One of the best books on writing – and life itself for that matter – is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Among the pearls of wisdom she offers in her funny, witty style, is to take baby steps. Apparently, when she was a child, her brother was facing writer’s block as he attempted to write a book report on various species of birds. He was overwhelmed, realizing there was so much to do, and didn’t know where to start. Her father advised her then 10-year-old brother to, “Just take it bird by bird.” 

Wiser words were never spoken, and not just about overcoming writer’s block. The same can be said of how to get organized. One of the biggest obstacles that people face when attempting to ‘get organized’ is that they bite off more than they can chew. They forget that it took them years to get disorganized, and that they should allow ample time to reverse the trend. If you truly want to get better organized, the bottom line is that you have to be willing to make changes in your systems and the way you are doing things (or not doing things), and you have to be prepared to act – to put the principles in place. Be ready to put in the time to make or break habits – psychologists say it takes approximately 18 days to do so. Organizing is a way of life that requires maintenance and ongoing effort until it becomes second nature. Remember that change is a process, not an event. Don’t try to change everything at once. Pick one area of your life that needs changing the most and focus on it first.

So, how do you take it ‘bird by bird’ when organizing? First, do a ‘brain dump.’ This is when you put down on paper (or on your computer, in your iPhone, etc.) every organizing problem and challenge you face, all of the tasks and activities you need to accomplish to have a more organized home, office and life, and what your organizing goals are. Next, get your calendar out, and start scheduling organizing sessions with yourself. At the very least, map out one thing you intend to do and what steps it will take to do that, then schedule them.  Even if it takes you six months of scheduling, in six months from now, you’ll be better organized.

In order to stay motivated while organizing, post your goals in a conspicuous place, especially if you are a visual person. Before and after photos also help many people get and stay motivated. Reward yourself along the way as you would with any other behavior modification program. For example, when you finish a certain portion of your organizing project, treat yourself to some stylish new organizing products, like bins or baskets (or any other dangling carrot that works for you!). Play music while you are organizing. Not only will it help you keep moving, but it can also serve as a great timer so that you don’t overdo it and spend too nuch time organizing and burn out. When your favorite CD is over, so is your organizing session. Lastly, consider working with a buddy (perhaps as a couple?) in a team/group effort (a family project?), or go to the pros and hire a professional organizer. Involving others is often a great motivator and keeps you accountable!

Where and how do you start organizing? Attack what’s visible first. For most people, this serves as the best motivator, gives them a sense of accomplishment and, therefore, offers the most ‘bang for the buck.’ Sort one section at a time, room by room. Try to finish an area, project, or room before moving onto the next. Remember, the space often looks worse before it looks better. The process of organizing is messy, as you have to pull everything out to sort, purge, and create new systems. Stay focused by making a separate box labeled “action” and tend to it later. Also, create an “out” box near the door of the room you are organizing for items that belong somewhere else in the home or work place. Do not leave the space you are organizing to go put things away!

I know it’s tempting to try to tackle the whole house, office, or your life, but exercise some restraint. If not, you will most likely be setting yourself up for failure. Trying to do it all generally leads to feelings of overwhelm and inadequacy. Then you will wonder why you ever tried to get organized in the first place, and stop trying at all. Instead, just take it ‘bird by bird.’

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

When conducting an organizing presentation or teleclass, I often mention the idea of creating a Memory Box for each family member.  Many participants share that the Memory Box tip is their favorite, and one they cannot wait to act on. (See, for example, this blog post by June Bisel of BusinessCardContacts.com).

A Memory Box is a container in which each family member can store his or her most treasured possessions. The size should be big enough to fit the prized possessions, but small enough to grab and carry out of the house, in case of an emergency. The actual container can be a no-nonsense functional type, like a plastic bin, or it can be a lovely decorated stylish box, bin, or basket. My personal Memory Box is an old trunk that has handles on the side to carry it in the event of an emergency evacuation.

The location for storing the Memory Box is also a personal decision. Often, because of the confidential or personal nature of the items in the box, it makes the most sense to store each person’s Memory Box in his or her room, at the top or bottom of a closet, under the bed, etc. But some choose to store all of the Memory Boxes for the family in a basement or attic, so that they do not take up precious space in the living areas of the home, and can be grabbed easily in one fell swoop if need be.

I would not recommend storing vital documents such as your will, birth certificate, etc. in the Memory Box. Those items should either be stored in a safe deposit box at the bank, or at home in a fire resistant box (remember, there is no such thing as a fireproof box for the home!). Some people store their vital documents in a regular file folder in their filing cabinet, and keep copies (or the originals) in a separate location. In the event that an emergency causes a very quick evacuation, the people and pets go out first, followed by the vital documents, and then the Memory Boxes.

What goes in a Memory Box? Well, that is up to you, of course. But here are some ideas.

  • Start a Memory Box for your children’s prized artwork, sentimental childhood possessions, schoolwork, etc.  They can decide, with you, what goes in it.  You can have a master Memory Box, and one for the current school year.  At the end of the school year, your child, with your help, can revisit the year, purging any items that are not vital enough to go in the master Memory Box. 
  • If you have a few sentimental favorite articles of clothing that you just can’t part with, but don’t wear, store them in your Memory Box.
  • Want to revisit your love life? Store old love letters, poems, your corsage or boutineer from your high school prom, a playbill from the first date with your spouse, etc.
  • If you plan to store documents or photographs in your Memory Box, consider getting an archival quality document or photo box to insert the paper and photos in, and then store the document or photo box inside the larger Memory Box. This will ensure paper and photos do not get destroyed over time.
  • If an item is much too large to fit into the Memory Box, and you can bear to part with it, take a photo of the item, and store the photo with a description of the item in the box. This works well for items that you are merely keeping out of obligation. For example, that hideous painting your aunt made for you that you will never hang up! Take a photo, write a note saying, “Aunt Gertrude meant well” and donate the painting to someone who will appreciate its unrecognized beauty.

People are often surprised to hear that I have a Memory Box. “You, a professional organizer?” Yes! Organizing is about decluttering your life of the stuff that does not serve your goals, and letting the cream rise to the top. It is about giving your favorite possessions a place of value in your home and life. My personal Memory Box includes select sentimental items, including my handwritten journals, my baton (yes, I was a baton twirler – don’t laugh!), my middle school graduation dress (loved it!), love letters from my husband from before we were married, letters and cards from friends and family members that are precious to me, and poems that I wrote growing up.

Ms. Bisel shares that her new Memory Box will contain her kid’s baby books, drawings from elementary school, some treasured photos, and other memories from her kids’ childhood. She says that her kids love looking through the stuff, and it would be great to have it all in one place. Before she attended my workshop, the items were scattered around the house, and now they will be stored conveniently together, in a place of distinction.

So, what’s in your Memory Box?

backtoschool1It is that time of year again when summer is coming to an end, and the kids are getting ready to go back to school. Start the year off the organized way! Register for Back to School the Organized Way: 10 Tips to Keep Your Child Organized This School Year, a teleclass designed to help you take control this year!

In this teleclass, I will draw upon my years of experience as a Certified Professional Organizer (and former special education instructor) to share the steps involved in getting your K-12 child organized for the school year:

• Learn organizing tips for setting up a launching and landing pad, family scheduling and calendars, evening & morning routines, organizing-friendly school supplies, family communication center, study centers, etc.
• Develop a system for tackling all of the papers that come home from school!
• Discover what your child’s unique organizing style is, and how to customize a system that works for him or her.
• Empower your children by establishing organizing and time management systems that they can maintain.
• Discover how to avoid clutter, set goals, and stay on an organized path to success.

Organized students are better prepared to learn at school, complete homework assignments in less time, and experience less stress (and so do their families). Children who develop and maintain good organizational skills will not only be prepared for today’s academic challenges but to excel in tomorrow’s world.

Come learn tips that will help your child, and you, get and stay organized the whole year through!

Thursday, August 27th
Time: 7:30 – 9:00 pm (Eastern Standard Time)
Investment: $25

Can’t make the live call? No need to worry. All teleclasses are recorded and the audio is usually posted within 48 hours. You can either listen to the call on the special web page sent to you after the call (by clicking the link provided), or you can download the MP3 file to listen to on your computer, iPod, or other MP3 player at your leisure.

Join me on August 27th by registering here.

Hope to “see” you there!

Do you often feel like you’re trying to juggle all the demands of your life while running in a hamster wheel that is three sizes too small? You are not alone!

The Young Professionals Group of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce is offering a free workshop, Juggling 101: Keeping All the Balls in the Air When Time & Space Are at a Premium, on Thursday, August 20th at 8:00 a.m. in the Larkin Room at the Chamber Business Center, 30 Scott’s Corner Drive, Montgomery, NY.

I will be co-presenting with Donna Johnson of DJ Consulting Services. We will teach the secrets of managing time and space when both are limited and in high demand. While we cannot promise you the powers of telekinesis or time-travel, we can promise a host of useful information to tame the beast in your planner and in your junk drawer.

So, if you are going to be in the Orange County, NY area this Thursday, come learn how to juggle!

Click here for more details or to register.

Hope to see you there!

I am a big fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I have read all seven of them, and each time a new movie version premieres, I make it a point to re-read that book before seeing the accompanying movie. Therefore, at this time, I am re-reading the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which is currently showing in theaters. In Half-Blood Prince, the sixth-year students at Hogwarts are taking lessons in apparition. Apparition is a magical form of teleportation, through which a witch or wizard can disappear (“disapparate”) from one location and reappear (“apparate”) in another. During the lessons, the instructor outlines the 3 D’s of apparition: Destination, Determination, Deliberation. When I read the 3 D’s of apparition, I couldn’t help but think that there is a strong parallel to the principles of organizing. Let me demonstrate.

If you are about to embark on an organizing project, you need to first think about your organizing goals, i.e., your Destination. If a physical organizing project, you can do this by visualizing what the space will look like after you have organized it. Visualize your home or office without the piles of clutter. If your organizing project is not physical, then you can envision what you will feel like once the project is accomplished. Visualize your calendar with less tasks in it. Hold onto that visualization in your mind. Thinking about your Destination is a powerful motivator to help get you there. In my 6-step organizing approach, DECIDE™, the first step is Discover. Like Destination, it is the stage when you think about what you want in your home, work, and life, and how being better organized will serve you and your goals.

In order to succeed with your organizing projects, you need to practice Determination. When you are determined, you are more likely to prepare for success. What type of Determination do you have? Have you created an accountability partnership? Have you hired a professional organizer to assist you? Are you willing to make the time and exert the effort that it takes to make organization a reality? With Determination, you will make time in your schedule to organize, and will break down the organizing project into small manageable portions in order to stay focused and motivated. In my DECIDE® process, the 5th step is Dedicate. Just like with Determination, you must dedicate yourself to becoming organized, and staying that way once you have achieved your desired goal.

Lastly, you must act with Deliberation when you want to get organized. To be deliberate when organizing means that slow and steady wins the race. You need to take each action with an eye toward whether it makes sense for you. In the DECIDE® process, the 4th step is Implement, during which you design organizing systems to match your habits, needs, work, and lifestyle. You need to carefully consider each step along the way, and be deliberate so that the system can be maintained for the long haul. If the system is deliberately tailored to you, you will be more likely to maintain it.

So when organizing, think of the 3 D’s of apparition from Harry Potter: Destination, Determination, and Deliberation. They are useful tools for accomplishing your organizing projects. And, of course, if all else fails, you can always try to “disapparate” your clutter!

I was working with a client recently to organize her home papers. We were purging papers that were no longer needed, and sorting the keepers into categories so that we could put them into files for future retrieval. So far, so good. My client confided that she considers herself organized at work, and actually likes a fairly clutter-free environment. She shared that at home, however, she has a really hard time dealing with paper. This is not uncommon. Some clients can maintain organizing systems at work, and not at home, while others can keep it together at home, but things fall apart at work. There are many reasons for this organizing disparity, and I assumed that as I worked with this client, the reasons would surface.

And surface they did. As soon as we started to set up the filing system, I noticed that my client lacked confidence in her decisions. When I would ask her what to name a certain file, she would get very nervous, mention a possible name, then second-guess herself almost immediately. She became visibly distressed, and started to lose steam. We took a break, and started discussing what she was feeling. She was feeling overwhelmed with choices, and was scared that she would make the wrong choice (her words) and not be able to find papers when she needed them later on. This, my friends, is what happens when someone does not trust his or her instincts when organizing.

It is not a surprise that my client became overwhelmed as soon as we got to the implementation phase. This is when you set up the organizing system in a way that makes sense to you, and can be integrated into your life (for more information on the stages of organizing, check out my unique approach to organizing, DECIDE). For many people, this is the toughest part, as it requires the person to make decisions and own them. If a person lacks confidence in his or her ability to set up a system or to maintain it, that lack of confidence usually manifests itself through indecision. For my client, this reared its ugly head more at home than at work. At work, often the systems are already in place and an employee merely has to follow them. For some, this makes it harder as the system may be far from what he or she would have created. However, for others, following a ready-made system is easier as it takes the decision-making part out of the equation.

So what to do? Use your instincts. Go with your gut.

If you were unfortunate enough to have to sit for the SAT exam in high school, you may remember the common tip that people would give: do not change your first answer, as it is usually the right one. You can say the same thing when it comes to organizing systems. I often will say to a client when they are having a hard time choosing a name for a file, “Quick, what file name would you think to look for this paper under?” I am trying to make my clients use free association, and not over-think the naming process. File names are only important when it comes to retrieval, not storage. Most people get caught up in what to name a file because they are focusing on the front-end – the storage process. But filing is most important on the back-end, during the retrieval process, when you need to access something quickly after time has gone by and your memory is not as fresh.

I am amazed how often clients will fight their natural organizing habits and tendencies. For example, a client will explain that he is having a hard time with mail being everywhere in his home. He will advise that he has a mail slot system but is not using it. I ask why. He tells me it is hanging by the front door, but he uses the back door. I then suggest moving the mail slot to hang near the back door. My client will say, “Oh that makes sense, why didn’t I ever think of that?” Sometimes the easiest solution is staring you right in the face, but you don’t trust yourself to grab it. Organizing systems should be intuitive, not difficult.

Back to my recent client. She realized that she wanted to set up her filing system by using each family member’s name and then using sub-categories within each person’s file area. For example, let’s say her son’s name is Tom. She wanted to have a main category called Tom, and then file folders within that category for Tom-Auto, Tom-Education, Tom-Medical, Tom-Work, etc. The reason for this, she explained, is that she tends to think of each person as a universe unto him- or herself. Once she is within that universe, then she wants to break it down by subject matter category. Others set up their filing systems based on main subject matter categories of Auto, Education, Medical, Work, etc. and then use each family member’s name as the sub-categories and file folders within. Which is right? Well, both, actually. It depends on the way your brain thinks about and processes paper. For my client, this system worked. As soon as we set up her filing system in this manner, I could see her confidence come back and her spirits rise. This felt “right” to her. She just lacked the confidence to try it before.

So, when organizing, trust your instincts. They usually guide you to a great solution.

The phrase ‘time management’ has become one of the most oft-repeated phrases of our society. Almost everyone thinks they need to improve their time management skills. The problem is that most people aren’t even examining what the real issue is. Instead, the average person will blame time itself. Think I am kidding? Let me demonstrate.

When I attend a social or business function and people discover that I am a productivity expert, the topic often turns to ‘time management.’ Many people will invariably say some version of, “I don’t have any time.” To which I then usually reply, “Actually, you have the same 24 hours in your day that every other human being has. What you’re really telling me is that you don’t like the way you are spending your time, or you have not been able to prioritize your tasks to maximize that 24 hours.” I usually get a long pause, and then if the person ‘gets it,’ he or she will have a small epiphany and reply, “Yes, that’s it! I wish I were managing my time better. I’m feeling out of balance.”

The reason that this common time management description irks me so much is that it essentially gives the person an excuse by blaming time itself, when the real issue generally lies with the person. While there may be some real issues involved that cause a person to get into a time management jam, it is also often the person’s lack of planning, procrastination, and failure to adequately prioritize that causes the time crunch.

People are not overwhelmed with time itself, but with what they fill that time with – all of the tasks and responsibilities that make up their busy schedules. That overwhelmed feeling is a lack of control over the passing of time. And that would actually be correct because no matter how hard you try, you cannot control the passing of time.

No matter how organized you are and how much you plan ahead, the reality of life steps in. Good time management techniques are in place so that when life throws you a curve ball, you can hit it and get back on base. You need techniques to put your plans into action so that you can avoid, to the extent possible, the time crunches that can come between you and your best life.

The phrase “time management” is itself an oxymoron. You can’t manage time, only what you choose to do with it. I often tell my clients that if I could invent a time machine and give them all a 25th hour in the day, I would. But until that amazing feat occurs (be patient, I’m working on it), we are all left on even playing field.

Indeed, time is the great equalizer. As Denis Waitley puts it, “Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes each day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day.” Wise words.

Another phrase that I often hear is “Time is money.” This is actually a bit of a loaded topic for me. As a former practicing attorney, I am all too familiar with what it means to sell your time as a commodity. You are essentially selling your time (i.e., your life) in six-minute increments. The only valuable time is billable time. The decision to spend time doing anything other than billable work must be justified. It’s no wonder that chief among a host of reasons for the high dissatisfaction among lawyers is the pressure of high billable-hours requirements in large firms, which leads to a serious lack of life-work balance.

Time isn’t money – time is life itself. No amount of money in the world can buy a minute or an hour. That moment that just passed while you were reading that last sentence is now gone forever. To me, that is more of a motivator than money. I can make another dollar in my lifetime, but I can’t get back that moment. However, because time is so forgiving, I can start over each day, hoping to live it to the fullest and use all of its 24 hours in the best way possible.

So let the connection between time and life itself be the impetus you need for managing your time better. “Dost though love life, then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

“To do two things at once – is to do neither.” ~ Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus, 100 A.D.

When we need to accomplish many tasks, we do 2-3 things at once, sometimes more. We do this in order to be more productive. Multi-tasking has basically become the American way. In fact, employers often include “multi-tasking” as one of the desirable traits they look for in job descriptions. But is multi-tasking really leading to increased productivity?

According to some experts, the answer is no. Multi-tasking is generally less efficient than focusing on one thing at a time. Studies show it impairs productivity. It is impossible to do 2 tasks at the same time without compromising each. Supposedly, it takes your brain 4 times longer to process than if you focused on each task separately.

David Meyer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has spent the past few decades studying multi-tasking. His research shows that not only is multi-tasking inefficient, but also can cause problems at work, at school, and even, in some cases, be dangerous. Meyer explains, “It takes time to warm up to a new task, especially if both require the same skills.” Apparently, the transition time between switching back and forth from one task to another is where multi-tasking starts to result in decreased productivity.

In addition, studies show that some tasks that are frequently grouped together conflict with one another causing a decrease in productivity. Have you ever been writing an e-mail and chatting on the phone, and realize that you are saying what you are typing, or typing what you are saying? Supposedly, it’s impossible to do both of these tasks well because each requires language skills and short-term memory. What about reading your email and talking to someone at the same time? If you’re trying to actually read your email, as opposed to maybe just skimming the names in your inbox, conversation with someone becomes difficult because you’re tackling two language activities at once: reading and listening.

Meyer has also studied the effect of multi-tasking on students (stay with one homework assignment at a time, kids), and on cell phone use while driving (read: don’t do it unless you are prepared to seriously impede your ability to drive). To see some of Meyer’s work on multi-tasking, visit his page at the University of Michigan.

Some people feel that multi-tasking helps them to stay fresh and alert, not get bored, and ward off fatigue. Some even claim that they can’t help it, as their brain gets easily distracted and goes from one thought and task to the next. However, most experts agree that the average person does not know how to multi-task well and, therefore, should refrain from doing it at all. Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute has spent a great deal of time studying multi-tasking and writes, “Multi-tasking is the enemy of extraordinariness. Human beings, sorry to say, can focus fully on only one thing at a time. When people multi-task, they are not fully engaged in anything, and partially disengaged in everything. The potential for profoundly positive impact is compromised. Multi-tasking would be okay–is okay–at certain times, but very few people seem to know when that time is.” For more information on Jim Loehr’s research on multi-tasking, visit the Human Performance Institute.

Some people claim to truly thrive on multi-tasking. But are they really increasing their productivity in a quantifiable manner, or just giving themselves (and perhaps others) the perception that they are getting more done? If you are really getting things done in a more productive manner by using multi-tasking, fine, and good for you. You have somehow managed to prove the experts wrong. But, if you have too many balls in the air, you may need to re-think your strategy — unless you learn how to juggle.

Welcome to the DECIDE to be Organized blog, brought to you by yours truly, Lisa Montanaro, owner of LM Organizing Solutions, LLC.  As a Certified Professional Organizer, Busines & Life Coach, and Motivational Speaker, I help success-minded individuals and busy professionals improve their homes, businesses and lives.  My purpose for this blog is to motivate, inspire and empower you to achieve results at home, at work, and in life. I hope this blog proves to be a valuable source of information to you, along with a little entertainment at times. So sit back, relax, get a cup of coffee (or tea!) and come along for the ride.

Warm regards,

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