What Is Being Organized?

room

I like to define being organized as when our stuff supports the lifestyle we desire.

How we arrange our stuff has a significant impact on how we live our lives.

If my stuff is always strewn all over, I’m much less likely to invite people over. If I want to a have a lifestyle that includes hosting, I need to change how I deal with my stuff.

Organization is Personal

For some, good china and cute curtains might be necessary for a lifestyle of hosting, and maybe for others having a picked-up house isn’t even needed.

This definition helps point out that organization is something quite personal.

We can be inspired by how others organize, but we shouldn’t assume that more organization is necessarily better.

Before we decide to reorganize, we should first think deeply about what kind of life we want to live.

From there, it should be easier to see in which ways our things (and therefore habits) are not supporting the lifestyle we want to have.

I hope you found my organization and planning ideas helpful, but I also hope you recognize what is already working well enough for you and stick with it.

Organization Changes Over Time

This definition of organization also acknowledges that life has different phases and stages.

Our desired lifestyle when we have little children will be different from that when we are retired. Our homes and organizational systems will look different, too.

The idea of “ finally being organized” is an illusion. Our stuff will always support our desired lifestyle to a greater or lesser degree.

There will always be room for improvement and need for change as our lives and the people in our lives change.

So we shouldn’t feel guilty when we feel an area in our life could use some better organization.

The question we should ask ourselves is,

“Is it worth my time and energy to organize this? Or does it work well enough for my life right now that my time is better spent elsewhere?”

Determine to decide, and be released of guilt. (link)

How I Avoid Email Overwhelm

email

I started this short series on how I keep sane by saying,

“Only organize and plan the most important things in your life. Let the rest organize themselves.”

One area where this philosophy works very well is with email.

I used to struggle to stay on top of email. I’d check it hoping to get something exciting only to discover that my inbox was full of more things to add to the to-do list.

Not surprisingly, I was never in the mood to do work when I checked for pleasure so the emails piled up into the hundreds and then climbed to nearly 1,000.

After years of struggle and guilt and important emails rediscovered too late, I finally took on a year-long project to reduce my inbox to 100. It was hard, hard work.

I did it and was very proud, but I realized I could not keep up the pace. It simply wasn’t worth it.

“Inbox Zero” is a bit of a holy grail in the productivity world and though I’m a fan, it comes with some important qualifications.

As I mentioned last week, what’s in our inbox is mostly what others desire from us, not what’s most important for us to do.

“We have to take the time to think about our deepest values and remind ourselves of what’s most important while at the same time keeping all the other balls more or less in the air.”

For nearly a year now I’ve kept my email “ball” up in the air with minimal stress and by investing far less time than I ever had before.

I’ll share the system now in case it inspires you, but also because it’s a good summary of the planning principles and methods I’ve discussed in this series.

I once heard it said that checking email is like playing the slot machine. Most likely you’ll lose and just get bad news or more to-dos but every once in a while you get fantastic news, like a sweet thank-you note or a notice you’ve won something or your application was accepted.

Knowing that inbox-checking is a dangerous gambling addiction helped me determine to harness the impulse for my own good.

I’m not perfect, but the system works well enough that I can get back on the horse and I generally feel a peace around email rather than constant panic and guilt.

Overview

Email Structure for Work Flow

1. Inbox – keep at zero

2. ASAP – do today or tomorrow

3. Weekly – priority tasks, projects and people (process weekly)

4. Monthly – do if there’s time (process monthly)

I don’t have a grand system for archived emails mostly because the search function works just fine for me. This system is for active emails.

Email Work Flow Summary

Each time you check email:

1. Check inbox and process to zero

2. Check ASAP and do at least one

3. If time, check Weekly and do one

Once a week:

Deal with (do, delete, file) each email older than seven days.

Once a month:

Deal with each email from the month before last.

Details

1. Inbox Zero

Never let an email sit in your inbox. Either deal with it, delete it, or file it according to priority and “deal with” date.

It should only take two to five minutes to deal with each email or decide how important it is that you deal with it. So each email, even the hard ones, should take you no more than two minutes to file (we’ll talk about file structure later).

Most emails will take far less than two minutes to deal with, so this “first pass” is theoretically very easy to do.

In reality, deciding is often hard and it’s easy to move on to the next email, leaving the harder one to fester in your inbox and mind. Remember, you don’t have to DO anything yet, just force yourself to decide what, if anything, you need to do. In deciding the battle is half-won.

Once you’ve decided you might find that it’s not so hard after all to just deal with it and get it over with. Or you might find it’s simply not worth your time and you can delete it before it ever sits around making you feel guilty.

2. ASAP

What projects and people are most important to you? Which incoming ideas and request would have serious consequences if you did not do them?

As I explained in the planning series, I divide everything into top, middle, and lower priority. The ASAP folder holds everything in the top-priority category and I find it stays at around 5 emails. That’s a very doable number for each day!

If you keep your inbox to zero, each time you check there will only be a few to process or maybe it will be empty! In any case, a blank inbox almost compels me to check my ASAP folder feeling on top of things. There I see only the most important emails and can usually muster up the strength to deal with at least one.

This is harnessing the power of the impulse to check for mail. You’ll be amazed the progress you will make!

3. Weekly

Harness the power of perspective. What is unclear at the moment is often easy to decide in a few days. If an email is important or comes from someone important in my life but I know it can wait a few days I file it here.

For example, I might be more interested in a blog article about mothering a friend sent, but the article from my mother is the one that lands in my weekly folder because it is she I care deeply about even if the topic is not so important to me at the moment.

I don’t drop everything to read the article now, but I know I will get to it in about a week. One side benefit of this is that often others will respond before I even read it, so I can put in my two cents quickly and still affirm those people in my life who matter most.

I try to deal with emails from here throughout the week, but at least on Friday I commit to dealing with each email that’s dated older than seven days ago. Thus I know that if I put an email in my “Weekly” folder I will answer it between 7-14 days. Even important things for next week can safely sit in this folder so I can focus on my ASAP tasks.

4. Monthly

Everything else gets dumped in my monthly “Active Bucket.” Well, not everything else. I try to use the trash can liberally and set up filters so promotional emails and newsletters skip my inbox altogether.

Somehow it’s hard to unsubscribe from these but when they are out of sight they are out of mind and it doesn’t matter because they aren’t really what matters in life.

The monthly folder holds anything else that I’d like to get to but that don’t have any serious consequences if they are neglected for a month or two. Things like blog articles or catch-up email from casual friends or ideas about homeschooling from others that aren’t necessarily my own priorities about homeschooling at the moment.

A week’s perspective is great, but a month’s perspective is priceless. Here is where the idea of letting the unimportant things organize themselves really shines.

I check this folder once a month and make it a priority to deal with everything that came in from two months ago. So if it is October then I’ll look at everything that is dated from August and power through it.

The stuff in this folder isn’t the most important, but once a month it is. However, I only have a day or two to get through it and those are days full of normal life so I am keenly aware of just how little time I have.

I’m much more selective about which articles I read or how much detail I read them in. I’m much more likely to realize that I simply don’t have enough time for all the activities I’m interested in.

A conversation with a casual friend that moves at the pace of every two months is actually much better than the pace of years that would come of me forgetting about it as it scrolled off the main page.

Batch-processing the less-important emails is a time and sanity saver, and though it takes some discipline to make it happen each month, the rest of the month all those emails sit out of sight and mind with no guilt whatsoever.

 

That’s it! As always, it looks more complicated written out than it feels. It’s also an ideal that I don’t stick to perfectly. I wasn’t good about filing emails over the weekend so I now have 22 in my inbox. It’s not good, but I’ll process that to zero over the course of the day and be on track for the rest of the week.

I wish you the best in finding email peace! Share your email tips in the comments below!

See the other posts in this series: how I keep sane, daily planning, and weekly planning.

Planning Basics: Weekly Planning for Daily Peace

planningwithbeauty

Daily planning will take less time if we take some time each week to zoom out and look ahead at what’s coming our way.

I’ve struggled with what exactly is important in a weekly review because it always seems to take so much time and I’m often still stressed at the end of it.

In this post I’ll share what’s working for me at the moment.

First, it’s important to realize that the piles of papers, the incoming email, the requests from others, and the interruptions are not the most important things for us to be working on.

Some of it is very important, but the most important stuff will never come as an email or as an ad or as a reminder, except perhaps as a flash of guilt when we’re already feeling overwhelmed.

We have to take the time to think about our deepest values and remind ourselves of what’s most important while at the same time keeping all the other balls more or less in the air.

That’s what weekly planning is for.

Most of the tasks we do each week are routine. Even if you’ve never thought much about your routines, most of the actions humans take are done almost without thinking.

However orderly or scattered we are somehow we get things done the way our lives are structured right now. Don’t try to change all that all at once. You’re doing okay the way you are!

Weekly planning is for those things that are weighing on your mind and that you won’t be reminded of during the week. It’s great to have a cleaning routine, but if you don’t, don’t put all your cleaning tasks on your weekly planning lists. The dirty floors will remind you that you’d like to vacuum.

The reason for this is that if I have a weekly list that requires me to do more than five tasks a day I feel overwhelmed. There actually is more time in the day than for just five tasks, but when the list is too long things get lost in the pile and I want to throw in the towel.

That said, a great task to put on your weekly to do list is to brainstorm better routines that fit your lifestyle – just don’t try to make more than one major change a week!

My Weekly Planning Checklist

1. Start a Mind Dump list with three columns for high, middle, and lower priority. Anything related to the most important people and projects in your life go on the high-priority list as well as anything important that’s due this week.

2. Review the week you just had: your journal, your calendar, and your daily schedule, if you have it. While you review ask yourself what worked and what didn’t so you can answer the next question:

3. What do I want for the coming week? What’s most important? Jot some notes down and keep it in mind as you . . .

4. Quickly sort through your papers and incoming stuff into one of three piles according to priority: high, middle, and lower.  Be sure to sort through your “mid-priority” pile that you made earlier in the week or from your planning session last week.  Remember, you’ll be looking at the mid-priority pile again next week, so everything that can wait a week is safe here, even if it is important for later.

5. Look at the next two weeks on your calendar and visualize what you will need in order to be prepared for each day. Write down any task that is best done more than a day in advance on your “high priority” Mind Dump list.

For example, if guests are coming in 10 days I like to know what I’m cooking in time for my weekly shopping trip, so I’ll write “decide meal for Smith visit” as something that should be done this week. Little things like this save a great deal of stress!

6. Break larger tasks into smaller bits.  Look at your high-priority pile and Mind Dump list.  For every larger or unclear item, decide on just the next step or two and write those down on your high-priority Mind Dump list.

After these six steps you now have a prioritized to-do list and a few piles and lists that can wait another week. Congratulations! Most of the great stack of things waiting for you to do something about should now be neatly piled up in stacks that can be tucked away and off your mind for all of this week!

If you’re like me, however, the high-priority list is still overwhelming. At this point I often find it helpful to take a break and get some perspective before deciding which of my high-priority tasks I will commit to tackling this week.

Roughly Schedule the Week

1. Review your high-priority to do list and mark with a left-arrow those tasks which would best be done this week. Be selective – you want to set yourself up for success!

2. Divide the number of marked tasks by 5: this is the number you must do each day. Is it overwhelming? Can you narrow it down? I find that 3-5 is a good number.

3. Roughly plan which tasks you’ll do on which day.  Write the letter day next to the arrow you made (Monday through Friday and keeping your calendar schedule in mind). This way you don’t have rewrite the list but can easily see which tasks are up for the day. Most tasks don’t have to be done a certain day, but this way you know you’ll get to them all and don’t have to stare at the whole list the whole week. If you get more time one day (haha) you can look up more tasks, but in reality we know that each day has enough going on. If we just manage to do these three or so tasks each day we will be ahead for the week.

Now when you do your daily planning you can look at your weekly to-do list and check which ones you scheduled for that day. I re-write these tasks on my daily schedule for two reasons.

1. It reaffirms my commitment to these tasks even if they don’t seem so urgent at the moment – they are what I need to complete in the week to give me peace in the next.

2. I can check them off twice! First when I complete them during the day, and secondly when I review my weekly to-do list when I plan the next day. “Oh look! I did that already!” It feels good. And really, those yucky tasks deserve two checks when they’re done, right?

This takes me more time than I’d like to admit, but if I avoid the temptation of walking away from an overwhelming to-do list and push through to make it feel doable, then I go to bed on Sunday feeling ready for the week.

(On the weeks that I shove my list aside and just hope I’ll survive . . . you can guess what happens.)

Most of the time we don’t know what’s coming our way in the week. Most of life is lived as it comes and I think that’s a beautiful thing. We want to be able to handle the unexpected with grace and joy all the while knowing that we are prepared for what we know is coming.

Some weeks we need to throw out the schedule. This week was just such a week for me. We all got sick and that was just the start. The morning after I’d spend the whole night throwing up and caring for sick kids I cried out to God and he gave me my task for the day: breathe.

It sounds simple, but it’s hard to breathe when you’re trying to sing the morning hymn while you’re close to tears. It’s hard to breathe when the kids whine and complain and you want to snap.

“My job is to breathe” was my mantra for the day and that was work enough. I knew what was on my lists and I knew they could wait. We got through the day better than expected and though I felt behind and overwhelmed in my weekly planning session yesterday I powered through in culling and prioritizing until I found peace.

I wish you all the best in your planning and in your living this week!

See the other posts in this series: how I keep sane, daily planning, and E-mail.

Planning Basics: Daily Planning

A photo by Aaron Burden. unsplash.com/photos/xG8IQMqMITM

We need to plan well because we need to be ready to change the plan.

We can’t map out the whole day. We need to be flexible and responsive. We need to get the most important things done.

How?

Last week I shared my recipe for a successful day. The last ingredient was “time to plan” and I ended with key to planning effectively:

Only organize and plan the most important things in your life. Let the rest organize themselves.

To do this we need to quickly sort our high priority tasks from the rest. I find I need to do this every day because so many things come my way over the course of the day. I dump the physical stuff in a pile and write down the thoughts, requests from others, and ideas on a white-board.

I learned much from Getting Things Done, but the advice to handle every paper once has really tripped me up. I’ve discovered I make better decisions about less important things when I have a few day’s or week’s perspective. Plus, it’s easier to batch process less important things at one time.

The Quick Daily Sort

I quickly sort everything into one of three piles: high priority, mid-priority, and lower priority. When planning for tomorrow, only the high priority stuff gets my attention.

It helps to think of tasks in terms of their positive and negative consequences. What kind of positive impact would I see if I complete this? What might be the unwanted consequences I don’t do this?

This perspective helps me get rid of things like coupons for shoes that expire soon. Really, if I don’t act then nothing bad happens. My time is better spent on something else.

The lovely thing about this system is that it self-eliminates many tasks that aren’t that important. At some point I’ll go through the “lower-consequences” pile and toss half because they are no longer relevant (like that shoe offer).

I feel no guilt because I know I’ve been working on what really matters and I realize that these little things that I thought I cared about, I don’t actually care about at all.

(It helps me to know I’ll be doing a quick sort on the mid-priority tasks every week so nothing will slip through the cracks, but weekly planning is another post!)

Plan your day the night before

Weekly and monthly planning are hugely beneficial, but to keep sane, daily planning is all that’s necessary.

Each night after the kids are in bed I do my quick daily sort of all incoming bits and pieces I might want to do something about.

After that I have a clean white-board, a clear desk, and a small pile of high-priority items.  It feels great!

Next I look at my previously scheduled commitments, like my calendar, and sketch the day out.

Now I further sort my “high-priority” times until I have a maximum of three top-priority tasks. I’ll do these tasks in my “time to work” slot I discussed in my last post. These are high-impact tasks that usually aren’t urgent but are very important.

Next I pick a five to ten “up next” tasks that would be good to if and when I have time throughout the day.

All I see on my schedule are my appointments, my top-three tasks and my next 5-10.  The other stuff is on separate lists I’ll look at in the evening when I plan again.  I don’t like to be overwhelmed with a never-ending to-do list!

Most of our days as parents are unpredictable. We must be ready to go with the flow and deal with emergencies. I leave lots of breathing room in our schedule so I can still be a happy camper when the unexpected happens.

Knowing I completed my top priority tasks gives me a sense of accomplishment for the whole day. No matter what happens after that at least I moved forward a bit!

Sometimes I do have a little extra time and can get to my “next 5-10” tasks. Most days I’m surprised by how much work I can get in as opportunity and inspiration present themselves.

Some days are still horrible, like today. I couldn’t get this post written in my working time. I tried to finish in the mid-morning break. I ditched the 1,200 word monster and tried again while my husband fed the kids for lunch, and now I’m trying again after I sent the kids out of the house because they “lost the privilege” of being inside.

Still, because I’d set myself up so well due to last night’s planning, I was able to finish up the preparations for our new homeschool routine and we got most of it done today.

One thing going wrong doesn’t have to mess up the whole day if we’re properly prepared!

Rest is number one on my list of ingredients for a successful day, but planning is worth staying up a little later for.  Sadly, it still takes me 30 minutes or more, but It’s worth every moment ten times over.

If I don’t know what’s on my plate it does no good to run around trying to eat things faster.

The less time I have to plan the more important it is to plan. No one can afford to spend time on what doesn’t really matter in the end!

There is SO much more to planning, but I’ve struggled long enough trying to formulate the basics. Let me know where you’re struggling and I can share more details.

See the other posts in this series: how I keep sane, weekly planning, and E-mail.