Thursday, October 30, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 3

Today's goal: Create some structure

One of the things I've heard from many of you is just having some kind of structure for your office or personal space can be overwhelming. Where to start?

I thought I'd share some of the organizing systems that work for me:

I'll do a whole post on this another day, but one of the great boosts to my serenity came when I stopped being a slave to my pinging email. I look at it once a day, and now I have all the newsletters, emails from flaks and emails from specific groups to which I belong sent to their own email folders. That way, most days I only have the most pertinent emails in my inbox. My rule is, with most emails, that I either have to act on it today or file it--or I can delete it. But it doesn't stay there forever, and I don't forget to respond to people anymore.

I know it's a bad word for some, but I actually love filing, because it means that all the stuff that's sitting around has a place to go--and if it doesn't belong in a folder for a story assignment or a client, it sits on my desk till I face it. Since I hate piles, this works for me, but your mileage may vary. (It also means that the piles to the left and right of my monitor I mentioned before have been there for quite some time.)

We've touched on email, and now I'll touch on the stuff that comes into the house every day through the snailmail slot. My rule with these is this:

* If it's junk mail and has my name on it, it gets shredded.
* If it's a credit card or donation request I don't want, it gets shredded.
* If it's a catalog, it gets recycled.
* If it's a receipt for a tax-deductible business expense, it goes in files labeled for each category according to my accountant's wishes.
* If it's a personal receipt (for instance, from the grocery store, from dinner out, etc.), it gets shredded.
* If it's a personal piece of mail I won't need for taxes, I scan it and shred it.
* If it's a personal letter from a friend or loved one, I put it on my bulletin board or file it away in a box in my closet.

Planning my Day
I rely utterly on my Franklin Covey planner and on a weekly workflow list I draw up every Sunday night(another post will be coming on this, too). At the end of every day (usually around 10 p.m., when I should be unwinding), I flip to my weekly workflow plan and add my to-do items to my list for the next day. That way, when I sit down at work in the morning, I don't spend time trying to decipher the important items from the urgent-but-unimportant items. This is a system I adopted after quite a few crises on my end.

We've talked about what works for me, now for the things that don't:

Magazine storage: My magazines, which I refer to for work, are busting or from everwhere--under my bed, under my desk, under other tables, etc.--and I don't know how far back I should keep them before I can toss or donate them.

Book storage: I get books for stories, usually written by people I've interviewed. Or I get books for my own development (Telling True Stories, The Elements of Style, How Race Is Lived in America, Six-Figure Freelancing and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People all jockey for space on one sad shelf in my office, but some books are still in storage because I don't have room for them.)

These are some of the things I'll be working on improving over the next month.

What systems work for you and which give you trouble?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 2 Part 2

Let's add another goal as we start this challenge: Make a deal with yourself

When I think of organizing, I think of drill sergeants. It might be the result of regular cleaning binges after long, frustrating standoffs between my dad's (and, okay, my) obsessive collecting and piling of things on any horizontal surface in my family home and my mother's desire to have a place clean enough for friends to pop in. Finally at her wit's end after months of polite requests that my dad, my sister and I put stuff away, my mother would stand in the middle of the chaos, fists on her hips as she barked orders for where to put this pile and how to sort that pile.

So, yeah. Organizing. Good times.

My point is that starting this kind of organizing venture can be done gently and lovingly, towards ourselves and everyone else involved. We can cultivate forgiveness for our resistance and applaud ourselves for the small steps we take in the direction of a cleaner, more organized space.

So let's all agree to a few things right now:

We will not do this perfectly.
We will not cover every organizing problem you have in the next 30 days.
We will not emerge from this challenge wholely calm and thrilled with our space.

What we will do is learn a little something about why we don't organize and a few tricks to make organizing a little simpler and a little less painful.


30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 2

Today's goal: Face your overwhelm.

Those of you who asked for help with overwhelm and getting started: This post is for you. It's a guest post from the fabulous June Bell, a professional organizer and family coach who helps individuals and families make the best use of their time, space and place. She welcomes follow-up questions and comments at junebell at me dot com, or leave comments here.

Hi to everyone who’s in the process of getting things in order. I’m a colleague of Heather’s and a professional organizer who will hold your (virtual) hand as you start on the road to a more functional space, whether it’s a wallet or a home office.

Getting your chaos under control can be daunting. You can spend a lot of time psyching yourself out by agonizing: Where do I put all this stuff? What should I keep? What if I need what I throw out? Where the heck do I start?

No wonder so many of us live amid clutter, even as we talk about how much we hate it. For many people, complaining about mess is much less stressful than doing something about it.

In this post, I’ll ease you into organizing with a few small steps that will produce tangible, inspiring results:

Schedule. Set aside an hour when you know you won’t be interrupted and feel most alert and focused.

Start small. Choose a contained space such as a makeup bag, handbag or wallet, pencil/pen holder, kitchen “junk drawer” or your underwear or sock drawer. I’ve been working with a client who’s learning to organize her entire home. We started with a coffee table because she sees each time she enters or leaves the house, and having it clear affirmed to her that she could beat her clutter.

Remove all the contents from your targeted space and dust or wipe out your container. Now, examine the contents.

 Ask yourself: What do I need and use most often? Retrieve those items and put them back. If you’re organizing your wallet, for example, you’d need cash, your driver’s license, credit, ATM and insurance cards and maybe a work ID or a special photo.

Lighten up. Weed out clutter – old receipts and empty tubes of lipstick, old business cards and dry pens. Do you really need five photos of your nieces? A first-aid kit? A Matchbox car?

Tweak. You may discover that you need a place in your purse for receipts. Add an envelope to hold them, or designate a pocket of your handbag. If you’re always hunting for a screwdriver to fix a kitchen cabinet, consider moving it from the tool shed to the kitchen drawer.

Appreciate your work. Admire your lighter handbag. Note how much more easily you can find your keys and your sunglasses. By organizing one small space, you’ve given yourself a taste of success. If you like how you feel, why not tackle another drawer?

If you feel uneasy about letting go, my next post is especially for you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Day 1

Today's Goal: Get your priorities straight.

As I look around my office, here's what I see:

* A pile of magazines (all for work!) tumbled in with the baby books I need to send to my nephew in Germany. Naturally, this is under a table. Of course.
* A three-tray stackable system with a bunch of stuff to shred, a bunch of stuff to file and/or scan and then shred, and clean paper for the printer (so I can add to the other two piles).
* Piles of papers to the right and the left of the monitor I'm staring at right now. One contains tons of story ideas, articles clipped from newspapers, Post-It multicolor tags, a disposable camera, my keys, the container for my makeup brushes (of course), my keys and an iPod case. The other contains a magazine from a friend, the TV remote, an envelope containing a contract for a story I'm filing today (Gee, maybe it's time to mail that), two copies of a magazine with my story in it, letters from my student loans and files for stories I'm currently working on.
* A monitor riser that holds notes for a new story, my planner, a timer, magazine renewal notifications, an iPod dock, my vitamins and my giant calculator.

In my bedroom, under the bed is crammed with old New Yorkers I haven't read but can't bear to part with. My bedside table holds books, copies of yoga kriyas for insomnia I got for an article and promise myself I will one day use, Kleenex, Advil, Chapstick and moisturizer.

There are shoes all over the floor.

Yeah, you could say I need an organizing challenge.

The ironic thing is that this is a vast improvement for me. As a child, there was a strict close-your-door policy for my bedroom. As I previously mentioned. I was quite a dramatic child. Part of that drama was a flamboyant disregard for order or cleanliness. No one was going to tell me how to keep my own room. There was literally a path from my door to my bed, and often things crunched under my feet as I traversed it.

Over the years, pride curbed my messy ways. There are only so many dirty looks I could get from my dorm roommate. Only so many fights I could have with roommates over dirty dishes. I recall a wooden cutting board that broke in half under the weight of all the neglected cutlery and dishes.

Today, I wash dishes to calm my nerves and file to distract myself when my energy has left me. I actually like to organize. But I don't always do it.

I'm gladdened by the number of people who have shared similar challenges. I have found my (messy) people!

So as we get started, I'm excited about what we're about to do. I've lined up some great professional organizers to answer questions I can't, and plan to share the organizing tips that have made a difference in my life.

But first, it's time to figure out what I want to get out of this. I suggest you do the same, if you're following along at home. My priorities:

* Revisit the organizing strategies that have worked in the past.
* Carve out time for incremental improvements in my organizing.
* Find a system that fits with my organizational style.
* Find some techniques to deal with clutter/organizing overwhelm.
* Reflect on why I resist organizing.
* Learn some new tricks to keep clutter in control.
* Optimize my desk for productivity and profitability.
* Have some fun with it!

I do believe that last one is possible. After all, it's a new challenge, literally. It's a chance to direct my creativity into a realm I think is utterly uncreative.

What are your priorities?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Organization It Is: Send me your pressing organizational questions

The vote was unanimous: Next, week, I'll start our 30-Day Organizational Challenge.

But before I do, I want to know: What are your biggest organizational challenges? If you could sit down with a professional organizer and ask her anything, what would be your top five issues?

Let me know and I'll tackle them in the challenge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A survey: Choose the next 30-day challenge

Organization or marketing?

Both are key to serenity: If you can't find things, you can't pay bills, you feel foggy and vague about your work. If you don't market, your business fails.

Both can lend themselves to financial fears and insecurity, which kills serenity.

So what do you prefer? I'll do both; I just want to know which you want me to start with.

Comment below and I'll get started.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

30-Day Self-Care Challenge: Roundup

So 30 days have come and gone and I've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to reflect on what I learned in that month.

My overall impression is that writing about this keeps my focus on it. Like with anything else, what I focus on gets bigger: If I focus on my problems, they grow. If I focus on the solution, it grows. In this case, I'd say that self care grew.

Here's a roundup of what I learned:

You can start anytime.
This is an important reminder because, like with everything else, I didn't do self-care perfectly. There was a time when I was religiously taking five-minute breaks to stretch and turning off the TV at 10 so I could unwind before bed. But illness, stress and, well, life, got in the way. The good thing is that I've at least tried those self-care tricks and I know I can pick them up at any time.

Go on a news blackout
As a former newspaper reporter, I'm a little ashamed of this tip. I like to think I'm tougher than this, but let's be honest. I'm so not. Limiting my exposure to the financial meltdown has done wonders for my focus and emotional health.

Earlier this week, I was reminded of 2001, when I was a newspaper reporter at a small, coastal-California newspaper. Near-constant thinking and working on stories on the September 11th tragedy sent me into an emotional meltdown. A friend was getting preparing to find out whether she had cancer. I had a friend who worked in the Wall Street Journal offices near the World Trade Center. I had other friends who were still in the city. And I walked into the newsroom and was confronted with the planes slamming into the towers on a perpetual loop on the 24-hour news programs. Eventually, my editor, seeing my despair, gave me a few days off. I did a lot of yoga and I found a therapist. That's all I remember.

Today, I feel grateful that I don't work in a newsroom, that I have the power to control the information that comes to me. This doesn't mean I'm not still paying attention. But it does mean that I care for myself by gentle management of my environment.

Query and do other things to say yes to money
This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the one before it, in my mind. Once I clear my head of all the madness of the markets and my own worrywort nature, I can focus on my 1 percent. In this case, that's marketing, marketing, marketing.

When I started writing these posts, I wondered if these really had much to do with self-care. After all, marketing is part of the muscular development of your business--not the gentle hand of serenity. But the more I think about it, the more I know marketing is self-care. It's care for my business. It gives me an outlet for the anxiety I feel about the markets, news blackout or not.

Say No
Wouldn't it be nice if it were that easy? Just say no? Well, it turns out that I ended up saying, "Yes." I found a way to afford a trip to visit my family--without stretching myself too thin or adding complication to the holiday. But as we head into the holiday season, it's still an important lesson. We feel like we have to do things--out of desire or obligation, it doesn't matter. The truth is, we have choices. And the more we accept that and act on that, the more serene we are. Guilty, sure. But serenity and guilt can go hand in hand, don't you think?

Draw up a balance sheet
I love this lesson and have practiced it several times since I made this post last week. It's so hard to keep from having a negative focus, especially when your financial and professional future depends on you. Since no one else is going to give you perspective, you've got to take it.

What would you add to this list?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

30-Day Self-Care Challenge: Day 29

Boy, I'm on a role now. Today's goal: Draw up a balance sheet.

As a teenager, I was full of self-loathing. I'd always been outgoing (okay, a loud-mouth) and curious and thoughtful as a child. But when puberty hit, my self-esteem crashed just like all the girls around me. I turned my thoughtfulness, my observant nature and my critical thinking skills against myself, eking out the ways in which I thought my thighs were misshapen, my hair too frizzy, my eyes tiny and beady. And I turned that outgoing personality into a talent for the dramatic.

I cried tears of genuine distress at my appearance and my social status. It's an act I now laugh about because, Boy, did I take myself seriously! I look back now and I was hot and moderately popular. But you couldn't convince me of that back then. I was stuck in the maddening loop of negative thinking.

I still focus on the negative. If you were to ask--and please don't--I could list off 10 things I didn't get to today and tell you where I failed. But I'd have a hard time stammering out a similar list of where I made my business work for me today.

So last night, after a chat with friends and a long soak in the tub reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I thought back to the gentle suggestion my mom offered whenever I was at my most dramatically unhappy.

"Heather," she'd say, in her loving but exasperated voice, "I want you to take this piece of paper and write in one column all the things you like about yourself and in another all the things you don't."

It felt lame at the time, believe me. Self-indulgent. Sickeningly therapeutic. And sometimes it backfired because the list of what I hated was almost always longer than what I liked.

But last night I tried it again, and this time I focused on my business. I drew up what I'll call a balance sheet:

In one column, what I did well that day, things for which I can claim genuine self-esteem.

In the other, what I didn't finish, bad habits that sprang up again.

For someone who's to-do list is always longer than the hours in which she has to achieve them, there's always something left over. And hey, I'm human, my bad habits are there for all to see all the time. But I usually focus on those to the exclusion of anything else.

It took five minutes. You know what I found? I did an awful lot yesterday. And I accomplished almost everything--everything but the two things I had been beating myself up for. Interesting.

I left that list feeling like I'd had a day that reflected my values: Full of the craft of writing, the curiosity of interviews and a little self-care thrown in.

Give it a try. I'd love to hear how you keep your negative thinking in check.

Monday, October 13, 2008

30-Day Self-Care Challenge: Day 28

Today's challenge: Say Yes to Money

Doesn't seem like much of a challenge, does it? I mean, especially right now, it seems a given to say yes to money. But maybe you're not like me.

I don't want to get into all the hippie-woo-woo things I believe about money and my own personal growth. It's not that interesting and it's not that important for this discussion. What is important is that at the end of the day, I say no to money by not working during work hours, by not doing my marketing and by not returning calls or doing my invoicing.

We all know the stress marketing causes. I know so many writers who go into this business because we want to write, not because we want to invoice... Well you know the old saw. I'm no different. I was paralyzed by the thought of calling someone and offering my services. I thought of it as begging for money instead of offering a service that might be really helpful to the client.

But it turns out I like the marketing and business side of the job. Here's why:

* I like to be organized. That's the one part of my German heritage that stuck. Alles ist ordentlich, indeed.
* I like people. Funny as it may seem, the thing I like about marketing is getting to know editors. People are just interesting. It's just a fact for me. It's why I'm a reporter. And believe it or not, editors qualify as people. I like to know what they're looking for and I find that editors like people who want to understand what they're looking for.
* I'm competitive. I want to win, even if winning means breaking into a new market.
* I'm creative. I like coming up with story ideas and trying to figure out the puzzle of the right market and the right editor and the right publication at the right time of year. It's like the ultimate brain teaser.

That doesn't mean I don't spend time on Facebook, YouTube and other sites instead of working. In fact, lately, I've been dealing with a terrible case of procrastination. It makes me feel miserable. I beat myself up for working, and when I'm sitting at my desk, I lament about what else I could be doing. Sound familiar? That's the sound of saying no to money, my friends.

So here's what I'm doing to make it work today:

* I joined an informal one-week marketing group. Through one of my favorite writers' communities, I said yes when someone asked if anyone wanted to do a friendly challenge. I've got three stories due this week and another story due next week, but if I wait for the perfect setting to query, I'll never do it. I have to jam it in here and there. I have to slip a query in between interviews, after lunch or at the end of the day. The added benefit to this is that I can't get too attached to any query because I'm busy doing other things. Less attachment means less of a sense of disappointment or rejection if the editor passes. Try it.

* I'm drafting a getting-back-in-touch email for some of my favorite editors.

* I'm looking for a marketing class to take.

* I'm following up on old queries and invoices.

What's your plan for saying yes to money this week?

Friday, October 10, 2008

30-Day Self-Care Challenge: Day 25

Wow. How quickly a month goes.

Today's Self-Care Action: Say No

My mother is a kind, artistic woman who always made the holidays warm. And she still has a bit of her mother and grandmother's pioneer spirit. Instead of buying fancy and overpriced tree ornaments, we'd visit the local craft store and buy plaster ornaments. We'd sit for hours on the dark brown living room rug as she'd train our little fingers and hands in the fine art of painting the fur on a teddy bear skying down a mountain. One year, my mother sewed stuffed dolls-from-around-the-world ornaments. We'd go, usually the day before Christmas, and buy a Christmas tree and spend the evening decorating it with lights and our homemade ornaments while my dad DJed the Christmas carols on the stereo. It was always clear to me that the holiday was about the people and not the stuff. I was very lucky.

So why am I saying no to my parents' very generous request to have me home of the holidays?

The answer is simple, but not easy: Taking care of myself this year means not overextending myself financially or socially. It's a rough decision, and one I may yet reverse should more assignments come pouring in. But as of now, I've decided the sane and serene course is to keep it simple.

This year, that means:

* Sticking to my spending plan: Part of my business plan and my monthly spending plan is a list of prioritized expenditures. I have them for my business (join professional groups, save for a conference next year, buy a more ergonomic office chair, get disability insurance), but I also have a list for my personal life. That list includes everything from a recent trip to Disneyland to saving to replace the caps on my teeth next year, to a long-planned trip to Palm Springs for my loved one's birthday in January.

But here's the thing: I love my family and I want to see them. So when they asked in August that I come to visit, I looked at my numbers, made some calculations, moved a few things around and thought I could afford it.

I accepted. And then I had to make the agonizing decision to back out. Why? Because those earlier calculations were more about my desire to see my family than my practical ability to afford the trip.

We all do it. We all want to please those we love and spend time with them. But we all know what it feels like when we go to far: We feel crazy, we feel stressed, and suddenly we're picking fights with those very loved ones and preoccupied with how we're going to replace the money we spent for a trip or a present we couldn't afford.

So this year, I'm trying something different. I'm just going to stick to my plan. Save money. Fulfill preexisting commitments. Keep it simple.

How are you making your holidays more manageable?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

30-Day Self-Care Challenge: Day 22

Today's Challenge: Query and follow-up

I loved Robert Middleton's most recent post on marketing. He reminds us that we all want to shut down during an economic crisis but gives us some very good reasons to keep marketing, and some less-scary ways to do it:

* Call up someone who's talked to you about contracting your services and check in.
* Network, network, network.
* Offer a "strategy session" to new clients to allow them to get to know the way you work and what you can offer.
* Re-evaluate whether your Web site is as effective as it could be.
* Offer a teleseminar--free for you and them, and increases your visibility.

"When things are contracting, the best strategy is to expand," he says. "If you have an expansion strategy you are seen as more visible, more credible, and more valuable. Expansion doesn't necessarily mean spending a lot more money on marketing. It may mean doing many more low-cost marketing activities."

Amen to that. As you all know, I've been on a self-imposed news blackout for the past week. It was the only way I could function, focus on my 1 percent and continue working. That doesn't mean I haven't seen any news: It's on at the gym, at the bank and I can't help walking past newsstands and looking. It's force of habit.

But I have been working on querying. My goal is three queries a week--it seemed manageable to me. I started thinking when the economy started tanking in earnest the other week that I should up it to four--and maybe I will. But for now I'm sticking with three.


Because I found myself, as Robert said, contracting. I wasn't sending any queries. So getting three out was a victory. This week, since it's a short one for me (I took a long weekend--a self-care move that I will blog about later this week) will pose a challenge in sending three queries. But I have a plan:

* I have a backlog of old queries--some of which are particularly calling to me at the moment.
* I have an invitation from a new-to-me client to send some feature ideas.
* I have other freelancers I can call on to encourage me and keep me on track.

And though these aren't new queries I think they're just as important: I have a list of clients and prospective clients to whom I owe follow-ups. I sent one follow-up today and will call on the second tomorrow. There's a third to follow up on after that.

In some ways, I feel like these are more important. These are the queries I've already spent energy and creativity on, and they are clients and markets on which I've set my sites. They are part of my business plan.

And the more I follow up, the more I show them that I'm serious.

How is this self-care?

It's probably obvious, but I'll spell it out: I'm focusing on what I can control--my marketing. And I'm working on expanding my business. And here's the real piece of self-care underlying that: Every minute I spend querying is a minute I'm not spending fretting, agonizing or hiding under the sheets and waiting for Congress to fix the economy.

I loved Cheryl Miller's most recent self-care advice on this topic: Overwhelmed by the big questions? Ask yourself the small ones.

So instead of asking, How am I going to survive this recession? I'm asking myself, What queries do I need to follow up on?

What small questions can you ask yourself today?