Probably I’d be more productive if I ever quit experimenting with productivity techniques and just settled on a system. It’s fun for me, though, and often I learn something useful that seemed counterintuitive at first. An idea I’ve been playing with is the concept of Calendar Zero.
‘Calendar Zero’ means you schedule every hour of your day in advance, including fun and relaxation.
This was revolutionary for me. I tend to procrastinate more on relaxing than on anything else. It goes along with my tendency to buy some kind of trinket for myself, never open it, and then either give it to a friend or donate it to charity without ever using it. I also often keep desserts until they get stale or freezer-burned. Maybe I should put ‘enjoyment’ on my to-do list.
Here’s how I began my experiment. I made a list of ‘Ten for Ten’ projects, with hour-long time slots running across a long workday. I like things like read-a-thons, and games like this feel exciting. I figured I would probably wind up veering off my schedule at some point, due to an interruption or miscalculation of how long it would take to do something. Also, I was still recovering from a cold, which gave me a free pass on running out of energy.
On my list:
Take out trash and recycling
Work on blog
Talk to hubby (out of town on business trip)
Balance bank statement
Much to my surprise, I did everything on my list except for making the soup. (Hubby called at a different time slot than I expected and I wound up eating something else). I also found myself spending extra time on my financial chores, which are very boring in my world, and did a few other random electronic administrative tasks.
Something else relevant about this Calendar Zero experiment is that I found myself indulging in something I almost never do. I sat on the couch and binged three episodes of a true crime show that I had been wanting to watch for about six months. This is why I did more admin stuff than I’d planned, even at the end of a busy, low-energy day. I got into a groove, and it gave me an excuse to pair the work with something I consider frivolous.
My list started with my absolute most-hated chores, but also included a few hour-long fun breaks, some stuff I don’t mind doing, and some things I’d been procrastinating. It worked so well, at least from the variety, that I immediately made a different list for the next day.
What I normally do is to schedule my days by time blocks. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, like that. It works for exercise and regular chores, but I didn’t have a formal routine for the sort of odd, anytime projects that might linger unfinished for weeks or months. I didn’t even have a formal routine for kicking back and relaxing, which of course is much worse.
What’s different about this method of leaving no time unaccounted-for is that it forces you to make room for the fun. You have to write in when you’re going to bathe, eat meals, talk to your friends, and walk your dog. It gives a sense of having plenty of time. For instance, knowing you have a full hour to shower, get dressed, style your hair, and get your bag ready completely eliminates the feeling of being rushed. It even gives the sense that maybe you have a little extra time to do something extra, like spending ten minutes on a crossword puzzle, playing with a hula hoop, finishing a full episode of a podcast, or learning a new way to wrap a scarf.
The other thing about scheduling every single hour of the day is that often, the scut work takes less time than you had allowed. You’ve folded and put away all your laundry, and you still have time left to mess around! If you’ve already done everything you needed to do, then you know you’re free to fully make use of the remaining time doing a headstand or whatever you want.
In the week that I’ve been playing with Calendar Zero, I’ve done all my ordinary work and chores, sure. I’ve gone to my usual meetings. I’ve also fit in an extra conference call, done two weeks of newsletters, blasted through my email and news queue, gone shopping, and rearranged my closet.
Probably the main feature of Calendar Zero, the thing that works, is that it crowds out the junk hours. You know, the time you spend unintentionally scrolling (scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, keep those junk hours rolling) whether it’s through social media, online shopping, or entertainment options. For instance, I can easily spend half an hour or more trying to choose my next audiobook, when I could have read an entire chapter or a magazine article on paper by then. There’s certainly plenty of time in the day to be idle like this, with the difference being that we ANTICIPATE IT pleasurably and CHOOSE to indulge in it purposely.
Now, when I know I want to scroll around idly downloading podcast episodes, or ordering something off a website, I can choose to do it while I eat lunch and take my own sweet time on it.
The novelty hasn’t worn off my Calendar Zero game. That’s great, because I still have a few odd tasks on my list to knock off. I’m going to keep using this system and see how much more playtime it builds into my day.
I’m putting Mark McGuinness’s book Productivity for Creative People on the exalted but brief list I call One and Done. If you are an artist and you struggle to get done everything that you want to do, you can read this book and find out everything you need to know. I’m telling you, it’s all right here. I should know because I read all of these things; some of them are outright wrong, some are clearly written by methodical yet non-artistic people, and the rest take twice as long while getting across fewer truly helpful ideas. Productivity for Creative People is both insightful and realistic. If your art has been languishing these days, try this book.
If you’re feeling desperate, just go straight to chapter 3, Reduce Overload.
McGuinness clearly has experience with all the variations of workday that a creative person may face: Work on demand in someone else’s company; managing other creatives; working at home for oneself or others. He shares the example of having to meet a heavy deadline while planning his wedding. The basic strategy is to 1. Examine your assumptions about your workflow; 2. Spend the maximum possible amount of your time actually doing creative work; and 3. Find a way to deal with Resistance, distractions, and mundane tasks. In my experience, where we usually fall down is on that first step, plunging in without a strategy and then constantly stumbling on everything from the third step.
This is partly why I’m so enamored of the Reduce Overload chapter. It asks fundamental questions that seem obvious, yet that I haven’t seen in just this way in other organizing or time management books. “Is this a temporary state, or is it likely to continue (or get worse)?” McGuinness divides workload into four categories:
Another very helpful concept was to distinguish between open lists and closed lists, recognizing that open lists (such as laundry or email) will never be done, while closed lists can have a firm deadline. Combine this with the concept of distinguishing between background tasking and task switching, which both supposedly fall under the fallacious premise of multitasking, and suddenly a rational schedule starts to arrange itself.
There are some tips here that could be revolutionary if only they caught on in the traditional workplace. Managing interruptions, meetings, and email all come to mind. For the brave, it might be good to go over Chapter 7 and see if you can enlist an ally or two in your office to adopt some (or all!) of these practices. I’d lead my pitch with “Let’s try this for a month, and if it doesn’t improve efficiency, then we can always go back to the usual chaos.”
As a former chronic procrastinator, I found the advice to Panic Early quite brilliant. In fact, it’s the only way to start to learn the skill of estimating timelines on projects. A lot of us think procrastination is a charming feature of creativity, when really it means we get much less done than others. Productivity for Creative People is another way of saying “make art and don’t let it die unexpressed.”
McGuinness also suggests that we “Use templates for different types of day.” I do this, after trying several other methods of managing my time, and it works. There are no two days of my week that match, due to a few externally imposed time blocks. Oddly enough, I get more done under this schedule than I did when 100% of my time was my own. Structure always helps.
Read Productivity for Creative People. Do what I did, and bookmark the holy heck out of it. Then keep it near to hand and flip it open for reminders from time to time. I’m going to have to insist upon this, because if you’re an artist, then we need your art, and that means you need a way to bring it into the world.
Do you see organization as soulless and uncreative or as a necessary, helpful part of your creative process?
What do you like about chaos?
“Can I afford to wait another minute before getting started?”
There are three signs that tip me off, the notifications that the time for fall organizing has arrived. 1. The special aisle of back-to-school supplies; 2. That first breath of cool air showing that the summer heat has broken; 3. The knowledge that THE HOLIDAYS ARE COMING. Getting Organized in September is naturally the thing to do.
Back in the bad old days, everyone focused on spring cleaning because it was too disgusting not to. All winter, heating with coal would leave black dust on everything. You had to wash your actual walls. As soon as the outside temperature got warm enough, everyone would open all the windows, drag the furniture out, beat the rugs, wash the curtains, and wipe down every surface. Imagine everything you own being covered with a film of filth. Ugh. This is one of the many ways in which 21st century life is so much easier.
What most of us have to deal with are simply:
If you have kids (or pets), then there’s also the issue of
[If you don’t have kids, go ahead and skip the next three paragraphs].
If you do have children, back-to-school time is a good marker of a transition in age, size, and activities. Time to go over their clothes, school supplies, books, toys, and maybe even the decorations in their room.
It’s best to start by explaining the concept that things come and go. We use things for a while, and then we can give them away to make room for different things. Our old clothes don’t fit anymore, so we put them in a bag and take them away, and then smaller kids can have a chance to wear them. We don’t play with our baby toys anymore, and so we trade them for big kid toys. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any room! In my experience, children are expert at letting go of stuff they don’t need. Parents *actively train them* to hang on to stuff, to attach emotional significance to things they genuinely didn’t care about. Worse, parents inevitably refuse to let their children get rid of stuff they didn’t want, forcing them to feel guilty for wanting to discard things that were only ever important to the parents and other adults in their life.
It’s unfair to lecture and punish a child for “not cleaning your room” on the one hand, and then refuse to let the child have control over their own possessions and living space. If you want to force them to keep things and live in a guilt museum, then YOU clean their room.
For the rest of us, how much easier it must seem to only have to organize our own stuff! How much easier it is to organize when it’s just adults. How much easier when there are no children’s bedrooms, when nothing needs to be explained or taught to a young person.
What needs to get organized? What does Get Organized even mean, anyway?
This depends on the individual. Most people are disorganized in at least one area, even if they don’t think they are, because that’s the default state when we’re trying to avoid or ignore something important. Mail, finances, writing a will, going to the dentist, car maintenance, finding a new job, sleep schedule, cleaning out the fridge, fitness, electronics, sorting papers and setting up a filing system - any and all of these areas may be chronically disorganized for one person or another.
Getting Organized means having a strategy for your life and setting up your personal environment to support your plans. That’s all.
You’re spending your time doing what you need and want to do. You can get where you need to be a little early each time. You know where all your stuff is. Boom, done.
If you’re a castaway on a deserted island, you’re probably spending all your time looking for fresh water and food, avoiding sunburn, and signaling passing ships. You probably know where your pile of coconuts is. In a survival situation, surely you’re finally Organized at last?
If you’re a modern person living a comfortable life, you’re probably not organized, although there may be coconut products involved. Your car is probably full of clutter and wrappers, you probably have drifts of papers scattered around, your closet is ready to pop, and you probably have shopping bags sitting around with stuff that never got unloaded. It’s just a function of living with all the material objects that are produced in our cultural moment.
You can do the first half of Getting Organized with just a sheet of paper and a pencil. Maybe you can even do it during the process of drinking one beverage of your choice.
To-do lists are more or less useless when they are nothing more than an outlet for mood repair. Making the list is not the same as getting anything done. In fact it’s probably a better idea for most people to do a two-minute task first rather than writing a list. Having a block of time for Getting Things Done, even when those things are unspecified, is better because there’s always something to do. Every day, there are going to be chores of some kind, whether that’s taking out the trash, folding laundry, or handling mail. Doing a little every day means that eventually, you don’t even need a to-do list; you just know what to do, and you do it.
Getting Organized is exactly like Paying Off Debt or Losing Weight in that sense. These are time-limited, finite projects. Eventually they’re done, and you never have to do them again.
If you start at the beginning of September, and you work on one area at a time, a little each day, you can be done before the winter holidays begin. What does “done” mean to you? For me, it would mean being able to host a family meal for Thanksgiving and feeling proud of how pretty everything looks. It always means looking around on New Year’s Eve at a glittering home, and feeling like I have a fresh start on the morning of New Year’s Day. There are four months between now and the New Year, and that’s plenty of time for even the most neglected home to start feeling more like it serves and suits you.
One way to define the word ‘organize’ is in the radical, political sense. It can help to keep this in mind while contemplating Getting Organized in the women’s magazine, top-down, social trend manner. The point of Getting Organized is to focus your energy, clear your mind, and introduce enough structure in your life that you actually do everything you intend to do. Harnessing your rebellious streak is one way to take ownership of this process. Remind yourself that power is not given, it’s taken. Agency and initiative are yours to command, but nobody is going to hand them to you.
Here are some orders against which you can rebel.
GO TO BED EARLIER. If you’re tired and burned out, if you never feel like you have anything other than low energy, then getting better quality sleep is mandatory. However! Sleep procrastinators are staying up late to try to gain more personal time and assert some autonomy. If you do insist on staying up late, why not use that time toward Getting Organized? Late at night, you can still make a strategic plan, write a comprehensive to-do list, clear your inbox, shut off notifications, hunt for a better job, update your resume, study for an advanced degree, write a book, delete and cull and sort and file. You can even aggressively clean your house if you have some resentments and anger to direct at your partner, housemates, kids, or neighbors.
GET RID OF STUFF. It probably would make your life easier to edit your possessions. A lot of people, though, are using their piles of stuff to set physical boundaries when they aren’t sure how to negotiate emotional or social boundaries. Taking up space in a psychological sense, in a way that makes a huge and measurable impact on the world, would probably take more ACTION and less stuff-stroking. Until that point, why not hang on to the objects that you own and instead journal, meditate, or do some deep inner work on your emotional reality?
EXERCISE. I always associated society’s demands that I sit still, keep my frilly clothing immaculately clean, and passively maintain a sweat-free ladylike demeanor as Victorian social control. Girls of my generation were barred from participating in sports and strongly discouraged from being physically active or getting dirty. As an adult, I choose to do mud runs and obstacle courses, put on boxing gloves, and train in martial arts because **** YOU I DO WHAT I WANT. Sitting, though, is a time-honored tradition of political resistance and civil disobedience. Maybe the time I spend kicking and punching things, you instead spend mobilizing a campaign. *shrug* Working out can be a great way to release stress and tension, but maybe you need to retain that tension to fuel your cause?
SAVE MONEY. There are only a couple of things more empowering than financial independence, and knowing where your money is going can be a great source of clarity and resolve. This can be approached in other, bolder ways. It’s a common entrepreneurial strategy to “burn your ships” and know that you will have to push yourself hard to earn enough to reach your stretch goal in a short time period. I talked to a client after we spent three weeks sorting through piles of unpaid bills, collections notices, speeding tickets, overdue rent, and back taxes. She asked how much she owed, and I didn’t want to tell her, but I did, because knowledge is power and the truth will set you free. “Ten thousand dollars, is that all?” She basically marched out and landed a better job, feeling that it was easier and less stressful to “just earn ten thousand dollars” than to painstakingly negotiate repayment plans or follow a meticulous budget. Go big and go home.
EAT BETTER. Most people seem to experience keeping a food log or watching what they eat in any way as a soul-destroying prison. I found it fascinating and terrifically empowering, as I was finally able to assess the root cause of my migraines and night terrors. I weigh in every day because I’m working to put on fifteen pounds of muscle in a year, and how else will I know if I’m gaining enough? As a backpacker, marathon runner, boxer, and all-around endurance athlete, if I don’t make sure I get enough calories and micronutrients, I’m going to bonk. Ingredients lists, nutritional information, food logs, scales, measuring tape, and body fat monitors are tools for massive strength, power, and a BACK OFF, BUDDY attitude from the eighteenth dimension. If you want them to be, they are.
LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE. Honestly, if you’re an observer of pop culture, you’ll see that living your worst life and being your worst self is likely a quicker path to fame. It’s an undeniable way to differentiate your brand. Who wants the pressure of living your best life? Sounds like a lot of work. I think it might be more interesting and productive to define your most mediocre life and try to nail that first.
Ultimately, if you’re not the boss of you, then nobody is, and that’s something unique and particular in its own way. Wild tangle of brambles, you do you. Rebellion can be intriguing, it can set your world on edge like nothing else, and is it burning your flame in the most gorgeous way possible? A flame with a constraint can send a rocket into space. Where is your rebellion taking you?
Technically everything is in my living room. I found myself explaining this to a new friend the other day. She was trying to visualize what it’s like to live in a studio apartment. Our front door is our bedroom door as well as our kitchen door. We don’t have a back door; we’re built into a hill. While we do have a bathroom door, when you’re in there you’re also in our closet. Almost all our belongings are on view at all times. It really tends to bring home the message of minimalism! Living in a studio is a great demonstration of the value of evaluating our stuff by room, not by individual object.
Our stuff should argue for itself. It should be obvious why we have what we have. Everything we own should serve a purpose, and its existence in our personal space should be self-explanatory.
If this seems simple and easy to understand, let’s extend it. Each room in the home should also explain itself. We should be able to use every part of our personal space in the way that is most helpful.
I wake up in the morning, having spent the night in my bed, with my head on my pillow and my body under the covers. I walk into the bathroom, where I shower with soap and dry off with a towel. I go to the closet and put on clothes. I go into the kitchen (area), get a bowl and a spoon, and make myself some oatmeal for breakfast. These are easy, obvious parts of my day. My morning is supported by my environment and by my possessions. Boring, right?
Let me just say that none of those steps are obvious, simple, or easy for chronically disorganized people.
My people might:
Not always sleep in their bed, even though they have one
Sleep on a bed that is partly covered with non-bed stuff
Sleep on a bed without sheets, a pillow, or blankets
Have closets with no clothes hanging up, and clothes all over the floor
Shower irregularly and be out of soap and clean towels
Not have a shower curtain
Have broken plumbing that hasn’t worked for months
Not have any clean dishes in the kitchen
Be out of their favorite breakfast food
Have no morning routine to speak of
What makes life hard for my people is that they can get very caught up with individual possessions, and they have trouble categorizing. The house might be full of stuff, yet they might be missing a lot of the “obvious” necessities that keep a household running.
Basically my people can be relied on to have lots and lots of books, clothes, decorative items, and packaged food. Most of the time they have true hoards of craft supplies and holiday decorations. They’ll have lots of stuff they never use, because it’s there, like sheets that don’t fit any mattresses in the house, or washcloths, or booze bottles when they don’t even drink alcohol.
Look a little closer, and they don’t have stuff like a kitchen sponge, can opener, working lightbulbs, an extension cord or a hammer or a first aid kit or a fire extinguisher. There might not be curtains on the windows. They may have bought stuff they needed, then left it in the package, and in fact it may still be in the original shopping bag months later.
This is why I talk about evaluating by the room, rather than by the thing. Individual objects are not useful if they’re still in the package or the bag, if they’re not stored near where they get used, if they’re buried under piles of other stuff. Individual objects are not useful, of course, if they’re not actually useful things. I’ve known two bachelors who constantly had a wet towel on the floor because they’d never gotten around to installing a shower curtain. “Wet floor” isn’t exactly something you can hold in your hands and ask if it sparks joy, am I right?
This is what our rooms should be doing for us.
A bedroom should facilitate restful sleep. The bed should be warm and comfortable. If the room is too bright, an eye mask should be ready to use. It should be as quiet as possible, and if not, a fan or white noise can help.
A closet or dresser should store clothes so they’re ready to wear. It should be easy to put together a matching outfit that fits. There should be enough room to easily take items out and put them away again later. Anything that won’t fit in the available storage space should probably be bagged up and eliminated.
A bathroom should facilitate personal hygiene and grooming. All the plumbing and lighting should work.
A kitchen should facilitate meal preparation. Anything on the counters or the floor that gets in the way of meal prep should be questioned.
A dining table should facilitate eating meals or doing other projects. Anything that makes a table unusable should be questioned. A table is not a permanent storage option for piles of things.
A couch is for sitting. Why would anything be kept on a couch or chair that prevents someone from sitting there or stretching out and taking a nap?
That’s the basic idea. Whatever living areas we have, we should be able to use them. A bed is for sleeping, a kitchen is for cooking, a table is for using, a chair is for sitting. Whenever we have any kind of stack or pile of stuff, it’s detracting from our ability to use our space. We’re paying rent for it, but our stuff is not. If it isn’t earning its keep, get rid of it. What’s the point of storing so many cans and packages of food that you can’t cook any of it? What’s the point of owning so many clothes that you can’t fit them in your closet and you can’t find anything to wear? What’s the point of having tables and counters so covered with things that they can’t be used?
Many of us have an unfulfilled dream of something we’ll do “someday.” So much of the time, it turns out that the reason we aren’t already doing it is that we don’t think we have the space. This is why I do my headstand against the door every night, because I don’t have any blank wall space that’s wide enough. How much would we all be doing or making if we had clear tables, clear desks, clear floor space? How many parties and gatherings would we have if we felt like we had enough room to host? Let’s think first of what we would ideally do on our best days, and then arrange our living space to allow these dreams to come true.
I’m a shy person, so much so that even standing up to say my name would leave me trembling and turning purple. Shyness has interfered with my friendships, my career, and my love life. A cute boy once asked me to dance, and I was so confounded by my attraction to him that I couldn’t answer. He shrugged and walked off. I’ve struggled even to share such information as whether someone had left their lights on in the parking lot. People who know me well will probably be very surprised by all this, because I’m fine when I’m with familiar faces. Shyness strikes at inconvenient and illogical moments. I didn’t want my shyness to interfere with my ability to make an impact on the world, so I’m pushing myself to learn to overcome these feelings. Maybe my efforts can help you, too.
First off, being shy is totally different from being an introvert. I’m a shy extrovert. It’s possible to be a shy introvert or an introvert who is not shy. Lots of introverts are very famous celebrities such as singers, actors, models, and comedians. They have no problem performing, as long as they get plenty of time to recharge alone. It seems helpful to distinguish shyness from introversion or extraversion, because while introversion is a character trait, shyness is an issue that can be mastered.
Two things have been helpful for me in getting a handle on my shyness. First, it takes a mission, a vision that is compelling enough to make fighting these feelings worthwhile. Second, much of shyness is physiological - it’s a physical state as much as anything.
How do you develop a mission? Many or most people have at least one cause that resonates with them, whether it’s feral cats, literacy, or protecting the Earth from asteroids. The sense of a mission starts to kick in when you start to realize that you can personally make an impact. More, you can influence others and bring them along with you. You don’t necessarily have to appear in public, perform, or give speeches to make this happen. Leading and organizing is based very much on Getting Organized.
I joined Toastmasters in January 2016 to force myself to overcome my intense dread of public speaking. It worked! The process is the same as what I’m learning in martial arts: stress inoculation. Exposing yourself to stress, fear, or pain in small doses can build your resistance and resilience, just like practicing a musical instrument or a foreign language in small increments increases your skill. Learning to give one-minute speeches led to four-minute speeches, then ten minutes, until I can now give hour-long workshops or speak on a microphone without those familiarly awful feelings of trembling, getting choked up, and turning colors.
Now I’m working on a leadership level called an Advanced Leader Silver. This entails an official role as Area Director, meaning I’m in charge of improving performance in five clubs in my area. I have to go to regular district meetings, respond to a certain volume of email, visit my clubs, and track a lot of information. Almost all of the work involved means processing email at home, listening, taking notes, and writing reports. For a shy person, 80% of the tasks are not a big deal. It’s the 20% that involves meeting new people, standing up to speak to them, and overcoming the ‘threshold anxiety’ of walking through a door and joining a group of people. The formalities of a training seminar or club meeting agenda are very helpful in facing this, because there’s a highly predictable structure, and almost all of it involves other people talking.
How is leadership different from anything else? Many people are acting in a leadership role somewhere in their lives, often without realizing it. The parent of a child plays ‘leader’ every day. Driving a car, ordering food, shopping and running errands - all require a certain amount of initiative and organization. Being the leader means taking an aerial view of a situation and spotting opportunities, bottlenecks, and pain points. A leader has a strategy. Here, again, many people have an innate critical mindset that they don’t realize could be useful in a leadership role. This shows up in lengthy product or restaurant reviews, for instance, or in any comments section. Someone always has a bunch of ideas for better ways to copy-edit something, introduce design improvements, or relate to other people or groups in a different way. Why not redirect that energy toward a group or organization that will actually be receptive to that input?
My approach toward leadership is strategic. My first instinct is to move toward the information flow. I want to figure out what the rules are, where I can learn more (handbooks, manuals, FAQs, websites, etc), who is where on the org chart, where I can find contact info, and how I can get to the locations where the action is happening. Other people will move directly toward the people, wanting to start by getting to know everyone, establishing connections, and forming an inner dossier of who knows whom and who does what. I’m most helpful in explaining things when people are confused, doing scut work, and encouraging people to do things when the only thing stopping them is nervousness. My way of earning loyalty is by demonstrating that I will show up, do what I was asked to do, follow through, get questions answered, and stick around to clean up after events. These are ways to get involved without being fried under the spotlight or having to pose for dozens of photographs.
The things we learn to do when we push ourselves are useful in every part of life. What I’m learning as I work on public speaking, leadership, and martial arts is that very few situations are inherently scary. It’s mostly a matter of building emotional intelligence and learning what makes other people tick. Feeling nervous and shy while meeting new people is a near-universal feeling, one that’s so common that you can count on sympathy when you express it. Find whatever means more to you than your physiological struggles with shyness, and you can defeat those feelings while making the world a better place.
The problem with this whole idea of Getting Organized is that it feels like work. It’s all about duties, responsibilities, aversive tasks, and backlogs. What fun is that? For chronically disorganized people, it’s hard to imagine how nice it will feel to have more mental bandwidth, to be able to relax while knowing there’s nothing else we “should” be doing. It all just feels like a giant boring chore. This is why I think we should link chores to fun stuff. Every day, let it be something fun and something done.
How does this work?
Let’s start with folding laundry. This is my most personally loathed chore. I often use a stopwatch to gamify my housework and fit it in between other things, and that’s how I learned that it takes about twelve minutes to fold and put away one load of laundry. That’s almost as long as it takes to clean my entire bathroom! I use that time to listen to podcasts. Sometimes I also find new combinations of outfits through the serendipity of everything being swirled together in the basket.
Email is another chore that really gets on my nerves. Every single day, I find that I have to unsubscribe from several unwanted, unasked-for lists and process a bunch of junk mail. There also tends to be stuff that deserves a considered reply, and the moment it appears is usually not the moment to write back. I deal with this by subscribing to several newsletters that I really enjoy! Every day there’s something I really look forward to reading, so that my email is about half fun stuff. I tend to go through it at breakfast and lunch, and I can bang out replies to important stuff while riding that swell of enjoyment.
Errands are outings. Any time I “have” to go somewhere, I make sure to do at least one fun thing on the same trip. That’s because we got rid of our car and it saves a lot of time to combine things in the same area. For instance, I often stop by the library on the way to or from the grocery store. Not my jam, but I notice a lot of people out there still playing Pokémon Go, and you can hatch a lot of eggs by walking around town. Riding a bicycle also has its way of making any trip feel like fun.
Kitchen cleanup is something I do while fixing meals. Most kitchen chores can be done in one or two minutes, if they’re done regularly. I might scrub the sink or wipe down the fridge door while waiting for the microwave. We were just given a countertop dishwasher, and I unload it while I’ve got stuff cooking on the stove. The anticipation of hot food on the way helps make these quick tasks feel like part of the game.
Cooking is something I’ve learned to enjoy, although I used to hate it. Knowing how to cook means you can make your favorite foods, exactly the way you like them, any time you want. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be able to do that? I think the major reasons why people don’t enjoy cooking are when they’re expected to do it by ingrates, and when the kitchen is so cluttered and gross that it has to be cleaned both before and after making a meal. 1. Don’t cook for ingrates; make them do it. 2. Get rid of half your kitchen stuff and just eat the backup food from the pantry until it’s used up. Or donate it to the food bank. Cooking can feel exciting if you let it.
Sometimes something pops up that isn’t fun at all, but can’t be avoided, like surprise tax correspondence or an unpleasant doctor visit. I try to have that be the only chore-like thing I do that day, my one-and-done. The last time one of these doctor visits came up, we went across the street to the park and watched ducks swimming in the pond for a while, then went out to lunch.
One of my all-time worst, most procrastinated tasks is making business calls. I just kinda have to force myself to do it. If I’m going to have to wait on hold for a while, I use that time to look at cute animal photos or read an article. If I’m calling for information about something, I’ll use that same block to check movie times, reserve a library book, or download an app or a podcast episode.
In the background of almost all my chores and dreaded tasks, I’ve got a podcast or audio book playing in my ears. Sure, sometimes I get stuck doing something really gross, like cleaning gum out of the treads of my shoes or dragging soapy hair out of the shower drain. I also have a parrot, and I’d rather not talk about what it’s like to regularly clean a bird cage. (She’s worth it, but). It’s not like pairing something fun with something unfun really takes away the inherent ick factor. It just helps to make it more bearable.
We’re talking about two things right now. One is the strategy of anchoring. Socks and shoes, peanut butter and jelly, burgers and fries, chores and games. Doing one thing helps you remember to do the other thing you’ve anchored to it, like flossing before you brush your teeth, or putting the heartworm pills next to the dog food. Anchoring chores to a favorite music playlist or errands to a favorite shop can help make the boring stuff more upbeat.
The other thing is that life can and should be more fun. Add more celebration, gratitude, and delight wherever you can. Why ever not? Life is 80% maintenance. Without the routine errands and chores and hygiene and repair and maintenance, we’d soon find that we couldn’t really even do the 20% of things that are more fun and meaningful. Let’s do whatever we can to keep things running smoothly. Something fun, something done.
If I had it all to do over again, I’m not sure I would. That would mean having to live through my teens and twenties again. If I woke up in the body I had at age 29, I’d burst into tears. Give me middle age any time. I can beat Young Me in every respect. I have more skills, more discipline, more patience, better credit, and definitely more physical stamina. Today Me could basically lift Past Me off the ground and toss us across the room. When I think back on all of the bad, short-sighted, selfish decisions that Past Me made for our life, I want to kick her lazy butt. It all starts with Past Self’s schedule.
I wake up at 7 AM without an alarm. Past Me stays up as late as 3 AM, sleeps until noon on the weekend, and sometimes oversleeps the alarm.
I’m fit, strong, and active. Past Me is almost 100% sedentary.
I stay in one clothing size year in, year out. Past Me has no fewer than six sizes of clothing in her closet. At her most tired and ill, she’s seven sizes bigger than Today Me.
I drink water. Past Me doesn’t; she drinks cola.
I eat 2-4 cups of cruciferous vegetables every day. Past Me eats more volume than that in breakfast cereal, snacks, treats, chips, cookies, chocolate bars, and other baked goods and dessert foods.
I follow the two-minute rule of GTD (Getting Things Done). Past Me is a chronic procrastinator.
I eat four meals a day. Past Me eats whenever food is present and especially right before bed.
I’m in the gym four hours a week. Past Me spends four hours a day lounging on her bed.
I have a bedtime. Past Me has a parasomnia disorder.
I’m a minimalist. Past Me is sentimental and she saves everything.
I’m basically post-money. Past Me often cries herself to sleep about bills, debt, and cash flow.
I’m a world traveler. Past Me spends our vacation money on restaurant food, soda, junk food, movies, books, clothes, trivial physical objects, and fines, fees, and finance charges.
I’m an investor. Past Me can’t be bothered to learn how to set up an IRA, even though it only takes about 20 minutes, for which I will never forgive her.
I’m a good cook. Past Me seems to think that cooking is something like an astrological sign, or the shape of one’s earlobes; in other words, an inherited genetic trait.
I take the initiative. Past Me has not yet figured out that it’s up to us to chase down our own results.
It’s not that Past Me set out to be irresponsible or sloppy. Past Me had the same desire I do, to do a good job and be a good person. It would have crushed her to be perceived as unreliable. She would not have agreed with my retrospective analysis. I judge her for being a spendthrift and for lacking self-discipline. She reminds me that she was young and operating on the best information she had at the time. A young person can never compete with a mature person on the basis of self-discipline or life skills. All of that is true.
It’s true that I have Past Me to thank for being able to pass a background check, for getting us a passport and a drivers license and a bachelor’s degree and a FICO score over 800. Past Me took care of our teeth and made sure we had no substance abuse problems. Good job, honey, good job.
It’s also true that Past Me wasted a lot of time and missed a lot of opportunities. If we had learned to cook years earlier, we could have enjoyed hundreds more nice meals. If we had started investing a few years earlier, we’d have tens of thousands of dollars more in our portfolio. If we had started on foreign language study years earlier, we’d be fluent today. If we had believed it was possible, we could have gone back to school years earlier, saving thousands of dollars in tuition, and we could have lived overseas, too. Past Me just accepted that certain things were “impossible” for us, that certain things were out of our league or not for our kind of person. That’s the biggest difference between us: a lack of vision.
Past Me has the same twenty-four hours a day that I do. We just use them differently. Most of the things that I do today don’t seem to fit into a schedule as such; it’s a difference of policy, philosophy, and perspective. Past Me spends more time shopping, eating, and being entertained. She isn’t deciding not to go to the gym; she just isn’t deciding TO go, and thus she doesn’t realize how much gym time she is burning. She finds it an unacceptable tradeoff for reading time, not knowing that Today Me reads about triple as many books as she does. Everything that Today Me does just sounds like a lot of work. Too much effort.
Future Me, y u so mean??
Future Me wants even more out of me. She wants me to earn and save more money. She wants me to hit it harder at the gym. She wants me to make more friends, to make sure that we still have people to hang out with when we’re old. It wouldn’t do for us to grow up to be a bitter, grumpy, querulous, annoying old codger. Above all, she wants to make sure that I go out and get us some adventure, some material to dream on, some stories to tell to our fun young friends.
You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
Less: A Visual Guide to Minimalism is for those of us who are still bound to our stuff and not sure what to do with all the clutter. Rachel Aust’s stylish book reminds us of the point of minimalism, which is that everything really can be simple and streamlined. It really is possible to relax in a personal environment that is “done,” where nothing is missing and nothing is demanding attention. This is the next level beyond all of those organizing books. See it, imagine it, believe it. Photos of interiors like those in Less make it look possible.
Flow charts appear throughout the book, demonstrating how to make decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate. A couple of these made me grin, as I realized how they would look to my chronically disorganized clients. “Am I keeping this for sentimental reasons?” Um, not sure? Is it sentimental if it only brings up bad memories, but I still feel obligated to keep it? There’s a list of “25 Things You Can Trash Without Even Thinking.” It includes “old notebooks,” “unused craft supplies,” and “unfinished projects.” Wow! I mean, technically she is correct, and life will go on without these things, but my people are only going to be able to bring themselves to let go of these categories of their possessions under great strain. It’s a telling example of how we create our own problems and make our own lives more difficult.
My motivation for getting rid of my own old notebooks was that if they only existed in a single paper copy, then they were vulnerable to ruin or loss. I also couldn’t search them, and it was nearly impossible to track down information I needed. Now they’re digitized and backed up, and that makes them safe and useful. I “trashed” the old notebooks while keeping the important part, which was their informational content.
Aust does include some excellent thinking exercises on how to make decisions and emotional adjustments around letting things go. For instance, if this were stolen, would you actually replace it? Are you keeping it for its actual value in your life, or only its monetary value?
Stuff isn’t “worth” what we think it is. We fall for the “endowment effect,” meaning that we believe things are valuable because they belong to us, and it’s hard for us to realize that nobody on earth would pay the price we would demand for our old junk. How is it worth anything if it just sits there, literally gathering dust?
Minimalism isn’t practical for everyone, and Aust acknowledges that. She also points out that we can’t go minimizing other people’s possessions. From my work in this field, I can tell you that the person most likely to bring me in is usually the real hoarder in the home! This person is frustrated that other people are storing their stuff in areas they want to use for their own personal items. With all your stuff in the way, I can only bogart 90% of the common areas! We certainly both agree that minimalism starts with oneself and one’s own belongings.
There’s a 30-day minimalism challenge in Less that I really like. Most of my people would need to spend more than a day on some of these, but it’s still a great starting point. I’m particularly impressed that the challenge includes finance, information management, and meal planning. There’s even a social media cull, and therein we discover the time we need to carry out the rest of the challenge!
One of the major strengths of the book is the section on capsule wardrobes. Most Americans have a crazy amount of clothes, and this will be the area to see the fastest results. If you can’t figure out where to start, start here.
As for the interiors, Aust reminds us that we don’t need to keep things just because it’s “expected” if they aren’t useful to us. I’m living proof; I hate coffee tables, so we have an ottoman instead. My dresser has a footprint of only about two square feet, so it stays in the closet. “The Only 45 Items You Need in Your Home” may be a bit on the luxe side, because I don’t have a bedside table, a bath mat, or a washing machine, and I got rid of the iron and ironing board the last time we moved. I generally don’t keep any of the suggested pantry items on hand, either. The “20 Essential Cooking Tools” were right on target, though. There are very few kitchen items I use on a weekly basis that fall outside that grid.
Different styles of decor are included, indicating that not everyone has to go for the hard-edge version that appeals to me. What should be apparent is that stacks and piles of clutter never add anything positive to a room; we can add charm and warmth with color, music, and friends rather than STUFF.
As a tiny-house, debt-free person, I can state for the record that Rachel Aust’s approach works. Personally, I’m more minimalist than the book in several ways, but extremely maximalist in others. There’s still room for a parrot, a unicycle, and a set of hula hoops in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. I like the connections that Less makes between a structured, simple interior, an organized calendar and to-do list, minimal cleaning, financial freedom, and peace of mind. I’m going to set about having Less right away.
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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.