Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Get Smart

We're going to do a little role-play, using the example of eliminating debt (a common concern) to take those S.M.A.R.T. goals to the next level! Pretend that you are carrying a pretty heft amount of debt — let's say, $20,000 on your credit cards, another $10,000 owed on your cars, a $50,000 home equity line from when you added on that extra room, and another $125,000 on your mortgage (this may sound like a lot, but it's actually a fairly typical scenario for your average over-extended American these days.) Your goal in the new year is to try to eliminate as much debt as possible, and to trim your budget so that you can pay the maximum toward these bills. A great idea in theory, but how do you turn a nebulous concept like “get out of debt” into a series of concrete, achievable steps? You get smart about it!

  • specific (a resolution called “get out of debt” is too big and vague to be meaningful — you need something to work toward that feels more tangible and purposeful — a goal like “pay off $6,000 of my debt in the next 12 months and adjust my budget so I avoid adding to the balance” is going to resonate with you and motivate you in a way that “get out of debt” just doesn't — it gives you something solid to work toward, a light at the end of the tunnel that you can actually see)
  • making specific even smarter (redefine your goal in more specific terms, but don't just stop there — the next step is to break that one big goal down into a set of smaller mini-goals, making them easier to accomplish — goals like “pay off my highest-interest debt first” and “refinance my mortgage for less than 4% interest” and “stop using all credit cards until the balance is zero” are going to help direct your actions when it comes to accomplishing your bigger goal — the two work together in tandem, one providing the big picture, and the other clarifying the details)
  • measurable (the trick to accomplishing any goal is being able to measure your progress toward completion — how exactly do you quantify “improve my financial situation” so you know when you've achieved that objective? you can't! — your only hope of success comes from attaching a number to your goal so that you can tell whether you're on track, falling behind, or ahead of the game — when you change “improve my financial situation” to “pay off $6,000 of my debt and put a further $2,400 in savings for emergencies,” you're setting a much more measurable goal — and don't forget to actually track your progress each month on a spreadsheet or in an accounting program — measurable is only useful if you can actually see what you're accomplishing, and the impact will be even greater if you can convert your numbers to a graph or chart format)
  • making measurable even smarter (deciding on a measurable end-result of your goal is great, but breaking that down into monthly or weekly increments is even better — looking at that $6,000 payoff and $2,400 in savings might seem overwhelming — how are you going to accomplish that? — by paying $500 a month toward your debts and $200 a month into savings — and taking that measurement each week or month is not only going to help you stay better-informed about your progress, it will also keep you motivated to stick with it to the end)
  • action-oriented (too often, we set goals that are passive rather than active — it's almost as if we expect our wildest dreams to just materialize out of thin air, instead of recognizing that we have to work for what we want most — a goal like “be in a better financial position in December than I am in January” is meaningless — what's going to cause it to happen? — you're more likely to take the necessary steps when you create a goal with a lot of verbs in it, because those “action words” remind you that some effort is required on your part — go instead for a goal like “reduce my spending level so it falls below my income level and devote the difference to paying off my debt” and you'll have more success)
  • making action-oriented even smarter (a single action-oriented goal is better than nothing — but if you really want to blow your goals out of the water, break each one down into a series of action-oriented steps — ask yourself what exactly needs to happen in order to make that goal a reality, then turn each of your answers into its own mini-goal — so in balancing your spending and income levels so you can pay off debt, you might find a series of mini-goals like “review the past year's credit card, bank, and payroll statements” / “create a spreadsheet detailing my income and expenses for the past 12 months” / “review each cost category and look for specific ways to reduce those expenses until total outlay is less than total income” / “pay the difference between income and expense each month toward the highest-interest debt and the minimum on everything else” / “once that debt is paid off, move to the next highest-interest debt, adding the payment for the previous debt to it” / “continue until all debts are paid off” — now that's action-oriented!)
  • rewarding (people tend to set goals for themselves that are more of a burden than a joy to accomplish — but if you aren't having fun, or at least seeing some benefit from your actions, you won't stick with it — and when it's a goal that requires you to give up something that you enjoy like spending, because it's causing something detrimental to your life like debt, you need to replace the lost item with another reward — throughout the process, remind yourself how good it will feel to be debt-free, to have that stress lifted from your shoulders — and whenever you feel the urge to splurge, take a look at your spreadsheets and see how much progress you've made — you'll be less inclined to blow it all when you can see how far you've come)
  • making rewarding even smarter (keeping your eye on the big prize at the end is one thing, but giving yourself more tangible rewards along the way is going to feel a lot sweeter — create a plan right from the beginning for rewarding yourself as you achieve each of your mini-goals — when you pay off that first credit card, you will have some friends over for a nice dinner to celebrate — when you save enough for your emergency fund, you will spend a whole Saturday catching up on video rentals you've been dying to see — once you've refinanced your mortgage, you're going to repaint the kitchen the color you've always wanted it instead of that hideous yellow — it doesn't have to be an expensive reward to be motivating)
  • timely (the final step in achieving any goal is setting a deadline — ask anyone trying to complete their PhD and they'll tell you that projects can drag on forever if you don't have a specific finish-line you're aiming for — unfortunately, with most goals, there's no external task-master cracking the whip, so you have to be the one to choose an ending date — be realistic but also try to challenge yourself to really work for that deadline — of course you can eliminate your debt in 10 years, but why not attempt to do it in five? or even two?)
  • making timely even smarter (sometimes that final deadline can be a bit hard to achieve without a few intermediate milestones — saying that you're going to be debt-free in a year is one thing, but when will you need to accomplish each step along the way to make that happen? — pull out your list of steps and work backward from the end, figuring out a reasonable time-frame for each — if it turns out that you simply can't do them all in the space allotted, extend your final deadline — if you think that you can get them accomplished faster, move it up some — then at each step along the way, you only need to worry about the next milestone, rather than the deadlines for 12 other steps after it — this is a nice way to keep your eye on the prize without becoming overwhelmed)

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.