Feeling overwhelmed? Now is the time to get your ducks in a row with these 6 expert strategies to maximize your productivity all year.
For many of us, January is both a time of relief that we survived the holidays and mild panic about catching up and organizing our lives. Many of us try to begin anew by reorganizing our physical spaces, but while a tidy pantry is a wonderful thing, it can do little to alleviate the general anxiety that comes with being inundated.
What if there were a way to feel recharged and calm amid the chaos of new school and activity schedules? According to Seana Turner, a Darien mom who has been a practicing professional organizer and productivity consultant for over 13 years, when you focus on reducing clutter in your home, inbox and schedule, it’s a game changer for your stress level.
1. Start Here: Incorporate Daily Planning Time
Take five to ten minutes each morning to make and review your to-do list. It’s important to take a breath, look at your calendar, and list all the tasks you need to accomplish.
“Most people have to-do lists that are incredibly long and can’t be completed in one day,” notes Turner. Therefore, use this planning time to extract a reasonable number of high-priority items from your main list and put them on today’s agenda. “It’s critical to make a daily task list that’s achievable,” she says. “Once the list is done, schedule everything into your calendar.”
If your list is unrealistic, shorten it and move things to the following day. Be cognizant of calendar commitments. For example, don’t schedule a task-heavy day when you need to be in the car driving all afternoon.
“At the end of each day, take stock in how you did. If you have a short list you can complete, you’ll feel better as you look back on your day and feel optimistic about tomorrow’s list,” she says. Review tomorrow’s items and refine that list as necessary.
What about the week ahead? Turner recommends that you “just be familiar with the details of today and tomorrow, and on Friday give yourself a broad view of the following week.”
Daily Task list May Include:
2. Triage Mail and E-Mail
If you tend to lose track of time easily, Turner suggests switching to an analog clock. “The physical act of watching clock hands move and seeing time pass creates time awareness and helps us to be task oriented,” she says.
Anything in paper form should be considered mail: papers from work, teachers notes and homework from kids’ backpacks. “It’s not necessary to complete action items for paperwork right away, but it must be sorted every day,” advises Turner. Put all recyclables in the trash, then divide remaining papers into file folders labeled with these action categories: Read Through, Pay, File and Actions. Then, schedule a specific time in your week to execute jobs within each folder. “I add recurring routines on certain days of the week, such as wash clothes on Wednesdays, file and pay bills on Fridays,” says Turner. The “Read” folder can be brought along on errands where you might have some downtime, like waiting in the carpool line or at the doctor’s office.
Email, like paper, is also a delivery system that brings tasks to you, so it needs to be dealt with like physical mail. “Don’t allow your email inbox to become your to-do list,” she warns. When checking email, your calendar and task list should be nearby so you can transfer actionable items into one of your labeled folders, or write down a date or appointment in your calendar.
“I also use the rule of thumb that if you can take care of something little in under two minutes, do it and cross it off your list,” recommends Turner. As time-consuming tasks come up, such as filling out forms, write down “fill out paperwork” on your to-do list for either that day or the next.
Turner warns against constantly checking e-mail while on the go. “Don’t let your e-mails get marked as ‘read’ and then disappear down the nonstop stream of incoming emails,” she advises. “Schedule a block of time, if possible, to sit at your desk or with your phone when you have uninterrupted time to address emails, log them into your calendar or schedule as action items.”
Another option is to use filters that sort e-mails into folders. This is helpful because you can review folders when you have time and this info will stay out of your primary feed.
Action categories she suggests?
- Read Through
If you find yourself experiencing inbox overload, Turner recommends setting up a separate email reserved solely for important communication with school, work or family. Don’t use this account for online shopping!
And finally, Turner suggest finding creative ways to stick to a schedule, such as creating an instrumental playlist for a set amount of time. Use it as a way to manage your time when working on tasks. When the set playlist is finished, so are you.
“What gets scheduled gets done, while dangling tasks with no accountability or deadline can loom forever.”
3. Establish an In-House Donation Station
This can be a bag, box or bin that stays fixed in a designated area such as a garage shelf, extra cubby or mudroom closet. When anyone in the family realizes they have an item they don’t want, it goes in the bin. “Few people enjoy the project of sorting through a large closet or a big pile of books, but there are many times in daily life when we realize we don’t want or need a certain item anymore,” says Turner. “If there’s a place to immediately put this overflow, items will continually get cleaned out.” If a child puts something in this bin and you’re not ready to release it, remove it and stash it somewhere only you know about. This way, children continue to learn that items need to keep getting recycled out of the home on a repetitive basis.
4. Prep for Busy Mornings by Setting Up A Staging Area
he idea here is that each family member has one specific area to put everything they need for the next morning. “The power of designating a spot like this is that we often think of something we need for tomorrow sometime the day before, then we forget about it,” she says. For teens, the floor near their bedroom door or a mudroom cubby fits this bill. “When you go to bed at night, you’ve had all day to gather items and made your best effort to set yourself up for a stress-free morning.” This is a great tool to teach kids when they’re young and sets up strong habits as they grow.
“If there’s something perishable you need to remember or you have a sports bag located elsewhere, put a note in the staging area to remind yourself to grab it,” Turner recommends.
5. Wrap Up Each Day With a Reset
“This is an action item that simply means walk around your house and put things back where they belong. Do not attempt to ‘clean up’ by stashing things in less visible places,” she advises. When we corral items into a bin or shove them in a closet, we just create a future untangling project that no one wants to tackle.
Instead, return items to their designated storage place: keys go on a hook by the door, laundry goes upstairs in separate rooms, and phones get charged at a central charging station. “Everything should ideally have a permanent storage space, and if doesn’t it should be designated. When setting up ‘homes’ for things, don’t overcomplicate. In other words, all the LEGOs can go in one bin, they don’t need to be color-coded,” she laughs. This simple act of placing things in a fixed spot reduces clutter, enhances order, is therapeutic and evokes calm.
“Starting the year off with a few new systems and a daily checklist sets you up for feeling organized and in control.”
6. Hold a Family Meeting
This is a helpful habit to get into when you’re trying to coordinate a busy family’s multiple logistics,” she says, and it only needs to be 10 to 15 minutes long. “Have each member bring their calendar, look at the week ahead, and confirm who has to be where at what time—who’s driving whom, who needs the car, who has an appointment when, etc.”
Turner suggests Saturdays or Sundays as a good time to do this when schedules may be less harried. “Keep it short and sweet, and avoid nagging and complex discussions,” she advises. “This little bit of planning will help avoid unexpected conflicts and keep everyone accountable.”