Productivity Tools Alone Can’t Save You

computerThere are loads of electronic gadgets and online tools to help track your to-dos and appointments (Outlook, Google Calendar, Wunderlist, etc.), capture information (Evernote, OneNote, etc.), manage your grocery list (e.g., GroceryIQ), and help with a myriad of other things that are part of surviving modern life. However, whether you use the latest electronic gadget or go old school and use paper and pencil, it’s important to have good productivity habits in place in order to make the most of your productivity tools.

For example, I’ve worked with plenty of folks who use an electronic task list to capture to-dos and break down projects into individual tasks. However, some of these people failed to identify when they were actually going to do each task, so deadlines got missed and opportunities were lost. The productivity habit I helped them establish was to move their intentions (the to-dos) into a commitments by scheduling them on their calendar. The electronic task list was certainly helpful for them to get to-dos out of their head and into a place they trusted they’d be able to find them again, but it didn’t help them actually get the tasks completed. Whether using an electronic device or a simple paper list, the habit of assigning a “when” to tasks will improve your productivity.

As another example, some of my clients use Evernote to capture and organize information and ideas, including notes from meetings. However, sometimes the meeting notes include action items for which the person is responsible. Without a system for moving these action items into their task or calendar system, they would miss key assignments that others were relying on them to complete. Make sure your system of capturing information includes the habit of reviewing that information and identifying when action is required.

Keep in mind that although tools and technology can help refine your productivity skills, good productivity habits are the key to being most successful.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

So Much Media, So Little Time

Movie TicketsI was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune by a journalist who was grappling with his desire to enjoy more leisure time by watching more movies & television and reading more books. He was concerned that his lists of must-watch TV, books to read, and movies to experience kept growing, but his available media consumption time was not keeping pace. You can read the full article by finding the link in my newsletter, but I’ve summarized it here in the interest of giving you more leisure time. You’re welcome!

Adding new items to your media consumption wish list without removing anything, comes at a cost. It might be sleep; it might be time with friends; whatever it is, be sure you’re willing to pay the price of adding more. Otherwise, use the four Ds to help you pare down:

  • Delete – Wouldn’t it feel great to reduce your guilt by getting rid of something from your queue of obligations? Can you live with the outcome of not watching or reading everything? Rather than hope that illness or injury will give you a reason to spend a month on the couch catching up on the shows you’ve recorded, give yourself permission to enjoy the best of what’s there guilt-free, and let the rest go.
  • Diminish – Fast forward on TiVo. Accept that you already have a good foundation of knowledge on a subject from other sources. For example, do you have to watch the entire six-hour Ken Burns cancer documentary, or is your current knowledge good enough? Can you just watch the final hour to hear a summary of the latest findings?
  • Delay – If you don’t get to it now, it will still be out there when you have more time to take it in. Put it on a list for future enjoyment.
  • Delegate – Do you have to watch it or read it, or would reading a review or synopsis be good enough?

Go with the flow. Setting a pattern, like reading one old book after reading two new ones, may be helpful. But it can also be confining. If you’re in the mood to read another new book after already reading two new ones, by golly, read another new book. This is for your enjoyment, right?

Be true to yourself. Enjoy the media because you want to, not because you think you should. So what if you haven’t seen the latest movie everyone’s talking about – welcome to my life! Even if I’m not always part of the cultural conversation, I’m ok with it and I still find plenty of things to talk about with friends and colleagues.

Here’s to more enjoyable leisure time and less guilt.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

History of Spring Cleaning: Chicago and Beyond

Spring cleaning has been a mainstay for much of human history. Some say the tradition began as a Jewish practice in preparation for Passover, requiring the removal of all leavened bread from the home – right down to the crumbs. Others attribute spring cleaning to the Chinese, who clean their houses and sweep their floors of bad luck in anticipation of the Chinese New Year.

As a practical matter, spring cleaning was of particular importance to those living in cold climates. The onset of winter required northerners to turn on wood-burning and, later, coal-burning furnaces, which would leave soot on the floors and walls along with a hearty smoke smell in all of the linens. Families would open their doors at the first sign of spring to welcome the change of seasons and to take every piece of furniture and every scrap of cloth outside. As the linens aired out, some members of the family worked to rid the furniture of soot and ash while others swept the house, scrubbed the walls, and dusted everything in sight.

Many changes took place in the 3,000 years between the first celebration of Passover and the effective end of coal-burning furnaces. The Romans paved the way for hygienic living in the third century B.C., when they siphoned water from the newly invented aqueducts to supply the public baths. Five centuries later, the Greek physician, Galen, advised bathers to lather up with soap while enjoying the communal bathing experience. Soap itself was discovered near Rome at the fictional Mount Sapo, where rain mixed with the fat of animal sacrifices, pooling in the clay of the Tiber River below. Women who washed clothes in this river walked away with cleaner laundry than those washing at inferior watering holes.

When Rome fell in 467 A.D., so did European standards of cleanliness. By the 14th century, unsanitary living conditions brought on the Black Plague, and it took 300 years for bathing and personal hygiene to be en vogue again in Europe. Even still, soap was unaffordable to most people and was seen as a luxury item until prohibitive soap taxes were revoked in the 1800s.

To curb pollution, Chicago was among the first cities to regulate smoke emissions in 1881. Even still, Chicago homes were using mostly coal as a heat source through the 1940’s. To Chicagoans living in late 19th and early 20th century, spring cleaning would have been an important yearly ritual to scrub the coal soot off their walls, furniture, and clothing. However, by 1975 only 1.5% of homes in Chicago were still using coal as a heat source, as most had switched to natural gas.

Thanks to technology, spring cleaning today is a much less labor-intensive process. Most people see it as an opportunity to purge. Others celebrate the occasion by looking at their lives and their homes in a new light. Whatever this spring brings, make sure your life is in full bloom and your home is sparkling.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this guest posting from ServiceMaster by Zaba. I’d love to hear about your spring cleaning rituals.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Time for a Closet Cleanse

organized closetAs we (finally) transition from winter to spring, it’s the perfect time to tackle that closet cleaning project you’ve been meaning to start. But it can be a daunting task, to say the least. Why? Because the truth is, most of us have way too many clothes to deal with. We tend to add new things and not get rid of anything. I’ve invited wardrobe consultant Nancy Pipal to offer some tips to help you pare down your overflowing closet.

You might think that purging your closet is not exactly a fun ways to spend your time. So what happens? You procrastinate and ultimately end up giving in to the clutter—lots and lots of clutter. It’s not fun and it’s not helping you in your efforts to always look and feel your best.

Enough! Turn up the volume on some favorite tunes, turn on all the lights, throw open the curtains and just do it!  I know it’s hard to part with your clothes, but make it easier by trying this approach:

  • Be decisive
  • Be practical
  • Be honest
  • Be unemotional

Some key questions you can ask yourself to help with your decision-making include:

  • How long has it been since I wore this?
  • Is it truly versatile? Can wear it with many things and in many different ways?
  • Does it look worn or tired?
  • Is it in need of repair? If so, can I justify the expense?
  • Will it look good enough for just one more season?

When in doubt, it goes out. Unless you have only five or so pounds to lose, do not keep things that fit you 10 pounds ago. Those jeans that you loved back then? By the time you are able to wear them again, if you are able to wear them again, they will likely be out of style. If they are in good condition, place them in a bag marked “Donate.”  Someone will be thrilled to wear them and will look good doing so!

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

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

“Busy” is Not a Badge of Honor

busy badgeI’m surprised that I’m still surprised how often people answer “busy” when I ask them how they are. Sometimes it seems as though people view being busy as a badge of honor to be respected, and maybe even worthy of sympathy.

Well I’m proudly taking off my busy badge and doing all I can to resist putting it on, even when others insist. The chaos, urgency and difficulty of being in the moment caused by being busy are just not what I want my life to be about. Sure, there are unforeseen events, like a friend’s hospitalization, that require life to be more hectic, but I resolve not to make that my normal state of being.

Part of my ability to achieve success in this arena is making the state of being un-busy a comfortable place to be. Rather than thinking about all the things on my to-do list, I focus on what I’m doing right now. There’s peace in knowing that whether I’m buying groceries, working with a client, or talking on the phone to a family member, that’s all I need to focus on now. I’m where I need to be doing what I need to do in this moment. And when I finish doing this thing, I’ll move on to the next thing. No need to panic or feel frazzled – just face what’s before me now and focus on that one thing until I need to do something else. Unless absolutely necessary, don’t try to squeeze in just one more phone call before I need to head out the door; don’t try squeeze in an errand before hopping on the often traffic-clogged expressway to get to an appointment; don’t add one more thing to this weekend’s activities that will leave me feeling exhausted rather than replenished.

Sure being un-busy can be easier said than done, but to me, it’s a way of being that’s worth pursuing. We certainly can’t control everything, but if we look hard, we have control over more situations than we may realize. Saying “no” in the right moments can help you say “yes” to a life you love. Read my prior blog post to give you some ideas on how to say “no”. I’d love to hear that you’ve been able to take off that busy badge.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Stay Motivated While Organizing Papers

2015 03 smile paperBen Franklin is credited with noting that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Seems he overlooked paperwork. No matter how we may try to go paperless, the piles are there to remind us that we’re not quite paperless yet. I’ve written previously about how to organize papers, but these tips on how to stay motivated may help you actually get around to sorting through the piles.

Don’t bounce around. No matter how many piles you may have, just focus on one small area at a time. Choose a single pile and go through it before you move on to the next pile. By staying focused on one area at a time, you’ll begin to see the pile shrinking before your very eyes.

Hide other areas. Drape a plain sheet over the piles you’re not currently working on. This will minimize the visual impact that might otherwise make you feel overwhelmed, and help you focus solely on the area to be worked on.

Work in small chunks of time. Choose a short period of time (15 to 30 minutes) to chip away at your stacks and help make this dreaded task more tolerable. You might try the Pomodoro Technique to help you hang in there. Of course, if you find you want to keep going once you’re in the groove, by all means do so. Inch by inch really is a cinch.

Make it fun. Yes, you read that correctly – fun! Play energizing music; play Beat the Clock (see how many inches you can dwindle the pile in 15 minutes); measure your progress by weighing your discard bag after each session – and trying to beat the prior sessions’ weight (thanks to one of my clients for this tip). Be creative and enjoy the process.

Click here for a link to my newsletter where you can find more tips on how to stay motivated while sorting papers.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom as you show that paperwork who’s boss!

Sue Small for Blog

Get Unstuck and Be Productive

stuck carSome days, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to get anything worthwhile accomplished. And to make things more frustrating, new tasks keep coming our way. Although it might be tempting to just go back to bed, a better solution might be to hit the reset button on your day.

You’ll want to examine what’s causing your lack of productivity: Are you just not in the mood to do what you should be? Are you unsure of what to do next? Are you overwhelmed by how much there is to do? The first thing I suggest you do after making this examination is to take a short break and recharge your mental batteries.

Next, re-examine the items on your to-do list and evaluate their importance and urgency. Apply the 4 Ds to distill things down to what’s essential to be working on right now. Then break your commitments into individual tasks that you can complete in a single step. Look for the top three priority tasks you can accomplish today, get focused, and dig in.

This process of starting over when you’re feeling stuck helps you get an accurate view of what’s causing your frustration and allows you to realistically identify what you can do today. Breaking things down into their simplest form makes it easy to identify tasks that will fit into the time you have available and that match your energy level.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Plan Your Digital Estate

man and woman at computerAlthough it’s not a pleasant subject, wouldn’t it be great to know that if something tragic happened to you, your loved ones would know how to handle your affairs? I’ve written previously about creating an estate plan, but I’ve invited my colleague Judith Kolberg to share her wisdom on an often overlooked aspect of estate planning – your digital estate:

Although it’s not my role to give you specific advice about your estate, I would like to tell you a story as a way of introducing you to digital estate planning:
My client Maxine died suddenly. I was helping organize her digital and tangible documents. Maxine’s executor notified the banks and other financial institutions of her death. But figuring out the passwords, user codes and security questions needed to access Maxine’s accounts took weeks of hard work to untangle. And just when the family thought the estate was well on its way being settled, digital assets emerged. There was a web-only checking account Maxine had in the cloud with no paper trail, and a PayPal account without any hardcopy statements.

We all have tangible and digital assets and information. I read about a man who owned a “digital sword” he purchased for $17,000 to play high-stakes, international video games – legally it was considered an estate asset. I’d like to suggest that this year you:

  • Create a password-protected document (like an Excel spreadsheet) of your login information so your executor and family can settle your account with less fuss and muss. In addition to your online accounts, consider “invisible” (web-only) accounts, including checking and savings accounts, investment and insurance accounts, as well as other places money might be stowed, like PayPal accounts.

Click here for a link to my newsletter to read more about planning your digital estate.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Taking a Break Can Improve Productivity

As you zoom through your day, you may be so focused on crossing everything off your to-do list that you fail to enjoy the benefits of taking periodic breaks. In case you haven’t already taken the advice I’ve offered previously on this subject, here’s a video that offers some perspective on the paradox of taking a break for improved productivity:

I encourage you to periodically give your mind and body a chance to rest and refresh to help refocus your attention, boost your energy, relieve stress, and sharpen your brain power.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Make Space for the New Year

New Year ToastHere are some tips are about de-cluttering various areas of your life so you can create physical and mental space for something new and exciting in the year ahead. I hope they inspire you to make this your best year yet.

If you want to eat more healthily, de-clutter your kitchen. Clear out food items that don’t align with your new eating habits. Let go of small appliances, utensils, etc. that aren’t in sync with your new healthy lifestyle. For example, say goodbye to the deep fryer or cookbooks that the new, healthier you won’t need. You can donate unopened foods that are still within the freshness date to your local food pantry, and find charitable organizations who will appreciate your other unneeded items. When you let go of items that represent or enable unhealthy eating habits, you create space for new, healthier eating practices to come into your home and life.

If you want to lose weight, de-clutter your closet. To help you keep your eye on your goal, create space in your closet for the size you intend to become. Let go of a few items in the size you are right now, as well as larger sizes, to create space for the new, slimmer you. Of course you won’t want to let go of everything in your current size, but if you clear out a few items, your closet will remind you that you intend to lose weight and fill it with items in a smaller size.

If you want to spend more time with your family, de-clutter your calendar. It’s hard to spend meaningful time with family if your calendar is packed with commitments that have you constantly on the go. Scrutinize your current commitments and let go of activities that no longer energize or inspire you. Say “no” to volunteer responsibilities that leave you drained and resentful of the time they require. Consider replacing these obligations with family-centered activities or free time that can be used for family events.

Click here for a link to my newsletter to read more about making space in your life.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog