by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you work at your computer, chances are that you welcome in small distractions throughout the day. You decide that you can’t proceed with a task until you look up a few facts online. You feel the need to check a news feed … or the weather … or to see if your cousin posted pictures of the vacation you just remembered she came back from three days ago.
The Pomodoro Technique and the 52-17 Rule both include sprints of focused work followed by brief breaks. Time blocking can also help you stay focused by limiting the time you work on a project before switching to another activity.
The Pomodoro Technique
This technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s and gets its name from the tomato-shaped timer he used to improve his productivity. As a productivity technique, it doesn’t get simpler than this:
The 52-17 Rule
This productivity tool from Japan has you work in a focused way for 52 minutes and then take a 17 minute “break” where you do something of a more physical nature – take a walk, clean the house, drink some tea or coffee. You could even meditate or read a non-work-related book – but no scrolling through Facebook or any other social media, and no answering emails. The goal is a 17-minute break from work.
Repeat throughout the day. I know, the 69-minute blocks seem a bit odd, but the fact that it doesn’t align with an hourly clock is probably a good thing. Have you ever gone to start a project, glanced at the clock and thought, “well, starting at 9:52 is strange, I’ll just round up and start at 10,” for no good reason? Ah, anything to justify a bit of procrastination.
You can repeat 52-minutes of focused work followed by a 17-minute break as often as you wish throughout the day.
Does Timing Yourself Really Help You Get Things Done?
I like the theory of timing yourself to keep you focused. If I know that I have to finish something by a particular time because I then have something else on my schedule, then I’ll push to get the task done. (I do this during my weekly cleaning routine because otherwise I’ll dawdle.)
However, the 25-minute segments associated with the Pomodoro Technique seem to end just as I get involved in a task. And, for whatever reason, I can’t get myself to set a timer for 52-minutes although I know it would be a good thing to insert more breaks into my day. How about you?
Do you adhere to a pattern of focused work followed by a brief break during part of your day? Do you set a timer or work to finish a task and then give yourself a break? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
By Susan Caplan McCarthy
When I was working as a nature teacher, my schedule fell into blocks of time – teach for two hours, do paperwork for three hours, plan classes for a couple of hours. Although everyday was a bit different, my schedule still fell into chunks of time. Even nowadays, my activities fall into blocks.
Maybe you don’t want (or need) to schedule your day in the 15-or-30-minute increments of your planner, but you still want some structure to your day. If you feel as if you’re frequently distracted by email, phone calls, texts, errands, and chores that demand to get done, while you try to fit in time to exercise and spend time with family and friends, time blocking can keep you focused on what you’re doing in the moment.
Of course, this is also a prime productivity technique for getting things done at work, particularly if you have some control over when you do certain activities during the workday.
So, What Is Time Blocking?
Time blocking is a bit like the schedule set in a preschool – during the first 90-minutes of the day the kids start with check-in, play, clean-up, go to morning circle, eat snack, and have a bathroom break. The next 90-minutes might be focused on stories, crafts, outdoor play, and a lesson on the season. None of the tasks must occur within a specific time frame (color from 10:15-to-10:35), but everything that is supposed to get done within a time block does.
It’s a flowy-er sort of schedule. The part I like is that you can chunk similar, small tasks into blocks so they don’t distract you from focused, productive work.
How Time Blocking Keeps You Focused
You may realize that your morning routine takes 90-minutes; the next 3-hour block occurs at a part-time job; followed by another 2-hours of errands, phone calls, chores, appointments, and other miscellaneous tasks. If you use time-blocking at work, you may have a block for answering emails, another to return phone calls and for face-to-face meetings, and another for focused work.
Within each block, you aim to complete a series of tasks or a chunk of focused work. The benefit of time blocking is that you know that you’ll answer emails from 10-11a and 3-4p and so you don’t waste time distracting yourself all day every time a new email pops up in your inbox.
The Disadvantage of Time Blocking
Of course, if I know that I have from 9-11a to finish a task, guess how long it takes me to finish. Yep, two hours. Also, at the end of a block, I need to make a clear switch to the next activity or 11a becomes 11:30a or even noon.
For example, if I’m planning a presentation from 9-11a, segueing into reading and responding to email at 11:15a (after a break), is a fuzzy line for me – I’m going from working on my computer to … working on my computer. So, if I didn’t finish planning the presentation (and even if I knew it would take me a couple of days), I find myself dragging out this task instead of moving into the next block of activities.
I’ve resolved this issue by planning the activities for the next block to occur in another location (even another room can help).
How to Make Time Blocking Work for You
If you aren’t certain how long different tasks take you, you may need to spend a few days, or even a week (depending on how varied your days are), jotting down how much time you devote to different activities.
Then, set up your blocks. Some can consist of a variety of smaller activities while others can be devoted to lengthier, more focused tasks. In the beginning, be prepared to tweak the length of time in each block – or, how much you plan to do.
If you find yourself dawdling because you have more time than activities, then trim the time for that block and give it to another block. On the other hand, if you consistently can’t finish what you intended to accomplish in a block, consider if you need to add to the length of the time block or if you are allowing in distractions.
You may already use time blocking at different times of day or during the week. For example, on Sunday afternoons you attend a yoga class, run a few errands, stop at the grocery store, and then return home to put everything away.
Some blocks may occur consistently at the same time every day – say, your morning or evening routine, and the chunk of time you spend at work. Other blocks may be more flexible – one day you work in the morning and the next you work in the afternoon.
Fit Time Blocks onto Your Schedule
I started playing with time blocks by grabbing a pad of 1-1/2” x 2” Post-It Notes. They’re small enough that I could list up to five activities on each note – thereby creating an instant block. The time allotted to each block doesn’t have to be the same, but it can be if that works for you.
I think of each Post-It Note as a mini to-do list. However, you still want to feel as if you accomplished something when you reach the end of the day, so make certain that one-to-three of your time blocks feature your current priorities.
How do you get done the things that you want to do? Please leave a comment below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Do you spend your day doing one thing after another, crossing items off your to-do list, only to find yourself crawling into bed and wondering what you actually got done?
I was laying in bed, night after night, with my brain spinning, wondering how I could be so busy and yet feel unproductive. It felt that no matter what I did, I should have done something else.
I was busily unproductive.
The Danger of the To-Do List
A big problem with to-do lists is that all those tasks jumble together. You look at the list (that probably has more than three tasks listed, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered to write it down) and decide to do those tasks that look like they’ll be the easiest to do.
Easiest to do probably doesn’t mean the most important to do.
Chances are that you added tasks to your list when you thought about them and then you didn’t review what had to be done, and in what order, before jumping in with the goal of crossing things off the list.
Also, your to-do list probably doesn’t include everything you have to and want to do, which means that you can’t really look at your list and decide what are the most productive things you should do.
Build a Better To-Do List
In his classic book on productivity, Getting Things Done, David Allen has you get a grasp of everything you need to do by – listing everything you need to do in an activity he calls a brain dump.
By “everything,” he means everything, from brief phone calls to larger multi-step projects. Don’t worry about the order you list things as you add it all to your list using pen and paper or typing it into a word document.
Sort Your To-Do List
You know how when organizing you want to sort similar items together, so you have a better sense of what you have? Well, you want to do that with the tasks on your to-do list as well.
At this point you want to group similar activities as you rewrite your list. You’ll be creating several lists labeled, for example, “errands,” “phone calls,” “appointments,” “home,” “kids,” “work,” “vacation,” etc.
Are there specific due dates associated with any of these tasks? List them.
When you think of something else that you need to get done, list it on the appropriate to-do list.
Review Your To-Do List
If you’ve ever made a to-do list and then set it to the side, you’re losing the second most important aspect of the to-do list (the first being, write it all down) – review your list.
Now, you may be used to reviewing your daily to-do list, but that’s usually filled with the tasks you want to do right away, ignoring the long-term and ‘maybe’ projects on your list. Once a day (or once a week, depending on how often you plan what you want to do), review those sorted-by-theme to-do lists.
You want to ask the Getting Things Done question – What’s my next action? – for each thing you have listed that isn’t itself the action. “Schedule a physical” is only a next action if you know your doctor’s phone number. If “schedule a physical” really means that you need to find a doctor, then your next action may be asking friends and family if they’d recommend their doctor.
It’s those next actions that get transferred onto your daily to-do list because it’s clear what you’re going to do.
Do the Important Stuff
If every day you accomplish nothing more than the tasks that get you through the day (and likely must be repeated the next day or next week), you’ll feel that dissatisfied sense of being busily unproductive.
You also want to identify one-to-three larger projects that involve multiple steps – declutter your house, write a memoir, plan a vacation, etc. When you work on a next-action related to a goal, you’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Yes, that project might require 30 or 100 hours to complete and working on it for a few minutes a day might not feel like a big deal, but all those next steps carry you to your destination.
It’s working toward the things that are important and meaningful to you that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment when you climb into bed each night.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Many people want to start the decluttering process somewhat ironically. While decluttering eliminates unnecessary items from the house, some individuals take their first step at the mall or home improvement store to purchase organizing tools – bins, shelves, cubby units, a plastic tower of drawers.
Why? Because advertisements show us happy people storing items in bins that they set on shelving units and then walk away, brushing imaginary dust from their hands. Organizing done!
When someone asks me what they need to start the decluttering process, I shock them with this list – trash bags and cardboard boxes. “But, but ….” Nope. That’s it.
Don’t Start Decluttering by Buying Organizing Stuff
For one, I’m betting that you’ve bought bins, drawers, and other organizing items in the past. And at this very moment, many of them may be full of things you no longer use. As you declutter, you’ll empty some of these items and you’ll be able to repurpose them in another room with other items.
You may even find yourself donating storage supplies that you’ve emptied and no longer need.
When you declutter, you’ll have less stuff to worry about organizing. Why spend money organizing something that doesn’t belong in your home?
You may feel that you’d use something if it was better organized. And, that may be the case. However, I’d still suggest that you sort through all the components, weed out the duplicates and the items that you know you won’t use and then – use the items.
Don’t buy an organizing gadget just yet. Use something you already own. If we’re talking art and craft supplies, chances are that you already have some sort of unit to organize the components of your hobby.
If it isn’t doing its job, declutter and rearrange what you have. Then, use your supplies. If you truly need a different organizing item, then note your specific issues with using your supplies. Can’t see what color markers or paints or paper you have? You’ll need this specific information to buy the right organizing tool.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
While some people prefer to store everything in a cabinet or drawer so to leave clear spaces, others realize that if something gets tucked away then they’ll forget about it entirely.
If you have piles of stuff around your house, you may give a nervous laugh and consider yourself a member of the second camp. However, piles and stacks may be home to items that need to be put away. You may know where these items belong … or you may need to figure out where you want to keep them.
That situation is completely different from keeping items visible so that you remember to use them or to complete a project. And, really, you don’t need to keep everything out in the open, likely just items associated with current projects.
(Would you really forget to brush your teeth if your toothbrush was in the medicine cabinet and not on the counter? Would you forget to wear a shirt if there wasn’t a stack sitting atop your dresser?)
Consider What You Want from Organizing Items
Organizing items can make a space look much neater – I’m a big fan of matching clothes hangers. If you like to tuck items out of view, a cabinet or opaque bin will suit your needs. If you’re afraid that out of sight will mean out of mind, clear bins and drawers will contain items while still allowing you to view the contents.
But, most important, any organizing items should make it easier for you to find and retrieve the item you want to use. This also means that the item should make it easy to put away your belongings in the correct place with little to no hassle.
Ease of use – not the storage item’s appearance – is the most important factor. If the latches on a bin are a teeny tiny hassle to unlatch and then clasp shut, you’ll be less likely to return items to that bin. You may bristle at that suggestion and think, “Well, that’s just being lazy.”
However, the day that you’re running around with seventeen things on your mind and you’re trying to tidy your home and put things away before your in-laws arrive for dinner will be the day that you set to the side the item that belongs in the latched bin third down from the top of the stack.
Use Storage Items to Solve Problems
Storage items should solve a specific problem. Maybe your 40-ish bottles of craft paints, sitting six-deep on a shelf, fall over every time you go to grab one color. You use the paints all the time and so it would then make sense to consider investing in a rack or case that would allow you to grab what you want without disturbing the other items.
The tricky part here is identifying a problem that doesn’t really exist. I owned dozens of scarves that I’d bought to accent dance costumes. When I stopped performing, I wanted to wear the scarves as part of my everyday outfits. I rolled the scarves into little packets and set them in a dresser drawer. I didn’t wear them. So, I bought an item that would hang in my closet – to keep the scarves in mind when I was getting dressed.
The thing is – I’m not the type of person who wears scarves every day. I marvel at all the fun ways they can be twisted and wrapped and how they can accent an outfit. However, I fidget when wearing a scarf and I can never keep them from twisting around my neck. I wasted time and money trying to organize items that I didn’t use or, when I was honest with myself, want.
But I figured if they were organized then I’d use them. Nope. My efforts would have only mattered if I’d been wearing them and wanted to figure out the best way to decide which once I could wear that day.
Organize for You, Not Your Stuff
When organizing, consider how you want to use an item. This will help you decide if the item needs organizing or decluttering. Then, focus on finding an organizing item that will help you find, use, and then return the items you are keeping neat.
Find organizing all the small components of your hobby a challenge? Consider my eBook on decluttering and organizing art and craft supplies – some of the trickiest items to keep tidy and accessible.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Wherever I worked, I was always the person who organized the shelves, cabinets, closets, and so on. While my coworkers would marvel over the neatened spaces, things didn’t stay organized for long. Although, to me, it was obvious to return items where they were found, I realized few people seemed to think this way. So, I tried labels. Then bigger labels to indicate where something belonged.
A frustration was that things seemed to be put away mindlessly. A handful of empty manila folders would be dumped on top of a stack of blank notebooks … instead of the existing stack of manila folders. Why couldn’t people just put similar items together?
I now realize that grouping items isn’t obvious to everyone. I even noticed while teaching art classes that some kids would color coordinate the marker or craft thread supply and then gape as one of their classmates would shove a blue marker into a cup filled with yellow markers.
However, grouping similar items together really does make organizing easier. You do need to point out to other members of your home or place of work how items are organized. Repeatedly.
Why Give Items a Home?
The rule to getting and staying organized is to give every item in your home a designated location. You know, “a place for everything and everything in its place,” a technique that you probably use to some degree even if you are (or know) someone who has stuff strewn everywhere but can tell you exactly where an item is.
Someone “helpfully” organizing such a situation will send the owner of the items into a conniption fit because they no longer know where their items are since you’ve moved them in a way that makes more sense to you but not to them.
My mother could direct me exactly to where an item was in the house (with detailed directions that took her so long to convey that sometimes I’d lose track of what she was sending me after). And she lived in a hoarding situation.
While I’m not condoning the “stuff strewn everywhere method of organizing,” knowing where to find something saves you time and stress.
But, the idea of finding a place for everything in your home probably sounds intimidating. So, instead, think of groups of items as opposed to individual items.
Compare the Items You Own
When you decluttered, you may have gathered similar items so you could see what you owned and then compare the items (do you need 47 pairs of black yoga pants?).
You grouped items – mugs with mugs, tee shirts with tee shirts, pens with pens, cookbooks with cookbooks.
Not only is this a helpful way to declutter your belongings, but it’s useful for organizing as well. When you store the items, store them together.
To Subgroup or Not to Subgroup Items
How specific your groupings get really depends on how you use the items and how you’ll want to find/retrieve the items. For example, if you have certain tee shirts that you wear only to the gym chances are that you want to keep these shirts together – and someplace away from the tee shirts you’d wear while shopping or getting together with friends.
If you’re a crafter, you probably sort your paint, yarn, beads, markers, or cardstock by color. Whether that means warm/cool colors or pinks/reds/blues/yellows/etc. depends on how you use the items and the quantities you keep in your stash.
When organizing kids’ toys, you might separate cars from trains if your kids usually play with the groups of items at different times. Or, cars/trains/planes/boats might get stored together in a single bin if that’s the way your kids play with the items.
Should you sort your tee shirts by color? If that’s how you go looking for something to wear, then, yes, that would be useful; on the other hand, if you aren’t fussy, then organizing by color will be a waste of time. Which leads to -
Think about Using Items as Opposed to Storing Them
Instead of focusing on storing items where you think they should go, think about how you use the items. Although logic might suggest keeping baking pans together because they belong to a subcategory of pots and pans, mine live in three different locations in my kitchen.
Cookie sheets live in the drawer beneath my oven because I use them all the time (more for roasting vegetables than baking cookies nowadays); cake and loaf pans are used less frequently and sit on the top shelf of a cabinet; while the various muffin tins are propped in a divided rack in the large corner cabinet that has a ridiculously narrow door.
When I recently was put on a prescription drug that I’ll have to take for the rest of my life, I struggled to find a location where I could leave it and remember to take the pill. It got to the point where I kept it on the table where I ate, but I still forgot to take it, even though I was looking at the pill bottle!
I finally decided to keep it with the coffee, which I touch every morning. As a tactile/kinesthetic person who drinks coffee every morning, the fact that I had to move the bottles to reach the coffee prompted me to take the pills.
How Grouping Items Helps
Grouping items means that you don’t have to muddle through finding your black dress pants because you’ll know that you’ve grouped them with pants (or, perhaps, dress items).
Although you are finding a home for every item in your house, you are really finding a home for groups of items so you can find them when you need them. Grouping items can save you time and stress both when trying to decide how to store items as well as finding them when you need them.
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by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you’ve recently been in a preschool, kindergarten, or elementary school classroom, you probably noticed lots of well-labeled, uncovered bins. (And if you haven’t, Google images of classrooms and you’ll see what I mean.) However, it’s neither the labels nor the bins that are keeping things organized. Those are tools for giving items a place.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “a place for everything and everything in its place,” as the key to organizing your home (workplace, car, purse, really any space). The difficult part is figuring out where you want to store everything in your house. The answer is – where you’d go looking for an item when you need it. And please note that this isn’t intended to be as flippant as it sounds.
This is annoyingly simplistic, but this is what organizing is – storing items where you want to find them, finding and using them, and then returning them to their space. If you can’t find your checkbook or the tape measure, then they weren’t returned to their place.
And, if you aren’t sure where that place should be, then deciding that is the first thing you should do (well, second; the first thing you need to do is find the missing item).
The reason three-year-old children can clean up a classroom after playtime is that there are bins (spaces) designated for the different toys – one for cars, one for play food, another for puppets, one for blocks, and so on. Everything has its place.
(Do three-year-old children put everything away perfectly? No. But it doesn’t really matter that the play food eggplant got put away with the cars.)
Where to Store Items
I’ve read articles where the writer mocks this organizing technique by talking about cleaning out their junk drawer and rolling their eyes at the idea of having to find a place for a single cough drop, a couple of elastic bands, and a handful of pens.
This technique isn’t about storing a single pen but about knowing where to find a pen when you need it.
Think of each shelf, drawer, and bin in your home as a container for a specific group of items. Yes, you may have three shelves in that kitchen cabinet – look at them as three unique-yet-interrelated spaces. For example, if this is your cabinet for bowls and plates, place plates on the bottom shelf, bowls on the second shelf and serving pieces on the top shelf.
Where you keep items depends on the space you have available, how often you use something, and what works for you.
Store Items Based on the Space You Have
Growing up, I always heard my mother complain that if we had a bigger house then things would be more organized. I now realize that, no, that wouldn’t have happened. If my parents had more space, they would have filled that extra space – it just would have taken more time.
You can fill a drawer or shelf or cabinet to maximum capacity so there’s no wiggle room, but that isn’t organized. I’d consider such a space overwhelming and stress-inducing.
If you don’t have the space you wish you had, consider what you can declutter. Next, contemplate moving a group of items to a different area in your home where you may have more space. Finally, look to vertical storage – a pegboard that will allow you to hang items on a wall or a shoe rack that will move shoes from a large area of your floor to a smaller footprint (couldn’t resist the pun).
Store Items Based on How Often You Use Something
Keep items close to where you are going to use them. Something used daily get priority over something you use once month. And, if you use something once a year (or one month of the year), it can get stored someplace less convenient for retrieval.
Store Items Based on What Works for You
I have an odd-shaped cabinet in a corner of my kitchen that has a ridiculously narrow door considering the large size of the space – I stack muffin tins here because they fit in front of the door.
My cookie sheets and cooling racks are tucked into the drawer beneath the oven, and the couple of cake pans that I have are tucked on a high shelf above where the 8”x8” and 9”x13” baking pans sit. Organizing books will suggesting keeping like things together and so my baking supplies should probably be in the same cabinet, but that doesn’t work for the space I have or how I use the items.
In a different space, I’d likely store these items another way. And, if I stopped using my various sized muffin tins on a regular basis (mini, two standard, jumbo, and popover), these things might get arranged differently – or selectively decluttered.
If you give an item or group of items a home and it doesn’t work out (not putting the items away will be a clue), that’s an opportunity to decide where the better place may be. Yes, it might be annoying to realize that you need to switch some items around. It’s more annoying to lose track of items that you need now or end up spending money on something you already own (but can’t find).
Remember, You Still Need to Start by Decluttering
Trying to organize an area that you haven’t yet decluttered makes organizing frustrating.
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Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.