Posts Tagged ‘simplify’

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  • gather up outdated magazines and newspapers to put in the recycling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

Breaking Free

There's nothing about the act of bill-paying that's any more inherently onerous than, say, filing or making follow-up phone calls or taking care of any other to-do — why then do we dread it more than other tasks? It's funny the effect an outlay of cash has on people. We love to spend money in the abstract — but when the time comes to ante up, we panic. A good deal of financial procrastination is simply buyer's remorse — we don't want to face our spending habits, those impulse buys and unnecessary purchases that now seem so foolish.

But even without regretting the purchase, there's still stress involved with bill-paying. You might worry about rising interest rates or dropping home values, the security of your paycheck or how much is being withheld to cover taxes — or any of a number of other issues that are entirely beyond your control. So much of what happens in the world of finance these days seems out of our hands, and uncertainty is always unnerving. The good news is that you don't have to worry about getting your bills paid on time, not with the right system (and as Forrest Gump says, “That's good! One less thing!”) Here are a few tips for making that monthly round of check-cutting a lot less stressful.

  • cut down on your expenses (it goes without saying that the fewer bills you have, the easier it is to pay them each month — of course you need electricity and groceries and a home to live in — but I'm sure that if you examine your statements and receipts, you'll find at least a few recurring items that could be trimmed from the budget — memberships you don't use, subscriptions you don't read, services that duplicate one another, excessive numbers of multiple credit cards, each with just a few charges on it — these bills do nothing but complicate your finances each month — it's time to clean house in the bill-paying sense — if you don't need it, lose it, and make your monetary life a lot easier right from the start)
  • align your bill-paying dates (part of what makes bill-paying such a pain in the neck is having to do it multiple times each month — one round of bills come due on the 1st and another on the 10th, then more on the 15th and a final batch near the end of the month — it's no wonder staying on top of it all takes so much of your time! — what most people don't realize is that most companies can adjust your billing cycle to end on whatever date you like — of course, your utilities and mortgage will always be due at the start of the month, so why not have your phone, internet, credit cards, insurance, and other monthly bills arrive at the same time? — that way, you only have to engage in one round of “pull-out-the-checkbook” each month)
  • pre-pay for the year (with set fees like insurance premiums, memberships, and flat-rate services, you can often save money by paying for the entire year up front — and even if there is no discount attached, you'll still save a lot of time by skipping monthly billing — if you have the money in-hand and know you'll be with that company for at least 12 months, ask if you can pre-pay your account for the year — just make sure that you'll be refunded the pro-rated amount if you cancel your service before the end of that period)
  • consolidate (a number of years back, Matt and I decided that we were tired of having to keep track of so many different bills — we examined our options and decided to pay as many bills as possible with our credit card, so we would only have one check to cut each month — it turns out that almost anything can be charged to your Visa or Mastercard — of course, gas and groceries and haircuts, but I'm also talking about your mortgage, your insurance, and even your utilities — I'm allergic to “convenience fees,” so we only do this if there is no additional cost for a credit card payment — and it only works when you pay the card in full — but it's amazing how much this one change simplified our finances — it also makes budgeting easier, because we can review every purchase for an entire month with one glance)
  • set up auto-pay (another step toward lifting the yoke of bill-paying from our necks was shifting everything to auto-pay — I came to realize that there was no good reason for me to ever have to write a company a check again, when I could have the bill either auto-charged to my credit card or auto-drafted from my bank account — my preference is for the first option, so if a company makes a mistake and takes too much money, I can dispute the charge before the cash comes out of my account — I really only use bank auto-drafts for paying the over-arching credit card bill — a lot of people are scared of auto-pay, because they're worried they'll get ripped off — but if you are reviewing your statements every month and reconciling your accounts like you should be, the chance of this happening is almost non-existent — and if you're not, you're just as likely to have an error go unnoticed, even when you pay all of your bills by check)
  • create a monthly routine (now that you've simplified bill-paying as much as possible, you just need a good routine for staying on top of it all — set one day a month aside for bookkeeping — start by reviewing all of the bills you've received, both paper and electronic, for errors — then reconcile your credit card and bank statements, double-checking to make sure that every bill on auto-draft was paid — finally, write and mail checks for the remaining bills that must be paid manually, if there are any — and don't forget to record those in your register — three simple steps and you're done until next month!)

Plan Ahead

When do you decide on your meal plan for the day — 15 minutes before you're due to get dinner on the table? If you know in advance what dishes you're going to cook for the upcoming week, you will spend a lot less time in the kitchen than if you stand in front of the refrigerator each evening saying, “Hmm…I wonder what we should have tonight.” Spend a few minutes on before you go grocery shopping planning out your menu for the next 7 days. Decide what recipes you have the time and energy for — should you keep it simple because you have a lot of other activities going on this week, or are you ready for a big Sunday dinner extravaganza? You're in charge of the kitchen — you call the shots!

Shopping is also much easier once you have your week figured out. Take a  look in your pantry and see what ingredients you have (or lack) before you write out your grocery list — this way, you won't have to run out at the last minute because you are all out of beans for chili or forgot to pick up enough eggs for all the baking you had planned. You can do all of your shopping at once, instead of making three or four trips throughout the week.  And you save even more time by choosing dishes that can easily be combined after the meal is over to form a new dish. My mother's favorite was to serve corn and lima beans as side dishes at two meals, then combine any leftovers to make goulash. Nowadays, I just throw any veggies we don't cook in a pan for stir-fry later in the week.

Stick With The Old Favorites

We are often seduced by the colorful pictures and tempting-sounding recipes we find in magazines and newspapers — and it's awfully hard to resist the latest sexiest cookbook that promises to change the way you eat forever! However, the truth of the matter is that most people make no more than 10 or 20 different dishes on a regular basis. Don't believe me? Pull out a notebook, keep track of a month's worth of your family's meals, and see how often you attempt something entirely new and out of character in the kitchen. You are who you are, you eat what you eat — and while it's great to experiment with new foods once in a while, you'll reduce a lot of kitchen clutter if you follow the “know theyself” philosophy when it comes to recipes.

Take a few minutes to gather up your favorites and store them together in one ring-binder, card file, or computer program (depending on how you keep your recipes) — this is your “top 10 file.” Focus on those dishes that the whole family loves, are easy to make, take very little time, and use fairly basic ingredients. You can still keep the recipes for Truffle Souffle with Grand Marnier and Lobster Thermidor — just store those separately from your everyday dishes. You might also consider setting up a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly schedule for cooking your favorites. One of my clients with three busy children has decided that Monday is always pasta night, Tuesday is a casserole, Wednesday is grilling out, Thursday is soup, and Friday is pizza. It saves her time and energy, and she never has to deal with the question, “What's for dinner?”

Cook In Batches

It's a law of nature — as you do a lot of oneactivity, it automatically gets easier. That's why housework goes faster when you wash 7 loads of laundry in a single day rather than one load a day all week long — and the same is true of time spent in the kitchen. When you first start cutting uponions, the going is slow. But by your 5th onion,you're the chopping master! Consolidate your food processing and prepare more ingredients as you need for just a single recipe. Slicean entire bag of carrots, grate a whole block of cheese, make a huge potof tomato sauce rather than just enough for one meal. You can freeze orrefrigerate the extras and save yourself a little effort the next timeyou get ready to cook.

One of the best time-management decisions I ever made was to do the majority of my cooking all on one day of the week. I usually go grocery shopping on Sunday mornings (less crowded than Saturday), and I'll spend about 2 hours in the kitchen cooking for the entire week. I make about three or four “one-dish” meals that my husband and I can each for lunches and quick dinners — usually including a casserole, a soup, and a pasta dish. These get stored in our fridge in meal-sized containers, ready to be reheated.  I also cut up veggies and store them in Tupperware, make a big jug of green tea for the week, and put together a couple of quick desserts. Then, for the rest of the week, we don't have to do much of anything to eat a healthy meal. We might throw together a salad, or make a stir-fry and grill some fish, or eat one of my pre-prepared dishes. And we save money because we don't end up eating out as much when we've got plenty of good food in the house. It's a complete win-win situation!

Prepare Lunches In Advance

One of the biggest kitchen challenges my clients with kids face is getting school lunches ready in the morning. Waiting until 7 AM to prepare a portable mid-day meal from scratch for several kids, then doing that over and over again every day, takes a tremendous amount of time — and it's not a very efficient way to get your children ready for school. In the same way that you would have them lay out the clothes they want to wear or gather up all of their school books the night before, have your children help pack their lunch bags in advance. That way, no one is rushing around in the morning (running late for school or work) trying to figure out what's for lunch.

It's actually pretty easy — on grocery shopping day when you come homewith the ingredients for your kids' lunches, have your childrenassemble their meals for the week. Store individual-sized portions of chips, pretzels, cookies, and other snacks in Ziplocs. Set up 5 brown paper bags for each child, complete with a snack, a drink box, pudding cup, fruit roll-up, etc. in each. Then mark the bags with the child's name and day of the week and line them up on a shelf in the pantry. When that day rolls around, all you have to do is add a sandwich or soup! You will save time each morning, and it will keep your kids from eating all of their school snacks before the school day arrives.

Don't Wait Until It Runs Out

How many times has this happened to you — you are making dinner, need some (garlic, mustard, milk, basil), and you pull out an empty container. Someone used the last of your precious ingredient and didn't bother to let you know that you should buy more. And it's particularly annoying when you do it to yourself!  The best way to prevent this kind of crisis is to follow the 3/4 rule. Whenever you find that something is three-fourths empty, put it on the grocery list. Keep a notepad on the front of the refrigerator so that family members can add to the list as they notice items running low. You can even mark your containers with a sharpie showing the “buy more” line so there is no confusion about when you are running low.

Another good trick is to buy in bulk whenever money and space allows. This is particularly important for those non-perishable items you use all the time — tuna fish, rice, peanut butter, cereal, etc. — your staples. Keep enough of these foods on hand so that you won't find yourself running out at a crucial moment. Shopping at a wholesale club like Costco can also save you a ton of money over the long run.

Clean As You Go

Cooking scares a lot of people — not because they dread the act of preparing a meal, but because they just can't face the spills, splatters, and piles of dirty dishes that are left behind when they're done! I personally take after Julia Child and make a huge mess every time I enter the kitchen (turkey dropped on the floor, flour on the ceiling, and unidentifiable stains on every possible horizontal surface.) If I waited until I finished cooking to clean up, it would take a week!

But if you take the time to clean as you go, cooking is more enjoyable, less stressful, and incredibly less time-consuming (not to mention the fact that your kitchen smells a whole lot better!) Instead of piling everything up for “later,” invest a few minutes here and there throughout the cooking process cleaning up. Put those dirty utensils in the dishwasher as you finish with them. Wipe up that spilled sauce before it hardens into a crust. Put your ingredients away as soon as you're done adding them to your recipe. And take out the trash from your food preparationbefore it starts to overflow the can. You'll thank yourself “later!”

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.

Have A Plan Of Attack

Begin working in the area that is the biggest thorn in your side — the part of your home or office that causes you the most agony. Even if every area of your life feels cluttered, it's not hard to pinpoint your MOST frustrating organizing challenge. When you find yourself saying, day after day, “Man, I wish I could get my (bedroom, desk, storage closet whatever) straightened out. This mess is driving me crazy!” — you know that's where you want to begin. Where is your greatest pain?

As you dig in, you're guaranteed to notice a few other spots that could use some organizing help too — that's fine. Create a list of the areas you want to work on, in order of priority. Be sure to include a deadline for completing each project. This will help you focus on the big picture as you work your way through your home or office. It's much easier to stay on track if you have a specific timetable within which to work. Crossing tasks off of your “to-do list” as you finish them also reminds you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel!  Don't feel overwhelmed — you will get to all of your problem areas, in due time.

One Baby Step After Another

It's tempting to want to organize everything at the same time, but that's a surefire way to sabotage your efforts. Instead, start by tackling just one small area at a time — a drawer, a cabinet, a shelf, a closet. Don't attempt to clean out the whole place at once. If you overdo it, chances are you will become frustrated and give up on the entire project. Set aside some time each week to work on a different area — once you get started, you'll be surprised at how quickly the job goes.

Do your best to move systematically, finishing one area before you begin another. There is nothing more draining than finding yourself surrounded by a bunch of half-finished projects — and it's even harder to find things if you have only organized part of your closet or cleaned out half of your filing system, while the other half is still a wreck.

Once you discover your own particular organizing style, you'll really be able to make some progress. Some people work best if they empty an entire storage area before organizing it. Others find that too overwhelming, and choose to tackle their clutter one item at a time. You need to decide for yourself which of these methods suits your personality best. But there is no “right” way — only what's right for you.  Remember, there are as many different ways to organize as there are people on the planet!

Call In The Troops

Don't be afraid to enlist a little help. If you can recruit some organizing “assistants” — do it! This is a big job, and it will go a lot faster if you aren't all by your lonesome. Consider drafting your friends, family members, or co-workers — put on some music, serve them pizza, and turn cleaning out into a party. Who said organizing has to be a chore?

You might even consider hiring a Professional Organizer to help you out — sometimes it's good to have someone around who has no vested interest your “stuff” and can offer expert advice when you get stuck. Just be judicious about who you bring on board. If you what you need most is an objective opinion, your nosy mother-in-law may not be the best choice!

Organizing is hard work — and it's going to take a minute. So don't get frustrated with yourself if you can't tackle every pile of clutter in one weekend! And don't drive yourself until you drop — cleaning out does not have to be painful. Just go at your own pace and cut yourself some slack if you aren't moving forward as quickly as you had hoped.  Most importantly, be sure to reward yourself every time you finish a particularly challenging task — even adults need “gold stars” (or a cappuccino or a movie or a soak in the tub) every now and then!