Posts Tagged ‘routines’

Centralizing Your Communications

Your command center should be a high-traffic area of your home, where people are constantly passing by. Just make sure you have enough room for a desk-type flat surface, storage for files and some basic office supplies, and hanging space on the wall. Usually, a nook in the kitchen or just off of your main living room is the ideal spot. Now let's make it functional! In this hurried day and age, parents and children often pass like ships in the night – and sometimes the only way to stay in touch is by leaving notes for each other. Set up a bulletin board or magnetic dry erase board, designated JUST for communications (no posting of class pictures or drawings the kids did — you can find another spot for those). This is where you leave messages for other family members — a reminder for Johnny to take his soccer uniform with him to school, a grocery list (and the appropriate coupons) for hubby's shopping excursion, Sally's permission slip for today's field trip, whatever. Just be sure to regularly clean off old messages to keep your board from getting overloaded.

While you've got your hammer and nails out, get a good-sized wall calendar and put it up right next to your bulletin board. The goal is to record every family member's schedule in one centralized place — so you can review the entire household's activities with one glance. Write each person's appointments, deadlines, and other responsibilities with a different colored marker — blue for mom, green for dad, red for Sally, and purple for Johnny. It helps if you have a “family planning session” at the start of each week. Ask each person what they have coming up in the near future — extracurricular activities, days that your kids need a ride somewhere (as well as days you have to work late and can't pick them up), school project due dates, birthday invitations, vacations, dentist appointments, etc. Everything should go on the calendar.

The Paper Side Of Things

Another part of your command center is your incoming paperwork processing system. Set up a hanging file box or rack and create a folder for each type of “to-do” that you regularly encounter — “to file”, “to read”, “to pay”, “to call”, “to sign and send back to school”, etc. Every day — as the mail comes in, as you bring papers home from work, as your children give you a new pile from school, take a minute to sort each item according to the next step you need to take. Put each document in the appropriate folder (and throw all the other junk away). Now you're ready to tackle your many responsibilities in an organized fashion — just sit down once a week and go through each folder, taking care of all your to-do's in order.

If you don't already have a file drawer at your command center, it's also a good idea to setup an expanding organizer for your important papers. You can create one system for “fingertip files” — those things you refer to often, like phone directories, class and team rosters, babysitter instructions, pre-printed grocery lists, etc. But you may also want to keep a separate system for those “monthly” files that you access when you pay bills and go through your to-do's — utilities, mortgage, health records, school paperwork, files for your hobbies, etc. If everything is accessible from one location and you don't have to run around the house looking for supplies, files, and your schedule — managing your household responsibilities will go much faster and be a lot less stressful!

Finding Balance

Let's start by determining exactly what “multi-tasking” is. Merriam Webster defines this as “the carrying out of two or more tasks at the same time by one person.” This kind of multi-tasking occurs, for example, when you're talking to someone on the phone while writing an article — or when you're adding up a column of numbers and also watching TV. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's the sort of fractured mental activity that sets you up for guaranteed failure. Aside from “low load” behaviors that require very little attention and occur almost automatically, at a sub-conscious level without you thinking about them (like walking, talking, breathing, or chewing) — the human brain just wasn't built to do more than one thing at once (or at least do them well!)

The brain only has so much mental RAM to go around — so throughout the day, your capacity to focus is constantly being divvied up and re-apportioned among all the activities in which you are currently engaged at that moment. When you ask your mind to perform two or more activities that require a high level of conscious concentration (like reading, writing, listening, hands-on mechanical tasks, mathematics, or logistical analysis) at the same time, it's likely that you're trying to use more computing power than you actually have available — and your brain is going to end up overloading. Whenever you attempt to simultaneously engage in multiple “high load” behaviors like this, one of two things will happen. Either the brain will shut one activity out in favor of completing the other (this happens when you're trying to carry on a conversation while doing something else, and you find that you can't remember a word the other person has said!) Or if it does actually manage to struggle through both tasks, your brain is going to accomplish each more slowly than it would if allowed to focus fully on just one activity at a time. It's the same thing that happens with your computer — if you  tell it to run a search AND back up your documents AND perform a complex calculation at the same time, every task slows down to a crawl. And, as with your computer, concurrent multi-tasking is more likely to bring up an error message (or more likely, the “blue screen of death”) — you will find yourself making stupid mistakes, forgetting important information, and failing to fully complete a task when your mind is occupied with more than one thing at a time.

Stop Banging Your Head

But the dictionary also includes a definition of multi-tasking that is more in line with my way of thinking — “the interleaved execution of two or more jobs.” Interleaved — ooh, I like that word! This means “to perform two or more actions or functions in an ALTERNATING fashion” — working first on one, than switching to another, then switching back to the first again. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's a great way to make progress on multiple goals while avoiding becoming bored, stuck, or blocked a project.

However, I'm not talking about the kind of mindless and unplanned bopping back and forth between activities that causes you to waste 3 hours surfing the web when you should be doing your bookkeeping. Wink Allowing your brain to become interrupted in the middle of a project, letting it lead you away from the task at hand toward another (usually less important) activity is “distraction,” not “multi-tasking.” It then takes time and mental energy for your brain to make the shift back into gear, to remember where you left off, and what you need to do next — that's when “multi-tasking” becomes unproductive.

But a planned shift from one activity to another (which occurs at a natural “stopping point” in your work and is accompanied by a few notes as a “memory jogger” to help you dive back in quickly when you return to that task) can often be the best possible thing for boosting your productivity and increasing your energy levels. Have you ever tried to force yourself to plow ahead with a project when you really just didn't have it in you to continue? Your brain is fried, you can't concentrate, and you're essentially banging your head against a wall — but dammit, you're going to “make” yourself get it done! Then you look up several hours later, only to find that you're still right where you started, and haven't made even one step forward during all that time.The better choice would be to walk away and do something completely different, giving your brain a chance to rest and re-charge. For example, let's say you're stuck trying to put together a proposal for a new client, and your thoughts just keep going in circles. So you quit what you're doing and devote a half hour to that pile of papers you've been needing to file. You're crossing an important to-do off your list, but using an entirely different part of your brain (giving the lobe that was starting to hurt a rest.) Of course, your mind will subconsciously continue to work on your proposal, while on a conscious level, you're busy accomplishing something else. Then when you finish that task and return to writing, you're seeing things with fresh eyes, and the words just slide out of your pen (or clack out of your keyboard, as the case may be.)

I use this technique myself all the time in order to stay productive throughout the day. If I try to spend 8 straight hours on any one type of task, I burn out much more quickly than if I mix things up — so I actively plan my day to include these sorts of shifts. I'll spend an hour writing a blog, then move on to some phone calls, then switch to color-correcting photos or even washing dishes, and back to writing again — but I'm still only ever doing ONE of these activities at a time. Consecutive, not concurrent — that's the key to success with multi-tasking!

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. 

Holiday Greetings

Assuring that your holiday greetings arrived on time used to require a lot of manual labor and bit of good “postal karma.” But with the advent of computer technology, the sending of cards entered a new era. Things became easier, faster, and more customizable — all with the click of a button. So if you're still buying paper cards, handwriting your message, pulling out an old battered address book, and going out to the post office to mail them — its time to join the 21st century! I guarantee you that at least one aspect of your holiday card routine could be automated or done electronically, to save you time and make your life easier.

Let's start with a look at your contacts. Is your address book horribly outdated? Filled with incorrect information, cross-outs, and little notes about folks who have moved in past years? Storing your contacts in a computer program like Outlook or Act — or even just a spreadsheet or generic database — will allow you to update changes more quickly. Just take that stack of cards you receive each year and compare the return addresses with your list — additions, subtractions, and updates will only take a few minutes. Going high-tech also makes it easy to print out either labels or addressed envelopes directly from your computer. This is a huge time-saver around the holidays, especially if you're the type of person who likes to send cards to every human being you ever met — or if you have a lot of business greetings to send to clients and colleagues.

There are also a number of different online services that allow you to order your cards already printed with your holiday greeting. The most full-service of these is SendOutCards — which lets you to choose from thousands of greetings, customize your message for each recipient, print cards in your own handwriting, and include your signature! Best of all, they mail the cards for you, so you don't have to do anything but compose a heartfelt message. Or you can save on money and paper waste by going entirely electronic. Hundreds of different websites like Care2 allow you to send free electronic greetings to an unlimited number of recipients. Whether you prefer “static” cards or animated graphics, a more traditional message or a funny greeting, you can find just the right option. And if you're willing to pull out your wallet, you can even attach a family photo or a shopping gift certificate to your card.

Finally, there is the issue of postage. If you absolutely hate dealing with the lines at the post office this time of year, the good news is that you no longer have to. You can order rolls of stamps  online at USPS.com and have them mailed to you — or you can utilize a service like Stamps.com that allows you to print postage on demand right from your PC. I tell you, there's almost no reason to leave the house anymore!

Baking Goodies

I have a friend who devotes all of December to cookies. Every time I talk to her, she's either measuring, sifting, mixing, baking, icing — or collapsed on the couch, worn out from all the effort. She makes 200-300 cookies each year to send to friends and family. I have personally been the recipient of many tasty treats (the Buckeyes are my favorite) and I always appreciate her generosity — but there's a dark side to all this sweetness.

My friend started this tradition ages ago (before she had a job and a child and a million other responsibilities) — but she says she can't give it up because everyone would be so disappointed. And it apparently doesn't matter that this annual ritual stresses her out, causes her to lose sleep at night, and takes away from other activities she might be enjoying during the yuletide. I am all for throwing yourself 100% into your seasonal projects, but only if you actually get pleasure from them (if not, why are you doing it?) And there are plenty of ways to make holiday baking easier, more fun, and less exhausting.

While I believe that variety is the spice of life (especially when it comes to sweets), it's hard work making a dozen small batches, each from a different recipe. But a cookie swap allows everyone to enjoy a much broader selection of goodies than they would probably have time to bake on their own, with less effort. When you plan your exchange, assign each person a different type of cookie — he or she will makes a huge batch of that one recipe and bring it to the party. Then you divide each pile evenly so that everyone gets to take home a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You might even discover a new favorite!

However, some people insist on doing it all themselves — and that's fine too. But at least develop a system that will save you a little time. Start out with a pad of paper and a pen. Figure out all the varieties of cookies you want to make this season, and for which people or events — ex: gingerbread men for the school party, chocolate chip for your co-workers, rum balls for the mailman, whatever. Bookmark your recipes, and create a master shopping list (so you only have to go to the grocery store once). Do all of your shopping (preferably during a sale or when you have some coupons) and store your ingredients in a safe spot where they won't be used for other purposes. Then divide your baking up into three distinct steps — mixing the ingredients, cooking, and decorating. With most recipes, you can prepare the dough in advance, freeze it, and then bake when you're ready — and the whole thing will go faster, take less effort, and require less cleanup if you can do it in batches. So set aside a few hours for preparing all the dough, rinsing out your mixing bowls and measuring cups between batches — then store each blob of yummy goodness in a labeled ziploc bag in the freezer. On another day, thaw your dough and bake your cookies, one batch after another — the oven's already hot, and you'll be amazed at how quickly it goes when you don't have to preheat for every round. Let your cookies cool and store them in airtight containers — then you can pull them out at your leisure to ice and decorate. Voila — sugar shock without all the stress!

Gift-Giving

Of course, the favorite way of spreading a little holiday cheer is giving presents. Done the wrong way, this can be a very time-consuming and frustrating process — but when you've got an organized process for your gifting, you can stay on top of it all with very little effort.

Step one is to set up a gift “center,” located near a flat surface where you can spread out and wrap presents — a guest-bedroom/hallway closet or under a bed is a good choice. Store your rolls and gift bags in either a stand-up bin or long flat container, put bows and ribbons and embellishments in lidded tubs, and don't forget a spot for your tags, pens, tape, and scissors. You should have everything you need for wrapping presents in one convenient spot.

Now set up a place nearby for storing presents as you buy them — I like to use larger opaque tubs (with lids) that can't be seen through by prying eyes. If you have a lot of children to buy for, you might choose to create one box for “adult” gifts and another for “kid” gifts. This is where you should store your list of gift ideas — specific items and brands that each person in your life might like, clothing and shoe sizes, preferences in terms of color, style, etc. It's also a good idea to set up an envelope or expandable wallet for gift receipts — in case you have a reason to return an item you've bought.

Now comes the system. As you come across sales and bargains throughout the year, try to pick up items on your gift list at a discount. You can also stock up on some “generic” gifts for those unexpected parties and drop-in guests. If it's a gift for a specific person, mark the purchase off on your “ideas list,” label it with a sticky note and the person's name, then put it in your tub. Or to really save time later, go ahead and wrap and tag the item as soon as you get it home (saving fancy embellishments that might get crushed for the last minute). Generic gifts should remain unwrapped until you're ready to give them. If you work systematically through your list during the 12 months before Christmas (and wrap as you go), you'll reduce the need for hurried “last-minute” shopping, and you'll save a lot of time and money along the way.

A Faster Way To Get It All Done

Most people's days are so filled to overflowing with responsibilities, that there's is almost no way to get it all done in the hours available. Some things (like work and school and appointments) eat up big chunks of your day, and you have little control over when or how they happen. Others can be squeezed in whenever you've got a few free minutes here or there. The trick to successful time management is making effective and productive use of “micro-moments” — little chunks of time scattered throughout your day, in-between the other bigger commitments. Instead of watching TV, why not get something meaningful accomplished? Any time you can cross a to-do off your list during one of these normally “wasted” periods of time, you're one step ahead of the game.
  • wrap and mail a gift you've been meaning to send off
  • pay the bills that have been sitting on the counter waiting for your attention
  • clean out a cabinet or a drawer that's been driving you up the wall
  • repair a ripped hem
  • respond to a couple of emails or return a few phone calls
  • set out your clothes for the next day
  • make tomorrow's lunch today
  • sew a missing button
  • tackle a small home “fix-it” project (tighten a screw, hang a picture, etc.)
  • do the dishes and wipe down the counters
  • run the vacuum or sweep the floor
  • throw a load of laundry in the washer or dryer
  • put away a pile of clutter that's been staring you in the face for too long
  • clean out your purse, briefcase, or backpack
  • read that magazine article or book you haven't had time for
  • schedule an appointment you've been putting off
  • sort through your incoming mail, separating to-do's from trash
  • reorganize your CDs or DVDs in categorical / alphabetical order
  • gather up outdated magazines and newspapers to put in the recycling

See how easy that was? Wink