Gretchen Rubin comes through my part of the world fairly often, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go to a few of her readings and meet her. First of all, SHE IS SO NICE. The other thing that stands out, after her talk on Outer Order, Inner Calm, is how much the audience responds to this material. I’ve always thought she has delightfully subversive things to say about happiness and human behavior. It’s what she has to say about order and clutter that really seems to click with people the most.
When Gretchen asked how many people in the room make their bed every morning, nearly every hand went up. In fact I’m pretty sure they all did; I’m just hedging. Where else would this be true? Then she asked how many people make their bed even when they stay in a hotel, and everyone laughed because only a few hands went up. (Including mine!) I do it because it helps me make sure I haven’t lost anything in the bedding, like clothes, an eye mask, a pen, or my AirPods. Making the bed is part of my five-minute “perimeter check,” the way I’ve finally stopped losing objects when I travel.
For me, outer order is about mental bandwidth, not so much calmness as simply being able to think straight and remember what I’m doing. When the bed is made, I don’t need to worry about it. When my desk is clear, I don’t need to worry about it. When the counters are clear, I don’t need to worry about them. In a split second, I can glance around and know, there is nothing I need to do here. Now I can focus.
It does make relationships calmer. My husband prefers outer order as well, although for different reasons. I honestly believe he could concentrate on his work in the midst of a tornado or a kindergarten. For Upholders like him, an orderly environment just makes sense. There are no reasons to have things any other way. This is very helpful for me, because I work at home and I don’t need either the mess or the inevitable discussions about the mess!
I started reading this book on the bus on the way home from the Outer Order, Inner Calm event, and I hadn’t even finished it before I had cleared and reorganized an area. I live in a studio apartment with another human, a dog, and a parrot, and even though we own relatively few things, almost all our stuff is on open display at all times. Clearing even one square foot makes a noticeable difference. Not everyone feels it as quickly, though, when most people are used to living in a larger home with more things around them.
Here are some of the ideas that stood out to me:
“Use a photograph to evaluate clutter.” This definitely works. I do photo evaluations with clients all the time.
Choose a “flavor of the month.” Focus on sorting through only one category of object for a month. I need to do this again with my books. How about you?
Assign each day its own task. This also works well for me, since I keep a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I also combine errands because I don’t have a car.
Is your clutter backward-looking or forward-looking? How great a question is this? In my experience, almost all of my chronically disorganized clients are forward-looking types, who let old things go easily but hang on tightly to things like unused craft supplies and unread books.
The holiday rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Yes, please! Huge gift explosions at holidays have never made much sense to me. If this happens several times a year, where the heck does it all go??
This book is designed to be read in bursts. The sections are short and punchy. You can read a single page and find yourself jumping up to clear an area. As an organizer and someone who has been reviewing organizing books for years, I still found fresh insights and material that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially for Gretchen Rubin fans, Outer Order, Inner Calm is the perfect book to keep beside you as you start spring cleaning!
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them.
Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
What would you accomplish with a magic task - a task that got completed overnight with no work from you?
Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started.
Where do you start? This is the most common question about anything, any time. In chaos, it’s even harder to know where to start. Where does it end and where does it begin?
The secret is, it doesn’t matter where you start if it’s all going to get done eventually. When you’re trying to dig out clutter in the home, it’s really about what matters the most to you. Suggestions of where to start are probably just going to make you think of all the reasons why that is actually the wrong place to start.
Fine, then start somewhere else!
In my mind, though, for most people it’s going to be paper. I’ve never met anyone who was 100% on top of their paper piles. Even people who are into electronic everything tend to have issues with paper. It’s okay!
This is why I suggest that you get an empty laundry basket and throw your mail into it. Carry it around, or have someone carry it for you, and consolidate all your papers. Then, if you need to look for it, you’ll know that it’s somewhere in that basket.
Some of you are already thinking that there’s no way one laundry basket will be enough. True. I’ve seen a lot and I believe you. There are two ways you can do it:
Every cluttered home is different. Some are spotless and magazine-ready except for one terrible, scary room. (Scary because the inhabitants live in fear that someone will find out their Secret Shame). Others are mildly lived-in, with a small amount of clutter in every room. Yet others are utterly filled, chaos everywhere, and those are the rooms that belong to my people.
I like to encourage my people to reclaim areas, one square foot at a time. Eventually an entire table or countertop might be bought back. Then an entire room is done. (It can happen!). Working a little bit here and there means there’s never really much to show for all that effort.
If the major problem in the home is mail and other papers, then dealing with the papers is going to have the biggest impact. That’s an instant visual impact and it’s also going to affect mental bandwidth. Get the papers out of the way, and what’s left might be a totally normal, functioning room!
It all starts to feel more manageable.
The thing about paper is that almost none of it is really necessary. At least 80% of it you’re never going to look at again. That means it’s just taking up space and making everything confused. When you can’t find the one thing that you really do need, it’s because it’s buried in with all the unimportant stuff. If you know it’s somewhere in one stack, one filing cabinet, or one laundry basket, then you can find it.
You can even show someone else the basket and ask them to look in it.
What’s standard in the homes of my chronically disorganized people is that there are papers everywhere. Papers in the windowsills, on the bookshelves, on the dressers and nightstands, in drawers, in backpacks and purses and briefcases, in cubbyholes, and definitely on the dining table. Every single room has important papers in it, mixed in with piles that are useless.
Stress tends to make us pace back and forth and keep checking the same spots over and over again, even when we’ve already checked and we know the item isn’t there. (Sometimes it actually IS there and our stress levels were so high that we didn’t notice it or realize what it was). This is why it’s so helpful to go around and gather all the papers from every room, and instead make sure they’re all in one spot.
Ahh, but what if there are 87 million metric tons of paper? What then??
This is the other purpose of the laundry basket for gathering and consolidating papers. It’s a unit of measure. If you’re trying to sort, file, archive, shred, recycle, or toss papers, the only way to do it all at once is via arson, which I don’t advise as it is a potentially lethal crime. A laundry basket load is really quite a lot of paper to sort. Even if it’s entirely filled with magazines or newspapers, it’s a lot.
Maybe do one laundry basket load a week, or a month? Or ask someone who enjoys this sort of thing to help out.
Oddly, papers are one of the fastest and easiest categories to sort when I do home visits. That’s because they’re confusing, but they’re usually not important for emotional reasons. It’s very easy for me to sort through piles of unopened mail, for instance, because it’s usually just 2-3 years’ worth of mail from the same dozen organizations. The logos all match and the envelopes are the same size. It’s no harder than sorting through a stack of playing cards. The client then shrugs and shreds entire stacks at a time.
Meanwhile, sorting a laundry basket load of baby clothes can take a million years, because each piece has so many memories. The client feels like sharing those clothes with a new mom and a new baby is tantamount to throwing away her own child. No, no, I can’t let go of this one. Craft supplies, same struggle, different reason. I was going to USE that! (Three years ago).
Nobody ever says, Oh, I can’t possibly shred that three-year-old electric bill, oh, my heart!
All you really need is your identification, a list of account numbers, and your tax returns. Any accounts that you have, if you owe them money, they’ll find you, and they’ll keep contacting you. Never worry about that. All the truly necessary and important papers generated by one person over one lifetime should easily fit in a fireproof safe. That’s a lot smaller than a laundry basket.
Throw your mail in a laundry basket. Tape a sign to it with the date that you put it in. Then wait and see how much time goes by before you actually need anything from that basket.
I use a lot of apps to stay organized, and by ‘organized’ I mean “to keep my brain from floating off into space like a weather balloon.” It took me a long time to find these apps, and there are probably eight I tested for every one that I use. That’s why I’m sharing here.
There are also perfectly fine analog versions, or other ways to track the same habits and information I do without using a smartphone.
I use an iPhone because I tried Android and didn’t like it. Like everything else, it’s personal preference, so if my recommendations aren’t available on Android then maybe you can find something similar. Several of these are paid. I’m willing to pay for apps that work because it’s still less than the price of a magazine, and comparable to a lot of drinks and snacks I have nothing to show for after I buy them.
Lockscreen if I need to catch my own attention on an early morning, when I’m essentially half-moss for the first couple of hours and unable to manage my usual system. You can do this by taping a note to your bathroom mirror, something large-format if you need corrective lenses. I have been known to try to stick notes directly to the front of my phone.
CallProtect to block spam and fraud phone calls. How DO people deal with that if they don’t have a smartphone? How do they avoid getting woken up if they can’t set quiet hours on their phone? (I actually know the answer to this because I grew up with a rotary phone, but I like to forget those days).
WaterMinder to track my hydration, because if I don’t drink enough water early enough, it interferes with my sleep. You can track your water intake simply by always using the same size of container (cup, glass, mug, bottle, pitcher) and counting how many times you empty it.
MorningRoutine to help integrate new habits and keep me from wandering around while I brush my teeth. You can do the same thing with a checklist and a stopwatch.
Mint to track all my bank accounts and my portfolio. You can do this with a ledger or a spreadsheet, although it’s a lot more work.
MyFitnessPal for weigh-ins and a food log. You can do this with paper and a website or a paperback book of nutritional information, but it takes a while.
Thyme to set timers on multiple washers and dryers. Most people would either do this with a clock, not have to use a laundromat in the first place, or maybe just leave their wet clothes in the machine?
TripIt for trip planning. My husband loves this so much that it practically brings tears to his eyes. I put together an itinerary with all the addresses and reservation times and share it with him. Then all he has to do is whip out his phone and order a cab. You can do this with paper and a folder.
Transit for knowing when the bus is coming. Even though we ride one of the most irregular buses in the known galaxy, Transit has pretty good intel on when the darn thing is actually coming up the road.
Clear for my list of book recommendations. I usually see them slightly before they’re released, so I can’t request them from the library for a few weeks. This is a beautiful app and very useful for basic lists. I could use Notes, but it’s just so pretty. A paper list of books to read? Mine used to fill an entire spiral notebook, but knock yourself out if that’s how you want to do it. Or just buy them and stack them up until they fill your entire house.
Reminders to remind me to do things during normal business hours, such as making a business call, texting someone who I’m sure doesn’t want to hear from me at 11PM, or doing something in our apartment’s business center when it’s open. Most people do this with sticky notes, but in my experience mine always come unstuck and drift to the floor.
Notes for every darn thing. I do with the Notes app what I used to do with index cards, looseleaf paper, spiral notebooks, sticky notes, and the backs of envelopes. The main difference is that I always have all my notes with me. I don’t lose them and they don’t get thrown out or shuffled into books when I need a bookmark. I can do a keyword search, too, and find the note I want in about one second. The result of this is that in the past four years, rather than just have a scattered billow of little tiny notes, instead I have a blog, a podcast, a self-published book, and a book proposal in progress.
MinimaList for when I have a list of stuff that makes me want to procrastinate. Make the list, tap an item, and a pomodoro timer starts for 25 minutes. It has a range of snarky messages and it will tell you off if you pick up your phone while it’s in focus mode. Racing against a timer is a gamification method that works for me.
Switching to a smartphone changed my life. It ended a fifteen-year streak of never reading or replying to my email. It helped me to start being on time or early to things, because I could check the weather, estimate transit time, and know I wouldn’t be bored in a waiting room anymore. It gave me a way to take photographs and make illustrations that I never would have before. My analog life was messy without the art, while my digital life is more creative without quite as much mess. I look forward to how much future innovation will inform my process, while somewhat shuddering at how it used to be before I turned 35 and got this electronic brain annex.
Hey habit nerds, here ya go! This is my own highly personalized system. How do I find the time in the day to do all the things I do? What is it that I do, anyway?
Over the course of a year, I put up five blog posts a week, review about 50 books (and read a couple hundred), put out a specialized tech newsletter for aerospace engineers five days a week, and record a podcast up to six days a week. I’m training in Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and situational combatives (a.k.a. weapons class). I do consulting work with chronic disorganization and hoarding. I’m an area director overseeing five regional clubs while I finish the requirements to become a Distinguished Toastmaster, and I’m also a club coach. I’m at my goal weight, I keep a clean house, and I journal every night. Believe it or not, these are just my side projects!
There are some tricks involved with all of this, which I’ll share before I get all “inside baseball” on my actual routines and habits.
I started out as a classic ADHD-leaning, chronically disorganized person with some chronic health issues. It took several years to discover the hidden gifts of my situation. The first among these is to stop tolerating boring or unsatisfying uses of my time. The reason I do all the projects I do is that they interest me more than binge-watching anything, recreational shopping, or unstructured errands. I used to spend a lot of time poking around with different productivity systems, and at this point I’m pretty sure I’ve tried and rated them all.
I do everything in time blocks.
I publish about 1000 pages a year on my blog. Almost all of that is done on weekend mornings while I hang out at the cafe with my husband. He often has to bring his work laptop and do expense reports or that kind of thing, so it’s a way for us to be together on the same wavelength. My standard is to work three weeks ahead and auto-schedule so I don’t have to write or post on vacation.
My husband travels quite a lot for business, so when he’s out of town, I work into the evening. When he’s home, we lounge around talking for hours. That’s my motivation for getting as much done as possible while he’s away.
The tech newsletter is a natural outgrowth of my reading habit. It started because I was sharing so many articles with my husband that he wanted to pass along to his colleagues, that I finally just offered to format them and send them in daily batches. All I do is save the good stuff to a system of categorized folders, and then copy and paste them into a template. It takes about ten minutes a day and makes (us) look like a genius. Usually I do it while I eat breakfast.
The podcast is a new part of my overall workflow. I’ve been challenged with it because I live next to a marina, in a tiny studio apartment, beneath a busy young family with a dog. There are perpetual construction projects, boat horns, weed whackers, car alarms, film shoots, and even a fashion model shooting a portfolio six feet outside my door. In other words, IT IS LOUD and I have to fit in recording sessions when it seems like it will be quiet enough for an hour.
Martial arts training happens in a single hour-long time slot three to six days a week. It’s the main time-bound part of my routine. The warmups are HIIT (high intensity interval training), so they will continue to get more intense as my fitness level increases. The belt system provides a lot of structure and challenge. I train with my husband now, so it doubles as date night!
Since we don’t drive, every time we go anywhere it’s a way to get something else done. Our commute back and forth to the gym is a bicycle ride along the beach, a fun and romantic part of our evening. Most of my time on the bus is my “helmet time” for outlining speeches, reading the news, and writing book reviews. If we had a car, how much of that would get done? Zero.
It’s much, much easier and more efficient to maintain anything than to try to reach a goal. All I have to do to maintain my goal weight and keep my apartment organized is to avoid the basic pitfalls. Do roughly the same thing every day. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, keep the dishwasher loaded, clean the bathroom for 12 minutes every week, start the robot vacuum when I leave. Eat the same size of breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days. Boom, done.
I currently use a Cossac day planner and... we’re getting married. Kidding, kinda. What I like about it the best is that it builds in a daily and weekly review, and that encourages strategic thinking. What did I attempt, did it work, and why or why not? With the amount of content I generate between the blog, the podcast, and my (ahem) ...other... projects, I need something very structured to track what I’m developing and posting and editing and formatting and illustrating and when. I check in when I first get up and also before I go to bed, with a longer weekly session on Sunday nights. That’s when I do my journaling, just a couple of minutes most days but sometimes several pages of rapid-fire ranting.
I use my phone to capture random thoughts, blog topics, and podcast ideas. I’m also constantly bookmarking articles, downloading podcast episodes, or reserving library ebooks and audio books as I learn about them. When it’s time to kick back with some entertainment, I don’t have to spend the “junk hours” scrolling that most people do, because that has happened a few seconds at a time throughout the week. The most important thing I do with my phone is to set my notifications and quiet hours to distract me as little as possible, while unsubscribing from email and blocking spam callers every single day, like smacking mosquitos.
I don’t have a “morning routine” because every day of the seven, I have a slightly different schedule. I certainly do not wake up early! I don’t meditate, I don’t put yak butter in my coffee or whatever, I don’t do “cleanses” (except my house), and I don’t do social media detoxes. If anything, I’d say what works the best for me is that I don’t spend five hours a day watching television, I don’t spend two hours a day on social media, I rarely eat snacks or restaurant food, and I sleep as much as I possibly, possibly can. I work outside of the time dimension as much as I can get away with, trying to make clocks and calendars more or less irrelevant to how I work.
So you insisted on joining that gym. You know what everyone says about New Year’s Resolutions and habits, and you believe that none of it applies to you. You signed up for a bargain membership at a commodity gym.
Congratulations! It just might work!
If you really and truly love gaming, TV and movies, music, shopping, fried foods, or any of the other cute and charming habits that people try to shed at resolution time, you can use that! You get to keep all that stuff. Well, actually you get to keep it either way. You can keep it with a fitness level that steadily deteriorates from year to year, or you can keep it while using it as fuel for your body upgrades.
Simply choose a form of exercise that allows you to indulge in your favorite activities at the same time.
Anchor the time in your schedule, the location, and the habits. Make gym time your indulgent time, time to get away with all the naughty things that are so fun to do.
Personally I like spying on people and eavesdropping on their conversations. I like checking out other people’s butts and wondering what workout they do. I like looking at their shoes and their workout clothes and mentally shopping. Would that combo work on me?
I also use my elliptical time to watch video clips, read articles, play Words With Friends, look at recipes, and dink around doing all the stuff online that I normally don’t have time to do. Sometimes I’ll read a potboiler that I only allow myself to read while I do cardio. It makes me move faster at the scary parts. I’ve tried watching movies or hour-long TV episodes, but it makes one minute feel like ten. That’s why I like the fragmented articles and short videos.
Sometimes the elliptical machines are taken. No surprise, since there are only two at our apartment gym and they’re often full of married couples. My husband will shrug and lift weights while listening to all the music I don’t let him play aloud in the house. I’ll usually hop on a treadmill and use it as a walking desk with my tablet keyboard. Sometimes I buy dog food online or make appointments. Sometimes I just write out a bunch of lists. If I bring a cable then my device will be fully charged, too. It’s not really all that naughty, but when I’ve caught up on email with a full battery, I feel like I just summoned an extra hour out of the ether.
That’s one of the main secrets behind getting your money’s worth out of a commodity gym. You have to be equally as willing to do one workout as another, because often your favorite equipment will already be in use. When I was in college, there was a strict 20-minute time limit on all the cardio equipment, and each machine had a sign-up sheet. A bouncer would come over and make you climb down if you tried to stay on longer. I’d take three slots and move between different machines and read my homework. Not having a hundred pages of assigned reading makes anything else feel like playtime.
There are all sorts of treats and indulgences and cute habits that fit people associate with their workouts, even their most boring workouts.
Cardio and entertainment! The elliptical and TV. The recumbent bike and cooking shows or video games. The treadmill and a podcast. Any fitness class that plays your type of music (although beware: I had to quit one gym that kept playing the same Top 40 pop hit every time I was there. That was before AirPods).
Mega calories and endurance sports! Do it indoors long enough when the weather is bad, and suddenly you’ll find yourself doing the same routine outdoors when it’s gorgeous out. You’ll find yourself doing it with a bagel in your hand. Everyone I know who bikes or runs does it for the beer. Every race day I have willing buddies who will hang around for me, even when I’m half their speed, because I hate beer and I’ll give them the voucher off my race bib. A friend of mine used to measure his weight loss against a little poster he had made of all his favorite See’s Candies, and now he’s a century rider.
Shopping and physical transformation! It wasn’t until I finally reached my goal weight that I realized how much less uncomfortable high heels are at 120 than at 160. It has to do with the laws of physics and pounds per square inch, which is why stilettos hurt more to wear than a stacked heel or a platform shoe. I also discovered that almost all clothes in my size will fit and look attractive on me, which definitely was not true when I wore a size fourteen. One night I tried on thirty-eight pairs of pants and not a single one fit right. That just doesn’t happen anymore. If fashion or revenge are strong interests of yours, why not? Make your shopping life easier.
It is absolutely fair game to base your transformation goals around your boyfriend’s ex or an online photo of the queen bee who tormented you in sixth grade. One of my clients made her goal with days to spare because she knew her ex would be at the same party with his new girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. Chances are, there’s an innocent bystander at your commodity gym who resembles this rival, at least a little. When you see her, you can use her silhouette to rev you up. It’s also fun to outdo the young bro at the next station. Especially if you lift.
A commodity gym can be a fantastic source of material for an artist. Caricatures, cartoons, comedy, sculpture, music, whatever it is that you do, if you go to the gym you’ll expand your net for capturing new ideas and fresh inspiration. Same with entrepreneurs and trend analysis. It’s a part of the world that is worthy of exploration.
A new gym can be a weird and uncomfortable place for someone who feels self-conscious and insecure. It can be a smelly and boring and loud place, too. Isn’t that also true of anywhere, but especially any shopping mall, hair salon, grocery store, workplace, restaurant, gas station, or anywhere else in public? Just think of your new commodity gym as a place to get your money’s worth, a place to catch up on your to-do list and your must-watch list and the games in your queue. Soon it will be just as familiar as your car, only it will take you farther.
I used to have a PDA, or ‘personal digital assistant.’ I loved that thing and I took it everywhere for several years. I still wish I could use the symbols I had to learn for the stylus that went with it. One day, I had it open at my desk at work. A colleague laughed at me. I happened to have a sticky note inside the cover. “Do you even know what a PDA is FOR?” he scoffed. Of course I did! It was to keep me organized, expand into an extra brain annex, and remind me to do things. It just so happened that the apps and technology available at the time weren’t a perfect fit for my productivity needs, not to mention the aesthetic. It might not have suited me perfectly, but that old PDA served as an object of power in my life. The right planner can do the same for anyone.
An object of power is to be distinguished from a tool. For instance, I can use any spoon, pencil, or cup as a tool in daily life, and none will be more valuable to me than any other. On the other hand, my dog has a tiny shred of an old stuffed toy that is a major object of power for him. It’s so small that it’s useless, it’s filthy, and it smells bad, but it matters to one little woofy heart.
A calendar can be either or both, an object of power and/or a routine tool. It can also be a piece of useless clutter.
One common feature of my people’s homes, along with a vast collection of refrigerator magnets and a bunch of coins scattered everywhere, is a wall calendar that features the wrong month or year. (I always ask before I change it, figuring it may be part of a magical ritual or something). The standard-issue wall calendar is a total fail for most people’s needs. We take them because they’re free and they often have nice pictures. Then we hang them in inaccessible places. They’re visible to all guests, so most people avoid writing anything personal or private on them. They’re extremely limited in format; for the space they take up, there’s very little room for the individual day or week. To use them, we either have to write against the wall, which leads to strained and crabbed penmanship, or take the whole contraption off the wall, where the little finishing nail inevitably pops out and gets lost. Maybe keep your wall calendar, if you really need it for the four dentist appointments and two vet appointments that get written on it, but don’t blame yourself if it fails you as a true planner.
The sorts of things we write on the common wall calendar are the sorts that don’t really need to BE on a calendar. I don’t know about you, but my dentist, veterinarian, and all other appointment-based business relationships always send multiple reminders in the form of calls, texts, emails, postcards, and business cards with peel-off stickers. This is the kind of thing most of us are least likely to forget.
I may be wrong. I generally don’t use a grocery list, a to-do list, or a schedule. I still manage to get a lot done. But then, maybe I’ve got it backward and I would do even more if I used more traditional tools? Why do I even bother myself thinking about planners?
I use a planner as an object of power as much as anything else. I’ve found that I really like a monthly calendar as a visual when I do strategic planning. Yet, although I carry an iPad almost everywhere I go, I haven’t found an app or digital calendar view that does the job. Most of the sort of activities that I want to “plan” are not specifically schedule-based, like in the time dimension and everything. I plan at the yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly level, and digital minute- and date-based reminders don’t work well for my needs.
What do I plan?
I plan my work in time blocks. Those time blocks are built around the few time-bound elements in my schedule. Classes at my gym, club meetings, and my husband’s work and travel schedule are the non-negotiables. I put those first because that’s how I prioritize my marriage, my fitness, and my educational and career growth goals. Why? My husband travels three or more days a week, so he has to come first if I want to see him at all. Classes and club meetings take up about six hours a week. Almost every minute of the remaining time is mine to squander.
Most of the things I do can be done at any time. That means if I’m not careful, they’ll never get done at all. That’s doubly true of creative projects that I can’t delegate, that won’t come into being if I don’t pull them into the time dimension somehow.
Artists, this might be useful. I think of my projects in three phases: gestation, work, and editing. Others might think of the first phase as ideation, daydreaming, woolgathering, or aimlessly staring out the window. The second phase might be anything from painting, sculpting, typing, or pattern drafting to chopping vegetables, soldering, or welding. The third phase might be called polish, styling, performing, plating, peer review, or whatever else works for you. For my purposes, the first phase requires the ability to drop what I’m doing and take notes, sketch something, snap a picture, or research something. The second phase is almost entirely typing and doesn’t even require internet access. The third phase includes formatting and scheduling, and occasionally a human intermediary.
It just occurred to me that there’s actually a FOURTH PHASE, which explains most of my problems in life. That fourth phase might variously be known as publishing, shipping, launching, or... finishing.
Everyone is most comfortable in one of these stages, and we can tend to languish, not realizing that it takes at least a minimal amount of planning to carry an idea through all four phases. I do my best work at phase one, ideation, while I always go to my husband for phase three. (Phase three and no sooner!)
See that it’s entirely possible to have multiple projects in progress in various phases along a timeline. Any or all of them might eventually become hung up on the input of another person, access to materials or facilities, delivery schedules, and so forth. A delivery driver or a waiter or an artisan in a framing shop might work almost entirely in phase four of other people’s projects, in what would be phase two of their own workday. My people, just like me, tend to work mostly in phases one and two. That’s where craft stores make all their money.
As a working artist, I don’t really use a planner for its calendar function. I use it as an adjunct brain. The monthly grid is how I try to avoid bunching up several posts in a row on the same topic, and how I anticipate writing around seasonal topics. The weekly view is where I write out errands I need to run, because it doesn’t matter what day I do them, and projects I want to get done, because I’m not always sure how long they’ll take. I’d rather look at them in my preferred format than spend a lot of extra time tinkering, shuffling, writing, erasing, and rewriting. That attention should be on my real work. The point of the planner is so I can use as much mental bandwidth as possible for making things, not for massaging and canoodling with the planner itself.
A planner as an object of power should be compelling to its possessor. It should attract the eye. It should be of a shape and size and weight that makes it irresistible, and it should suit the context. Consider whether you will use it mostly on a cafe table, at work, in your bed, at your desk, in the driver’s seat of your car, or whether it will spend most of its working life in your bag. Love the color and style, because if any aspect of it disappoints or annoys you, you won’t use it.
The more you use an object of power, the better it works. The more you use it, the more useful it becomes. The more you use it, the better you get at figuring out what you want out of it and what you’ll change the next time you choose one. There’s nothing wrong with writing on the wall or using a paper napkin, if it inspires you and brings you focus.
The thing about goals is that they’re usually much too modest and too ordinary to generate much passion in the goal-setter. For the purposes of this discussion, that would be you. Maybe you’ve been getting stuck on the same goals for so many years because they bore you. Maybe it’s because you secretly resent being held to humdrum societal expectations. Maybe you don’t like the way magazines always use the imperative command: LOSE WEIGHT while trying this brownie recipe! GET ORGANIZED while buying a few sacks full of these objects in our advertisements! I’m tired of it, too. That’s why I’m so proud to share that there are sneaky and cost-free ways to beat the system. Here are some cheats for common goals.
Goal: DRINK MORE WATER. I struggled with this for almost twenty years. It was closely linked to my cola addiction. Advertisers will try to sell you all sorts of special bottles and jugs and jars and hydration systems and custom artisanal additives. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: STRENUOUS EXERCISE. If you haven’t been working out, and you start, one of the first things you’ll notice is that your thirst begins to take over your life, and for once Idris Elba isn’t involved. In marathon training, I found that I could drink 80 fluid ounces on one training run. In martial arts classes, I can empty a 20-oz bottle in two gulps. The concern shifts from “I should probably get around to this one day” to “maybe I shouldn’t shove people away from the drinking fountain?”
Goal: GET ORGANIZED. This is my wheelhouse, because I work with chronically disorganized people, and I know from experience that it can take three months just to have one square foot of space consistently clear. Our culture makes time scarce and material objects plentiful. As of the mid-twentieth century, it’s possible to live in clutter and disorganization the likes of which humanity has never known. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: DOWNSIZE YOUR LIVING SPACE. My husband and I rented a typical suburban house when we first got married. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a two-car garage, living room, family room, laundry room, dining room, and the biggest kitchen I’d ever had. We now live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. Our dining table is stored flat under our bed. Getting an offer for the Epic Dream Job meant we had just eleven days to downsize all our stuff and relocate to a new city. The differential between a higher income on one hand, and lower rent plus no vehicle expenses on the other hand, means we could handily replace every object we downsized with plenty to spare. This is somewhat of a simplified version of a ten-year process, but this style of downsizing is not rare or radical by any means.
Goal: TOO BUSY AND TOO TIRED. Does this apply to everyone, or what? Being too tired to think straight is probably the biggest killer of goals and resolutions aside from the humble donut. This situation should not be tolerated. Even if you never make another goal or have any other aspirations in your life, finding a way to regain your energy level and get some peace of mind should matter to you. It’s the best reason to do anything. But how is it possible to get everything done without cutting back on sleep? What’s the cheat?
Cheat: GET RID OF YOUR CAR. Believe it or not, getting rid of our car two years ago was one of the most surprising and most effective ways to introduce leisure into our schedule. It takes longer to get places, and this has led to three things. One, we make fewer trips because it’s a bigger deal, so we consolidate or delegate errands. Two, we each have a BMW (Bike Metro Walk) which automatically adds more exercise, more time to listen to podcasts and audio books, and more time to sit and chill. On the bus (or rideshare, occasionally) you can text your friends, play games, read a novel, watch a TV episode, browse recipes, stare out the window, or set an alert and just nap out. Driving means that every minute, you’re either battling traffic, looking for parking, or wondering how you’ll ever find time to clean out your car. Wouldn’t you rather have that time for aimless entertainment instead? Oh, and the third thing is that because we moved and got rid of our car, we are now able to save 40% of our income, which has solved not just our leisure constraints but our financial issues as well!
What we’re talking about is how radical change can quickly and easily resolve challenges when making tiny tweaks to the standard-issue lifestyle cannot. Standard behavior includes standard problems. In our culture, those are stress, chronic sleep deprivation, clutter, money worries, sedentary behavior, and excess adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
Radical change does not have to be shocking or difficult. For instance, going to bed an hour earlier might be revolutionary for a lot of people, and it costs nothing and requires no extra equipment. All it takes is a willingness to say, I am tired of annoying myself, I am tired of facing the same issues year after year, and now I’m making the executive decision to put a stop to it. Being tired all the time is boring. Being broke all the time is boring. I don’t want the quest to remind myself to “drink more water” be my main purpose besides commuting and working at my job.
The real cheat for common goals is to wipe them off the board. Substitute some uncommon goals and see what happens.
Read this book even if you have no particular curiosity around the practice of bullet journaling. Read The Bullet Journal Method, because it happens to be one of the greatest productivity books ever written. Ryder Carroll makes a truly compelling case for why Getting Organized can be so transformative for so many people, whether their struggles are with attention deficit, PTSD, or, memorably, talking to emergency medical responders while a child is having a seizure. This book has so much to offer that the artistic aspects are really just a side bonus.
I use a paper day planner with bullet journal techniques even though I also use a tablet and a smartphone. Writing longhand really does work to help focus, think clearly, and remember details. Another benefit that Carroll describes is differentiating between our memories of what happened and what actually happened; we may have positive memories of something negative and vice versa. Writing down accurate details can help us see the truth that a job or relationship isn’t going quite the way we thought it was. This is why a written journal is so instrumental in spotting patterns and deciphering mysterious health problems.
Part of the practice of bullet journaling is the daily reflection. Carroll points out that it’s better to spend even one minute a day on this, as long as it’s done every day, because that is more valuable than longer but more sporadic sessions. He says he usually spends 5-15 minutes per daily session, and I can back this up. With a clear system in place, it takes very little time to maintain. More, it becomes a pleasure, even a stolen thrill, rather than a chore. This is where the beautiful artwork and hand-lettering of so many BuJo aficionados begins, because it’s a treat we give ourselves.
Productivity is all about gamification, or how we choose the metrics that will measure our success. Carroll includes some very interesting ways to gamify goals, including the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. (Set some goals for five years, four months, three weeks, two days, and one hour). He also teaches Agile methods, Sprints, and the Five Whys, which transfer readily between the home and the workplace: my husband relies on this system as an aerospace engineer, and we use it in our marriage as well.
The examples of problem-solving that come up in The Bullet Journal Method say everything about how universally useful it is. Everything from how to plan a vacation to I CAN’T PAY RENT is in here somewhere. Carroll writes lucidly about self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and all those catchphrases that seem so abstract, until we see how directly they apply to daily life. This is a remarkable book that far exceeds its remit, turning “productivity” into pure poetry about how to live life well, even amid the massive jumble of it all.
Few things are more distracting than the cruel stories we tell ourselves.
Often all it takes to live intentionally is to pause before you proceed.
If everything is a priority, nothing is.
Yes means work, it means sacrifice, it means investing time into one thing that you can no longer invest into another.
Productivity is about getting more done by working on fewer things.
The secret to Doing All the Things is to put as much of it as possible on autopilot. Anything you can do without thinking, you can do while watching Netflix, listening to a podcast, or talking on the phone. It’s those pesky decisions that trip us up. Postponed decisions automatically turn into clutter, overflowing email inboxes, junk hours spent scrolling through queues and playlists without choosing something to watch, and delayed dinners. Here’s a new way to quickly and easily separate out the easy stuff from the stuff that, you know, actually takes brain power.
I’m a decisive person in general. Most people are, at least about certain things. We can take one look at someone’s outfit and know we’d never be caught dead in that, unless of course we have a lot of friends who are into prank videos. Same with menu items we know we wouldn’t prod with a fork unless there was a cash prize on the line. We can harness this inner decisiveness and use it to cut more hassle and mess out of our lives.
There are three areas where I tend to get hung up on decisions, and those are social events, launching new projects, and anything that requires spending money. These tend to clutter up my email if I let them. I deal with these in different ways.
First, there’s policy. Set a policy that works for you in every area of your life and you’ll rarely have to make a decision again.
Launching new projects is my default mode. I’m much more likely to start something than to finish it. Gradually I’ve trained myself that I can’t start anything new until I’m done with my current project. Instead of launching multiple projects, I have a master list. Every time I have a red-hot new idea, I add it to the list and take notes so I can come back to it later. I still have this compulsion to want to dip my paintbrush into all of them for a few seconds each, so I have to keep reminding myself, not yet, not yet. Nothing on this list will ever be more than an idea unless I focus and finish, one at a time.
This includes ideas of my own creation, but it also includes projects that other people wave in front of me. Learn a new language! Take this online class! Try this new workout! Buy this cookbook! I’ve had to learn to recognize that anything I would do here in the Time Dimension will displace any other time-bound activities. Thus, it’s a project.
Social events might include anything from a local event or concert to a club contest, a martial arts seminar to a webinar, a party to a Vegas show. If I’m considering it at all, it’s because it seems like fun. It can be draining to try to go to everything, though, and I don’t always know at that moment if my husband will be on business travel or whatever. As soon as I get an invite to something like this, I immediately move it to a folder called Decisions. Then I make a note to bring it up at our Saturday morning status meeting.
Once we have a list of these events on one screen and a calendar on another, we can bang out decisions for the week in just a few minutes. “Oh, wait, these are both on the same day in two different cities. Never mind.”
My financial policy is that we save 40% of our income, and we’re aiming for more. If I’m actually spending money on anything at all, I have to feel like it’s truly worth it. If I see something online that I might want to buy, I save the link to a folder called ‘Shopping.’ I check it at birthdays and holidays for gift ideas. I also save small household items on a list on Amazon because our pet food is an add-on that requires an additional purchase.
I don’t tend to see things I want to buy in stores because I almost never go shopping. Grocery store, yes; anywhere else, I avoid. 1. I have better things to do; 2. I hate mall kiosks with a burning passion; 3. Makes it easier to meet our financial goals. The policy on shopping is:
Only buy something if you:
Can explain why you need it
Can afford it
Know where you’re going to put it
Know how to clean it
Often I wait so long to buy something I’ve seen that when I go back for it, it’s been discontinued. This has created problems when I’ve tried to buy sweaters, sandals, and other seasonal items, so I’m trying to adjust my expectations here.
Other types of decisions tend to confound people. A lot of time is burned up through dithering. This is time that could have been used beautifully, through napping, talking to a friend, reading a book, organizing a small area of the home, cooking a meal, or otherwise creating a little lifestyle upgrade. Instead, it’s waffling back and forth. What do I watch? What do I eat? Where do I go? What do I do next?
One way to look at this banquet of exciting options is as a never-ending mental puzzle. Eh, that doesn’t work so well. Another way to look at it is that we don’t have to decide at all, because we can’t possibly lose. No matter what we pick, it will be at least a three-star experience. If we vet our choices well enough, we can bump it up to four- or five-star options at all times. And we can fit in at least one more thing if we quit wasting, what, half an hour a day trying to make up our minds?
What’s for dinner? Make a list of your ten favorite dinners/restaurants and then just close your eyes and pick one.
What do I watch? This is such a non-decision I can barely think about it. Just click on the next thing in your queue and go with it. If you don’t like it after five minutes, delete it and never go back. Just pick the next one. It’s not like there won’t be any new shows or movies next month. Or maybe kill your watch list for a month and see how much more you get done.
What do I read? Same thing. I have something like 1800 selections on my library wish list, which is embarrassing, but it does mean I’ll never run out of great things to read. There’s a tab for ‘Available Now,’ so my only real decision is between audio or text. When I run across something new that’s a higher reading priority, I just put it on hold, and the decision is made for me when it becomes available.
What do I wear? Get rid of 80% of your clothes and see how much easier this gets. My capsule wardrobe works like this: Fits and looks fine today. Works with at least three other items. Goes through washer and dryer. Does not need ironing or dry cleaning. Has pockets? Once I’ve bought something that fits all my criteria, I have only one wardrobe decision. Suitable for day’s weather?
Decisions are easy when you’re basically comfortable with your life as it is. Most decisions are incredibly trivial. Which shirt do I wear, what dinner do I eat, what book do I read next? Come on. Compared to real decisions like whether to quit your job or go in for surgery, these are simple. Automate and free up more time for enjoyment.
Rounding out the year, ready for a season of celebration and mass partying, it’s time to take a look at all your open loops. Closed loops, too, of course - you want to give yourself credit for everything you’ve done and everything that went well. As you dance into the New Year, you want to ask yourself, how much unfinished business do you want to carry forward? You’re close enough to the countdown that you can use that sense of a deadline for momentum. Close your loops and start the New Year feeling ready for anything.
What is an open loop? It’s a catchphrase from the productivity system known as GTD, or Getting Things Done, by David Allen. If you’re looking for a good winter read, that would be an excellent choice. An open loop is any unfinished business with the power to distract you or disturb your peace of mind.
An open loop might be anything: an unpaid debt, a picture you want to hang somewhere, a flirty text you’ve left on Read, an argument you’ve had with a friend, or a postponed decision to move, change jobs, or go to the dentist. If it makes you squirm a little, if you wince when you even think about it, it’s an open loop.
That’s the point of closing your loops. You want to be free of the icky, creepy feelings that come up when you think of your unfinished business. Peace of mind is impossible with that sort of crud going on.
Your physical environment is very much a reflection of open loops in your life. Some open loops are purely internal, like when you delay making up with a friend or breaking off a dead romance. There’s no outer sign, no material evidence. The rest of it, though, shows up as clutter. Unopened envelopes! Expired prescriptions, expired food, expired coupons! Clothes that don’t fit! Shopping bags with the purchases still inside! Unread books! Unfinished craft projects! Partial to-do lists! (To-maybe lists? To-dither?)
Most people have a dream, or, rather, most people have a whole lot of dreams. They don’t come true because there are so many that sound equally appealing, it feels impossible to choose between them. If you have five dreams and you put equal effort toward each one, then you’ve made 20% progress on each. That’s where quitting comes from! With the discipline to choose just one and only one, to cut off the other four dreams, then you can make one come true. Close the loop. With that feeling of progress and possibility, you have that much more confidence to choose the next dream and put all your effort toward that. Five dreams in five years, rather than 20% progress and five quits in one year.
How can you have faith in yourself when you keep quitting on yourself? When you keep quitting on your dreams?
Most dreams are so modest that they’re almost boring. Get organized, lose that weight, clean out the garage, might as well put “floss your teeth” on there. Ho-hum. Those are starter goals! Those are goals that work in the service of something bigger. Get organized so it’s easier to focus when you start your business and then quit your day job. Lose weight so you can hike the PCT or get a black belt in something. Clean out the garage so you can set up your work bench and build a battle bot or make your own guitar. Floss your teeth... um... so you can crush it in your next job interview. I dunno. I don’t know your life, I don’t know how big your actual dreams are. I just know they’re bigger than the one-size-fits-all goals on the magazine covers.
If you choose a big enough dream, and it matters enough to you, then those basic off-the-shelf goals can be knocked out in a few months. You can completely turn around any of those basic scenarios in three months, no problem. You can go bigger, too - I know a lot of people who could complete the work for their college degree in only one term, and you can train for a marathon in four months. The only way to get more juice out of a humdrum goal is to do it faster, at record-setting pace.
It really doesn’t matter how long it takes you to reach your goals and finally start living your dreams. It doesn’t matter because once you reach them, you’ll have a fresh new perspective, and this time period will just be a blip. It will be no more memorable or consequential than climbing a flight of stairs.
Open loops are like hanging out in a stairwell. The only time people do that is when they need somewhere to sit while they’re waiting for something or making a phone call. That happens sometimes. Sometimes a loop needs to stay open for a while because we’re deliberately creating an opportunity for something to happen, something that needs input from someone else. A job offer, a signed contract, approval for a grant or a loan, that ‘yes’ to your ‘U up?’ text. Usually, though, our loops are only open because of inertia. We haven’t bothered to close them. We haven’t bothered because we have nothing better to do and no brighter ideas for how to spend our focus and attention and our precious time.
Let this time be different. Treat this upcoming New Year as a chance to experiment and try something else for a change. What would happen if you rushed around and closed as many loops as possible over the next couple of weeks? What if you played a game and spent the thirty-one days of January closing even more? What would your New Year look like if you truly did feel like you were starting the game at square one?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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