Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Start Off On The Right Foot

You may not realize it now, but you have complete control over how you spend your time during this festive season — I swear! Well, let me restate that — you have complete control over how you spend your time during this festive season, as long as you're willing to call the shots. When you find yourself spending time on holiday activities that you don't enjoy, you have to be the one to draw the line. And if you feel that you don't have enough time for the fun stuff, only you can carve out a little extra space in your schedule — no one else can do it for you. But of course, that's all easier said than done!

First, you have to be clear about what you actually want (and don't want) from this holiday. When was the time you took a second to evaluate your seasonal responsibilities, to question whether or not you're getting any value out of each activity? Most of us go along on auto-pilot, participating in traditions out of habit (“because that's what we've always done.”) Well so what if you've always done it that way? Who says you have to keep on? That's the kind of mindset that would have denied women the vote and kept slavery intact! When the past ain't working, you let it go and move on, and that's what needs to happen here.

You might also be stuck with some less-than satisfying holiday experiences because of presumptions you make about other people's expectations (“the family will be so disappointed.”) How do you know they'll be disappointed? Have you asked them? It could be that your kids are humoring you with the annual carol-sing or cookie-baking ritual because they thought it was important to you. How stupid would you feel if you're all tolerating a tradition that no one enjoys just because you're all too polite to speak up?! The best way to cure this problem is to find out each person's priorities.

Take An Inventory

Perhaps for the first time in your life, I'm going to ask you to be really honest with yourself about your holiday expectations. Start by making a list of activities that you absolutely don't want to miss this holiday season. Then make another list of those that you hate, despise, and dread. No cheating or couching the truth! If you loathe baking, don't try to convince yourself that this year you will turn into Donna Reed with a batch of homemade gingerbread — ain't gonna happen!

And you can get very specific if you need to. You might love visiting with your parents, but can't stand seeing your critical Aunt Louise. That's fine — add visiting your parents to your “do” list and seeing Aunt Louise to your “don't” list. It might be a good idea to have everyone in your family make their own lists — everyone has different ideas about what activities are joyous and which ones are miserable.

Now take a look at your two lists. It's all a trade-off from here — your goal is to remove the “don'ts” and make time to fit in the “do's.” Notice I didn't say “find” time — the best way to assure that you will never get around to doing something is to say, “I'll do it when I find a few free minutes.” Somehow, they never seem to appear until you MAKE it happen! If you want to include an activity in your holiday season, actually schedule it into your calendar. If walking around your neighborhood with your family singing carols and looking at holiday lights is a priority, sit down together and pick an evening and have everyone block it off. It's as simple as that! At the start of the season, decide ahead of time which activities on everyone's lists are the most important.  Of course, you'll have to be realistic about what you have time for — you may only have enough room in your schedule for each person to pick three priorities instead of eight. And you may need to do a little trading with your loved ones — “I'll go to Christmas Eve services with you, and in return I'd like for you to go for a nature walk on Saturday with me.” Creating harmony in any situation is about compromising — just don't allow yourself to bend so far that you give up all of your priorities for someone else's. Everyone should feel that his or her needs are being met.

Finding A Sense Of Balance

Now you have to make your dreams and your reality mesh. The big question is “how do I fit in all of these priorities when I've got chores to do?” It's hard to make time for the good stuff when you have other obligations — those “have to's” will kill you! But why do you “have to”? There's no law requiring you to put up a tree or send out cards. You're not being graded on what you accomplish during the holidays! If you don't want to do it, a simple “no” should suffice — especially when you find an activity that everyone has on their “don't” lists.

You might be worried that others will judge you if you take a break from some of the season's craziness — but the truth is, they will probably envy your ability to take charge of your schedule (and hopefully follow your lead!) Just because you think that you “have” to, that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone else feels the same way. Most people are overwhelmed by the holidays and would like for them to be easier — but no one seems willing to make the first move. Be honest with folks about what you want and don't want this year, and you may find your to-do list dwindling all on its own. And your family is guaranteed to thank you when you have a calmer, saner, and more peaceful time together this year.

Make The Time

A system is only as good as the time you devote to using it. For example, setting up files for organizing your incoming paperwork into action categories is a great way to keep to-do's under control. However, if you simply plop the mail on your desk each day without opening or sorting it, you've defeated the whole purpose of your system. And if you're good about adding paper to those folders but never seem to subtract any back out, you may actually find yourself in a worse position than before you started!

An organizing system is like a pet — it needs regular care and feeding to survive. Some systems (like sorting the mail or tidying up your desk) require daily attention, while others (like paying bills or shopping for groceries) might need to happen weekly or monthly. Whatever the time frame, setting aside a regular block into your calendar for acting on that system will help turn a “technique” into a habit.

Staying organized may be as simple as reminding yourself to leave your keys and briefcase by the front door when you come home, or stopping work 10 minutes early so you have time to put away your supplies at the end of the day. Of course, larger systems will require more time — an hour once a week for filing, another hour each month for bookkeeping. Figure out what it takes to stay on top of your “stuff” and be prepared to commit the time if you want to see lasting results.

Keep Things Lean And Mean

“Clutter creep” is the most deadly foe of any organizing system. This silent killer sneaks in slowly over time — and you don't realize that your files or closet or schedule have become overloaded until it's too late! The key to avoiding clutter creep is giving your systems a regular purging BEFORE they start to need it.

But this doesn't mean that every spare minute of your life has to be spent on “preemptive organizing.” You don't need to devote all your evenings and weekends to cleaning out — simply time your efforts to coincide with a logical “trigger” activity (go through your closets at the change of season, clear out your filing when you do your taxes, etc.) Even a quick once-over, removing anything that is clearly outdated, unnecessary, and unused will keep things in check.

It's also important that you occasionally review and revise your way of doing things. A system that works for you today is not guaranteed to serve you as well this same time next year. Things change, the center does not hold, and you find yourself with different priorities as time goes by. It's folly to keep plugging away with an obsolete system that isn't meeting your needs — staying organized means recognizing when an about-face is in order! The signs are unmistakeable — processes that once seemed easy are now difficult and cumbersome, you're missing deadlines, and things are falling through the cracks. Don't get frustrated and give up, saying, “See, I knew I couldn't stay organized!” Step back, take a breath, and calmly re-evaluate the situation. Ask yourself what isn't working for you anymore and why. More importantly, try to determine exactly what needs to change for this system to suit you better. Your answer will guide you toward the right tweaks and adjustments. 

File Storage

Whether you're shopping for life insurance or remodeling your living room, planning a conference, or preparing next year's budget — the one thing you can count on with any project is paper! So the first step to a successful project is getting your files in order.

Your system doesn't have to be complicated — just a series of folders, an accordion file, classification file, or set of expandable wallets is fine. If the project is small, everything can go into one file — for larger tasks, break your paperwork out into logical categories, one per folder. For example, hiring a new assistant might include files for “advertising”, “applications”, “interviews”, “references”, etc. — or even a separate section for each prospective employee.  Just remember that project files are temporary — they will only be used until the project is completed. So get organizers that can be re-purposed, with lots of extra labels!

The files you set up for short-term projects do not need to be incorporated into your regular paper management system — they are not long-term reference files, and should be stored separately. Treat these documents more like “to-do” files — your goal is to give them a home until the project is complete, then they will be archived away or tossed. So assign a drawer, section of a drawer, rack, hanging file box, or document sorter for your project paperwork, and store everything in this one location. Of course, the best possible project organizing system is portable — so you can take it with you to meetings, presentations, shopping for supplies, and to all project-related activities. An expandable accordion file with a cover flap or a file box with a lid are two great options.

And if you are engaged in a project that involves more than just paper, you might need a bigger and more expandable storage solution. Larger project tools may require a banker's box or a plastic tub with a lid. For example — when remodeling your office, you might need to store flooring and wallpaper swatches, paint brushes, and hardware. If you're considering a new vendor or product line, you want a place to keep your samples. And even storing books or binders of information for your project is easier with a good, sturdy box (you can't easily put these in a file folder!) Give yourself as much room as you need, and don't forget to clearly label the outside of the box.

Tracking Systems

Finally, with any project, you need a way to keep track of your progress. Calendars and planners are fine for day-to-day appointments, but an ongoing project really requires a more visual method if you don't want to find tasks slipping through the cracks.

The most effective solution is a dry erase board dedicated to either one project or one phase of a project. List out your steps and the deadlines for each, participants and their individual responsibilities, general to-do's, supplies and resources you need to gather — whatever makes sense for your particular project. Completed items can be marked off, and the entire board can be reformatted for the next project as needed. The specifics of the system don't matter, but you want to be able to see at a glance where you stand and what remains to be done — it makes follow-up much easier.

Of course, you can put anything you want on a wipe-off board, but that doesn't guarantee that task will actually be completed. The trick to seeing your project through to the end is using a two-part approach. First, plan out the big picture, the large milestones and deadlines, on your dry erase board. Then, transfer those action items to your calendar — noting deadlines and blocking off chunks of time to work on each step. By planning on both the macro and micro levels, you are setting yourself up for success with every project.

Knowing What's Really Important

We often focus too much on the daily grind (paying bills, keeping the house clean, writing reports, etc.) and too little on our real priorities. Those many details may seem urgent at the time — but if you look at the bigger picture, that they really aren't all that pressing. And it's sad when we end up missing out on the important things in life (experiences and relationships) because we're so caught up in the minutiae. Do you really need to be organizing the garage, or spending time with your kids at the park? Is it a higher priority that you decide how to arrange the chairs at the upcoming sales meeting, or that you develop a strong agenda and provide guidance during the group discussion? Will you benefit more from zoning out in front of the television, or taking a walk around the neighborhood with your spouse? Ask yourself where you will get the biggest bang for your buck. That should be where you focus your attention, and let someone else handle the rest. A not-to-do list helps identify those chores, errands, and daily responsibilities that can (and should) be delegated.

Keep a notepad handy, and record your activities for a week. You don't have to log every second of your day (“8:00 — got up / 8:05 — used bathroom / 8:15 — had breakfast” isn't going to help you be more effective and efficient!) But if you can start tracking your work responsibilities (a paid job, housework, or whatever fills your day), travel time to and from activities, and any other external responsibilities (committee meetings, carpools, volunteering), you will begin to see places where you can trim and tighten your schedule through delegation. Make a note of what you are doing — such as “checking e-mails” or “cleaning oven” or “buying groceries.” Then, estimate how much time you have spent on that particular chore (don't forget travel and prep time). Later we'll look at whether this action needs to be done at all (!!) and whether it needs to be done by you. But for now, that's the start of your “not-to-do” list.

Once you've made a list of items that you would love to delegate — who do you hand them off to? You have so many options! Just remember, you aren't in it alone. You simply have to decide whatyou want to delegate and then be willing to ask for help. At home, you can get your family involved in the act (see my dear hubby doing dishes?) Kids and spouses are just as capable of handling those daily chores as you are! At the office, don't be afraid to ask a co-worker for some assistance — and offer to help out the next time he or she needs a little bit of a break. Also make use of your support staff (administrative clerks, assistants, and other assorted minions) — that's what they are there for. If you don't have these sorts of support networks to call upon, hire an independent contractor or freelancer to help with household and business tasks that you don't have time for. You might also think about developing a local co-op for sharing those time-consuming domestic (trading off on cooking, cleaning, errand-running, or child care) — or set up an informal swap with a neighbor.

Your Living Spaces

If youcan manage a deep-clean before you start decorating, great — if not,don't stress yourself out. Just do a quick sweep through each room, carrying a basket or tote withyou, collecting up items that belong somewhere else. While you're at it, putanything that is obvious clutter, that serves no purpose in your life,or that you could easily let go of in a separate container to bedonated this holiday season.  Then simply give each room a quick 15-minute clean each week — a light dusting (or swipe with some disinfectant in bathrooms and kitchens), a speedy sweeping or vacuum (with some pine-scented carpet freshener), and afast tidying up (putting magazines in a basket, hanging up coats, putaway items that belong in a drawer or cabinet).

Decking The Halls

Once the house is tidy, it's time to decorate. You probably have a standard spot for each item (the reindeer goes on the table by the front door, the angel candle holders sit on the mantel, the tree lives in the foyer, etc.) — so separate your holiday paraphernalia according to the room in which those items will be placed. Then tackle one space at a time, either in succession or over a period of days. Either way, it will go a lot faster than pulling one item out of a box, toting it across the house, then going back for another item that lives in an entirely different location. Repack your decorations by room and you'll skip a whole step when you do it again next year!

Cooking And Entertaining

It's your choice how much cooking you do during this festive season — but whatever the plan, taking a minute to think things through in advance is guaranteed to make everything go smoother. Plot out dates for each event so they don't conflict with other obligations. Decide on your guest lists — especially if you are hosting separate activities for different groups of people (colleagues, family, the kids' friends, neighbors, etc.) Write out your menu and grocery lists, then do as much shopping as you can in one trip (at least the dry goods). And if you can batch any of the food prep (chopping vegetables, cooking sauces, or making desserts) for several different events at once, then freezing each portion separately — you will save a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Gift-Giving

The first rule of stress-free holiday gift-giving is to create a budget and stick to it! There is no reason to spend the new year paying off holiday debt if you are realistic about what you can afford and what you can't. Once you've decided on an amount, develop a your gift list recognizing that it truly is the thought (not the number of presents or cost) that matters. Online and catalog shopping is often a faster and more affordable option these days (plus, no crowds!) Don't forget to include people like the postman, school teachers, etc. — but consider homemade or edible gifts for everyone except your closest friends and family (it will be easier and a lot less expensive!) Set up a “gift station” with all of your paper and supplies, and wrap/tag each item as you bring it home. It's also not a bad idea to pick up a few extra generic gifts (candles, bath products) for drop-in guests.

Sending Cards

You can save a lot of money (and cut down on landfill waste) by sticking to e-cards — companies like BlueMountain and Care2 allow you to send a variety of fun internet cards for no cost whatsoever. If you do plan to mail your greetings, take a minute to input your holiday address list in the computer so you can print directly on the envelope or a mailing label. This may seem like a lot of work when you could just hand-write, but it will be faster in the long run and easier to keep track of changes from year to year when your list is automated. If you like to send a family photo, either schedule your portrait or get your snapshot done early in the month — so you have plenty of time for printing and mailing. Then set aside an afternoon (preferably with some relaxing music and a cup of hot chocolate) for writing out your greetings — the less it feels like a chore, the more you will enjoy keeping in touch.

Special Events

At the start of each holiday season, you should set up a master family schedule — a big wall-calendar hung in a high-traffic area where no one will miss seeing it! Assign each family member a different colored pen (red for Dad, blue for Mom, green for Jimmy, etc.) — and another color for events that you expect the whole group to attend. Then make a note of EVERY single commitment, performance, party, and holiday activity as you find out about it. In this way, you will be able to deal with scheduling conflicts, prepare adequately for each event, make time for your holiday priorities — and recognize when your family is simply overbooked and needs to cut a few items from the calendar. And don't forget to transfer important items to your PDA or planner!

Holiday Travel

If you're intending to hit the road (or fly the friendly skies) this season, it will behoove you to get your trip planning done as early in the month as possible — so you aren't rushing around at the last minute, trying to rent a car or find your mittens. Set aside a single folder for all of your holiday travel paperwork — tickets, itinerary, brochures, confirmations, and info about any seasonal activities you would like to investigate while you're out of town. Make as many reservations as possible — this is not the time of year for last-minute decisions! Create an in-depth packing list for everything you will need (don't forget your winter clothes and those gifts you plan to bring along). Go ahead and pack as many items as you can NOW (travel-size toiletries, travel accessories, wrapped presents, etc.) — checking each item off as it goes into the suitcase. Then sit back and enjoy a stress-free trip!