The Sounds of Productivity

man holding hand to earIt seems that noise is almost inescapable in modern life: traffic sounds, overhead airplanes, loud music booming from the car next to me (and why are they never playing music I like?), the sirens of emergency vehicles, and barking dogs. One of my greatest pleasures when I’m working at home is sitting on my deck enjoying the soothing sights and sounds of nature: colorful birds feasting at the birdfeeders, playful squirrels frolicking in the trees, cicadas signaling the warming sun, and energetic rabbits bounding here and there. My peaceful world was rocked this past week as road construction crews paved my street. The jarring noises they created made me realize how important a calming environment is to my productivity. Is the same true for you?

Here are some ideas to bring some peace and productivity to your otherwise noisy world:

  • Wear noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds. Enjoy some music that promotes productivity and prevent the outside world from intruding.
  • Turn off the TV and radio talk shows. Multitasking (which is what we’re doing if we try to work and listen at the same time) actually makes us less productive because our brain can’t do more than one cognitive thing at a time – it can only switch back and forth between tasks. So turn off the voices that draw your attention away from the task at hand and actually make things take longer.
  • Turn off your phone. The distraction of answering incoming calls and responding to text messages as they occur can cause hours of wasted time. After we interrupt ourselves to tend to the beck and call of others, we have to spend time ramping back up to whatever it was we were working on. Discover how much more you can accomplish by turning off your phone for 30 minutes and focusing on the task at hand.
  • Add meaningful sound. The Journal of Consumer Research published a paper concluding that the ideal work environment for creative thinking should contain a little bit of background noise. Coffitivity can bring the sound of a coffee shop to your home, while Ambient Mixer allows you to customize the white noise of your choice.

Here’s hoping you find just the right amount of peace and quiet.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog



Planning for Your Golden Years Produces Platinum Results

older man and daughterPreparing for end-of-life issues is never something anyone wants to think about. However, ignoring the subject can eventually lead to distress or even disaster for you and your loved ones. Taking care of these matters now can allow you to enjoy peace of mind and pursue more preferred interests during your golden years. I’ve invited Andrea Donovan, Senior Living Advisor, to share some helpful tips to get you started.

Know your housing options. There are several senior living options, so be sure to seek the right option for your needs:

  • Independent Living: The senior can basically perform self-care, with housekeeping assistance and meal preparation.
  • Assisted Living: The senior needs standby assistance or assistance with some activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, and walking.
  • Skilled Nursing Care: The senior needs total assistance with all activities of daily living.

Given all of the choices, you will need to analyze your finances and decide whether you will move to a community or stay at home. You will be faced with the arduous task of touring facilities that will fit your medical needs, budget, and location preferences. If you stay at home, you will need to find a caregiver who suits your needs – a process that can be like dating. You may date someone several times, and decide s/he isn’t for you!

Prepare financially. Although no one wants to think about the possibility of developing health problems with age, it is best that you and your loved ones have a plan in place. I recently encountered a situation in which a family’s financial advisor had assured them that their mother was “in very good financial shape.” When I consulted with the son, he was flabbergasted to learn the costs of senior living options. His Mother needed to enter an assisted living community and she had less than two years of funds to pay for her care. Costs for senior living options can range from approximately $3,200 to $12,000 per month in the Chicago area, so consider how you can prepare financially should you need to choose a senior living location.

Click here for a link to my newsletter to read more about planning for your golden years.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Command Control in Your Home

Command centerDo you spend your mornings rushing around trying to find the things you need to get out the door? Is there a frantic fire drill every day as you hunt for your keys, overdue library books, etc.? Do you forget to pay bills because there’s not a central place to keep them? A command center can eliminate these stressful situations by giving you a central location where you can find things quickly. It can also help prevent clutter from creeping into other areas of your home because it provides a location where otherwise problematic items belong.

A command center can serve several functions:

  • A place for items in transition: those library books to be returned, the empty food storage container to give back to your sister, the birthday gift for Saturday’s party, etc.
  • A place for items that need attention: the broken mug handle that needs gluing, the bills to be paid, the party invitation requiring a RSVP phone call etc.
  • A place for family communication: the family calendar, the field trip note to discuss with your child, shopping lists, etc.
  • A place for important, frequently-used items: your keys, your cell phone and charger, etc.
  • A place for general information: coupons, phone lists, carryout menus, activities schedules, etc.

Now that you know how important a command center can be to the smooth operation of your home, here are some tips to help you set one up:

Find the right spot. Ideally, it should be a place that is heavily trafficked so things will stay in view. An unused spot on the kitchen counter, a nook in a hallway, or a shelf or counter in a mudroom can be the perfect spot.

Be flexible. There’s no set formula for establishing a command center, so create one that fits your and your family’s situation.

Be clear about what belongs there. Have bins and designated spots for things so your command center doesn’t become a dumping ground. Have a conversation with family members so they know what belongs there, and what doesn’t.

Clean it up regularly. Toss old schedules and expired coupons, move paid bills to their next location, create a regular time to go through the mail, and find another spot for things that don’t belong there. Without regular policing, you’ll soon be buried in everyone’s random stuff.

I’d love to hear how your command center is working for you.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

The Power of Play Time

children playingNo, this isn’t targeted at parents or school administrators. It’s for anyone who works hard and is often caught up in being busy without taking time to pause and recharge. I’m reading a book called Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. The book reminds us that the most important goal of time management is spending our time getting the right things done, not getting more done in less time. Making time for play is an important element in getting the right things done. Here are some thoughts on that seemingly contradictory premise – and with summer in full swing, it’s the perfect time to make time to play.

You may recall as a child making a fort out of a card table and a blanket, or a house out of a giant refrigerator box. Maybe you played street hockey using a push broom as your goal stick (oh wait, that was me!), or baseball using rocks for bases. Children use playtime to unleash their imaginations, to solve problems, and to create fantasy worlds. As adults, we may find ourselves in situations at work or at home in which we need to be imaginative, to solve problems, and to fantasize about what could be. However, it seems many adults have stifled their sense of play and therefore lost this creative ability.

Play is defined on as “employing oneself in diversion, amusement or recreation,” or “to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously.” Sounds like a worthless endeavor, right? McKeown, however, points out some of the many ways that play is actually essential. “Play has the power to significantly improve everything from personal health to relationships to education to organizations’ ability to innovate. Nothing fires up the brain like play.” He goes on to say that play “Helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made.” Play reduces stress and improves the brain’s executive function skills (including planning, prioritizing, decision-making and sequencing) – all skills critical to our performance and productivity.

Here’s a link to my newsletter where you can read more about the power of play.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony, freedom, and plenty of play time,
Sue Small for Blog

Focus on What’s Essential

Are you making your highest contribution to the world by spending your time on only what’s essential? Are you able to filter through all of the options you come across each day and invest your time in the right activities? I recently started reading a book called Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown that’s all about living in this fashion. Although I haven’t gotten very far yet, I can tell this is a book that speaks my language. It provides deeper exploration of the concept of “less is more,” and provides a new way of looking at that notion in terms of our time.

As a productivity coach, I help people create tools and behaviors to help them be more productive. As this book properly points out, the goal of productivity should not be to get more done, but to get the right things done. In McKeown’s own words, “The Way of the Essentialist… is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter. By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy – instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.”

How can we be sure we’re investing our time in the right activities? We can start by accepting the fact that most things we spend our time on are probably trivial and hardly vital, and then work to eliminate those things. This is a challenge for a lot of reasons, including the social pressures and decision fatigue that result from living in the modern world. With so many people sharing the details of their lives on social media, we often feel compelled to “keep up with the Joneses” and pack as much activity into our days as we can, regardless of whether they help us live a meaningful life. With so many choices of how to spend our time, including the added demands (or temptations) presented by 24/7 connectivity, we’re constantly pulled in many directions and forced to make loads of decisions every day, leading to the deterioration of the quality of our decisions.

Even though I’ve only made it through the book’s introduction, it’s already inspired me to be on the lookout for the trivial things that are taking up my precious time. I’ll start by being more discerning about how I spend my time online. I’m going to evaluate each newsletter I receive (probably about 10 per week) and unsubscribe to those whose content is no longer valuable. I plan to use the time I gain to read more books – wish me luck!

What trivial things can you eliminate from your life in order to make room for what’s meaningful?

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Creative Ways to Organize Your Gardening Tools

gardening toolsIt goes without saying that any job is always easier if you have the right tools. At this time of year, that especially relates to your gardening tools. What makes working in your North 40 most enjoyable is not only having the right rakes, clippers and spades, but also having them organized and easily accessible. This applies to both storing and using them. Since I’m not much of a gardener, I’ve invited Jan Long, Weeder and Writer to share her thoughts on how to organize your gardening tools.

Since, everyone is fairly familiar with the traditional pegboards and store-bought tool caddies, I thought I’d research some clever and quirky alternatives for keeping gardening tools in order. You’ll be amazed and sometimes amused by what I’ve found:

Storing Long-handle Tools

Recycle a wooden pallet into a new storage space for your long-handle tools. By fastening the pallet flat against your garage or shed wall, shovels, hoes and edgers will easily slip behind the slats and stand upright, organized and accessible. Or try drilling handle-diameter holes into the lid of a 50-gallon resin trash can. The round container with tools at the ready fits perfectly in any out-of-the-way corner. Another unique solution is to turn a tall furniture crate into a self-contained storage unit for your long-handle garden tools. Affix a few rows of tension-style broom racks to the inside and you’ve created the perfect garden tool closet.

Click here for a link to my newsletter to read more about organizing your gardening tools.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Let the 4 Ds Lighten Your Load

DEven the most efficient and productive among us occasionally have days where being efficient just isn’t enough to get everything done. On those days, I implement what productivity expert Julie Morgenstern calls the 4 Ds: Delete, Diminish, Delay, Delegate. Here’s how the 4 Ds can help you streamline your to-do list:


Take some things off your list – permanently. If you can live with the outcome of not doing them, then don’t do them. Sure, some things might be nice to do, or even fun to do. But if you’re stretched thin and the only reasonable way to recover is to pare down, then decide what can be eliminated. Here’s an example of how I put Delete into play: A job in my distant past required me to prepare financial reports for my company’s bi-monthly board of directors’ meeting. There was one particular report I detested doing, so one month I just decided not to do it and see if anyone noticed. Voila! I deleted, and very happily lightened my workload.


Diminishing can happen in two ways: streamlining a process so you can complete a task more quickly, or shrinking the deliverable so less work is required to meet the objective. In either case, you’re decreasing the time needed to get something done. Back to my board of directors example: Unfortunately someone did notice one of the reports was missing, so they asked me to provide it. But not to be deterred from my quest to lighten my load, I moved into Diminish mode. I shrank the deliverable from a multi-page financial analysis to a one-paragraph executive summary. Happily, that was enough to satisfy the requester.


Delay is not the same as procrastinate. It’s making a conscious decision to postpone something to a better time. When you have multiple demands screaming for your attention, identify those whose timing is flexible or less urgent and will allow you to move more critical items to the top of your to-do list. Delay them to a time that still meets their deadline, but also aligns better with your workload.


If you’re lucky enough to be able to delegate tasks to others (e.g., subordinates or an administrative assistant at work, an outside service providers such as cleaning service, your kids, etc.) take advantage of it. In doing so, you’ll free yourself up to focus on things that require your skills and knowledge. You’ll also allow others to experience the joy of exercising their expertise on the things you’ve delegated to them. Everyone wins! I’ve often heard bosses say they’re hesitant to delegate to staff members because those staffers are already so busy. But if the boss doesn’t clear his or her plate to free up some time for strategic thinking, things will continue to be crazy busy. So do yourself and your staff a favor and delegate what you can to free up time for big-picture thinking.

So how will you put the 4 Ds to work for you?

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Getting Things Done

getting to the finish lineGetting things done – it seems that goal consumes many of us, myself included. There’s actually a book titled Getting Things Done by David Allen and it offers some wonderful advice on how to be productive. This month you get to take an inside peek at how I get things done. My goal is not to suggest that you should do things my way, but to offer some ideas that might help you create a system that works for you.

I keep a master to-do list. I’ve written about this before – keeping all of those random to-dos in a single place so that I can remember them and prioritize them. If I know when I’ll do them, they go on a specific date in my planner. Otherwise, they go on my master to-do list. As David Allen says, when you don’t write down all of your to-dos, you’re unable to renegotiate commitments with yourself that you don’t even know you have.

I block out time. It’s one thing to identify what needs to be done, but quite another to actually do it. I have a routine that makes sure I fit in all the recurring things I need to do. For example, I pay bills on Tuesday; I plan the upcoming week, including meals, on Sunday; I do laundry on Friday; I remind my family to clean the house every day of the week – still waiting for them to block out time to actually do it!

I take action. David Allen talks about asking the question, “What’s the next action?” when dealing with a piece of information. Whether it’s a piece of paper, an email, a voicemail message, or text message, I ask myself that very question. Then I do something decisive to move that tidbit along on its journey. For example, the next action for a piece of paper might be to make a phone call to get more information, to file it, or to toss it. My goal is to do at least one thing to move it along on its journey.

I regroup. David Allen refers to this as a weekly review. While my Sunday weekly planning session is less structured than Allen describes, the concept is the same. I look at what’s scheduled on my calendar for the next week to make sure I’m ready. If not, I schedule time to get ready. I review my sent emails to see if I need to follow up on anything. I discuss my calendar with my husband to make sure we are both aligned on the week’s activities. Taking this time to prepare for the week helps me get centered and feel in control.

I’d love to hear what tips you have for getting things done.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Five Things to Put on Your Don’t-Do List

DON'T DOI’ve previously written about using a to-do list – that sometimes pesky, often helpful tool that helps make sure nothing important slips through the cracks. But often we’re so busy focusing on what we need to/should do that we blindly plod along without stopping to consider what we should stop doing. Here are a few unproductive habits that you might consider crossing off your list – permanently! I hope you to get as much value from this don’t-do list as you do from your to-do list.

  1. Don’t check email first thing in the morning. There’s not much that’s more satisfying than accomplishing a complex, challenging task. For most of us, these types of tasks are best attempted first thing in the morning, before other tasks and other people take over our day. When you check email first thing, you’re inviting the rest of the world to tell you what to do, rather than you taking charge of your day. Recognize that although it might be fun or interesting to check e-mail first thing, it’s rarely necessary and almost always unproductive.
  2. Don’t attend meetings that don’t require your presence. Ruthlessly evaluate every meeting invitation to determine what value you would add or receive by attending. Could your needs be fulfilled simply by receiving the minutes of the meeting? Could someone else attend and contribute in your place? Is there an unclear or insignificant objective for the meeting? Unless there are clearly defined objectives that matter to you and absolutely require your participation, guard your time and scrutinize every meeting invitation.
  3. Don’t confuse projects with tasks. I often encounter people who are frustrated because they seldom get everything on their daily to-do list accomplished, and it’s often because they make this mistake. A project is anything that takes more than one step to accomplish. Anything from planting the garden to planning a vacation is a project – they are accomplished in multiple, unique steps and often cannot be done in one sitting. When you plan your day, plan time to accomplish discrete tasks that will lead you towards completing projects.
  4. Don’t be constantly available. When we continuously check email, obsessively text back and forth, and answer the phone every time it rings, it’s like turning on the spigot and letting the flood of everyone’s demands drown out our well-planned day and remove us from being “in the moment”. I’m constantly amazed by the number of people I see walking down the street texting, talking on their cell phone when at a restaurant with guests, and riding public transportation with their face staring at a screen rather than connecting with their fellow human beings. Sure, there are times when we absolutely have to attend to matters, but if we’re constantly distracted by and grasping at whatever is coming at us, it’s hard to be productive. And besides, it’s important to take some time to disconnect and refresh. Which leads me to my last point…
  5. Don’t forget to smell the roses. In our busy, busy lives, it’s easy to get focused on accomplishing, rather than on being. Build some white space into your life so you can enjoy the spontaneous moments that make it all worthwhile. Don’t focus on the future at the expense of appreciating the present. Don’t neglect friends and family in the quest for accomplishing or acquiring more. Don’t take for granted all the good things you already have.

I’d love to hear what’s on your don’t-do list.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

What Type of Decision Maker Are You?

Man Scratching HeadAmong other things, the Myers-Briggs® assessment helps people learn about how they make decisions. Decision-making is critical to the organizing process, so here are some insights on that important skill.

When it comes to organizing, there’s no right or wrong way to make decisions. The key is that you’re comfortable with the process, and more importantly, comfortable with the decisions you make. The Myers-Briggs® Type Indicator assesses preferences, but no one type is deemed to be a better decision maker. Decision-making is critical to the organizing process, so here are some insights on that important skill.

The first type indicator, Extraversion versus introversion, measures where we focus our attention. People who prefer Extraversion are more likely to want to talk through decisions with someone and look outside themselves to retrieve relevant information (e.g., a professional organizer). On the other hand, people who prefer Introversion typically want to carefully think decisions through first – they look inside themselves to retrieve relevant information and typically respond in a careful, measured way.

The next type indicator, Sensing versus Intuition, measures how we take in information. People who prefer Sensing are more likely to require concrete data and facts and consider information sequentially. People who prefer Intuition are more likely to look for meanings and patterns, anticipate the future, and think in terms of concepts.

The third type indicator, Thinking versus Feeling, measures how we make decisions based on the information we’ve taken in. People who prefer Thinking are more likely to emphasize logic and want an explanation for things, and strive to be just. People who prefer Feeling are more likely to emphasize motivation and values and strive to be caring.

Here’s a link to my newsletter where you can read more about how your preferences around making decisions impact your ability to organize.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog