean-slate approach to organizing can be especially helpful in spots that feel overwhelming to deal with as they are, as it gives you a different perspective and turns the standard organizing process a bit on its ear. Give it a try the next time you're faced with a spot that could function better and enjoy the benefits of starting fresh, even if on a very small scale.