This is the 5th year I’ve paused at the end of the year to reflect on what I’ve learned as an organizer over the last 12 months. This time around, each observation could stand alone as its own post! Each year I grow as an organizer, and this post helps me to solidify new ways of hearing what clients want, and delivering what they need. My hope is that you too pause to gather all that you know now that you didn’t know a year ago, and apply those lessons if you haven’t already. If you’re ready to change in 2017, let’s work together!
#1. There are things we can control and things we can't.
In the spring I gave a series of talks on productivity and workflow to various groups at The World Bank here in DC. In explaining one method for planning your day, a gentleman said, “But we have so little control over our time.” He was absolutely right. I was speaking from a place of a self-employed work-at-homer who sometimes struggles with the opposite problem: underutilizing vast expanses of unscheduled time.
I heard him loud and clear though. My answer was one that has echoed in nearly every client consultation since: “There are things we have control over and things we don’t. These are all methods for you to maximize the precious time and resources you can control. If you look at your day and only have 45 minutes to yourself, these are ideas for making those the most productive 45 minutes of your week.”
We only have so much bandwidth to exercise focus and discipline. I’d rather you learn to recognize where you have control, infusing that with focus and routine, rather than try to regain control where it simply isn’t available.
#2. The piles will always dictate the solution.
There is a quote often heard in Ashtanga yoga, told by its founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois: “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” I would translate that to organizing this way: We can theorize all we want about how to live organized, but I’d much rather get my hands on your piles, and build a solution around reality, not theory.
As I’ve confessed in many posts and in the pages of my eBook, I don’t always have the answers upon walking into a home or office. Solutions arise from my clients’ answers to pointed questions, and our observation of patterns in the piles.
“Piles” can also be digital. I worked with a client this year to organize his time and his email. Visit after visit, we sat in front of his digital piles: his inbox. Our conversations about how to better manage his email barrage were fruitless until we directed our attention to the actual inbox. In there we discovered solutions to problems he hadn’t even articulated yet. There lurked not just a staggering number of emails, but missed deadlines, emails from clients that made him want to hide under the covers and requests from his boss that went unacknowledged.
We also found emails that contained “quick wins.” He began to recognize how quickly he could put a client at ease, delegate something, or complete a mindless task he had been putting off. Theorizing about inboxes or collecting email best practices from books and blogs would have been a frustrating dead end. Getting our hands dirty was the only way to craft a set of repeatable solutions.
Just last week I met with a client who I’ve known for years. Many of our visits are focused on digital organizing; meanwhile, the piles on her credenza were always higher than they were at my last visit. Until that day, she resisted my offers to simply sit on the floor and sort them out with her. We finally sat with them, discussing one paper at a time. We ended up tossing or Evernoting most of them, building her Evernote notebooks as dictated by what we found. Not even five minutes in she said, “Kacy, this is SO EASY!”
Put down the organizing books.
Put down the organizing magazines.
You even have permission to close my blog.
The answers aren’t there.
Instead, open that closet. Talk through those emails. Sort those piles all across your floor.
The answers are there!
#3. Just get people talking.
This past year I’ve had at least 3 clients who seemed to be overjoyed to pay me after a session of drinking tea and chatting. This used to make me very nervous. I watched the clock tick, wondering how we were going to fit three hours of work into the final 20 minutes. I would interject with suggestions of “Let’s talk while we walk. Shall we move upstairs to the office?” or “Let’s turn to your notebook. It’ll help me to see what you’re struggling with.” This didn’t always change the trajectory though.
My clients clearly had more they needed to say before we dug in. Clients have done this since I started organizing 15 years ago, but this was the year I learned to hear what they truly needed in these instances, and just let them talk. In some cases I have insight that delivers us closer to a solution, but in many cases, I’m witnessing a client’s dialogue with themselves. They often say, “I’m sorry I’m rambling,” but in those rambles is a posing of questions never asked, thus, the simultaneous arrival of answers never before invoked.
#4. People crave routines.
Everyone this year was putting in their order for a routine! This started within the last few years, but this was the year I recognized how often people were asking for routines, but not always explicitly.
One client told me, “It’s so hard for me to focus, so when I finally sit still at my desk, I want to know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.” It took a few sessions, but we created a daily routine that mapped out how he spends his morning, mid-day, and afternoon.
In Mississippi this year, one client clarified that she’s actually quite productive and happy with her level of accomplishment, but there were a few things that regularly slipped through the cracks. Within 5 minutes, I sketched out for her a super simple weekly routine. She said, “You’ve done in 5 minutes what I’ve been trying 15 years to do!”
My PhD candidate client knew that without a routine, the upcoming months reserved to write her dissertation could float into a crushing load of last minute scrambling. We spent our first session building a daily routine that covered both her professional and personal bases. The next day she wrote, “I had a great 'rich morning' with inspiration from our time together yesterday. I made it to yoga and have been emailing and working since… I do think this will give me confidence as I attack projects small and large in the future.”
Recognizing my latent skill set for building highly custom and inviting routines, my clients truly pulled these out of me. I never set out to be anything resembling a time management coach, but session after session, it appeared as if that’s what they needed and that’s what I became.
#5. Keeping a budget is the final frontier of living an organized life.
There’s nothing like getting married to kick you into adulthood. Shortly after Nic and I were married in September, we discovered the radical (and a bit controversial) message of radio personality Dave Ramsey. He is known for his no-nonsense, brash, unbending message of living a 100% debt-free life (we’re talking no student loans, no mortgage, no car payments, etc.).
I was intrigued. In addition to listening to his podcast every day in the car and signing Nic and I up for his Financial Peace University class, we started keeping a budget with Ramsey’s Every Dollar app. We update it daily, and tweak it at our weekly budget meetings.
I’ve balanced a checkbook since I opened my account as a teenager. I scan every receipt for my bookkeeper monthly. I track my income daily. It’s not surprising that I’m a geek for managing the details of life… I thought that meant I was budgeting.
What a lie I had been telling myself! Until you track every penny you earn, create macro categories and line items for all of your spending, and then enter every last red cent into the budget as you spend it, watching how close you are to your limit, you’re not budgeting.
Budgeting isn’t easy at first, but it feels so necessary for financial peace of mind. I bought a salad this week and immediately entered the total into our eating out budget. I wondered, “How may other people in this Chop’d know what they’ve spent this month on eating out – to the penny?”
I’m certain that budgeting his here to stay for the rest of my life, and eager to teach it to anyone, no matter their level of organization around money. Every Dollar is as user-friendly as I can imagine a budgeting software being. It’s free too.
Friends, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my relationship with Every Dollar. Stay tuned.
#6. It helps to make plans.
Considering my aversion to making plans, I’ve gotten pretty far in life. In fact, I think many of my clients are drawn to me because of my organic approach to organizing. Instead of a lengthy proposal, I tend to approach each session based on how they’re feeling. 600+ clients later, it’s still working wonders.
I can’t recall a specific a-ha moment this year, but somewhere along the way, I realized that I rarely make plans within my business, how shocking that will be to anyone who knows me professionally, and that it might behoove me to change that. My baby steps towards a life of planning:
Ever since I mentioned it back in November of 2015, my relationship with my Productivity Planner is still going strong. Yes, I still say, “If I knew what was good for me, I’d use it every day,” but to use it all is to create an oasis of focus in an otherwise unfocused week. This planner is probably the earliest traceable seed of planning.
This annual “Things I learned email” is usually something I pull together in the final hours, each year telling myself it’s ok to skip it (though miraculously, I never have). Back in January, I started a note in Evernote for this very post, filling in what I learned as I learned it. Imagine that!
Planning started to take some of the burden off of writing my blog posts and newsletters. Instead of adding newsletter ideas to a an existing list of 100+ ideas, they dropped into a monthly outline. If I had a good idea that didn’t feel quite right for that week, I added it to a subsequent newsletter. A funny thing happened: I found that my newsletters were always outlined about three newsletters out.
In November I launched my first online product, my eBook The Inspired Office: Organize Your Life One Paper at a Time. It had been sitting idle on my hard drive since I wrote it in 2012. When confessing that to my very encouraging virtual assistant in early November, she told me that it must launch that very month. We set a launch date and some heavy, meticulous planning followed. Day by day, weekend by weekend, the lists were tackled and we pulled it off. I was starting to see proof that planning works!
#7. It’s important to recognize when it’s a real struggle vs. an excuse.
So much of my insight as an organizer is processed through the conversations I have with prospective clients. On this first call as I’m explaining how I work, I often actually say, “That was really good; I’ve never put it that way before. I need to jot this down!” When talking with a woman in Michigan who was to become a virtual organizing client, I said, as I was realizing it for the first time, “I’ve come to recognize when something is a real struggle, versus when someone is making an excuse.” She said, “That is exactly what I need!”
I asked myself this question many times this year, and realized most everything I struggle with is just a pile of excuses. When recognizing an excuse for what it is, it becomes shameful, and that’s a feeling many cannot live with.
Sometimes excuses disguise themselves as struggles. Four years ago I badly injured my knee in the gym. Getting cranky as I descended from regular workout routine to none at all, a good friend asked me to give her one good reason why I didn’t pick up yoga again. I didn’t have one. I went to a yoga class the next day and have been practicing steadily ever since. Yes, my body was struggling to heal (in fact, it took a year), but letting go of the residual excuses brought me to a stronger body than I had before the injury.
Next time you find yourself staring at that thing you’ve been meaning to organize, or contemplating that thing you’ve been meaning to do for ages, or even feeling sorry for yourself, simply ask yourself, “Am I really struggling with this, or is it just an excuse.” Not sure? When in doubt, it’s an excuse!
What did you learn about organizing in 2016? Can you relate to any revelations or client stories I’ve shared above? Please share in the comments!