Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Getting Organized: Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

I've seen a lot of tweets recently about people feeling disorganized and like they've tipped over to a chaos level they are not OK with. I completely understand why- the holidays dump a bunch of things on our already full to do lists and calendars, and a lot of companies compound the mess with year end goals reviews and the like.

People don't generally want advice when they are venting about being disorganized on Twitter, so I usually don't reply. It gets my organization problem solving impulse twitching, though, so I'm going to indulge myself here.

The fact that I have an organizing impulse is amusing to people who have known me a long time and remember what my room looked like as a child (hint: not neat and tidy). For that matter, people who know me now and see my desk could be forgiven for thinking I am hopelessly disorganized.

But here's the thing: I have accepted that I cannot keep everything organized, and so I focus on the most important things. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to arrive at this insight, but now that I've had it, I embrace it. I don't have to be all the way organized. I just have to be organized enough. It doesn't matter if my desk is a cluttered mess as long as I can find my important documents. It doesn't matter if I haven't cleaned out the kids' outgrown clothes as long as I remember to check the hand me downs from Pumpkin BEFORE I go out and buy Petunia new shoes.

I won't claim to have applied this approach everywhere I could, but I'm making progress. I am much more zen than I used to be about the clutter that remains. That is what really matters to me. The goal isn't to have a perfectly organized house and life. It is to be happy. I just need to be organized enough to keep the inevitable chaos from causing me to be unhappy.

My other hard-earned insight about getting organized is that it is OK to focus on just one area at a time. When I'm feeling overwhelmed by the chaos, I try to figure out what specific chaos is driving me crazy right now and address that. For me, feeling like I might let someone down  and forget to do something I've said I'll do is a big trigger for feeling overwhelmed by chaos, so it often makes sense for me to look at our scheduling methods and try to improve them. The most recent improvement there was the decision to print out monthly calendar pages (I use the monthly horizontal calendars on Printfree.com) and stick them to the fridge. We write all non-routine events on this calendar, and since it is right in front of our eyes when we get into the fridge, it helps us remember things. We've been using this method for a couple of years now and I can't really fathom how we managed before we implemented it.

Now that my work schedule is less regular, I have also ramped up my use of my Google calendar. I would LOVE to get Mr. Snarky more on board with online calendaring, but he can't seem to stick to using it, so I've given up.  I just put important things in my Google calendar, but treat it as a back up to the "master" calendar on the fridge. Again, my goal is to be happy, not to be optimally organized. Constantly harping on Mr. Snarky to do something that obviously is not natural to him does not advance me towards my goal, particularly since the printed calendar is an easy workaround that he will use.

There are lots of other little enhancements I've made based on stopping and trying to figure out what chaos is actually causing me stress at the moment that I tip over to the "too much chaos!!!!" feeling. For instance, we added a small whiteboard to our fridge where we write things we need to buy, divided up by the stores we visit regularly. This one was based on a suggestion in a comment from a reader on a post I wrote right after one of my "too much chaos!!!" meltdowns. (Here's a follow up to that post, about stress-busting and mental unloading.)

Fridge, with calendar, shopping lists, and menu plan.
Plus a lot of magnets.
More recently, it was my email that was making me feel overwhelmed. Turning on all of the built in categories and adding a few labels of my own ("attention needed," "save for later," and "biz receipt") ratcheted down my email stress significantly. I no longer worry if I'm going to forget to respond to an email, because I can now just flip over to the "attention needed" list and see what emails still need me to do something (usually respond). And when I do my monthly accounting update, I can more easily find any receipts I forgot to download and save.

I love getting new ideas for how to organize things- even if I don't implement an idea right away, I might come back to it at my next "too much chaos!!!" moment. Give me your organization tricks and the seemingly small optimizations that have made a big difference in the comments!


  1. Oh! You actually sound a lot like me. I feel better now, because I always think of myself as a pinnacle of disorganization because I don't mind clutter (DH is a clutter-phobe); however, I am quite efficient at a lot of things, especially when they matter. So your post made me feel better!

    We also have a monthly calendar (dry-erase board) in the kitchen, kids and we put non-recurrent things on there and it works well. I use calendar on my iPhone for non-recurrent things.

    I have several email accounts. Of them, I use 4 a lot, one for work, two for blogging, and one for online shopping, bills, and of late the insane traffic that comes with my kid's swimming. The swimming is an unbelievable drain of money and time and energy on the whole family, but so far Eldest is enjoying it.

    I also have email folders for the most important categories; it's interesting how some categories survived and some didn't. For instance, I have Papers to Review/Pending and Papers to Review/Complete. It turns out everyting like paper review, proposal review, even recommendation requests, just get put in Pending, because that's where I look, I guess that's my version of technical "need tending to." I have tried a number of other labels, e.g. for one folder for recommendations one for proposals, but they didn't stick. There's a small number of folders that aren't even optimally named but where all the action is. For instance, I have "Travel and Official" where receipts and similar go. I have "Hardware and software" for all the licenses for all of my group's hardware and software, the students MAC addresses etc. "Tenure and Workload" (I've been tenured for years, but the name persists) where I put materials regarding course load assignments. I have folders for current and completed papers from group. Etc. You get the picture.

    When I have a lot of travel, I print a page with the whole yearly calendar and highlight my many trips; it gets hung by the dry-erase calendar.

  2. My big organisational move was to switch around our kitchen arrangement so all our plates and bowls are right next to the dishwasher, espresso cups and ground coffee are in a drawer under the coffee machine BUT the tea mugs, instant coffee & tea kettle are all on the other side of the kitchen. This way my husband & I aren't in conflict in the morning. He can get to his coffee machine & I can get to the kettle without getting in each other's way.

    I also use a weekly planner on the fridge to track what everyone has on for the week and the meal plan.

    I also love our dinner service- they deliver ingredients for 4 meals for 4 people each week. I can usually parlay that into almost a week of meals for 2 adults & 1 child. I love not thinking about what to cook or shop for.

  3. Possibly the reason this is all over Twitter is that there's this book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, that's on the best seller list and that a number of people have become obsessed with. The author basically claims that unless you're going to purge and organize absolutely everything, you're doomed to failure. I reviewed the book on my blog today; I find it utterly insane. But that may be where a lot of the organization tweets are coming from!

  4. Anonymous6:37 AM

    Using a password manager (KeePass) has been semi-revolutionary for me this year.

    I also began using KanbanFlow, at your recommendation, and found it extremely helpful for limiting work-in-progress and time tracking with the pomodoro timer.

    Re your shopping lists on the fridge: both my Mum and I have some similar strategies. My Mum has a printed categorized list of everything she normally buys that lives on the fridge, when she runs out of something she highlights it, thereby producing her next shopping list. I essentially do the same thing, but in Workflowy. She has all kinds of issues getting my Dad to use her system... so I'm going to send her this post to help her deal with this!

    1. I use LastPass for passwords and I agree, it's really been great instead of resetting every password for rarely used sites every time I need to use them.

  5. One thing I've started in the last few months is keeping several short To-Do lists on my iPhone (which is always with me). I have one for home, one for school, etc. I put EVERY LITTLE THING on these lists - even things like "card for grandma" or "read this webpage" -- things I think I'll remember but won't because there's always too much to remember. If I need to go to the store, I'll start a new list, instead of assuming I'll remember the 5 things I need.

    We have a grocery list that we keep on the counter in the kitchen, so we add things throughout the week as we run out.

    Evan's teacher gives out a paper calendar each month with important school-related dates, so we put that on our fridge and use it for school/daycare things.

    DH and I both use Google/iCal extensively in our work/school-lives, so we made one for our family so we can both put things in it that we both need to be aware of. That has helped a LOT, especially with miscommunication of things (I thought YOU were going to take them to the doctor!)

    I've always been all about the to-do lists, but I'm just making them more efficient now.

  6. Anonymous7:27 AM

    We're with you. Areas of my life that need to be organized in order to save time mostly are (I do need to work on putting my shoes in a findable place if not the same place every time I take them off, but I think some of that is that they literally do walk off without any input from me occasionally. Two year olds work for the chaos monster.) Otherwise cleaning and organizing are pretty low priority. When I can't find something, I clean up. Calendars and to-do lists are really helpful.

  7. I rely on Google Calendar - I'll just input stuff into my husband's calendar if necessary instead of bugging him to do it. I've got similar access to my boss's calendar - they just have to set it up so that you have administrative access to it. I've got it set up to email me 24 hours in advance about everything in my calendar, so when I want my schedule for the day, it is in my inbox along with everything else.

    I've also set up a bunch of labels in Gmail. I tried having things get automatically sorted when they came in, but that didn't play well with email on my phone, so they all just show up in my inbox, but I can just hit archive and they'll wind up in the right place.

    Instead of a dry-erase board, we have a pad of paper on a magnet. Grocery list starts at the bottom of the page so if you're going to the store you just tear off the part of the page and take it with you. I could see using a dry-erase board and just taking a photo of it along as the shopping list.

    Love the idea of rearranging the kitchen to avoid clashes in the morning. At the moment making coffee requires me moving back and forth across the kitchen multiple times. I might have to try and optimize that.

  8. Alexicographer10:31 AM

    We're pretty electronic for the things you describe -- Google calendar, Ourgroceries App, and I have put Trello on my (new!) smartphone. My personal Trello account (I have different work accounts that live in a different place with a different login) basically consists of one list, which is "to do" (there is also an "in progress" and a "done" but they are mostly irrelevant). If I'm (e.g.) walking out to get the mail and suddenly remember something I need to do, I add it to the list. I check the list regularly, and if something sits on it for more than about 2 days, it either gets deleted or moved somewhere else (e.g. work list).

    Physical stuff, I try to put the stuff I need and (would otherwise) lose all the time in a consistent spot, e.g., hook for my keys. I've also tried really to minimize stuff -- for example, our house locks with a combination rather than needing a house key.

    I need to work on my car; I haul a lot of stuff around in it e.g. assorted exercise clothes, food for work, stuff to drop off at Goodwill, and there's no reliably good place to put it. If DH is in the car, it can't be in the front seat. If the dogs are in the car, it can't be in the hatchback. And some can sit in the backseat with DS, but not if I don't want him to see (or perhaps fiddle with) it, and I'm somewhat sensitive to not wanting too much stuff back there sliding around and whacking into him.

    Horizontal spaces are a problem in our house, as they (all) end up covered in -- stuff. As you describe, with this subset I try to focus on those that are most annoying/problematic.

    No one, but no one, myself included, would mistake me for a neatnik, a reality (non-neatnik-ness) that I embrace.

  9. It's kind of a meta change, but one of the things that drives me crazy when there's chaos around me is distrust of myself: the feeling that no matter what I try to do to change, it isn't going to last. So one thing that's been helping me recently is this blog post on Zen Habits: http://zenhabits.net/action/

    And WorkFlowy and HabitRPG. I put the questions from the blog post on one list in WorkFlowy. I made another list for possible changes to run through those questions later, and then I made a list for things I had run through the list and committed to for at least a month, tagged with the day I would look at them and reevaluate. Meanwhile I use HabitRPG to help keep me accountable to those commitments. It's working well for me so far. To be even more meta, I even ran the process of using these questions through the questions. :)

    Probably one of the reasons it's helping is that I normally have a huge idealistic streak to go with that distrust of myself, causing me to take on way more than is realistic (which in turn feeds the distrust, of course). This calms me down on both fronts, idealism and cynicism.

  10. Someone posted a link on Facebook to a Cal Newport article (I think) about how to-dos should actually be IN your calendar rather than on a separate list. I've had a couple of administrative things slip through the cracks lately (renewing car registration, etc) and found the paper inbox is really not working for me, and once I put things on my calendar for a specific date it just gets done. Having a large running list of these low urgency but needs to be done tasks isn't really helping. I do love my 3 daily Most Important Tasks list, too.

  11. We've done a printed grocery list on our fridge for years and years. Here's the interesting bit - we first went from a blank list where we add what we need. Then I thought I was being clever by doing a list of things we normally get and ... our grocery bill went up A LOT because we'd just get all those things even if we didn't need them for a week or two. Now we're back to the blank one with only one or two things on there all the time. The bottom section has other stores so one of us can cut off a section if we want to go toiletries shopping, etc.


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