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
It can be easy to think of decluttering and organizing as tasks for our to-do list, but ultimately our desire to get organized is much bigger than a list of chores. Being an organized person isn’t about thinking, “Ah, Saturday morning, time to try to organize the garage. Again.” Instead, being organized is about the little day-to-day things that don’t seem like they’d matter. Until they aren’t done.
This month’s A Year of Decluttering articles are focused on organizing tips from the classroom. Although I was never a classroom teacher, for years I went into preschools, daycares, kindergartens, and elementary school classrooms to do presentations about nature.
While I’d love to see classrooms with less visual clutter (do kids really need so many signs directing them how to write an essay or what questions to ask while reading when they are supposed to be focused on math?), teachers do instill systems in their classrooms to keep things organized.
(Unfortunately, these habits and routines probably don’t carry into the home unless you copy some of the cues that the teachers use. Which you could.)
Organizing Tips from the Classroom You Can Use at Home
Yes, if you have kids, these techniques work. However, even if you are single and retired, these tips will still help you stay organized.
Have a place to hang up your coat and to store your purse, tote bag, backpack, etc. Big family? Consider cubbies like schools have.
When you enter the house, immediately hang up your coat. Then remove any papers or objects from your purse, briefcase, tote bag, shopping bags, etc. and bring them to where they belong in the house.
Have a box, bin, basket, or even a small table (or whatever works for you) to store items that you need to take with you the next day when you leave your house. When you realize that you need to take an item with you (library books, dry cleaning, gym bag), set it in this space. Right away. Teachers set up mailboxes for their students and the kids learn to look in this space when packing up at the end of the day.
Keep similar items together. This tip works whether we’re talking about office supplies, hobby supplies, linens, cookware, etc.
Bins are your friend. They help keep similar items together so you can find what you want when you want it.
Keep your energy high by alternating periods of focus with periods of activity. Teachers keep things moving – reading followed by writing followed by math. Also, teacher have the kids move around the room – maybe they sit on the floor to read, sit in groups at tables to work on their writing and then move to their individual desks to work on their math.
The schedule for the day is posted on the board so kids can look and see what to expect next. As an adult, do you feel that you have to power through a task, tethered to the location, until you’re done as opposed to giving yourself a break?
Practices like the Pomodoro Technique and 52/17 (discussed in future articles this month) encourage you to schedule regular breaks so you stay mentally and physically energized.
I’ll be expanding on some of the tips listed above in this month’s articles. The way I see it, if one adult can wrangle 20+ kids and all their stuff into some semblance of order, then I want to pay attention to the techniques that they use.
Are you a teacher? What techniques do you use in the classroom that could also be used by both kids and adults at home? What does your kids’ or grandkids’ teachers do to help keep the kids organized in the classroom that you’ve thought would be great to try at home? Include your tips in the comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
May - Get Ready for Summer
The lazy days of summer? I find my days a little fuller in the summer because my garden (which I can ignore for months during New England winters) needs cleaning, weeding, planting, and watering. I even devote more time to feeding the birds in the spring and summer than in the winter.
My focus, for a few months, turns to the outdoors – the porch and patio needs sweeping and dusting, so they are ready for guests invited to a dinner from the grill.
Go with the Flow
At any time of the year you may find your days busier. Holidays. Visitors. Guests. Minor illnesses. Seasonal changes. Work schedule. Family obligations. Home repairs. And on.
I’m not talking about long-term changes – a new child, marriage or divorce, a move, a serious illness – but changes that will occupy a few days or weeks. In some cases, these temporary disruptions to your days can feel more annoying because you feel like you should be able to squeeze in everything that you’re used to doing plus the additional commitments.
You don’t have to.
Take a deep breath and accept that you can’t do everything right now. Creating balance in your life isn’t about squeezing everything into every day.
Instead, it’s about acknowledging that at different times different things and activities will be more important than at other times. You do this all the time, maybe without thinking about it. You know a project at work will take up most of your attention for the next three months and so other projects get put on hold or get less attention. Decluttering and renovating your basement into a family room means that you say “no” to some casual get-togethers because you want to project done.
Create Balance by Tweaking Your Schedule
Tweaking your schedule involves making small changes to your days. Maybe for a week you’ll host out-of-town guests. Maybe you come down with the flu and you need to set aside your regular workouts. During the holidays, you rearrange some furniture or décor so you can accommodate holiday displays.
You lean your attention in one direction for a while and then later tilt in another direction to focus on something else.
All this comes down to reducing your need for perfectionism and accepting good enough. Neat enough. Clean enough. Busy enough. Decide what is most important to focus on right now and realize that in another week, you can tweak your focus to what will be most important to you then.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
Your efforts decluttering paperwork and setting up a filing system won’t be successful without routines to maintain order. While a routine may sound boring or demanding, once established it creates an almost effortless way to keep paper under control.
You’ve likely spent a few (or several) hours decluttering paper and getting to the point where you aren’t looking at piles of paper throughout your home. You don’t want to mess up your efforts by not setting up a routine for sorting and filing new papers.
Establish a Schedule
When you establish a time and a day to review your inbox, file papers, or handle any other paper-related tasks, it can become easier to do – once you’ve made the decision to keep your papers under control.
The key here is to eliminate options. “As an organized person, I sort through incoming papers and handle any related tasks, weekday evenings at 8 p.m.” When you decide what you’re willing to do (daily, Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday, or weekly; morning or at night), you eliminate wasting energy as you debate, “Should I do this today or could I do this tomorrow?”
You may think that you don’t need a schedule and that you’ll fit in the tasks when you see they need to be done. Chances are, this is how the paper at home got out of hand.
If you want to sneak in a non-routine routine, tie-in sorting, filing, and decluttering papers with other tasks or events. For example, clear through your file box or cabinet on Groundhog Day or sort through the mail while cooking dinner.
If you think you’ll forget, set an alarm or a calendar reminder on your smartphone.
Sort Incoming Papers
How often will you go through your inbox? There’s no perfect answer here, it depends on your life (is it just you or you and your family?), how much paper comes into your home, and how quickly you need to respond to requests (for payment or a particular action).
You can’t go wrong with sorting your inbox daily. It could take you five minutes or fifteen, depending on the day. If you think “do this daily” and you occasionally miss a day, things still won’t get out of control, just sort through the papers the next day.
Act on Incoming Papers
When sorting your inbox, you want to do something with each paper. Avoid the temptation of using your inbox for storage! Although I use the word “file,” you can interpret this as putting something in a file folder or setting it in a bin or box until you are ready to act on it.
As you develop the habit of sorting through all incoming paper each day (or week), you’ll decide what to do with these papers. You can plan what you’ll do with the papers in advance or as you handle different papers.
Once you make a decision, you’ll know what to do in the future (for example, “put all store receipts in this shoebox until I can check them against my credit card statement”).
Declutter Your Files
When you file a bill, can you toss the filed copy of the previous bill? When you get a copy of your new car insurance plan, as you file it, you can remove the expired copy from the previous year.
You can use gathering your paperwork for your taxes as a prompt to sort through all the files in your box or cabinet. Or, you can set a random day to do this such as New Year’s Day or Groundhog’s Day.
When you get rid of a product, like the toaster oven that no longer works, clear out any paperwork you had for that item. Or, sort through this file as part of your yearly decluttering.
To keep your paper clutter under control, you need a plan for handling incoming papers (mail, receipts, greeting cards, etc.) as well as plan for clearing through your files on a yearly basis.
Although this may sound like a lot of work, keeping things in control means that you’ll never struggle to try and fit a document into an overstuffed file or file drawer. And, because you’ll be filing things on a regular basis, you’ll stay familiar with your files and have an easier time finding a document when you go looking for it.
And, best of all, the stress you’ve felt being surrounded by disorganized paper clutter will be a thing of the past.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
A command center is like a gatekeeping secretary that sorts things before they get into a manager’s office. Depending on your or your family’s needs, a command center could be as simple as an inbox (with a print calendar and dry erase board or corkboard) … or each member of your family could have a color-coded mail slot in addition to the basics.
Keep your system simple. You can always adapt it later to changing needs. If you have a system that works for you – the family posts scheduled events and appointments on a shared Google calendar, it isn’t necessary to change your current situation.
Create an Inbox
You want a basket or tray where you can place all paper coming into your house – mail, notes from your child or grandchild’s school, receipts – really, any paper that you, or any member of your family, are carrying into your home.
If you have kids, train them to put anything that you need to deal with into this box. This means – notes from the teacher, permission slips, graded papers, anything that you need to see.
You’ll also want to train, er, request that your spouse or partner put incoming papers that you need to deal with into this location.
Your home inbox isn’t intended for storage, it’s meant to be a central location for papers that need to be acknowledged and may require an additional task (respond to an invitation, pay a bill, read a magazine, sign paperwork and return, confirm that a receipt has been recorded by your bank, file a paper for potential future reference).
Where to Place Your Inbox
Likely, this inbox will not sit on your desk. Instead, it should be someplace convenient to where you enter your home most of the time. It doesn’t have to be right next to the door. Where do you normally drop the mail or your keys or purse after entering your house? That’s likely a good spot for your inbox.
The benefit to not keeping your inbox on your desk – your desk will stop being treated like a dumping ground.
Create an Inbox Routine
You’ll want to figure out how often you need to go through your inbox – once a day, once a week, every other week? The more frequent the habit, the easier it may be to keep because, well, it becomes a habit and you don’t have to think about whether it needs to be done today or tomorrow.
Your inbox routine involves acting on everything that has been gathered here. You pay a bill or put it in a folder so it can be paid on time. You toss anything you don’t have to hold onto – let’s say you’ve recorded an event into your calendar, you could then recycle the print flyer. The current issue of a magazine gets popped onto your coffee table as you remove the old issue.
You can bring the contents of the inbox to your desk and handle each task. Although handling your inbox daily may seem to involve more work, once you get into the routine, it will go quickly.
What Else to Include in Your Command Center
Keep it simple, whether you are organizing for you and your spouse or for you and your kids. You may find that you only need an inbox. You may want a dry erase board or chalkboard posted on the wall to include important reminders for the day. A corkboard could be the place to tack up flyers and invitations if you do best with a visual reminder (that you don’t get when you tuck something into a file box or enter it onto a digital calendar).
Other things you may want in your command center:
Maintain Your Command Center
Whether you toss incoming paper into a decorative box or basket, or you create a command center, your goal should be to make this the spot where paper entering the house gets put until you take the time to act on or file these documents.
This area acts as a gatekeeper that controls paper, so you don’t end up with some paper left on your kitchen counter, some dropped on your desk, and other paper carried into your bedroom. Even a simple inbox can help you reduce and funnel papers to the appropriate place in your home.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - February: Decluttering as Self-Care
Have you ever used the promise of a reward as an incentive to do something? Rewards can be tricky. If you tell yourself that your reward for cleaning out your closet is to go clothes shopping, then you’re defeating the purpose of cleaning your closet. But, after doing a big, involved task such as cleaning your closet, shouldn’t you get something for your efforts?
Sometimes, the reward for doing an activity is that now the activity is done. Consider that your reward for cleaning your closet is a cleaner closet where it’s easier to see the clothing options you have and where you’ll be able to spend less time trying to find or decide what to wear each day. The reward for cleaning your closet is that you now have a clean closet. The reward for cleaning your garage is that you can now park your car in the garage.
The Reward for the Action Is the Action
In her book on habits, Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin list three reasons for avoiding rewards (particularly if you are trying to reward yourself into developing a habit).
One, the need to reward yourself implies that you wouldn’t do the activity otherwise; so, you’re acting only for the sake of the reward. If the activity requires maintenance (you cleaned your desk but now you need to keep it clean), will you do that without a reward waiting for you?
Two, rewards require a decision. If you got a reward for cleaning off your desk, do you get one every time you clean off your desk? And how messy does your desk have to be to deserve a reward? You end up wasting time and energy making a decision that doesn’t need to be made.
And, three, while a reward might be a great incentive for a one-time goal with a finish line, that finish line marks a stopping point. However, if your activity doesn’t really have a stopping point (you should clean up your desk at the end of every day), then it doesn’t make sense to create an artificial finish line.
But You Can Give Yourself Treats ‘Just Because’
Rubin points out that while a reward must be “earned or justified,” a treat is a small indulgence “just because we want it.” No justification required. Giving yourself a treat is a form of self-care.
When you hear ‘treat’ and ‘self-care’ in the same sentence, you may think of things like getting a manicure or a massage or going to a movie, show, or museum exhibit. However, anything can be a treat if it gives us a boost of good feelings and energy.
A treat doesn’t have to be time consuming or pricey. (And, Rubin warns against treats connected to food, shopping, and screen time as they can leave us feeling worse in the long run.)
Treats can be scheduled or spontaneous – or, both.
Create a List of Treats
Remember, treats are intended “just because.” The goal of giving yourself (frequent) treats is to make you feel happier and more energetic. They aren’t intended as a bribe to force yourself into doing more. Giving yourself regular treats can keep you more positive about working through your day-to-day activities.
Life coach and author Martha Beck, in her book The Joy Diet, suggests creating a list of things that you consider treats so you don’t become used to giving yourself the same treat time and again (making it seem less special). To get you started, list
Keep your list of treats handy. Dole out your treats throughout the day instead of saving them for the end of the day. Acknowledge your treats. For example, “It will be so fun to turn the page of my planner and encounter one of those cute llama stickers I scattered through the pages.” “Listening to the sound of the rain pattering against the window is so relaxing.” “I’m glad I lit this blood orange candle; it smells wonderful.”
Treat yourself. Just because.
Books mentioned in this article:
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering: February - Self-Care
Your to do list can be a source of stress if you don't use it effectively. I don't think I'm alone in working through a series of simple tasks just so I can cross off a number of items on my list. And, yes, sometimes I'll do a task, add it to my to do list, and immediately cross it off.
Not very effective or productive and at the end of the day I wondered what I'd accomplished. It's also stressful to realize that priorities kept getting pushed to the side. Frustrated that nothing seemed to be getting done, I mishmashed together a bunch of different techniques to make my list more doable.
Create a Master to Do List
List all the stuff you want to do on a master list. You can use pen and paper, type the list into a word processing document, or list one item on each sheet of those 1 ½” x 2” Post-It Notes. You’ll be breaking some of these list items into smaller tasks, so if you use pen and paper, you may end up rewriting an item to give yourself the space to break it into steps.
(If you are attracted to color and visual details, you may want to color code your list by highlighting the task. If you best process information you hear, talk out loud as you make your list. And, if you like handling things and moving around, consider using Post-It Notes.)
Task: Make a list of the things you want to accomplish this year, quarter, or month. Start with the upcoming 4-to-6-weeks so you can work through this process without getting bogged down.
Is It a Project or a Task?
Next, you’ll be looking at your list and considering what steps you have to take before you can check that item off your list.
Do you have something written on your to do list that you’ve been thinking of doing for a while but when you look at the item on your list you think, “I don’t have time for that?” I forever found myself writing things on my to-do list that could take 20 or 30 hours to complete – and yet it’s a mere three words on my list!
Really, that list item is a project – if I look at it more closely, I’d realize that I can break it down into smaller steps, or tasks. I may be a little loose with my definition of a project, particularly when talking about something on your personal to do list.
If I see, “read & take notes on Book,” on my to-do list, I’ll probably put off doing it. Or, I’ll start but after an hour set it to the side. The next time I look at my to do list, I’ll brush past that item because I know that it will take a while to work through. However, if I was a bit more specific and wrote, “read & take notes on chapter 1 of Book,” (listing each chapter as a separate task), I’d have a better chance of completing this project.
Some tasks may take a mere five or ten minutes (say, make a phone call or send an email), but it’s doing that task that opens you to the next step toward the project (meeting with someone over coffee to talk about a job).
If something is going to take you more than an hour, consider how you could break it down into briefer tasks.
Task #1: List the steps you need to take so to get an item off your to do list. These steps are tasks. You’re adding bullet points to your master list or adding more Post-It Notes and creating little stacks of tasks.
Task #2: Next to each step, jot down the amount of time it will take to complete a task.
Note: Things that you do regularly aren’t the types of task items I’m talking about. Although taking a morning walk may help you burn calories and reach your goal of losing weight, this is part of a routine of actions. You don’t take one walk and check it off your master list. Routines can take up a lot of time and you never really complete a routine (you might for the day but then it’s at the top of your list the next day.)
Is It a Low- or High-Energy Task?
When I teach a group, work one-on-one, or even get together with a friend, it can take a lot of energy and I feel drained afterwards. For far too many years, I’d get home after teaching or having an in-depth conversation and try to jump into a task that required thinking and decision-making.
I’d push, feel frustrated that I wasn’t accomplishing what I thought I should be, and keep pushing. What I finally appreciated was that my interaction required high-energy and I needed to follow it with a low-energy activity.
If I’d been coaching someone through the decluttering process, I’d be better off following the interaction with reading a chapter in a book and typing up my notes than trying to write an article. For you, the idea of sitting quietly, reading and taking notes may require a lot of energy so you can focus on the task.
This step requires some self-knowledge into what types of things make you feel energized and which things drain you. Depending on the situation, after 3-or-4-hours, I need a quiet break. If I push myself beyond that, I can end up cranky. This self-knowledge may make you realize that you’d rather read that work-related document in a bustling coffee shop than in a quiet room at home.
Task #3: Go through the list of tasks you wrote and label each task as a high-or-low-energy task (for you). (You could also add a medium-energy or neutral category.) You don’t have to rewrite your list, just add an “L” or “H” next to the item or in the corner of the Post-It Note.
When Do You Need This Done?
If you are a logical sort of person, you may it useful to prioritize your list into A, B, and C-level priorities. You’d then further break down each list, so you’d know which task for which project to do next. However, not every project (or task) comes with a built-in deadline.
Although this freedom from a deadline seems like it should be a good thing, you may realize that these are the tasks that don’t get worked on because they can always be done later. Give yourself a time limit and a reason why you want the task done by that hour or date.
Task #4: Note a deadline for your projects. Use that date to figure out when each task needs to get done.
What Should I Do Today?
At night or first thing in the morning, look through your list and select the one task, that when done, will give you a sense of accomplishment. Unless you have a health issue that affects your energy level, this will likely be a task requiring high energy.
Next, select a second high-energy task and one low-energy task or two low-energy tasks. Your goal for the day is to definitely do the top task and then work your way to a second or third task if you have the time. If you can do more tasks, fantastic! Remember, this list doesn't include the day-to-day things that you need to do (laundry, errands, cooking).
The goal here isn't just to do more but to accomplish more. You'll likely experience less stress while being kinder to yourself as you notice that you're doing the things that are important to you.
Make a Better to Do List
If you’re busy all day, crossing things off your to do list, but feel as if you’re accomplishing nothing, then follow this plan to create a list of doable, specific tasks with attached deadlines. And, don’t forget to label tasks as high- or low-energy so you do the best tasks at the best time of day for you.
How Self-Discovery Can Help You Become More Productive
What's Your Why for Clearing the Clutter
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - January: Everyday Actions
Decluttering isn’t easy work, so it’s always frustrating to “suddenly” realize that the clutter has returned. Tricks like doing a 10-minute tidy-up at the end of every day, tackling tasks that take a minute or two when they appear, decluttering for 15-minutes a day, and weekly Power Hours are all habits that, once developed, allow you to invest minimal attention and energy to maintaining those actions.
Systems also minimize the energy and thought involved in getting things done. If you’ve ever tried to follow an organizing or productivity system described in a book or suggested by a coworker and failed don’t think that you’re not a systems-sort-of-person. Instead, make a system that works for you.
What Is a System?
I’m playing loosely with the definition of a system, simplifying the concept because I think we hear the word ‘system’ and think complicated calendars, filing systems, and closet or kitchen organizing tools. So, here goes:
Systems are arbitrary rules that you establish and then follow so to maintain organization or to stay productive.
Some systems that others say they follow:
Habits, Routines, and Systems
While a routine is made up of a series of actions that use cues from your environment to begin the routine (wake up > go to bathroom > make coffee > check email > eat breakfast > put dishes in sink > take shower), systems manage daily, weekly, even yearly tasks.
After reading the above examples, you may realize that you have random rules like these that you’ve established, maybe without much thought.
So, why create systems (or, if you prefer, random rules) for yourself and your home? Like habits that you find useful to your goals, having systems in place save you from having to think about or plan things every time you do a task. Yes, you decide what your system will be, but once it’s in place, you don’t have to think about it.
For example, if you decide that you’ll start folding your clothing – right down to your socks – and you find that the time it takes to fold your clothing is recouped when it comes to finding what you want to wear each day … and it takes less space to store you clothing … then you’ve identified reasons and benefits to folding your clothing. You become a person who folds their clothing.
What Is the Best Organizing System for You?
A system works for you, you don’t work for it.
If a system doesn’t work for you, change the system instead of trying to change yourself to fit the system. A simple way to determine if your system is a good one? You do it without complaint (out loud or in your head).
I think that’s the power of systems. You don’t have to stop and think, “should I go through the mail today or tomorrow?” You know that you do it Saturday mornings before you go to your yoga class. You become a person who does X-task at Y-time – I look at my calendar and plan my week on Sunday evenings after dinner.
You can further deepen your system (or, arbitrary rules), by adding an emotional component – how do you feel when you do that task?
Create a Personalized Organizing System
An organizing system doesn’t help you get organized; it helps you stay organized. If you just spent ten hours sorting through papers in your home office, ask yourself, “Why did it get that way?” If you’re thinking that you never had the time to file paperwork, select a time to do that task on a regular basis.
You may bristle at that suggesting, thinking that if you had the time then things wouldn’t have gotten out of control. However, you aren’t looking for random bits or blocks of time that will open in your schedule here and there. You are saying that this task is important enough to you that you’ll do it every Wednesday immediately after dinner.
Remember, you can’t make time, you can only plan it.
How to Use a Weekly Power Hour
The Simple Side of Productivity
Share a system that works for you in the comments below. (Did you realize it was a system?)
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.