Thursday, April 29, 2010

4 Tips for Easier Emailing

Do you feel like email has taken over your life? Well, you're not alone - in a recent study by Information Week, over three-quarters of the people surveyed said that email is essential to their lives - and an additional 15% say they'd rather lose their spouse than give up email! It's important to remember that email is a tool that we can control - one that is meant to improve communication and make our lives easier. To that end, here are four top tips to wrangle that inbox:

• Smarten up your subject line. Put as much descriptive information in the subject line as possible, and your recipient will know what your message is about without having to even open your email. For instance, "Rescheduling Meeting: Orig. 6/1/07 3PM - New 6/1/07 5PM" is a lot better than "Meeting time changed" - the more descriptive, the better.

• Don't use your inbox as a filing cabinet. Instead, create descriptive folders in your email program - by topic, client, vendor, etc. As you're finished reading your messages, file them accordingly.

• Filter your messages to save a step. Once you've set up some folders, you can then tell your email program to automatically put messages from specific senders or with specific subject lines into the folders where they belong. For instance, if you're receiving dozens of newsletters, create a "Newsletters" folder, and have your email program filter those emails right into the folder, bypassing your inbox entirely. In your email program, search the help for "rules" or "filters" for more instructions.

• Beware the 4000-message inbox. Instead of letting emails "pile up" in your inbox indefinitely, set a limit for how many messages you want to have sit in there at any given time - I recommend no more than 25 or so (once you have more than that, it's hard to actually see what's in there). Once your messages start growing past the limit that you set, schedule some time to process your email.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Moving Towards Effectiveness

It’s more than just being productive!

I recently met with a new client at her office, whose stated goal was to feel like she spent each day being very productive – that she got a lot of things done that day. In our culture of production and consumption, being “very productive” has become a goal unto itself. As a Professional Organizer, I encourage clients to look beyond just getting a lot of things done; rather, I believe you are better served striving for effectiveness rather than just productivity. Let’s look at a few ways to make that happen:

Know your goal. Before you sit down to work on a task, decide whether your goal is to be productive, efficient, or effective. When you’re productive, more often than not you’ll have completed a number of tasks, but your focus may not be on completing each task particularly well – checking them off your list is your priority. You’ll get a feeling of accomplishment, but it will be more about how many tasks you’ve completed rather than about the tasks themselves. A cousin of productivity is efficiency – getting this done expediently or in a streamlined way. Both productivity and efficiency can lead you toward overall effectiveness. Effectiveness means that your tasks are not only getting completed, but they are completed well. When you’re effective at work (or at home), you’ll know it – you’ll have that unmistakable “job well done” feeling, an intangible reward for completing your work.

Don’t multitask. People frequently trick themselves into thinking that they are being particularly productive by multitasking, or doing more than one task at once. It may seem like you’re getting much more done by multitasking, but in most cases it is just not so. Studies have shown that when you multitask, each individual task can take up to four times longer than if it had simply been completed on its own. Additionally, by definition multitasking means you are splitting your focus among two, three, four, or more tasks at once. When we are unable to focus on a task, the quality of our work usually suffers. Multitasking also can contribute to a sense of overwhelm or of doing too much.

Block out time. Instead of multitasking, it’s better to create blocks of time on your calendar for the various tasks that you have to do. Give each task the time that it requires to get completed well. For most people, when things are put onto the calendar, they become “official,” and thereby get done. Here’s a tip when blocking out time: always overestimate how long tasks take to complete. Most people underestimate task time, so they end up always feeling rushed. Build a little breathing room into your calendar, and you’ll be much better off.

As with all things that are worthwhile, building your effectiveness habit takes time and effort – but it’s worth it. Over time, you’ll notice yourself feeling more satisfied with your work and more in control of your day.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The 3 Secrets to Getting – And STAYING – Organized

When it comes to organizing, routine does matter!

Organizing is about so much more than developing the right systems to meet your needs or buying the latest organizing gizmo. While those things are undoubtedly important, the most critical factor of whether your organizing projects will be successful is how well you integrate organizing into your life. Here are a few tips to build new routines around organizing:

Start small. The biggest organizing mistake that people make is to set unrealistic expectations for how much time and effort organizing takes. The tendency for many people is to say, “this weekend, I’m going to organize the whole house” or “I’m going to purge my 20-year paper backlog today.” Projects like these are big, and need to be broken down into smaller mini-projects that are more easily completed. Take these larger projects apart, and you’ll see there are smaller tasks within them – for instance, organizing just one kitchen cabinet, or purging just one part of one file drawer. It’s far better to start with a small project that you can make immediate, visible progress on, instead of a large, nebulous, undefined project. Start doing smaller projects regularly and you’re guaranteed to see continual progress.

Do a little each day. Organizing doesn’t have to be a quarterly or annual event – in fact, it is a lot better to build organizing into your life on a daily or weekly basis. If you can devote fifteen minutes a day toward clearing clutter, you’ll help ensure that those areas you so carefully organized will stay clutter-free. For most people, it’s easier (and more enjoyable) to spend a few minutes a day on organizing, rather than blocking out an hour or two once a week. Organizing won’t become such a chore, and you’ll be reinforcing the habit that living without clutter is a priority for you.

Remember, organizing is a process. Organizing is not a do-it-once task; rather, it can be helpful to think of it more as a lifestyle change. There may be a big push to complete a particular project, but it’s the maintenance that happens afterward that helps ensure success – and that maintenance is all about your habits. I’ve worked with lots of clients, and the ones who are most successful realize that while certain projects might have defined completion parameters, there is no “end point” for being organized. It’s a skill you can develop and grow throughout your life.

Getting your office or home organized is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your space. You’ve spent time and resources to get organized, and by using some of these tips, you’ll be able to stay organized for the long term.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What is a Professional Organizer, Anyway?

With the incredible explosion of organizing TV shows, books, and magazine articles, many people are taking active steps to combat clutter in their homes, offices and lives. Often, the easiest and most effective way to get organized is to work with a Professional Organizer – a professional who is dedicated to helping you meet your organizing goals. Choosing the right Professional Organizer is important – this professional will be working with you in your own home or office, and will see things that most other people may not see.

According to the National Association of Professional Organizers (with nearly 3000 members, it’s the industry standard professional association), a Professional Organizer helps people take control of their surroundings, their time, their paper and their lives by using organizational principles, concepts and products. This usually includes developing strategies and systems to meet your organizational challenges, and helping you learn the skills to keep up the systems on your own. Professional Organizers come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and their skills and experience vary widely. For most of the field’s 20+ year history, many organizers came out of the corporate world, where they previously may have been in systems administration or administrative/office manager types of positions; now, it’s increasingly common to see newcomers to the profession choose organizing as their first job. When choosing a prospective organizer to work with, it’s important to ask about their education and professional experience, as well as whether they have any ongoing professional education related to organizing.

While many organizers are generalists and work in many home and office settings, some find a niche within the field and serve a particular subset of the population. Some organizers specialize in areas like estate organizing (dealing with the belongings of the deceased), financial organizing (setting up bill payment systems, managing tax-related paperwork, etc.), or working with seniors (downsizing or preparing to move to assisted living). One of the areas I specialize in is working with entrepreneurs in small and home-based businesses, who often need systems developed to manage their businesses flow of information, paper, and time management.

On TV, organizing shows often portray the Professional Organizer as a taskmaster, forcefully “encouraging” clients to get rid of their stuff and chiding them when they don’t want to let go (hey, it makes for good TV). In reality, we usually help clients look at what they value and what they don’t – what they don’t value might go away. For what stays, we’ll help them develop storage strategies and systems. If you really want to keep Grandma’s broken pie plate and the resumes from when you were 22, it’s my job to help you find the most effective way to store them.

In reality, a typical session might start by identifying what project we’d be tackling during the session – for instance, setting up a filing system or editing one section of a closet. We’d then work side-by-side on actually doing the work – setting up the categories, files and folders in a paper management system or reviewing the articles of clothing in a closet and deciding what to do with each. Finally, we would end by cleaning up the area we’ve been working in, then reviewing what we’ve accomplished and what the next steps might be.

Pretty organized, right? Well, that’s the idea. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, disorganized, or maybe that things just aren’t working as well as they could, working with a Professional Organizer could help you bridge the gap between how things are, and how you’d like them to be.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Strategies for Success

Reach your organizing goals with these easy tips!

The prospect of getting organized at home or at work can seem pretty daunting. Working towards your organizing goals can be energized with anticipation and effort, or can be derailed by frustration and confusion. It’s critical to understand that getting organized is a process – and as such, it will have its highs and lows. Whether your goal is to clear that pile off of your desk, to organize your computer files, or to finally see the floor in your closet, here are some strategies to help you to hit your target:

Have a plan. The most common downfall that people who try to get organized run into is they haven’t planned out their project. Often, they’ll begin without first defining the smaller tasks in the project, and how they will recognize when they are finally finished. Before you start your organizing project, take a few minutes to write down your plan of attack – your goal for the project, the steps involved in getting the project completed, and what some important milestones are. This way, as you complete each task, you can check it off and visually see the progress that you’ve made. And if you run into trouble, a good Professional Organizer can help you develop an organizing plan that’s right for you.

Set aside time. Take a look at your calendar for the month. Do you have an extra 15 minutes each day, or a free hour on the weekend? Those might be good times for you to schedule time to make progress with your organizing. Once you find the right time in your schedule, make sure you write it down as “organizing time.” The simple act of setting time aside for working on your project can go a long way towards your success, because you’ve just let yourself know that organizing is a priority that has earned time in your schedule.

Enlist help. Organizing can be a solitary activity, and if you’re a social person, getting organized alone can be torturous. If you enjoy having another person around to bounce organizing ideas off of, work with a Professional Organizer, or get an “organizing buddy.” You and your organizing buddy can put your heads together on each other’s organizing projects, and can share that extra bit of support when it’s needed.

Reward yourself. As you make progress on your organizing plan, give yourself a treat for reaching important milestones. You don’t have to wait until you’ve completed your project to sit back and enjoy the work that you’ve done! Some great times to reward yourself might be when you can finally see the top of your desk, when you have just gathered a bag of unused clothes to donate, or when you’ve got that undeniable feeling that things are starting to get “under control.” You get to choose your reward for reaching those important milestones!

Remember, getting organized is a process, one that can help you build skills that will last for a lifetime. Individual projects can take awhile, so be patient and don’t get mired down in the day-to-day ups and downs of your organizing. Try the strategies mentioned above and you’ll be well on your way to success!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Meeting Life’s Changes Head-On

A wise person once said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We organizers work with our clients on transforming their lives by making changes to their habits and their environments. If a client truly wants their lives to become more organized and to effect a deep, profound, and long-lasting transformation, then they have to be open to change – sometimes big changes, sometimes small ones. Opening up to change can sometimes be tough, but here are a few ideas to make the process a little easier:

Look at the big picture. When changes occur in our lives and our environments, it can be stressful and scary – or fun and exciting, depending on the circumstance and your perspective. As something in your world is going through a change, take a step back and assess the bigger picture. What positive things might come out of this change? What new challenges come about because of this? Most importantly, changes usually signal an opportunity to grow – but you have to be willing to do it.

Bend, don’t break. Avoiding or fighting the changes in your life can be much more difficult than adapting to meet them. Trying to keep things from changing and holding on to past goals and idealized histories can keep you from moving forward. As difficult as it may be at first, learning to be adaptable and flexible can help you meet life’s changes with aplomb and poise.

Pick your battles. Not every change is one worth making, and some things are better left unchanged. The key is learning which is which – and putting your energies into making the right changes, not every change. When you notice that a change is about to occur in your life, try to think about the potential effects that it might have on you, and how you can best use your energies and resources to meet it.

Learning to adapt to changes in your life and your environment is an ongoing part of the human experience. Life is full of changes large and small. How you meet them can be a key factor in determining how much you get out of life. Chances are that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice adapting to change – as change is truly the only constant in life!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Spring Cleaning Project – 4 Steps for Clearing Out Paper Clutter

For many of us, spring is the time when a certain activity comes to mind – the annual clearing out of clutter that collects in our homes and offices. While it’s easy to focus on getting rid of “stuff” clutter – actual physical things – it’s important to look for ways to clear out the other types of clutter in our lives that can also get in our way. One of the big ones that I help clients get rid of is paper – we all have it, we all need to deal with it, and wouldn’t it be nice if we had less of it? Here’s how:

Get rid of what you don’t need. In my experience, people I work with usually have been keeping far, far more documents than they need, or could ever find useful. Paper can take up a lot of space, can get messy really quickly, and can feel overwhelming when it’s stacked and piled all around you. A great way to start reducing your existing paper is by setting some retention guidelines for what you want to keep and for how long. Do you really need your junior-high reports? Probably not. Last year’s medical records? Quite possibly. The government’s information site has some helpful retention guidelines (online at You can customize these guidelines for what fits your life and your retention needs.

Go electronic. So much paper comes into our lives that may be available in electronic form. For instance, a little-used feature on most computers is the ability to send and receive faxes on-screen, without even printing out a document (check your computer’s instructions for how to do this). If there are documents you want the information from but don’t need the paper version of, try scanning them using a tool like the Neat family of scanners (

Do you really need those bills? I’m thinking bills from cable or satellite TV, your cell phone, garbage bill, and the like. Most vendors are happy to help you go paperless – just visit the website for each vendor and sign up for paperless billing. When your bill comes due, you’ll receive an email instead of a paper notice. You’ll be able to pay online if you so choose, saving you stamps and checks. Less paper all around!

Stop the influx. If you’re receiving a lot of junk mail, use a service like Tonic Mailstopper ( to do the work of getting you off junk mail lists. If you get catalogs, judiciously choose which ones to receive, and which ones will get the boot. Call the numbers on each catalog that you no longer want, and ask to be taken off their list and the lists of their partners.

Once you’re done discarding your paper, make sure to dispose of it securely and responsibly, by shredding and/or recycling as appropriate.

What are your strategies for getting rid of your paper clutter?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Organizing Your Personal Finances

4 Steps to Getting Control of Your Receipts, Statements, and Bills

One of my top requests as a Professional Organizer is to help clients organize their personal finances. For many of us, the myriad bills, receipts, and statements that enter our homes are quickly overwhelming us. It’s hard to keep track of all that information if you don’t have a good system in place to manage it. Here are four simple steps to help you get your personal financial papers organized:

1. Gather it up. The first step to organizing your finances is to get all financial-related information in one place. If your personal financial papers are currently piled into paper bags, stuffed in shoeboxes, and dominating your desk, start by putting all the various bills, receipts, and statements in a box or pile. It’s much easier to organize when all your information is in one spot!

2. Sort and separate. Now that your papers are all together, it’s time to sort them into categories. The simplest way to organize personal finances is to separate tax-related items from ones that you won’t be claiming (ask your tax preparer for more information about your specific situation). From those two main financial types – tax/non-tax, your papers will start giving you clues to some broad categories – utilities, electronics, auto, home, etc. Create piles for each of those categories.

3. Find homes. Now it’s time to create dedicated spaces where your financial papers can live. Purchase an accordion folder and some hanging files. Into the accordion goes your tax-related info – one tab for each sub-category. The benefit of the accordion folder is that it can be easily stored for safekeeping when the tax year is over. Your non-tax-related financial information goes into the hanging files – one file for each of non-tax-related category. Continue filing receipts, statements and bills into their new homes as they come in.

4. Track it. Once you have all your financial information sorted, separated, and filed, it’s easy to take the next step and track where your hard-earned cash is going. Easy-to-use computer programs like Quicken or Money take your previously-organized financial information and let you generate budgets, reports, and projections – letting you stay in control of your financial life.

If it’s been awhile since you last organized your finances, or if it’s your first time doing so, I know the process can seem daunting – but it can be simple if you take it step-by-step. Getting your finances organized can be incredibly empowering – and the process can be easy if you follow the guidelines above.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Organizing for Taxes

Take the stress out of tax time with a few simple tips!

Does the thought of preparing for tax time fill you with dread? Tax time can make anyone stressed out – but there’s hope! By using a few easy organizing techniques, you can sail through your taxes this month.

Plan in advance. Don’t wait until the tax deadline looms near if you know that your receipts need organizing and that you haven’t kept track of your expenses. Spend one or two hours a week (or just 15 minutes a day) sorting your documentation. This will save you lots of time and stress when you or a professional are actually preparing your taxes.

Who’s preparing your taxes? Think about who will be preparing your taxes, and what sort of information they’ll need. Preparing your own taxes is a lot easier if you make a checklist of what documents (W2s, bank statements, etc.) are needed. With a checklist, you’ll know if any important information is missing when you sit down to prepare your taxes. If you’re going to be giving your information to a tax preparer or CPA, ask them how they would like to receive your information. Some tax preparers want a list of expenses, while others are happy to take receipts and do the totaling for you.

Record your expenses. If you don’t have an organized way of keeping track of your deductible expenses, you may be missing out on big savings come tax time. Create a list of your expense categories using a simple list, a ledger, or a computer-based system. As your expenses accumulate, add to your category totals so you can see where your money is going.

Keep everything together. Scattered receipts and expenses can lead to lost deductions. Instead of losing your receipts or keeping them in a shoebox, purchase an inexpensive accordion folder. Label the folder with your expense categories, and as you get a receipt, drop it into the corresponding slot. Totaling your expenses for each category at tax time will be a breeze!

What about next year? Don’t wait until next year’s tax time rolls around to start thinking about your 2010 taxes. Create an accordion folder for next year, along with your category list. Keeping track of receipts and expenses throughout the year can eliminate tax-prep related stress.

Paying taxes is a fact of life, but the stress surrounding tax preparation doesn’t have to be! By using some of the simple strategies I’ve described, preparing this year’s taxes can be quick and painless.