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To Organize (Part 2): Putting Everything Away

  • Posted on July 13, 2010 at 1:06 AM

In my previous post, I wrote about how prioritization and balance between important and urgent goals is necessary for my organizational process.  After I figure out all I have to do, the next most important thing is having an “away” to put both things and projects.  First, I must note that having an understanding of what you want to accomplish and what is important to you is essential before you determine how to go about putting things away.  The decision of what constitutes away will depend a great deal on your priorities and your personality.

Obstacle 2: To put things away, you must have an away in which to put them.

While this seems pretty straight forward, it isn’t always so.  It can be tempting to resort to clutter piles.  I certainly do!  The problem with this is that if the clutter piles never get sorted, the tasks buried in the clutter piles rarely get accomplished.  Furthermore, documents you’ll need later are harder to find when needed if they’re not stored properly.

That being said, some vague “aways” are fine.  Just don’t use them to avoid work that needs to be done.

Solution 2a: Make an “away” for things.

Living in a materialistic culture like the U.S., families tend to accumulate things.  There are those who avoid this.  We are not among them.  My family is given many things throughout the year—toys, books, clothes, ect.  We are also sent things like bills and documents to fill out.  We collect movies, books, and games.  We are not as attached to things as our culture tends to encourage, but we have many things and they all need to have an away in which they are put.

So, the first step to organizing your things is having an away in which to put them.  In order to determine how many aways and what kind you require, you have to consider your priorities.  For example, we have a playroom where we keep the boys’ toys.  There is a big toy chest that is full of rarely used big toys.  There is a smaller toy chest that is full of often used big toys.  There are two bins for stuffed animals and two bins for plastic toys.  There are also smaller bins for particular sets of toys.  I used to be rather, um, compulsive about how to put all the toys away.  This compulsion didn’t help the boys find their toys—which was how I justified it—and they didn’t appreciate the effort I put into it.  So, I stopped.  It took a lot of effort, but I stopped.  The effort required to put things away where everything was sorted was too much work and too little benefit.  Take care to avoid activities that require more effort than the benefit they generate!

When putting things away, you have to decide how much sorting is necessary and limit yourself to that degree of sorting.  Is it enough to put all your books on book shelves or do you need the books arranged in a particular order?  The answer will depend on your needs and your priorities.  The same question can be asked of any set of objects, but only you can answer it.

Solution 2a: Make an “away” for projects.

While there usually are objects associated with projects, projects are categorized differently.  What kind of projects do you have?  If you are like me, many of your projects are ideas.  Between the computer and a filing cabinet or two, I can store most of my projects.  But I also have drawings, index cards, and other items to arrange.

The trick to arranging projects is to have a set of places for each kind of project.  I use cork boards to put long projects-in-progress on display.  I take a sheet of paper, make an envelope out of it, and store notes on index cards in separate “envelope” for each segment of the project.  I also sort projects (ongoing and past) in file folders, in/out boxes, and the like.

There are many systems you can try.  Or you can mix and match systems to create your own unique system—which is what I do.  The purpose is to be able to find everything you need for any project you wish to work on and to keep projects-in-progress safe from destruction.  Whether you use stacks of labeled shoe boxes or a tidy set of trays, you can organize your projects in any way that works for you.  This may involve some trial and error, but you’ll find that all that effort was worth its while once your system is up and running.


Organizing your work takes time.  Sometimes that time can be hard to come by.  However, the effort you put into organization saves you even more time in the long-run.  Of course, now that we’ve talked about the processes of organization, there’s still one piece missing.  How do you turn that organization into accomplishment?  That’s the topic of the next post!

To Organize (Part 1): Finding Balance through Prioritization

  • Posted on July 9, 2010 at 4:20 PM

Being organized is a constant struggle in my life.  It’s not that I’m particularly unorganized, but there are several obstacles that make it more difficult.  The next few posts will be about obstacles and solutions—or how I manage to stay organized and productive.  (People have been asking that question again:  How do you do it?)

Obstacle 1: I have more to do than I can actually get done.

At first glance, this will seem like I take too much work upon myself.  There are those who would argue that’s exactly what this means.  It isn’t so simple.  Work needs to be done.  A lot of this work is simply mine—for example, nobody else can do my writing or my school work.  That’s mine to do.  A lot of the work needs to be done, and I’m just the one who is sure to get it done.  This includes much of the housework and household administrative tasks.  Again, it sounds like this is me taking on more work than I should, but the work I take on each day is only a fraction of the work I could take on each and every day and still leave plenty for the next day.

Being the “big picture” person that I am is a major complicating factor.  I see work on three different levels.  First, there is the work that requires years of daily or weekly effort to accomplish.  Raising my children, continuing my education, writing my books, writing my novels, running my business—these activities involve years’ worth of work.  And I see all this work laid out before me.  I don’t see all the little details that go into these major tasks, but I do see many of the major steps along the way.  This work never ends—at least, not while I am alive.  So, no matter how much I do today, there’s always more.  These are long-term goals that require a long-term commitment.  At this level, organization is primarily used to keep me from being too overwhelmed.

The second level of work is those mid-term goals.  This work includes teaching my children specific skills, completing my current class, planning my current book, writing my current novel, and managing and completing my current business-related projects, assignments, and tasks.  This level of work includes projects and assignments that will provide me with sufficient daily tasks for months to come.  Some projects or goals are longer in scope than others.  All require a significant amount of organization to keep me on task.

The third level of work involves daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.  Household management tasks generally fall into this category—though there certainly are those mid-term and long-term household-related projects that weigh on my mind as well.  Many of these third-tier tasks, whether they are household-related or business-related, are on perpetual repeat.  No matter how many dishes I wash today, there will always be more dishes to wash tomorrow.  No matter how many blogs I visit today, there will always be new posts to read tomorrow.  That sort of thing.  Organization is primarily a prioritization task in this arena.

Solution 1a: Find balance by breaking goals down into tasks.

With three layers of tasks, there is a certain balance required.  I could fill day after day after day with third-tier work.  There are people who live their lives that way, and live them quite contentedly.  I’m not one of those people.  I like progress; I need accomplishments.  I by no means wish to belittled people whose lives are contentedly lived on the third-tier.  There is something admirable about that—and their households certainly run more smoothly than does my own.  But I’m not particularly skilled at the domestic round, nor am I particularly contented with it.  I need to write.  And I need that writing to accumulate into big projects—books, novels, collections of short stories and articles and blog posts.  And, of course, I could fill day after day after day with second-tier or first-tier work, at the exclusion of all else, but then my family life would be chaotic.  I mean, more chaotic than it is.

So, we’re back to balance.  In order to live my life well, I must balance first-tier, second-tier, and third-tier work.  Generally speaking, I regard second-tier work as the highest priority and third-tier work as the most urgent.  First-tier work is accomplished by breaking it down into second- and third-tier work.  In order to write my books, I have to start by writing my first book.  In order to write my first book, today I must work on the outline of my first chapter.  Another example:  In order to help my children achieve independence, I have to build a set of skills.  In order to build that set of skills, I have to work on this with Willy, that with Alex, and the other thing with Ben.  In short, in order to attain balance, I have to break down each tier until I have a lot of third-tier activities.  The difference, of course, is that now many of these third-tier activities will accumulate into the accomplishment of second-tier and first-tier activities. 

By breaking down first-tier and second-tier goals into third-tier activities, I find myself back to having more work to do than I can actually get done.

Solution 1b: Prioritizing tasks to equal accomplishments.

With so much third-tier work to do, I must prioritize the many tasks into categories of importance and urgency.  The hardest thing is not to be so driven by urgency that you neglect important things.  I could easily fill my days with urgent matters.  The problem is that by spending my time solely on urgent matters my tasks would never accumulate to the achievement of my goals.  I could easily fill my days with important matters.  The problem is that eventually the neglected urgent matters would eventual compile into an unimaginable monster that consumes me—or I’d trip over that one toy out of the hundreds on the floor that I couldn’t dodge, fall down the stairs and break my neck.  Either way it’s a “game over” for me.

I don’t want to be consumed by the urgency monster and I don’t want to have to dodge toys all the time.  So, we’re back to balance.  I balance important tasks, urgent tasks, and tasks that just need to be done whenever I have a spare moment (these tasks are often neglected until they become urgent).

To do this, I plan my week and create daily to-do lists.  Daily, color-coded to do lists.  This is where effectively managed OCD becomes a good thing.  Really.  This is also where I become especially grateful for tools like a Franklin Covey planner and Microsoft’s OneNote.

Then, of course, it’s just a matter of getting to work.  Easy, right?  Hm.

Discovering the Wrongness

  • Posted on February 13, 2010 at 5:27 PM

Yesterday morning, I sat at the dining room table after what had already been another more-hectic-than-usual morning, reading through Willy’s notebook one more time.  The words struck me as wrong, and I puzzled over them, growing increasingly frustrated with myself.

“Willy knows to…”  It said.  Why did those words strike me as wrong?

I call Willy over to me.  “Willy, did you lose your recess again?”

“Yes,” he says sadly, hesitantly, expecting a lecture I suppose.


“Because I didn’t do my spelling,” he says.  “I’m sorry.”

“Why didn’t you bring your spelling homework home so you could do it?”

He shrugs.

“You know you need to be organized at school.”

He nods his head, his face melted with the disappointment of disappointing me.

It still struck me as wrong.

“Do you know how to be organized at school?”

He nods and says, “C-a-l-m-d-o-w-n,” in the deep, drawn out way we say it to him.

“But how do you be organized?”

“Use my head,” he says, poking his skull.

“What steps do you take,” I ask him softly.

His body gets stiff.  His voice gets quiet.  “I don’t know,” he says timidly.  He waits for the lecture.  And he waits.

I sigh, and suddenly the wrongness makes sense.  Both calming down and using his head are important.  But neither is enough by itself when the steps to do what needs to be done are not in his head.  Willy knows to be organized.  He knows his homework needs to be in his folder.  He knows each assignment needs to be written down in his planner.  And he knows to do his work when he gets home.  But there are steps in between that make these things happen.  It is these steps that make the disorganized organized.  It is these steps that Willy doesn’t know.

He’s failed to do each of these things on numerous occasions, not because he’s not motivated, or doesn’t care, or doesn’t want to do them.  It’s because he doesn’t know how.  He’s been lectured.  He’s been punished.  But not because it’s his fault; it’s because I failed him.  It’s because the school failed him.  He’s ready for more independence, but before we hand it to him we have to teach him to handle it.

Sometimes the parent disappoints the child, even when the child doesn’t know it.  So, I sat at the dining room table and I wrote a long note in his notebook.  We’ve failed him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it right from here on out.  This is a problem that can be solved with a bit of effort and a lot of coaching—something we should have been doing all along.  And so I wrote to his teachers what we need to do so that Willy can succeed.

I’m sorry, Willy!

Because that needs to be said too.