Archive for the ‘Life Improvement Experiment’ Category

I am something of a time management, personal organization junkie – as you might have guessed from the Life Improvement Experiment. So I was checking out the latest posts at some of my favorite productivity blogs and I came across this one on the best software for time management at Whakate and started drooling and thinking –  hmm, maybe I’d better check out this piece of software or that website app and give them a try – when it hit me:

My life is not that complicated right now.

Yes, there are always little things that need to be kept track of, but really, what do I need an elaborate time management system for? The answer is, I do not.

The fact is that I have found some aspects of Paul Allen’s Getting Things Done (or GTD as devotees term it) incredibly helpful for getting things, well, done. But when I reflect on it, two things become clear:

* First, my experiment with GTD was most successful during January and February of this year, when I was using a combined calendar/list system I “designed” (really it was so simple it doesn’t really deserve that appellation) myself and kept in my Moleskin Weekly Planner. I’ve since abandoned it in favor of a more elaborate system using Circus Ponies’ Notebook – a product that I LOVE for many reasons (and that I will blog about at some point) but that doesn’t function very well FOR ME in terms of day-to-day organization. I need to go back to a relatively simple PAPER-based system. Whether that is the moleskin again or something else (I am intrigued by some other systems on home management/plans for moms), I’m not sure. But it is clear that what I really need to do is to keep it simple.

* Second, GTD is not the ideal system for an academic. Others have blogged and written about this topic (sorry, I’m too lazy to track down the links right now), but what it comes down to is that long-term projects of a somewhat amorphous nature are more difficult to “fit” into the GTD system, which tends towards a work model that features lots of on-going projects and tasks with relatively discrete steps and well-defined outcomes. As a consequence, at least for a consummate procrastinator like me, I end up getting the small stuff done more efficiently than ever, but the big picture suffers.

Which brings me back to the larger point:

 My life is not that complicated right now.

Basically I have three primary responsibilities right now:

  • Teach
  • Take care of my child and tend to my family life/social reproduction

That’s all. That’s it.

Yes, other stuff comes up – there are conference abstracts to write and job sites to check and bills to pay – but seriously, it is not like I am juggling a full-time job with multiple projects and priorities (something I have done, I must say, with considerable success in the past). I have two projects – finish the dissertation and don’t make a fool of myself in the classroom.  And of course being a good mother and person is important to me as well, but really, should I be concentrating on being super-mom and homemaker right now? No, I should not. It is a distraction.

That isn’t to say that I should stop trying to be organized – but only in so far as it helps me achieve my goals and particularly the first one (dissertation, dissertation, dissertation).

So the take away?

Time to stop using time management as a time waster.

Time to get back to basics. My life will probably not be so straightforward again for a long time (maybe when I’m old and “retired”). It hopefully will not be so straightforward this time next year (I hope not – because that would mean I haven’t finished yet). Time for me to become much more single-minded. The other stuff can wait. Buddy is doing fine. I already live with a dirty bathroom and I’m still not much of a cook and there is no particular reason why I need to work on transforming those particular aspects of myself right now. Or rather it is worth doing if it helps keep me healthy, sane, and focused. Not if it becomes a distraction.


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Progress report, of sorts, on efforts to declutter and do some basic home (re)ordering…

Living Room (aka the Toy PURGE)

In addition to the big bookshelf re-org, SG and I cleared out about 50% of the toys (maybe more) in the livingroom/play area. My parents bring them over, Buddy receives them as gifts and hand-me-downs, and they just seem to proliferate on their own. In any case I took a boatload of crap down to my office and yesterday and today (in an attempt to get my office under control – more on that later), I sorted through them. The smallest pile was made up of toys to hold on to for when he gets a little older or to bring up when we need a fresh or “new” toy. The next pile – a great big box – went back to mom and dad (I put it in the back of my mom’s minivan this morning). The rest I put into bags to take to Goodwill. 

I also brought up some clear storage containers from the basement and sorted out the remaining toys into bins. Big legos, medium legos (he’s still not ready for the regular/little legos), train tracks, “buses” (his word for all vehicles), and animals. Right now the stuffed animals hold court on the back of the couch and although it is not very sophisticated, it works because he does play with them a lot and it is nice for him to be able to locate and retrieve “white bear” or “brown moose” or “boots bear” or whichever of his plush citizens is in favor at the moment.

That’s about it for the moment. I’ve also made some progress on the kitchen and dining area, but I hope to do some more this week and post some photos. In any case, my slow – glacially slow – battle to organize our lives is progressing….

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Teaching+Being Sick = UNorganized Homemaker

And let’s not forget that being a homemaker is not my primary job. Unfortunately, no one besides me (and SG) is going to do it, and the lack of organization in my home life continues to plague me. Plus no one is forcing me to undertake this experiment, so I should stop whining and just get to it.

So let’s return to the chipper world of Deniece S and her organized home and family (hmm, that sound sarcastic…or bitter. I’m not really either, maybe just feeling a little inadequate).

Truth be told I’ve been skipping around a bit in the book, thinking about different aspects of home organization and family management, so this installment is not quite as methodical as the previous ones.  

To start with, I was working my way through the core principles, which include decluttering and grouping which I discussed in my previous posts. The next is. 

Be Motion Minded

Here Mrs. S (as I like to think of her) sings the praises of Taylor and workplace efficiency experts, which makes me a little suspicious in that Taylorism and the rigid systems it has inspired have caused a great deal of de-skilling and de-humanizing of the workplace in the last century. However, setting aside the issues of alienation from one’s labor for the moment, her principles in terms of home organization are sound and reading the specific recommendations reminded me of a visit to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in NYC at a time when they were having an exhibition on designing the home for accessibility and ease. In this exhibition there were two kitchens – a “big” one and a closet (NYC apartment sized) one that had been designed by students at the Rhode Island School of Design. The kitchens were designed in such a way as to minimize lifting and stooping and to be honest, they kind of blew my mind. There is, of course, no reason why the standard tall fridge, stovetop with oven underneath, and high and low cabinets must be the model for most kitchens, but because they are I had never been able to conceptualize anything differently. Mrs. S., I suspect, would be very intrigued by this project, and that suspicion makes me suspect that she and I might have some common ground after all.

  1. First she advocates storing items at or near their point of first use. Seems obvious but actually takes some thought. Based on this idea, SG and I have a plan for our kitchen and dining area that, once we get around to it, should improve the flow of the two rooms and keep us out of the other’s way (the kitchen is very small and is basically the hallway between the front and back of the house).
  2. Second, she argues that it makes sense to store things in such a way that you do not have to take many steps to retrieve the items you need and complete your task. Honestly, while there is always room for improvement, there is nowhere in our house where one must take many steps to retrieve anything! 
  3. Third, she is a fan of one motion storage – particularly for items that you use a lot. This principle makes a lot of sense to me and I’ve tried to put this principle into effect in both the bedroom and the living room – particularly when it comes to Buddy’s toys and clothing.

More on the “groundwork” of decluttering and re-ordering the house in the next post.

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Ahem, yes. Well as I mentioned in my last post, this has been one hell of a week. But back on task. So far I have been working on discipline and working through the issues posed in that chapter. Here’s her definition of discipline:

Discipline refers to your ability to maintain consistent, productive behavior….Sure everyone has an ‘off’ day. If you are self-disciplined, however, you exhibit consistent focus in your day-to-day work, even if you don’t feel like it.” (pg.99)

And here are the sub-issues (so far) that I need to focus on:

  1. Finding and working with my natural energy cycles (difficult with a two-year old who insists on getting up at 5:15 am EVERY DAY!)
  2. Work regularly – stop putting things off until the last minute.
  3. I need to determine my priorities and make time FIRST for what really matters.
  4. I need to make my home office a place where I can effectively work without interruption.
  5. I need to have a better handle on the basics of everyday life and handle routine tasks around the house in a more efficient way.

OK, the first three are related. Partly it is an issue of energy, partly it is a sense of constantly feeling overwhelmed, slightly panicked and not at all up to the task, and partly it is just sheer boneheaded procrastination & laziness.

The cure is obvious – regular work on the diss that must take priority over everything else. So for this (next) week the plan is that for the days that Buddy is in daycare (including the days I teach), I will work for AT LEAST an hour first thing in the morning on the diss. Committing to that means that in turn I will need to be ready to teach on Monday morning – lecture and slides ready, film reserved, papers graded, so the priority for the weekend is teaching prep.

Non- daycare days are more difficult. I wish that I could just take one day completely “off” and maybe I should, so maybe that day should be Tuesday. If I have help on that day (from mom for example), then Tuesday will be the day in which I take care of all the little household crap that needs to get done and the errands like going to the post office and so forth. Weekends I have help from SG so I will need to work, but as I mentioned it may have to be on teaching although if things go well next week I will try to commit to at least an hour on both Saturday and Sunday to working on the latest chapter.

Similarly the last two are related. My office is a disaster zone. Tomorrow’s task is to dig out. Today I worked on getting the house into better shape. The linen closet still needs to be cleaned, as does the pantry, and my closet needs to be sorted. Furthermore SG and I need to sit down and figure out a plan for the weekend and for the week so we can be more on top of things. All of these issues are items that I am trying to tackle in the second book on being an Organized Homemaker extraordinaire!

Finally, I will make a sign – maybe a revolving wheel – outlining my status. Something like “Do NOT interrupt me unless there is a serious emergency,” “Do not interrupt me without 5 minutes warning,” “Interrupt me if you must” and “OK, I’m bored, come in and talk to me.”  We can see if that helps SG manage his interruptions better and creates more peace between us.

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OK, so not much happening on the self-improvement project front over the last two weeks. As I mentioned, I have basically been flattened by the combination of illness and starting to teach again. Need I even mention that my next chapter will not be to my advisor by the stated deadline (tomorrow)?

In the plus column I wrote her a long email today responding to her comments on my introduction (they were spot on as usual), promising the chapter by the end of the month, and asking to meet to discuss the timeline for finishing and the defense.  I tried to balance letting her know I was sick with some self-awareness (and some self-deprecating humor) acknowledging  that I’m the one who is responsible for the mess that my dissertation (life) has become, and at this point that is the best I can do. Also in the plus column, I have been writing, taking notes from key articles and books, and reviewing my field notes over the past two weeks – it has just been sporadic and slow.

So back to the self-improvement life experiment! So when we last left our heroine (anti-heroine?) she was still working her way through the Discipline chapter. I’m going to stick with Discipline, not only because it continues to be one of my biggest issues, but to prove to myself (and to the five of you who may be reading) that I have the discipline to stick with it. But let’s shake up the format a little. Below are the next four quiz items, with some brief comments on each.

34. I force myself to slow down when necessary; I know speed can be counterproductive.

So not an issue for me.

35. I determine what I will accomplish each day, rather than allowing other people to dictate my schedule.

Hmmm. This is a tough one. I do let myself become easily distracted by the million little things that need to get done, that should get done, that other people haven’t done. So in a sense I do allow other people’s priorities and outside distractions dictate my schedule for me. Plus there is the problem of letting SG distract me when we both work at home (see below). So this is a problem I need to tackle. 

36. I work productively from my home office and avoid distractions.

Wow. Yeah, this one is a big problem. First of all my office is a huge dumping ground for all of the stuff that can’t be upstairs (because of Buddy or space concerns). Although I know I need to ‘declutter’ and get the office under control it is like a hydra that grows a new head each time I cut the previous one off.  Seriously, I’ve tried to stay on top of it and it is the neverending project.  At some point you have to call a truce and decide that you are going to ignore the mess and just work.

Second, my office is also our guest room and contains my closet and also plays host to a lot of my personal items and hobby items (like my sewing machine) so it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a “work-only” mentality.

Finally, there are the interruptions by SG who also works at home. I’m not going to go into detail here except to say that after nearly 10 years of marriage things are unlikely to change any time soon. Still I should make more of a creative effort in this area. 

37. I handle common, routine tasks on a daily basis so things don’t pile up.

In terms of my office and tasks such as filing, shredding, and so forth, the answer is definitely not, which is part of the problem. I also tend to let things like bills slide until the last minute – I usually get them in on time, but it can be an issue and certainly does take up more time to do them at the last minute. On the other hand, I am fairly good at managing my ongoing “to dos” in a timely way. I use context lists (from David Allen’s Getting Things Done) and iCalendar and reminders to stay on top of the day-to-day stuff. The problem is that often the day-to-day stuff is all I manage to do. And that is not being productive. All I am doing is surviving and putting out fires.

That’s enough for now. I’ll tackle some of the strategies I intend to implement in my next post.

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I haven’t had any time to sit down to write about my next steps in following the program in Confessions of an Organized Homemaker but I have been busy continuing to declutter and to apply her next “Basic Organizing Principle”: GROUP. 

A few excerpts:

Whenever practical, group and store like items together…The main purpose of grouping is to give everything in your home a well-defined place. If you have a family, this is paramount! Without well-defined, specific places for everything, your family will only have a vague idea of where things belong. They will put things back haphazardly, and you’ll have to look for them when you need them…Have you noticed what a mess people can make when thy’re looking for something? Giving things a well-defined place makes it possible to find things before they are in disarray.

This is SUCH a huge problem for us. SG is the KING of picking things up and using them and then just putting them down again wherever when he is done. And I do it too (although not as much). He is constantly asking me where stuff is (it drives me nuts) and we are both constantly pawing through piles of clothing and boxes of toys and so forth, looking for things. 

So in addition to decluttering, I am going to try to think about grouping and keeping the idea of “well-defined, well-confined” in mind for the next week.

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This week I am still on DISCIPLINE (and likely will be for a few more weeks) and so let’s turn to the next quiz question:

I’m good at controlling perfectionism, realizing that some things are good enough.

Actually, I am pretty good at controlling perfectionism. My advisor thinks that I have a problem in this area and that I tend to overwrite and overthink everything. But I think that the core issue is really procrastination and a difficulty with follow-through – I have problems finishing what I started.

I think that the reason for that (the procrastination) is a combination of fear of failure and fear of success. Now I know it sounds crazy that I would be both at the same time, but at heart I am afraid of change. But it is clear that I have screwed myself in some ways as a result – the research was done 3.5 years ago and I could be finished and employed by now. And now I will be on the job market (after an unsuccessful attempt this year) in the worst year in recent history for getting a job, let alone an academic job. So I have issues. But perfectionism isn’t one of them. So on to the next question:

I avoid putting things off or waiting until the last minute.

Yeah. I gave myself a 1 on this one (1-5 with 5 being totally agree) so, as noted above, I clearly have a major problem with procrastination. 

She points out that it doesn’t matter if you check off 9 of your 10 tasks on your To Do list, if the 10th is the one that really matters. She writes:

Your work as an employee will consistently outpace your coworkers’ work if  you spend your time focusing on the critical few tasks that lead to the highest performance, value, and output.

That sounds a bit dog-eat-dog but I sort of appreciate the ruthlessness implied. No silly Men-in-Black “to be the best of the best of the best, SIR” mission statements for her. Let’s rewrite that for the “almost finished” Ph.D. and job candidate:

Your attractiveness as a job candidate will consistently outshine other candidates’  attractiveness if  you spend your time focusing on the critical few tasks that lead to the highest performance, value, and output. 

In other words: FINISH the damn DISS and get some articles out for publication!

I think that the following mantra sums it up:

My (Brain) Work Must Come First

I should probably have that tattooed – backwards, so I can see it in the mirror – on my forehead.

She then has tips for specific issues:

Is the task overwhelming?

Umm, yeah. So she recommends breaking it into smaller pieces. Tried it, doesn’t really work for me – the big project still looms and stuns me into paralysis. 

Is the task distasteful?

Well, yes, in the sense that it is so daunting and overwhelming and soooo much is at stake. She recommends that you schedule a five minute work session with yourself, but that you have to sit down and work for those five minutes. Good advice, as I mentioned before, once I get started it is fairly easy for me to keep going.

Is the task trivial?


And finally:

Is there no accountability in completing the task?

Well, that used to be the case, but it is getting embarrassing at this point. Plus I have missed so many self-imposed deadlines that my advisor has sort of lost the faith. She was, to say the least, pleasantly surprised to receive my introduction today. So I have new deadlines and here they are for all the world to see (if anybody cares to look):

  • Chapter 4 to advisor – April 11
  • Chapter 5 to advisor – May 4

Yikes! That is going to be tough. But I am resolute. Once those two chapters are in, we will talk further deadlines.

So what is my task for this week? I need to work at least one hour every single day on the dissertation.  Of course will aim to spend many more hours per day, especially since I have the week off, but I will only commit myself to one hour per day. I need to finish grading and prepare for teaching but I will make sure that I will not let that overwhelm my life or even one single day. Instead, My Work Will Come First.

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