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

Say “No” so You Can Say “Yes”

NOFeel like you have too much to do and not enough time to do it? Who doesn’t? But the simple word “no” can help you find more time. By setting priorities, you can identify which people, organizations, activities and causes aren’t in alignment with your goals. Saying “no” in these situations can free up time and allow you to say “yes” to more fulfilling activities that are in alignment with your goals.

Last year was my year of “no.” For example, I dropped out of two professional groups I’d been a member of for quite a while because they were no longer helping me grow my business. I’ve been able to maintain the friendships I’d developed in those groups, but I am now able to devote the time I’d otherwise have spent attending the group’ events to other activities that align better with my current situation. Two other long-term members of one of the groups also dropped out after I did – my move prompted them to re-evaluate their priorities and see that their time would be better spent on other things.

So, what activities are you engaged in that no longer serve you well? Rather than just rolling along, evaluate if they are still a good fit for what you want out of life. Here are some thoughts that may help you feel bolder about saying “no”:

  • Every time you say “yes” to doing something, you’re saying “no” to other things you won’t have time to do as a result.
  • Even if the requester tries to entice you with how little time their request will take (e.g., “It will only take a few minutes”) remember that you’ll never get that time back.
  • Rather than considering only the amount of time your obligation will require you to invest by saying “yes”, think of what it will cost you in terms of activities and accomplishments you won’t have time for. For example, attending a meeting won’t just take up 30 minutes of your life, it will cost you time away from your family.
  • When you’re compelled to say “yes,” be aware of whether you’re responding out of a sincere desire to be of service, or rather out of a sense of fear, obligation, or payback. Reconsider your response if it’s one of the latter three. Of course, you may still decide to assist, but at least you’ll be doing it consciously.
  • Rather than a flat-out “no,” consider whether you can say “yes” to some part of the request, or help out in some other way that is more agreeable to you.
  • It’s not only other people we sometimes should sat “no” to – television, social media, reading blogs (gasp!), and kids’ activities (do they need to be involved in quite so many?) are just some examples of behaviors that can steal our time from more fulfilling endeavors.

Saying “no” may not be easy, but it is essential to long-term fulfillment. I’d love to hear what you’ve said “no” (or “yes”) to and how it’s changed your life.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Slow Down and Live Deliberately

 TurtleI hope you had a nice Thanksgiving holiday and were able to spend meaningful time with people you love. I also hope you can take that feeling of thankfulness with you as you move headlong into the frenzy of the holiday season. Here are some ideas on how to build on the peacefulness and simplicity that Thanksgiving represents – how to slow down and live deliberately. My wish for you is that you can rejoice in the gifts you have and make the most of each day.

Make time for people. Recognize the power you have to affect the mood of the people who cross your path, and subsequently, the people who cross the path of each of those people. For example, while it may be tempting to roll your eyes and tap your foot impatiently as the person in front of you in the checkout line chats and laughs with the cashier, consider following their example to make time for people you might typically marginalize. A smile and kind word can go a long way to not only improve their day, but to make you feel good as well.

Notice nature. Many of us rush through our day hurrying here and there without even noticing our surroundings. Rather than pounding your steering wheel in frustration when traffic is crawling, use the slowdown as an opportunity to connect with nature: notice whatever trees, birds, or other plants or animals are nearby; enjoy the sunshine, moonlight, clouds or breeze that accompany you. Studies have shown there’s a positive relationship between exposure to nature and mental health, so take advantage of chances to experience it.

Make time for what you value. Rather than bouncing from task to task, be deliberate about how you spend your time so it aligns with what’s important to you. If you value time with family, find a way to spend more time each day with them. If you value a hobby or activity, figure out how you can clear some time to devote to it. Maybe you can delegate some tasks (e.g., cleaning house, doing yard work) that don’t feed your soul and that take away time from what you enjoy. Maybe you can find more efficient ways to do less-fulfilling tasks so you have more time for what you love.

Give the gift of yourself. Share your time, talent and/or treasure with a cause you believe in. Whether you directly provide the services of the organization whose mission you support, serve that organization in a supporting role, or support that organization financially, assisting others can help take your focus off your own worries and allow you to reflect on the blessings in your life.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,


What Can Tennis Teach Us About Organizing?

Tennis Ball and RacquetAt one time in my life I actually thought I might one day be a decent tennis player. I’ve long put that dream aside, but I was pleased to note recently that I at least have one trait that a particular professional men’s tennis player might wish he had – the ability to be neat and organized. This revelation occurred while I was watching the recent men’s U.S. Open tennis semi-final match. I, and probably thousands of other viewers, got quite a laugh when the umpire told one of the contestants that his chair area looked “messy.”

Even if you don’t know anything about tennis, you might correctly assume that the appearance of one’s area on the sidelines is not a trait on which the game’s outcome depends. So imagine how surprising, even shocking, it must have been to the contestant to be scolded about the appearance of his stuff. We’re not talking about trying to teach a grade-school child the importance of orderliness – this was a world-ranked professional athlete being told, in effect, to clean up his messy room.

Even if you think your cluttered workspace or messy home doesn’t affect people’s opinion of you, consider that, right or wrong, people do form opinions based upon appearance. Clients have told me (before we’ve worked together) that their clutter has impacted their ability to be taken seriously at their job as well as the harmony of their relationships at home. They’ve told me they’re embarrassed to invite clients into their office or guests into their home. They’ve also reported, sadly, that the attributes their bosses, co-workers, friends and family have assigned to them include incompetence and laziness, even if their performance indicates just the opposite.

So, what does your clutter say about you? Are you sending unintended (and probably unwarranted) messages about your competence or work ethic? It’s time to take charge of your clutter and show the world that, even if you can’t hit a tennis ball over a net, you can keep an orderly workspace and home. Tennis umpires everywhere will salute you.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Unplugged and Loving It

Last week I was on vacation with my husband in Ohio. We visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park (yes, there’s a national park in Ohio!). Our trip certainly wasn’t fancy, but it was fabulous for lots of reasons: we were outdoors most of the time – my favorite place to be; we were active (biking, hiking and kayaking) – my favorite way to be; and I was able to reconnect with some college friends I hadn’t seen for years (I’m not telling how many). But one of the biggest reasons the trip was so great was because I unplugged my laptop and turned off my cell phone.

It’s amazing how much more present I was able to be without the distraction of phone calls, texts and emails – I was able to soak in the beautiful scenery, enjoy the exhilaration of our activities, and fully engage in conversations with my husband and friends. My brain was free of the clutter of things to do and other people’s demands on my time that usually take up space in my brain.

I’m very low-tech when it comes to connectedness: I don’t have a Smartphone or tablet, so I can’t check email or the Internet except when I’m in front of my computer; I rarely watch TV (I don’t even have cable); and I use a paper planner rather than something electronic. Even though my electronic connectedness is already very limited in normal circumstances, shutting it down entirely was incredibly liberating. I can only imagine how much more freeing it would have felt if I was normally even more connected.

My experience of feeling so liberated when I turned off my electronic connections got me wondering how different (and probably better) other people’s lives might be if they were able to disconnect even one day a week and just “be.” So I challenge you to take a day, or even a weekend, and turn everything off. Turn off your phone, your computer, and yes, your television. Spend the time you’d otherwise be with your electronics with the people you love: have a meaningful, uninterrupted conversation; play a game or do a puzzle; take a walk outside. The point is to unplug and connect with other human beings.

I’d love to hear how your experiment with unplugging goes, so please let me know. I’m guessing it will lead to more heartfelt interactions with people, a keener awareness of your surroundings, and an intense sense of peace. So don’t look for excuses – unplug! I look forward to hearing from you (after you plug back in, of course!).

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Life Lessons Learned from a Hockey Team

My favorite sports team, the Chicago Blackhawks, just won their second professional hockey championship trophy in 3 years – the Stanley Cup. Whether or not you’re a hockey fan, you can learn some important lessons from the Blackhawks:

Surround yourself with people who can help you achieve your vision. In 2004, ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in professional sports – that’s all professional sports, not just hockey. Personnel changes were made throughout the management ranks at all levels, and just nine years later, the Blackhawks have twice won what is arguably the hardest championship of all professional sports to win. Are the people in your life or business able to support you in being your best?

Let people know you care about them. With new, visionary thinkers at the helm, the Blackhawks changed many of their policies, including how they interacted with their fans and past players. Within the last six years, they’ve held their first fan convention, allowed the games to be televised, and invited past stars to be ambassadors for the team. As a result, game attendance has skyrocketed. Are you treating the people in your life, including family members, employees, customers and vendors in a way that makes them want to support you?

Focus and commitment will get you to your goal.  Several years ago, the Blackhawks adopted a marketing campaign with the slogan “One Goal” – that being the Stanley Cup. Their advertising, as well as their mindset, had them focused on achieving that goal. At the beginning of this year’s four-round playoff series, reporters were speculating on who the Blackhawks (who had finished first in the regular season standings) might play in the Stanley Cup finals. It was anticipated that they would play the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had finished first in their conference. Rather than respond to the conjecture, Blackhawk players and coaches simply stated that they were focused exclusively on the next game. No matter how spectacular their most recent win, everyone in the organization knew there was a lot more work to be done. They didn’t allow themselves to celebrate too much, because they hadn’t yet achieved their goal of winning the Stanley Cup. And as it turns out, Pittsburgh didn’t even make it to the finals. What goals do you have for yourself, and what are you doing to focus on achieving them, step by step?

Even the best of the best need a coach.  Professional hockey players are arguably the best-conditioned of all professional athletes. They’ve typically been playing the game since a very young age and they’ve spent untold hours practicing and playing. Yet they still have coaches to help them improve their play, ready for each game, and achieve excellence. In what areas of your life could a coach help you achieve excellence? Please contact me if you’d like to explore having an organizing and productivity coach help you achieve excellence.

Wishing you success in achieving your goals,

Is Technology Ruining Our Lives?

I know that’s a fairly provocative question, but now that I have your attention, please hear me out. Technology certainly has many, many benefits. As a former corporate accountant, I sure wish the personal computer had been available back in the day to save me the frustration of adding and re-adding numbers on multiple-column spreadsheets. Today’s workplace and workers certainly benefit from the improved productivity and efficient communication that technology makes available. However, I wonder if we’ve gone too far. 

I make a living at helping people make the most of their time, and it seems that technology has now crossed the boundary of making us productive and has moved into the realm of being an obstacle to productivity. Take email for instance: It used to be that it was a tool that allowed senders to communicate with numerous people at the same time and allowed recipients to respond when it was convenient for them. But no more – in many workplaces, there is an expectation that employees will respond instantaneously every time they get a new email. It boggles my mind that anyone can be expected to get anything accomplished when they’re constantly being interrupted with other people’s demands. 

I think email and texting often stealthily cross the boundary of making communication more efficient – how often have you been engaged in back-and-forth email or texting communication that, as it turns out, could have been handled more efficiently via a phone call? It may start off as a simple question posed via email or text, but soon turns into back-and-forth banter that takes up more time than a phone call would. Know when to say when and stop the email and texting madness and dial the phone.

Speaking of phones, I see many people who have become slaves to a tool that is supposed to set them free. There are many great conveniences that smartphones offer, but like email, I think they’ve actually made people less productive in many cases. They can be a constant source of distraction and interruption – so much so that some (smart) companies have banned cell phones (and all technology, for that matter) from meetings so people will actually pay attention to the meeting.

One of my colleagues offered this observation about the smartphone: “While it’s a great tool, it’s quickly getting more complicated to run the business, between the phone calls, texting, and emails on various platforms (phone calls via the office land line and smartphone, email via the computer and smartphone, etc.). In fact, I have a younger client (a busy mom, author, and speaker) who runs her entire business off her smartphone — while she’s on the go. Naturally, her emails are cryptic, at best. Often she answers only 1 out of 3 questions in an email. Another client only hits the ‘reply’ button for emails from her smartphone instead of ‘reply all’ (these are important emails in which the entire team needs to be in the loop). I’m also finding that people who use smartphones will send text messages to my business line, assuming that it’s a smartphone … it’s a land line! Plus, smartphone users don’t take the time to type a relevant, current subject line in an email … they just go find an old email message, hit Forward, and type in the content — the recipients receive an email with a confusing, out-of-date Subject line.”

Smartphones can also take away from opportunities to interact with our fellow human beings. I’m constantly amazed when I go to restaurants and see tables where everyone has their face glued to their phone – they’re either talking, texting, or doing something or other online – anything but talking to the people they’re with. Seems to me they could have just ordered carryout and stayed home with their technology. And I could say something similar about many of the fans who sit near me at Chicago Blackhawks hockey games – they’ve paid good money (or if they haven’t I want to know how they got their tickets!) to attend a professional sporting event, yet they spend seemingly at least half the game texting and checking Facebook. I don’t get it!

I laughed out loud when I learned there’s a smartphone app that offers users a transparent view of what’s in front of them so they won’t walk into a tree or light pole while they’re texting and walking. People are risking their physical and mental health in order to instantaneously communicate, yet are missing out on so many opportunities to relax, be present, let their minds be still for a moment, appreciate their surroundings, or personally connect with their fellow human beings. It’s not clear to me how all this connectedness and instantaneous communication is making lives better when it seems like so many people are totally stressed out!

Call me old fashioned, a Luddite, or behind the times – I can take it. I certainly have no issue with using technology to enhance our lives, but I think we’re at a tipping point that is making us less engaged with our fellow human beings, and certainly less productive and more stressed.

How much more productive and fulfilled could you be if you put down your phone for a few hours and were fully present in the moment?

 Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Minimize Holiday Stress

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – or is it? With all there is to do, including shopping, baking, more shopping, wrapping gifts, hosting guests, this special time of year often brings us more stress than joy. We set high expectations for ourselves, we have to deal with crowded stores, and our time and finances are stretched to the limit. It may not be too late to reclaim the spirit of the season and start a new holiday tradition of peacefulness and joy.

Reevaluate your expectations. The proliferation of TV shows and magazines suggesting that the holidays aren’t complete without a beautifully decorated home, the smell of cookies baking in the oven, and perfectly wrapped gifts for everyone who crosses your threshold, might have you believing that you have to spend every waking moment imitating them. I’d like to suggest that the holidays should be whatever you would like them to be, rather than a contest to see who can claim they’re busier and more exhausted.

Reevaluate everyone else’s expectations. Have you ever asked your family what they enjoy most about the holidays? You may be surprised that it isn’t that the bow on the front door is perfectly crafted or that holiday cards are addressed in calligraphy handwriting. You may find they just enjoy spending time together appreciating the positive energy generated by this festive time of year. While you may think you’re creating the holiday of their dreams, you may be creating a holiday that zaps you of energy and the positive spirit that’s important to them.

Prioritize. Be realistic about what’s important, what’s necessary, and what it’s going to take to get the important, necessary things done. Eliminate what you can in light of your more realistic expectations, and use a calendar to plan when you’ll get those important things done. Cross out the “shoulds” and schedule the things that matter to you and your family. If there’s not enough time, pare down your list, delegate where you can, and reduce your expectations. Maybe you can skip the holiday cards this year, or at least reduce the number of recipients. Cookies from the bakery can be mighty tasty, so maybe you don’t have to make them from scratch. Start today to move unnecessary items on your to-do list to a “don’t do” list.

Enjoy the process. The frenzied look on the faces of shoppers, the honking horns and screeching tires in parking lots, and the TV images of people fighting over limited inventory has me convinced that people have lost the true meaning of the holidays. Rather than appreciating the shared mission of fellow human beings trying to make the holidays special, it’s every person for him- or her self. I prefer to slow down, breathe deeply, and make sure I don’t get caught up in the negative energy that permeates the air.

If you’d like to help someone you know lessen their stress by getting his or her home, office or calendar organized, consider giving them a From Piles to Smiles gift certificate. Better yet, tell your family members that you’d like the gift of organization this holiday season.

Here’s to the most wonderful time of the year.

Living the Life You Really Want

The images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy have certainly been heart-wrenching. As the cleanup continues, I have to believe that the people directly affected by the destruction, as well as many of us who are lucky enough to be able to view it from the comfort of our intact homes, are changed forever. While there are plenty of unfortunate effects of the hurricane, one that will likely emerge for some people is a new view of what’s important in their life. Although people have lost physical possessions, many may also be assessing what they still do possess: health, family, and freedom, just to name a few.  

I wonder how many people will also be evaluating their life on a deeper level to live it in a more fulfilling way. I recently read the book Off Balance by Matthew Kelly that explores this very concept. The premise of the book is that rather than seeking work-life balance (because we typically don’t want an equal number of working and non-working hours), “people need and want a satisfying experience of life.” Unfortunately, many people confuse pleasure (which cannot be sustained beyond the activity producing it) with satisfaction (which can be sustained beyond the activity producing it). Using his examples, eating brings pleasure (which is why many people eat even when they’re not hungry) while the great feeling experienced by working out can bring satisfaction.

How satisfied are you with your life? Do you end each (or most) days feeling fulfilled, that you’ve been “the best version of yourself?” as Mr. Kelly describes it. In my work of helping people organize their lives, I see plenty of examples of people striving for satisfaction, but only achieving pleasure: closets and cabinets overflowing with the aftermath of shopping excursions that brought only short-lived enjoyment; jam-packed schedules full of activities that kept people busy, but didn’t fulfill any meaningful desires; catalogs and coupons promising wonderful bargains that will leave purchasers with temporary glee at getting a bargain, but more lasting dismay at having to pay for it, not to mention, find room for it and care for it.

So what’s bringing you satisfaction in your life? Are you the best version of yourself, or do you need to change some things in order to get there? De-cluttering your home, paring down your mountains of paperwork, and creating a schedule filled with meaningful activities can all move you closer to being that best version. What’s the first step you’ll take to move in that direction?

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Clear the Clutter and Find Prosperity

I recently read the book Great With Money by Melissa Burke and Ellen Rogin. With the goal of the book being to help readers create a prosperous mindset and a confident approach to money, you might expect it to focus on how to earn more and spend less. Well, it may surprise you to know that “clear your clutter” is the first step to prosperity described by the authors. Yup, clearing the clutter in your life is the first step towards prosperity.

Even without the benefit of seeing disorganized homes and offices on the level that I do, these authors wisely recognize that being surrounded by clutter can block you from achieving more in your life – your piles of paper and other stuff represent unfinished tasks and postponed decisions that can weigh you down. The clutter not only physically blocks you from accomplishing things, but the mental clutter it creates can prevent you from moving forward in your life. You’re too busy focusing on what you haven’t accomplished to be able to think about creating new accomplishments.

Sure, great achievers like Albert Einstein were famously buried in clutter. However, I’m guessing that because you’re reading a blog about organization, you sense is that being better organized would help you accomplish more. As Swiss philosopher Henri Frédéric Amiel stated, “Order is light, peace, inner freedom, self-determination: it is power. To conceive order, to return to order, to realize order in oneself, around oneself, by means of oneself, is well-being.”

Not only does clearing clutter and creating order create a physical and mental path towards prosperity, it can actually directly generate prosperity. While helping clients de-clutter their homes and offices, I’ve discovered money (I once found $3,500 cash that the owner had no idea existed tucked away in a book!), uncashed checks, unused gift cards, and uncashed savings bonds. I’ve found things clients knew were “here somewhere” and saved them the trouble of having to buy replacements. I’ve consigned clothing and household items to resale shops that have generated income, and donated items to charity which have generated tax deductions. I’ve unearthed financial documents, insurance forms, medical paperwork, etc. that had direct financial implications for the client.

What financial potential lies buried in your clutter? What could you achieve if only the mountains of paperwork and stuff disappeared? What steps towards de-cluttering and organizing your life can you take to start realizing more prosperity? I encourage you to take at least one step today to move you in the right direction. Good luck on your journey.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,