When I’m working with a client, I often find myself saying “And let’s look at how much change has been happening in your life recently, though. Is it any wonder you got off track with …” We use our mental, emotional and physical energy to get through one change, then another happens, and we haven’t really recovered fully from the first. Think about your last job change, taking on a volunteer role, caring for a parent, getting married. One change we recognize, deal with and move through. But we miss the next one often. We turn around and we’re knee deep in more change and chaos.
It feels overwhelming. Like you can’t breathe sometimes. Stuck and in a fog, it’s really difficult to see a pathway out. I’m writing today about organizing systems, rituals, routines – whatever you call them – and how they can be the thing that reduces stress and shows you how to deal more effectively. [My book, Organize for a Fresh Start: Embrace Your Next Chapter in Life is about this, in great depth, too.]
Going in circles, don’t really know
Where I have come from, where I will go
Life isn’t static. Why would our life and work organizing systems be?
Isn’t it true that laundry never seems to end? Emails keep filling up your inbox-zero? Papers find you, over and over again? Seriously, while we can’t necessarily control or manage the bigger life changes, we can manage and have some control over these daily aspects of life. And doesn’t a little bit of control feel good when there’s so much change swirling around you? Yes, it works.
Systems ground and anchor us. They can be the calm in the storm. If they work well and suit us well, they can be trusted as a friend would be, to help get us through changing times. Our organizational and productivity systems can’t be static though … and that is the magic here. A magical balance.
My Household’s Example
Donna works in a corporate job and is also enrolled in a Master’s program. Each semester, the number of courses and where/how she takes them is different. Once it was two nights of courses at school, which meant an overnight at school. Another semester: three online courses, taken at home. No travel, but daily time is a requirement with online forums taking the place of class discussions.
It was the school’s admissions staff who said “Your life is going to change. Come to the new student orientation and talk with others about how they manage life differently.” I read that as how they “reorganize life.” Each semester, we figure out how the course schedule fits into life: from dinners to travel, meals to pack, study and paper writing time, weeknights and weekends.
How we organize life needs to change. Time, organizational systems, expectations. If we ignore it, we feel it. Stress levels, frustration, the feeling there is not ever enough time, making basic mistakes, not being nice!
Our latest change
We signed up for a trial of Peapod groceries delivery. It saves me 2½-3 hours a week and gives me back fun hours on the weekends. How did I get to that number? Meal ideas discussion-list -travel to the store-shopping-checkout-fill the car-unload the car-unload the food and put it away. More steps than you’d first think and more time than you might realize. One change to our way we organize life.
Who gets their quiet time and when? How much is possible with school? Who does the laundry and when? What time of day do I get to ride my bike? Who does which errands [Amazon Prime has been a great change this year for ordering more things online and some made recurring orders.] Meals prep and cleanup we do more together than separately. Who makes the Farmer’s Market trips? Which errands can be done on the way home? What do weekend social schedules look like, now with studying time?
Key Takeaways for You
- Watch for signs of change. Perhaps the most difficult is paying attention to how much change is happening so you’re not knee deep. You can’t manage it all, but you can lessen the impact.
- Watch for signs of stress. Small example: I bought conditioner instead of shampoo because I saw the right colored label but didn’t slow down to read the label. I’m distracted and possibly trying to do too much when I make mistakes like these. Not berating myself, and at the same time, I pay attention that it might be an early warning sign. Get to know the signs in your heart, mind and body so you know when to hit pause and do things differently.
- Discuss the changes together. Insist on figuring it out together. You don’t have to do this alone. We women [maybe especially we oldest children!] seem to feel overly responsible.
- How could you organize your time and responsibilities a little bit differently to absorb the change more easily?
- Would outsourcing an errand or a chore, even temporarily, help you through the life changes happening?
- How could you involve your family?
My Work Example
This example is about a big work life change, but here, I mainly needed to use the systems I already trusted in the new role.
My sense in working with people is that if there is a new project or role, we tend to think we have to figure out a new system. Not necessarily so.
You’re the same person. You do need faith in the systems you’ve created and routines or rituals to ensure you use them. [There are of course changes outside work, but I want to make the point about productivity systems, so I’m focusing narrowly on that.]
Key Questions to Ask Yourself
In July, I began the role of president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. We are the professional organizers educational association, the organizers who want to know “Why.” Why and what makes it so difficult for some people to get and stay organized at home, work and in life? Why the struggle: what is underneath it, that we could work with to help people in ways that are best suited to them? Why is some people’s sense of time so different from others?
Here is how I figured out for myself how to manage the work of a big, new role. Use these questions for your own situation. Be your own productivity coach.
Space/Files/Emails – The Physical Organization
- What space do I need for this new role? I need to “clear the decks/clear the past clutter” before I can focus on something new. I cleared more physical clutter than I knew I’d accumulated. I have always believed that we need to clear the physical clutter to make mental space for the new changes. Somehow, these are connected; it’s an urge to purge!
- Would having a separate physical office space help me separate the volunteer role from my own business? That’s an idea from a Board colleague which sounded appealing and logical. It turns out that wasn’t quite right for me. What I adapted was a combination of that idea and my own system. I use a separate desk stand for the “need at my fingertips,” active client and project files. And for the volunteer role, I now have a separate desk stand on the other end of my desk. Physical separation helps with thinking about having time blocks which are divided up between my own business vs. ICD work.
- I did the same with ICD related emails. The ICD email flows into my regular, email inbox, so everything is in one spot. However, ICD emails are filtered into an “ICD Read Today” folder. I also have separate email folders for ICD work in process. In my calendar, you’d see “Read ICD emails” as a time block. You’d also see time blocks for named, ICD projects or issues; these are separated from my own business.
- What would I drop from my schedule to make time for this role? This is not a “squeeze in the time here and there” sort of role. I chose a couple of things to drop and at least one to do differently/less of. I believe these were good decisions I even could have made before this role were I given a deadline like this one. [Deadlines work well for me.]
- My usual work/life boundaries are changing. I’m not as clear on this yet. I can be a workaholic but then I burn out on what I love. For my business, after the early years, I kept evenings and weekends for personal time. I’m experimenting with different ways to integrate the ICD work. I’m writing this newsletter on a Saturday which is new.
- How do you get comfortable with a brand new role or project? I spend time researching and reading to refresh skills: leadership, management, interpersonal, meetings, etc. A few new things to learn. Mostly thinking about what I know and how it applies in this context. A useful settling in process.
- The big one: How do you usually keep track of things to do? Can you add the new role/project to that system or use the same approach? I use Excel for my master list. I now have a separate one just for the ICD role. And because we have a leadership team, I have a sheet for meetings with them. I also have a summary of our plans and goals for the year. I use the same system of tracking and reviewing to create the day’s plan. And creating that plan the night before is KEY or my day gets away from me.
What change is now in your life? What is coming up?
How could you use these questions and key takeaways to make your days flow more easily, reduce the chaos, and be in charge of your days?