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Better Organizing=Better Grades

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The first day of school is fast approaching. Some families are trying to squeeze out every bit of summer fun in these last few days by heading to the pool or sleeping late just one more time. Some are busy shopping for school supplies and making plans for that first day. There are so many mixed emotions about the beginning of a school year. Parents are worried about everything from paperwork and packing lunches to bullying and report cards. Children can feel excited one minute and terrified the next about meeting their first day in a new grade. Teachers are finishing up getting their rooms ready and frantically planning those crucial first few days. Clearly this is a busy time packed with activity and planning.

Even though my children are grown, I still get excited about the beginning of a school year. It takes every bit of restraint I can muster to not go out and buy things I really don’t need. As a student, I took the selection of item on the school supply list very seriously, making sure that the color of the notebook corresponded in some way with the class subject. I wrote especially neatly on the first page of a spiral notebook, knowing that I would be looking at that page all year. After the first few days of school though, the excitement of new supplies was soon replaced by anxiety as I began to worry about my grades. I was (and still am) very driven and competitive, so good grades meant everything to me.

For many students and parents alike, grades are the biggest worry throughout the school year. This worry starts early and continues throughout all grade levels, even into the college years. It can often seem like so much is riding on these scores. So many factors can influence grades, and volumes of research have been done to find the magic formula to produce top marks. When I think back over my school years and those of my children, I am convinced that the most important factor in achieving good grades was simply being organized. While intellect, creativity, and study methods definitely played a part, basic organizing skills were pivotal in achieving good results.

In light of this observation, here are my top suggestions for staying organized during the school year. Keep in mind that depending on the age of the student, parents’ assistance may be needed. The older the child, the more responsibility should be transferred to them. I strongly advise parents, grandparents, or anyone who is working with a child to teach them basic organizing skills. These principles will serve them well throughout their lives. I would like to thank my daughters Emma and Lydia (both college students) and my husband Eric for their input.

    • Check backpacks before leaving school. Nobody enjoys finding out at 9:30 pm that your child forgot the textbook they need to complete their homework. If you pick up your child from school, this isn’t too difficult, but if they ride the bus or with someone else, you’ll have to train your child to do this. We learned this lesson the hard way.
    • Establish and reinforce routines for papers. Students come home with a LOT of papers, some of utmost importance and some that go straight to the recycling bin. Make it a habit from day one to have a designated spot for papers. Establish a drop zone for backpacks with a container (one per child) nearby for all papers to go into as soon as children arrive home. This container can be wall-mounted to save counter space. If possible, a parent should look through these immediately to identify anything urgent (forms to be returned, homework to be completed). At the end of the evening, check again to make sure all papers that need to be returned are in the backpack.

 

  • Declutter backpacks regularly. At least once a week, every single item in the backpacks needs to be taken out and everything unnecessary removed. I have heard many stories of children getting a 0 on a homework assignment that was completed on time but not turned in because the backpack was a disaster area. Don’t be that family!

 

    • Keep an updated checklist. Each child needs one central location to keep track of dates, deadlines, homework, etc. You might try using a different color for each class. There are some wonderful student planners that are perfect for this. Or it may be that a digital solutions work better for your family. Either way, I can’t overstate the importance of this strategy.
    • It’s never too early to start an assignment. Look over assignment sheets and descriptions early to avoid last-minute issues. For a large assignment, use a technique called “backwards planning”,  which is working backwards from the desired result to figure out all the steps needed to achieve it, and creating mini-deadlines to break big tasks up. For a long-range assignment, one good strategy is to work a little on it each day after finishing homework that is due the next day.

 

  • When your child says they don’t have any homework, don’t believe them. I’m not implying that your child is a liar. I’m simply suggesting that perhaps they have forgotten it. Either way, it’s better to just double check before assuming they have the night off. There is always something to work on (see above point about long range assignments).

 

  • When your child says they don’t have any homework, don’t believe them. Yes, I meant to repeat that sentence. Did you catch it? So many times when asked about homework, I was assured me there was none. Then I would find out there was a test the next day. Studying for a test definitely counts as homework! There are many effective methods of studying for a test: looking over notes, working problems, making note cards, having a group study session, creating a practice test (this was my favorite), outlining material, etc. Different methods work better for different subjects and learning styles. Teachers are great resources for best study habits.

I’d love to hear from you, readers! Do you agree that organization is the biggest factor in student success? What has worked well for your family?

Here’s hoping for a wonderful and organized school year!

 

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How to Pack Bags for Frequent Activities

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Now that we’re in the heart (and heat) of the summer, most of us are really on the move! Not only are we traveling more, but we are likely also headed to the pool, summer camp, rehearsal, sports practice, hiking or biking, and the gym, among others. Most of these activities require you to bring along supplies of some sort. Don’t you hate remembering at the last minute that you need to bring something but you can’t find it? How about arriving for an activity only to find out that you’ve forgotten something essential? Moments like this sure can turn a relaxing summer day into a stressful one quickly. How can you be assured that you will always arrive to these activities on time with everything you need? By planning ahead and organizing, of course! Here are my top suggestions for packing bags for frequent activities:

    • Get a bag for each person for each activity. If you have 3 children who each participate in a different sport or activity, all 3 children need a different bag. Even if more than one child participates in the same activity, they each need their own bag. Not only will this assure that every person has what they need, but it will also allow each child to take responsibility for their own belongings.
    • Pick the perfect bag. For most activities, a simple tote bag should suffice, but some activities require a special bag. Golf is a perfect example of this. If your child (or you) have participated in an activity for several years, it’s probably time to buy the special bag. It might be more expensive, but it will also be much more effective at storing the supplies. Even with a simple tote bag, there are many different sizes and varieties, and you want to choose the bag that is best for the activity. In some cases, a storage bin might actually work better than a bag. My husband and I go on frequent bike day trips. All of our biking supplies fit in one large bin that we can easily put in our vehicle before we leave.
    • Create a different checklist for each bag, and attach it to the bag.
      • I almost always prefer to store information digitally only. But I have found that if a list isn’t right in front of me, I might not consult it. By having a physical list attached to the bag, you’re a lot more likely to consult it. A luggage tag works well for attaching the checklist to the bag.
      • If you’re new to an activity, ask the coach/instructor for suggestions on what you will need. It’s also helpful to ask the people (or parents of children) who have been participating in the activity for several years. And don’t forget to ask your children what they think they will need.
      • As soon as you think of something you need that isn’t on your list, either add it to the bag immediately and add it to the checklist or give yourself a reminder to do that when you get home. I love the reminders app on my iphone for scheduling reminders at a certain time or upon arrival at my home (as long as you’ve included your home address in your iphone).
      • If you have young children, you might want to include pictures of the items that need to be packed. This will allow them to share the responsibility of packing it.
    • Leave as many things as possible prepacked in the bag. This may require buying multiples of a few inexpensive items, but the time and stress saved will be well worth it.
    • Check the bag contents the night before the activity. I always like to plan ahead for the next day the night before. This will avoid those last minute panic scenarios. For example, if you realize the night before that all of your uniforms are dirty, you’ve still got time to wash them.
    • Don’t forget a spectator bag. I love this idea that I found on the Organize 365 website (https://bit.ly/2lKQWR4) and additions to the list found on this website (https://bit.ly/2lIu9oX). The items in this bag can make all the difference for your comfort and enjoyment as a spectator. If you’re attending an all day event, these items will also be invaluable to the participant and their friends. There is almost always some down time in long events, and you want your child to be able to refuel, relax, and enjoy the time. Suggestions include:
      • Snacks and drinks
      • Cash (including small bills and coins) for concessions
      • Cell phone charger with cord and portable battery in case an outlet isn’t available
      • Pad and pencil or pen
      • Items for entertainment: deck of cards, small game, coloring books and colored pencils/crayons
      • Gum, candy, or mints
      • Blanket
      • Plastic bags for wet or dirty clothes or equipment or trash if a can isn’t nearby
      • Umbrella
      • Jackets
      • Towel
      • Sunscreen
      • Bug repellant
      • Elastic hair bands
      • Bandages, anti-itch cream, and antibiotic cream
      • Scissors (to cut open snack bags, cut a string on a uniform)
      • Disinfectant wipes
      • Hand sanitizer for before and after snacks
      • Spray bottle with water (this feels great on a hot day!)

 

  • Don’t assume that you will be able to run out and pick up something you’ve forgotten. Sometimes during those all day events, there simply may not be time to leave the venue. Parents are often required to help out with responsibilities like working concessions, officiating, judging, scorekeeping, etc. and may need to stay. It’s possible that you may be in a remote location with no quick options available for food or supplies.

 

    • Pick a strategic location for the bags. If you are making frequent trips, you may want to keep the spectator bag in the car. The bags for each person might be kept in the garage or a common household area. If a child is responsible enough, you might consider keeping it in his/her room. Wherever you choose, make sure everyone knows the location and that it always stays in this location.

 

  • Don’t forget the portable chairs. These probably won’t fit in the bag, but you definitely don’t want to forget them if you are headed to an outdoor event.
  • Pack extra supplies and you might just be a hero. We’ve all been there: despite your best attempts at planning ahead, you’ve left without something essential and you’re up a creek without a paddle (at the soccer field without a portable chair, or at the all day theatre tech day rehearsal without any snacks, you get the idea). Bring along extras and help a friend. It’s a great way to contribute to team spirit and build camaraderie.

 

I hope you find this article helpful. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

 

An Organized and Stress-Free Vacation

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We’re finally in the midst of the summer break from school, and all across the country, families are rejoicing. It’s a wonderful time for making family memories. Of course some of the best summer memories are made on vacation. For my family, that usually meant a trip to Myrtle Beach. As a child, I was lucky to not have to worry much about the planning, because my mother pretty much took care of everything. As an adult, it didn’t take long to realize all of the work involved. Great vacations don’t just magically happen. Being organized is always important, but it may be even more important with regards to travel. One careless mistake like forgetting to put your suitcase in the car (me) or forgetting a passport for an international trip (a friend) can ruin a vacation. Here are some of my top tips for traveling.

  • Make a list (and check it twice): Santa’s obsessive habit is a good one because it all starts with a good packing list. A good general packing list is tremendously helpful, but depending on the setting of the trip, the requirements can vary tremendously. I would pack very differently for a beach vacation than I would for a business conference. Thinking through your daily itinerary or likely activities is helpful. A last minute To Do list is a great idea. Include tasks such as taking out trash, emptying refrigerator of foods that will spoil, packing last-minute items such as charging cords, daily medications or toiletries, turning off water to the washing machine, and setting up mail pickup or holding. Your local post office can hold your mail and deliver it on the day you return. They can also send you a scan of all of the items that are in your held mail each day, all at no cost to you. Speaking of medications, be sure to check several days before you go to see if you need any medication refills before you leave.
  • Scout out your location. Take some time to not only plan your activities, but locations of frequently needed services or stores like a grocery store or pharmacy. You can do this online ahead of time or as soon as you arrive. We often look ahead at Google Street View, especially if directions are confusing. Google Maps is the easiest way to get around. Simply type in your desired location, choose whether you will be driving, using public transit, or walking, and Google Maps gives you very detailed directions.
  • Pack lightly. I may have used this Rick Steves quote before, but it bears repeating: “There are two kinds of travelers: those who pack light and those who wish they had.” The more bulky your bag(s), the more difficult it will be to move around. If you’re flying, a heavy bag will cost you extra. How do you pack lightly? When choosing your clothing, pick items that can mix and match with each other. If you’re staying somewhere with a washer and dryer, pack less clothing and plan to do laundry. Packing lightweight, fast-drying, wrinkle-resistant fabrics is helpful. Reduce the number of shoes by picking only a few comfortable pairs that can be used with multiple outfits. Wearing your bulkiest clothes and shoes on travel days can also free up space. I love this idea on Huffington Post (https://bit.ly/2swMJEl) of packing tennis shoes that will work at the gym as well as for daily wear. Keep in mind that most destinations have stores where many things can be purchased. For a long trip, it’s really more advantageous to travel lightly than to pack absolutely everything you could possibly need.
  • Pack wisely. Use every possible inch of space. Rolling clothes instead of folding them uses space more efficiently. Use the space inside of your shoes to pack small items like socks. If you’re taking an empty water bottle, use the space inside it. Throw in some Ziploc bags; they can be very useful for grouping items (a daily outfit, toiletries, snacks) or for wet clothes. Small zippered bags called packing cubes are wonderful (https://amzn.to/2sXOWbi), but a Ziplock bag can work just as well. Pack fragile or valuable items inside of clothing. Think through your morning and evening routines to make sure you bring everything you need. Keeping a toiletries bag already loaded up with everything you use on a daily basis saves a lot of time and hassle.
  • Get there early. If you are flying, get to the airport early. My husband Eric is not a worrier at all, but over 20 years ago, he missed a flight in Europe because he didn’t arrive early enough. Now we always get to the airport early. Really early. If you arrive early, you can absorb unexpected events like traffic or forgotten items. You will also be much less stressed out. You can always find things to do with that extra airport time. By the way, if you fly frequently, it is totally worth the time, effort, and money to sign up for the Global Entry program (https://bit.ly/23KE9e7). You will always be TSA precheck, meaning getting through security is much faster (hooray for not having to remove your shoes), and reentering the country from international travel is a breeze.
  • Anticipate complications. Give everyone on the trip a detailed itinerary list (physical and/or digital) with details of flights, road directions, lodging, restaurants, etc. in case your group gets split up. Share this list with someone staying home in case you need to be reached for an emergency. Ask a neighbor to keep an eye on your house. This person can also check your door for any items you expect to arrive by (thank you, Amazon Prime!). Bring a phone charger and portable battery in case your phone battery gets low. You can download a map in advance in case you don’t have a good signal to get gps directions. Pack medications and a change of clothing into a carry-on bag in case luggage is lost on a flight.
  • Unpack immediately. I can’t stress this enough. I have helped many clients who have multiple unpacked bags from trips. If you have a Monday through Friday work week, I suggest getting back home on Saturday if possible.The best way to assure that this happens is to build some time into your schedule when you return for unpacking, doing laundry, and getting back into your regular routines.

Happy travels!

 

 

Traveling (Through Life) Lightly

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The best thing about the weather finally turning warmer is the opportunity to get back on bicycle trails and hiking trails. For me, nothing beats spending the day on a trail with family and friends. Plenty of time for conversation, beautiful views, and lots of good exercise are the essential ingredients of my perfect spring day. I was fortunate to have one of those perfect spring days recently with my husband and my younger daughter Lydia while hiking on the Rattlesnake Lodge Trail near Weaverville, NC.

When packing for a hike, I always choose the items for my backpack very carefully. The essentials are pretty easy to determine: water, snacks, sunscreen, a trail map, and my phone (for taking pictures). Beyond that, anything else that I *might* need is optional. I briefly considered a raincoat. There was no rain in the forecast that day. I know that weather can sometimes change unpredictably, but we decided to chance it and didn’t take a raincoat. Thankfully, the weather was absolutely beautiful. I could think of many other items that I could have taken on the off chance that I might need them: a first aid kit in case of injuries, a walking stick, a mirror to signal a plane in case of getting lost, a compass, a hammock, freeze-dried food, salt tablets, a change of clothes in case I fell in the lake, an Ace bandage in case of a twisted ankle, etc. You get the idea. For every item I chose to take, there was a distinct cost involved. Every item increased the weight of my backpack. Even though our hike was a short one, I valued a lightweight backpack over being perhaps overly prepared.

Whenever I hike, I am always thankful that my backpack is so light. When I travel, I try to apply that same principle when packing my suitcase. If I stuff too many items in my suitcase, I end up lugging a very heavy suitcase everywhere. If I’m flying, I would have to pay an extra fee if the suitcase weight is over the 50 pound limit or I would have had to take two suitcases. I don’t want to face any of those consequences, so I make my selections carefully. When it comes to backpacks or suitcases, I definitely agree with American travel writer Rick Steves’ who describes two kinds of travelers, “those who pack light, and those who wish they had.”

What if we evaluated every item in our home just as carefully? What if we were just as discriminating in our choices? I am betting that a large percentage of items wouldn’t “make the cut”. In the case of the backpack or the suitcase, there is a clear negative consequence to taking too much (heavier pack to carry, cost of overweight suitcase, inconvenience of carrying two suitcases). What about the consequences of keeping too much in our homes? You may be thinking that this doesn’t “cost” you anything, I am sorry to break the news to you, my friends, but you are wrong.

Anything that we keep when we don’t need to is clutter. And our clutter definitely costs us. As a country, 1 in 10 of us pay a monthly fee to rent storage space because we have more than we can fit into our homes. 1 in 4 of us have too much stuff in our garages to fit our cars. We buy things we already own because we can’t find them amidst the clutter. We don’t have the peaceful home environment we crave because of the clutter. I could go on, but you get the idea. Clutter costs.

You might be thinking, “But most of the things I have kept are because I might need them!” That might be true, but let’s look at that reasoning a little more closely. I believe that you need to go a little deeper. First of all, you need to be able to separate the possibility of needing something from the probability of needing it. For example, one of the items I decided not to pack was salt tablets. If we had drunk all of the water we brought and needed to use salt tablets to decontaminate lake water to make it safe for drinking, this would have been extremely helpful, perhaps lifesaving. But I was counting on the fact that our hike was relatively short and that we had all brought sufficient water. While there was definitely a possibility that we might need them, the probability was extremely low, so it was an easy choice.

Now, think about an item in your home that you have been debating about whether or not you should keep, and let’s use those same principles. I’ll use an example from my own home. My daughter Lydia just completed her junior year at MTSU. She is living off-campus, and her apartment has a full-sized bed. In her previous two years, both her dorm and her on-campus apartment had a twin-sized bed. When we were getting her things together to take back to school, we realized that she would need a full-sized comforter and sheets and would no longer need her twin-sized ones. What did I do with the twin-sized comforter and sheets? I decided fairly quickly to donate them. Although there might be a possibility I could use them in the future, I think the probability is extremely low. We haven’t had a twin bed in our home for about 10 years. I don’t foresee either of the girls going back into a living situation where they would have a twin-sized bed. Even if we did somehow need one, it wouldn’t be that expensive to buy a new one. Or I could probably borrow one from a friend. Yes, I have room in my linen closet for that comforter, but just because I have room for it is not enough reason for me to keep it.

The next time you are considering whether or not to keep something because you might need it, take a few minutes to consider it more deeply. In what circumstance would you need it? What is the probability of this circumstance occurring? If it did occur and you no longer had the item, what would it cost you to replace it? Be ruthless in your decluttering. Everything you keep costs you in some way.

Getting rid of unneeded things can be incredibly freeing. Trust me—I’ve seen it in my own life, and I have seen it in my clients’ lives. You can start slowly, one space at a time. You will be so thankful for making those hard decisions when you see the benefits in your home.

Happy organizing!

 

“Container Concept” Helps Us Set Limits

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I love containers. I love the variety: boxes, baskets, bins, drawers, crates, jars, folders, tins, and…well, you get the idea. I love all of the different shapes and sizes and colors and textures. The Container Store just might be my favorite store. By the way, I really want a Container Store in the Tri-Cities area (the closest one is in Charlotte, NC), so if you have been wanting to open a store, you have my full support and promise of lots of business. As an organizer, my love of containers should come as no surprise. I do spend quite a bit of time figuring out the perfect container in a situation. But when I use the word “container”, I often mean so much more than just a “receptacle in which something is held or carried”. I am referring to a principle called the container concept.

I first heard the term container concept in a podcast called A Slob Comes Clean by author and blogger Dana K. White (click here for one of her podcast episodes on this topic). I use this concept myself and with my clients just about every day. It has been one of the most useful organizing principles of all, and I hope you find it helpful as well.

If the basic definition of a container is something that contains (just as a baker is someone who bakes), then let’s look more closely at the word contain. According to dictionary.com, contain can also mean “To hold or keep within limits; restrain. b. To halt the spread or development of; check.” You may be asking why I am teaching this grammar lesson, but bear with me. When we choose a container, we aren’t just picking something to make a space look good; we are also giving limits on how much of something can fit inside.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example. Let’s say that I am packing for a trip. I choose my suitcase based on how long the trip is and what I think I will need for the trip. The suitcase is my container, and as such, it limits the amount of items I can take. If I pick too many items and they won’t fit, then I have to either choose a bigger container (suitcase) or take a second one.

The container concept doesn’t just apply to a traditional container. Let’s consider this example. I am organizing my kitchen cabinets when I notice that I have 73 coffee mugs that occupy 4 cabinet shelves. I realize that I am running out of room in my cabinets, and I admit that it’s probably unreasonable to use 4 shelves for coffee mugs alone. I decide that one shelf of coffee mugs should be enough, and so I spread out all 73 mugs and make some difficult decisions. I keep only the amount of mugs that can fit on one shelf, and I let the rest go. That one shelf is my container, and it limits how many mugs I can keep.

Now let’s expand the concept even more. If one shelf can be a container, how about a whole room? Consider your kitchen as a container for all food-related items. If all of the items that should be kept in your kitchen can’t fit in the kitchen, then what do you do? You could store some kitchen items in alternate locations. Sometimes this is a reasonable alternative for seldom used items such as a turkey roasting pan. Since you likely only use this at Thanksgiving, it’s not a bad idea to give this item a “home” elsewhere, like a closet or the basement. But what if your kitchen cabinets are completely stuffed full of items and you also have multiple boxes of kitchen items in other locations? Then I think you need to apply the container concept in this situation. It’s probably time to pull everything out of your cabinets, take a hard look at each item, objectively evaluate what you really use, and get rid of some things. (By the way, if you decide you’d like to rearrange things a bit for better kitchen efficiency, click here for a handy reference for organizing your kitchen cabinets.)

Ok, time for another expansion of the concept. If one room could be considered a container, what about your whole house? What if you have too many items to fit into your house? This is a pretty common problem. Most of the time, instead of taking the time to consider whether everything is really needed, we simply expand our home, buy a bigger home, or rent storage space. On average, 10% of Americans rent space in a storage unit. There are some situations in which this makes sense temporarily. If you are in the process of moving to a new home and you have to move out of your current home into a smaller space before the new home is ready, renting a storage unit makes sense. Unfortunately, situations like this are the exception, not the norm. It may not seem that expensive to spend $90 per month for a 4 x 10 ft. storage space (actual price at a local storage facility in Kingsport), but over a year’s time, that cost adds up. I’m sure you can think of a better use for that $1,000 a year. A much better and frugal alternative is to apply the container concept. Your house is one giant container. Limit yourself to what fits in your home.

I’m going to expand the concept one final time, but this time in a theoretical sense. Instead of thinking of a container just in terms of a physical space, consider using the container concept with reference to your time. A 24 hour day or a 7 day week could be considered a container of sorts. There are only a limited amount of activities we can fit into a day. When we try to stuff our days too full, we end up exhausted, stressed, and scrambling for excuses. When our weeks are filled to capacity, we may run out of time to do the things we enjoy that give us fulfillment because we only have enough time to do the things we have to do. If our time is a container, maybe we need to take a hard look at the way we are spending our time. There are probably some optional activities that need to go. Sometimes we need to let go of good to make room for better. Psychologist and personal trainer Jill Conyers expresses this idea well: “Let go of what doesn’t serve you to create space for what does.”

I love hearing from readers! Send me your thoughts on this topic, your organizing challenges, or ideas for future articles.

Happy organizing!

 

When the Organizer is Disorganized

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Sometimes a story is just too funny to keep to yourself, even if it paints you in a slightly unfavorable light. I had been looking forward to attending my first NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) conference for years. NAPO is an organization of 3,500+ members who are dedicated to helping people and businesses bring order and efficiency to their lives. I have been a member of NAPO from the very beginning, even before I officially launched my business in August, 2016. I had taken online classes, read their daily email discussions, and had corresponded by email and phone with several organizers from all around the US. When I decided to attend the NAPO 2018 conference in Chicago, I just couldn’t wait to finally interact with other list-obsessed people like me.

As the date approached, I paid special attention to all of the emails concerning the conference. I had chosen my class sessions, connected with my conference buddy (NAPO assigns a buddy to every first time conference attendee), and had packed everything on the suggested packing list. On Thursday, April 26, my wait was finally over. My flight was scheduled to leave at 5:55 pm. We pulled up to the curb at the airport at 5:00 pm, I opened the trunk to get my suitcase, and it wasn’t there. Yes, you read that correctly. I had left my suitcase at home. And I was headed to a conference for professional organizers. Talk about irony.

Although my husband Eric made a valiant attempt to retrieve the suitcase in time, I didn’t make that flight. I wasn’t able to leave until 6:00 the next morning, but I still made it to the conference in time. Somehow I was able to stay calm and to laugh about this turn of events, and it definitely made for a great conversation starter at the conference.

So why am I telling you this story? Why am I admitting that although I pride myself on organization, I am by no means a perfect example? I firmly believe that humility is a good thing, and I also believe you can learn a lesson from my mistakes. I remember thinking years ago that people who dropped their phones and ruined them were just ridiculous. Until I dropped my iPhone in a toilet. I heard a story years ago about a friend who was traveling to Haiti on a mission trip. He got all the way to Miami before he realized he had forgotten his passport and had to fly back home. My story ranks right up there. I often say, “Add this to the long, ever-increasing list of stupid things I have done.”

I am guessing that at least a few of you read my articles about organizing and figure that I must be 100% organized in every possible way. Now you know that’s not true. Don’t get me wrong; my home is pretty organized. But when it comes to time management and routines, I have a lot of room for improvement.

What valuable lessons can you learn from my story?

  1. Remain calm when you realize your mistake. In the midst of the mini crisis at the airport, I am so glad I was able to maintain my composure. In a stressful situation, this is critical.
  2. Prepare early. In the vast majority of cases, being in a hurry contributes to the problem. My daughters and I often tease Eric about needing to get to the airport so early. We have always thought his insistence on arriving so early was overkill. I learned the hard way last week that leaving early allows extra time for situations just like this one.
  3. Give yourself a break. Everyone does stupid stuff sometimes. But don’t just say, “I am officially an idiot”, or “Oh well, that’s just how I am.” Laugh a little, and then learn from it.
  4. Create a checklist or a system for any repeated task. Taking the time to do this will make the situation much easier in the future and decrease the odds that you will make the same mistake again. Many of my best checklists or systems have been created as a result of mistakes I have made, sometimes over and over again. Because I have left way too many things in hotel rooms over the years, I do an extensive double check of the room before I check out now. As a result of many forgotten items, I now have a packing list for bicycle rides and a general packing list. The night before I work with a client, I go ahead and set out my work clothes and pack everything I will need in the car. I have been doing this until now by just thinking of each item, but it would be much more effective to create a checklist. You’ll be interested to know that my newest checklist is called “Last minute trip preparation”; the last item on this list is “Load suitcase into car.”

What about you? Are there routines in your life (either at home or at work) that could be made less stressful by creating a system or checklist? As soon as you identify something, jot down as much as you can while it’s fresh on your mind. Later, when you’re not in as much of a hurry, think through the situation completely and complete the checklist. You may need to get input from other team members for this step. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. You can always add or subtract items as you evaluate what’s working and what’s not working.

I hope this information has been helpful for you. We all fall short sometimes. Taking the time to evaluate what went wrong and establishing a better system for the next time is definitely worth the investment.  

Happy organizing!

 

Upcoming Fee Structure Changes

If you haven’t figured it out yet by the 1,762 times I’ve said it already, I LOVE my job! There are so many different things that I do, and I love all of them, but not equally. My favorite parts of my job are organizing with clients, giving presentations, networking, and writing articles about organizing. My least favorite parts of my job involve making the myriad of decisions related to running the business, especially financial ones. But alas, the costs of running a business can’t be ignored: taxes, insurance premiums, licenses, memberships, marketing, training, etc.

After much deliberation and advice from several organizers and business coaches, I have decided that I need to change my fee structure effective July 1, 2018. You can read all of the details of the how and why on this page of my website.

If you have considered hiring me to help you organize, now would be a great time before my rates increase.  Any session booked before July 1 (even if the session occurs after July 1) will be billed at the current rate. Click here to book a session online.

Don’t forget, I now offer a $50 one hour DIY Organizing Consult for those who need help with ideas of how to get started and how to make best use of their spaces.

If you have any questions about the changes, please contact me anytime. Thank you for your understanding.

Reflections on my First NAPO Conference

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On a Sunday afternoon at the end of April, I was on a plane headed home. As always, there was a safety video playing with detailed instructions about how to operate your seat belt, the importance of identifying the closest exit (“keeping in mind that the closest exit may be behind you”), and how to find an inflatable lifejacket in the unlikely event of an emergency. Since my husband and I love to travel, I have watched this video and listened to this message countless times. But that day, I was particularly inspired by one of the opening lines of the video. “At Delta, we believe a good trip is not about the destination, but about the people you meet along the way.” I couldn’t agree more.

The destination for my weekend trip was a retreat center in St. Charles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The facility was great: plentiful meeting rooms that were clean and well-maintained, scenic hiking trails nearby, friendly and professional staff, and delicious food available just about anytime. Yes, the Q Center was nice. But the people? Oh, the people I “met along the way” were truly outstanding.

You see, this was my first NAPO Conference. NAPO, the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, is an organization composed of thousands of people from all areas of the United States (and a few other countries) whose work involves helping people organize their belongings, their time, and their lives. As a new organizer (I started my business, Shipshape Solutions, in August 2016), I was eager to attend my first conference. I knew that the class sessions would give me information vital to increasing my knowledge and skills as an organizer. But I’ll have to admit that I was also a bit apprehensive. After all, many of the organizers attending were seasoned veterans. Having read books, listened to podcasts, and followed email and social media discussions about organizing, I was anticipating meeting some of the “rock stars” of the organizing world and hoping I wouldn’t appear so “green” as to be laughable. Because I don’t live close enough to attend a local NAPO chapter meeting, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to count on having a friend to sit with in the dining room or during sessions. I envisioned a scenario not unlike the junior high school cafeteria, when I would nervously walk away from the cash register with my tray, hoping and praying that I could find a seat at one of the “cool” tables.

After checking into my room, it was time to head down to the conference. According to the schedule, it was time for lunch. Oh, great. I’d have to start with the dreaded cafeteria scene. I got my food and started that slow walk. “Look for a smiling face,” I thought, “and just hope for the best.” Since most every person was smiling, I just randomly chose a table, sat down, and introduced myself. By the end of lunch, I knew that it was all going to be ok. Without fail, every single person at the lunch table that day was friendly, encouraging, and eager to make me feel welcome.

Once the sessions began, the rest of the weekend was pretty much nonstop. Every presentation was of top notch quality, and I learned so much valuable information. My eyes were opened to the vast opportunities for growth within the organizing profession. Besides general organizing in homes and offices, organizers can write books, install closet systems, teach workshops, help with productivity and time management, produce podcasts, plan complex events, and collaborate with any number of professionals to help a client. Presenters urged us to use our gifts, talents, and skills in unique ways to make our business uniquely our own. Participants freely exchanged ideas, discussed challenges, and encouraged each other to grow.

My mind is swimming with possibilities. I have a long list of new things I want to try. I am inspired and challenged to take my business to the next level. I’m so glad I made the decision to attend the 2018 NAPO conference. I can’t wait for NAPO 2019: Education is Bigger in Texas!

Are You Ready to Reclaim Your Garage?

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Happy spring! I hope you’ve been able to enjoy some time outdoors on the warmer days. Lawn mowing season is in full gear, and many people are working on their vegetable and flower gardens. Or maybe like me, you’re enjoying trips to the Kingsport Farmers Market, where you can enjoy the fruits and vegetables of someone else’s gardening efforts. As you enter your garage for supplies to begin these tasks, odds are that over the fall and winter, your garage has accumulated some clutter and may need some attention.

Garages are definitely a household hot spot.  Sometimes we work so hard on the common areas of our homes that it leaves us no time or energy to work on the garage. Consequently, the garage becomes a cluttered, neglected mess. If you deposit enough stuff in there, you end up with no room to park one (or both) of your cars, and you end up avoiding the area altogether because it only brings you feelings of guilt. Like a household receptacle, if you don’t know where to put something, it usually winds up in the garage. It’s also the repository for our “delusions of grandeur”, like that sports activity, home renovation, or yard improvement you were just sure you were going to get around to soon. If that’s the case, be realistic about your chances of actually participating in that activity. It may be time to let these things go guilt-free so that someone else can get some use out of them.

Does the thought of organizing your garage fill you with dread because it’s a complete disaster? I am thankful to Lisa Woodruff of Organize 365 for her excellent podcast (https://bit.ly/2qK127C) as well as fellow organizer Vicki Norris’ of Restoring Order (https://bit.ly/2HGlW17). Are you ready to reclaim your garage? I suggest that you block out a day (or at least 2-4 hours) when most of the family can participate and follow these steps. I promise you it will be well worth the effort!

  1. If your car(s) are parked in the garage, drive them out of the garage and empty them out. You are going to use both cars for this project. One will deliver items to donate, and the other will deliver items to people that you have borrowed them from or to a consignment shop.
  2. Gather some large sturdy trash bags (the black heavy duty ones work best). The bags can be used for trash or to donate some items. You may also need a few empty boxes or bins to take donations.
  3. Empty everything out of the garage into the driveway.
    1. As you pull things out, if an item needs to be recycled or thrown away, go ahead and put it in the appropriate container. One item I see a lot of in garages is empty boxes from shipping. They can take up a lot of space! It doesn’t take very long to break them down to be recycled. If you just can’t part with them, at least break them down and store them flat so that they take up less room.
    2. If an item needs to be returned or donated, go ahead and put it in the appropriate car. When a car gets filled up, one person needs to make a delivery and come back. You need to be ruthless in this stage in order to really get big results. If you don’t have a specific plan for how and when you’re going to use an item, let it go! Get rid of all of those “what if” items that have been crowding your garage for years.
    3. Put everything that you plan to keep into categories. It might help to use sidewalk chalk to delineate the areas (plus it will give the kids a fun way to help).
    4. Continue this process until everything is out of the garage. Give the garage a good cleaning; break out that Shop-Vac for those leaves, spider webs, and dead bugs.
  4. As you work, make a list of things you need or things you have plenty of and don’t need to buy. Examples might include: “Replace the broken broom”, “We have 23 pairs of work gloves, so stop buying them!”, and “We’re almost out of windshield washer fluid”.
  5. Now that you’ve got an empty and clean garage, before putting everything back in, carefully consider whether the way it was organized before was functional and make a plan for the space. What issues were you having in the garage? Get everyone’s input on the plan if possible.
    1. You might want to establish several different zones. Perhaps one wall could be purposed for children’s items (riding toys, sporting equipment, etc.), one for household tools, and one for gardening tools. A lot of this decision will depend on what activities your family enjoys and the ages of your children.
    2. Keep in mind that items you use frequently should be easily accessible. I love Vicki Norris’ suggestion of having a “grab and go” area of the garage for items that are moved in and out of the car frequently. This may change seasonally.
    3. Items for long-term storage or items only used occasionally can be stored on upper shelves.
    4. I really like either plastic or metal sturdy adjustable shelving and clear labeled bins. With this arrangement, it is very easy to see the contents of the bins and very easy to move them around on the shelves.
    5. Make good use of wall space to get as much as possible off the floor. You may not realize how much can be hung on the walls of your garage. A few years ago, my husband installed a FastTrack system (https://bit.ly/2qTYow3). Now we have 3 bikes, our wheelbarrow, and many of our tools and sports equipment hanging on the wall. We love the versatility of attachments that can be hung on the rack. It has freed up lots of floor space and shelf space. FastTrack is made by Rubbermaid and is available at Lowe’s and Home Depot. There are other similar brands of these easy to install systems.
  6. This is also a good time to consider what habits have contributed to the problems in your garage and how you will change those habits. For example, if you tended to come back from a shopping trip, vacation, or sports tournament and just drop things in the garage without putting them in their proper place, consider how you can change that habit in the future. One suggestion for this particular problem is to block out a period of time after these activities for proper unpacking.
  7. When you finish, you will be amazed not only at how much better it looks, but also how much easier it is to find things and move around in the space.
  8. Enjoy your organized garage!

 

Organizing in Mexico: A Unique Challenge

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Last week I had one of the most unusual and challenging organizational projects ever. I am sharing this experience with you because the principles I learned hold true for any organizing task.  My husband Eric and I were in Cozumel, Mexico volunteering on the campus of Ciudad de Angeles (City of Angels), Ciudad de Angeles (https://www.ciudaddeangeles.org/) is a Christian children’s home that provides a permanent home for orphaned, abandoned, abused, and needy children in Mexico. Our family has been involved with Ciudad for about 13 years, and we visit yearly to spend time with the child we sponsor and to help with improvements to the campus. Our “Mexican daughter” isn’t a child anymore; she’s actually now 20 years old and a student at the local university.

As the team of volunteers was gathering materials for the various projects that needed to be completed, the team leader approached me and said, “I heard you were an organizer. We’ve got a job that’s perfect for you!” I love organizing so much and was excited for a chance to use my skills there. The building that needed work was a small storage area for construction materials. As is often the case, because it is used by many different people and no one is in charge of maintaining it, it was in quite a state of disarray. The shelves and floor were almost totally covered with various supplies, but there appeared to be no order to where things were placed. There was also quite a bit of trash and empty containers scattered around. More materials needed to be brought into the space, but doing so in the current state would only make matters worse. The goal was to remove anything not worthy of saving and to put the remaining contents into order so that materials could be found easily. This solution would save the home both time and money.

There were several things about this project that made it considerably different from other organizing projects. First of all, usually when I begin a project, I spend a lot of time speaking to the primary user of the space to find out about their goals and preferences. Although most of the staff at Ciudad speaks both English and Spanish, the construction workers spoke only Spanish. As the primary users, they would be the most important ones to ask about how items should be arranged, but since I speak very little Spanish, I wasn’t able to have that crucial conversation with them. With multiple projects going on at the campus, there wasn’t time to enlist someone’s help to translate, so I just had to arrange things in the way I thought best. I had several “angels” (a few older children who live at the home who just happened to be on a break from school) to help me, and their English was good overall, but it did create an additional challenge. Secondly, funds are limited at the home, so I wouldn’t be able to buy any new organizing supplies. I would need to limit my choices to what I had available to me. The third difficulty was that I wouldn’t be able to label the shelves or containers after I finished because I didn’t know the Spanish term for the objects.

My helpers and I got started immediately by removing any obvious trash and unusable items from the building. This part of the process took the longest since there was so much that needed to be removed. I had to occasionally check with a Ciudad staff member to ask whether an item was valuable enough to save. After everything that didn’t belong in the storage building was removed. Then we pulled everything out of the building and swept off the shelves and then the floor.   

As we pulled items out, we started grouping them into categories. Sorting, the process of arranging like with like, is always my favorite part of the organizing process. Even with the language difficulty, the angels were excellent with this task. I was very thankful that my husband Eric was able to join me on the second day of the project. He has much more knowledge about building materials than I do, so he was able to help with the decision about whether something needed to be saved as well as with the sorting process. Once we had everything sorted, we started making decisions about how to arrange everything. We wanted to keep heavier materials (like buckets of paint and large tiles) on the floor of the building under the bottom shelf. Items that would be used regularly needed to be stored in an area that was easily accessible. We also wanted to keep as much of the floor clear as we could to allow space to work and for bringing in additional materials as needed.

Only at this point did we start thinking about whether we would need to use containers. We looked at each grouping of items to decide if it needed to be placed into a container. Since we couldn’t buy anything, we looked around to see what kind of containers we had available. Since painting and construction are constantly taking place at Ciudad, we had an abundance of empty 5 gallon buckets as well as a few random plastic containers. I usually like to use clear containers with lids for organizing because they allow you to see the contents and the container can easily be labeled. Eric had a great suggestion; we used 5 gallon buckets turned on their sides for a few items so that they could be corralled into one place but also be seen easily. Once everything had been arranged, we were able to bring in some additional supplies (wood scraps) that had been stacked nearby until the building was organized.

I was so pleased with the results that we took a few pictures. I was wishing I had taken “before” pictures so that you could see what a big difference we made. The Ciudad staff was thrilled with how much better the building looked. But the true test of whether an organizing project is successful isn’t based on how a space looks but whether or not it is functional. Toward the end of the process, a construction worker came into the building to look for some electrical wire, glanced at the shelves, and quickly found what he needed. I am not sure whether he would have been able to find it before, but I was encouraged by watching to see him find it easily now.  

When I reflected on this experience later in the day, I realized that there was much to be learned. Here are some of my thoughts:   

  • No matter what the situation or what type of items are involved, the basic steps of organizing are always the same: reduce, arrange, and maintain. First, remove anything that doesn’t belong in the space (reduce). Next, group the remaining items into like categories and determine the best order for them (arrange). Finally, figure out a plan for how the items can be kept in order in the future (maintain). I guess only time will tell as to whether the order will be maintained, but hopefully if we arranged it in a functional way, maintenance won’t be a difficult challenge.
  • If you’re on the fence about whether or not to keep an item, err on the side of purging. I am glad I was given permission to use this criteria. One of the biggest reasons that clutter develops is because we keep too many things “just in case”. But the “just in case” usually doesn’t happen, and we’re left with a huge amount of unneeded stuff that clutters our spaces. A good basic rule is to only keep something if there is strong evidence that it will be used for a specific purpose in the very near future. Make purging your default mode, and you will have much better long-term results. Be ruthless!
  • Wait until the very last step of the process to even think about what containers you might need. This is the opposite of what most people do. So often, people will decide to get organized and immediately go and buy a bunch of storage containers. Until you have removed what’s not needed and sorted items into categories, you have no idea what kind of organizing products you will need. Besides, most of the time, you already have everything you need for organizing. The 5 gallon buckets and plastic containers that were lying around in various areas of the campus weren’t the ideal solution, but they worked just fine. I find this to be true the vast majority of the time with clients here as well. Organizing doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t have to buy specialty products. Common household containers such as shoe boxes and baskets can be used to group items.

I’m so glad I got an opportunity to organize in Mexico. I know I was also helpful with other projects I assisted in last week, like weeding a landscaping bed and shoveling gravel into wheelbarrows to be moved to other locations on the campus. But it’s always nice to find a place to use your skills and passion in a way that benefits others. I hope that the principles I learned during this job are helpful to you.

Happy organizing!