It’s Only Natural to Plan Ahead

squirrel eating a nutWatching the squirrels gather and hide their food for the winter offers a great reminder for all of us that planning ahead can prevent disasters down the road. The squirrels know that whether or not they’re ready, winter will arrive soon and present plenty of survival challenges. They wisely (albeit instinctively) are doing what they can now to plan and prepare for their future.

Do you regularly plan and prepare for your future? Whether it’s something big like planning for your retirement, or something smaller like planning dinners for the week, planning ahead can save a lot of time and aggravation. Creating a daily and weekly planning ritual is the key to success in this area. Here’s a peek into my daily and weekly planning routines that might offer you some inspiration:

Daily planning time. I prefer planning towards the end of the day – it’s a good time for me to wrap up loose ends from today and prepare myself for tomorrow. My peak mental energy time is in the morning, so by planning the night before, I can hit the ground running in the morning and work on a difficult or unpleasant task when I have the most mental horsepower. Otherwise I’d have to squander some of that key time figuring out what I should do next. Some people, however, do better planning in the morning so they can ease into their day by reflecting on what needs to be done within the next 8 or 12 hours. Whether it’s first thing in the morning or at the end of your day, finding a regular time to pause and reflect on what you’ve accomplished and what you still have to get done will help you make sure you’re moving towards your goals.

Weekly planning time. I prefer to do my weekly planning on Sunday evenings as I look forward to the week ahead. My tasks include planning meals for the week (and creating the corresponding grocery list for when I go shopping on Monday evenings); discussing my (and his) calendar with my husband to make sure there are no surprises; reviewing the week’s appointments to make sure I’m prepared for my work with each of my upcoming clients; and preparing information my administrative assistant will need to do my bookkeeping and weekly administrative tasks.

What tasks need to become part of your daily and weekly planning routines?

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Organization for Effective Co-Parenting

parents and daughterParenting requires organization systems and communication skills – family calendars, dinner conversations, and homework rules provide structure for kids and reduce stress on parents. If parents divorce, new structures need to be put in place to keep everyone on the same page. Communication becomes even more important although circumstances can make it more difficult. I’ve invited Theresa Beran Kulat, Esq. to share some helpful organizational suggestions for parents whether they are divorced or still married.

Continue to have (or start) regular family meetings. At least once a year, get everyone in the same room to talk. Decide as a group which extra-curricular activities each child will pursue. Parents can work out driving arrangements and other logistics. Depending on the ages of the children, include them in working out the details. An older child can ride his bike to soccer practice. Another can save babysitting money to pay for a trip to camp. I personally find family meetings most helpful in late summer to prepare for school and in the early spring plan for summer. Camps, summer school, jobs for kids present a different routine than during the school year.

Maintain a Master Calendar. Find a place in the family “hub” and put up a giant calendar on the wall.  Use different color markers for each person to provide a visual reminder of what is coming up.  Two-home families need to be more creative. In addition to a physical calendar, you can set up a shared online calendar to connect the two homes. Outlook, Google, and Yahoo have free options.  Parents can update the calendar with pick-up and drop-off times, kids’ practices, games, concerts, parent-teacher conferences and school holidays. Make sure kids know how to access the information and, when appropriate, allow them to enter events and activities. In addition to these free options, several companies offer online calendar sharing for a fee. Check out OurFamilyWizard.com, JointParents.com and ParentingTime.com.

Click here for a link to my newsletter to read more about organization for effective co-parenting.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Pause and Refresh to Improve Productivity

Woman relaxing on beachEver have one of those days when you’re so busy you barely have time to go to the bathroom or grab a bite to eat? Who am I kidding – we probably all have! No matter how busy you are, however, taking time to pause provides a much-needed break and reboot for your brain.

Why is that important? When you spend your day in reactive mode, busily responding to everything that comes your way, you miss opportunities to recalibrate and make sure you’re focused on what’s important. You’re so busy taking on tasks and running with them that you may miss the fact that you’re running the wrong way or with the wrong task, as something else may be more worthy of your time at the moment. We’re so caught up in the “doing” that we don’t allow time for pausing and thinking.

How do you know when you need to pause and refresh? When you show up at a meeting unprepared or without supporting materials; when you hop on a phone call without preparing for what you want to discuss; when you forget to capture outcomes from meeting or phone calls and things fall through the cracks; when dinner guests are on their way and you’re just getting back from the grocery store; when you’ve been busy all day but have no idea what you actually were doing – the list goes on and on.

So how can you make pausing and refreshing an ongoing habit? Consider what athletes, musicians and other types of performers do: they take time before the main event to prepare, not only physically, but mentally as well. For example, hockey players don’t just lace up their skates and hop on the ice; they sit, sometimes trance-like and get their game face on – visualizing how they’ll take on their opponent. It’s just part of their normal game-day routine.

Can you make it part of your routine to spend time reviewing meeting agendas well before the meeting so you can prepare? Can you make it a habit to wait to dial the phone until you’ve had a chance to review the purpose of your call and rehearse what you want to say? Can you take a few moments at the end of the day to debrief from all the day’s activities and capture next actions? Can you plan your dinner party the week before it’s scheduled? The answer to all these questions, of course, is yes you can – you just have to make these behaviors a habit. Signs, sticky notes, timers and even an accountability partner are just a few examples of ways you can remind yourself.

Improve the quality of your day – pause, breathe, and regroup often. It make take more effort to think rather than to react, but in the long run it will result improve your productivity and the quality of your life.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony, and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

Outfox Your Inbox

smiling woman at computerThere was a time when it was exciting to receive a new email. Yay, someone is thinking of me and cares enough to write to me! Those days sure are gone. For most people, at least in their work world, email is the cause of much frustration and inefficiency. Fear not, readers – here are some ideas to help you win the battle against email overload:

Be purposeful. Don’t fall victim to the “skim and delay” technique. You know, that process where you open an email, read it, and then tell yourself you’ll deal with it later while you eagerly move on to the next email to see if it’s more interesting. Next thing you know, you have an inbox full of read but unprocessed emails that you rarely (or never) get back to. As you open each email, do what productivity guru David Allen suggests and answer the question, “What’s the next action?” Then, do something purposeful to move the email along on its journey – respond, delete, mark it for future action, file it for reference, or forward it to someone else.

Get off mailing lists. Are you on mailing lists that are no longer relevant for you? Take the time to either unsubscribe, or set up a rule to move those emails directly to your deleted folder (of course I hope you won’t do either with my newsletter, but I understand if it’s the best decision for you).

Send fewer emails. Keep in mind that every email you send will likely result in a corresponding reply. Think about whether a phone call or other form of communication might be more efficient in some situations. Even short emails like “Thanks” take time to read, so indicate when you don’t expect a reply by including “No Reply Needed” at the bottom of your message.

Send thorough emails. As Mark Twain’s quote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” humorously points out, taking the time to write a brief but comprehensive communication takes time. However, investing time to tell people your message clearly and concisely will save time in the long run. Your recipient will know exactly what you want from them, so a volley of back-and- forth messages is less likely. You can even be on the lookout for opportunities to make the subject line the entire email.

I’d love to hear what techniques you use to outfox your inbox.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Sue Small for Blog

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

 

 

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 Dictionary.com 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

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