I have a little story to start us out here - stay with me...
Imagine going to a cookout this Memorial Day weekend. Your friends have put out quite the spread, you’re starving, and you know you’re really good at eating. You pick up a large paper plate and start heaping it with all your favorites: potato salad, watermelon, chips, corn on the cob, coleslaw, pasta salad, and oh, wait…there’s a little more room on the side to squeeze some cornbread muffins in before you top it all off with a rack of ribs. And hey, there’s some key lime pie too, and why wait until later to go back? Just add it on there next to the fried green tomatoes.
You take your "full plate" to a table, settle in with your napkin and maybe a glass of tea. You resolve to eat the whole thing in one bite. You’re supposed to clean the plate, right, not waste anything, be efficient? Your mouth is not quite up to the task of inhaling it all (much as you would like), so you examine your plate from all angles and try picking everything up with your fork. Recognizing that a fork is an inadequate tool for the task, you think perhaps acquiring a small shovel would do the trick. With the wonders of same-day delivery, a small shovel is procured (at a cost, because it is a holiday weekend after all), and yet still you can’t cram everything down. Maybe you could start with a whole muffin or a handful of chips, but then what about the rest?
All the other guests seem to be managing their plates, although admittedly you are not watching too closely since you are extremely preoccupied with the task before you. Maybe getting a friend to help would work, so you glance around. Hey, there’s Bob - over here, Bob! Bob is happy to assist, but even with his own small shovel it still all won’t fit. He could just eat everything for you, but he confesses it would have to be one bite at a time (slacker), and because it turns out he's a vegetarian he'll have to skip the ribs (his plate of choice looks very different from yours). Mission still not accomplished - you are not going to be able to eat this meal in one bite. Even if you broke it down, where should you start? All of it needs to be eaten! No one can help, and it’s all your fault for even coming to this stupid cookout in the first place.
Disgusted, discouraged, and still starving, you push the plate away and say, “forget it.” If you can’t eat everything, you won’t eat anything. It’s all or nothing.
The story is ridiculous, of course, but isn’t this kind of what we try to do sometimes with our tasks, responsibilities, and stuff? Every time I hear someone say “I have so much on my plate!” I brace myself for what tends to follow - a recounting of all of the things that need to get done but are impossible to get done because they all have to get done. If you choose to start one thing, then you can’t do the other 14 things - and what about those??! And what about organizing a space? If you start on the file drawer or the top of the desk, you turn around and there’s the pile of books and collectibles that never got arranged on the shelves, and also there’s shredding to be taken, and…and…and… so you just give up and shut down the whole situation. What’s the point?
The point is, by employing the all or nothing philosophy, you will never get unstuck. I sometimes call this Putting It Off By Piling It On Procrastination (P Cubed), and it’s an excellent way to starve your productivity. If you mentally scurry from task to task or room to room attempting to somehow figure out a way that it will all magically happen and put you out of your misery, you're doing the exact thing that you so desperately DON'T want to do (which is nothing).
So what are some other ways to look at that picnic plate? Well, there’s the obvious idea of taking it a little at a time. I know, that method requires patience and diligence (and those are such boring concepts). But what on earth have you got to lose? You’re less hungry, and there’s less food left to deal with. Isn’t this a step in the right direction? What are the alternatives?
Here are a few:
* try several large bites on the front end, then take a little break to digest it before a few more (do the big priorities, but pace yourself);
* take some of the food back (maybe you didn’t need that obligation in the first place);
* or give it to someone else (delegation);
* wrap some up and take it home for later (do the minimum until you can finish at a better time or place); and of course
* you could (gasp) trash some of it - maybe the coleslaw that seems like it’s been left out just a little too long (irrelevant or stale tasks)?
There are always choices concerning the way we go about tackling lots of things on our plates. Will you choose something, or go home empty?
Myers-Briggs (ENTJ). Enneagram (Type 3). StrengthsFinder (input/relator/connected/learner/discipline). DiSC (“i” - at least I think). Astrological sign (Leo). Hogwarts House…(eh, you get the idea).
I just returned from the annual National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO) Retreat, held this year in St. Charles, IL, just outside of Chicago. It was, as always, a great experience filled with motivating conversation, learning, and networking. I came home with my brain packed full of inspiration and expansive ideas that need to be sifted through, refined, and turned into something actionable. One of the themes this year seemed to circle around personality profiles and types, and I thought it might help me to sift through some of that theme here in a post (plus, it conveniently ties into my theme for the year). It’s much more question than answer, so I hope many of you will comment with your thoughts.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely taken or paid attention to at least one test or questionnaire that purports to define you - whether through an in-depth work related profile and follow-up or a Facebook quiz to find out what Disney villain you are. Personality profiles have always attracted and repelled me at the same time. I’m usually intrigued to take them, but not always comfortable with the result. I recall getting more than a little twisted up when I took what seemed like an exhaustive quiz to see what my Pottermore Patronus was, only to learn I was a vole. A vole?! Not an eagle or a white swan? What the hell is a vole, anyway? Whatever it is, apparently it makes me capable of outrunning Dementors. My daughter thought it was hilarious and now routinely refers to me as “Mama Vole.” But I digress…
Going back to the NAPO retreat, a big tradition is to put all of these ribbons on our badges that tell the world what we’ve done or achieved in organizing and productivity - CPO®, board member, “App Savvy,” etc. I realized this year that I don’t pay a lot of attention to what people stick together, other than try to note “First Time Attendee” ribbons and ask them how their conference experience is going. I guess that our desire to be known, valued, and understood makes us want to put some sort of a label on ourselves and then let everyone else know about it - but who is paying attention?
And how much do we project what we want to be into these personality profiles? If we use these kinds of assessments to learn more about the people we live or work with, are we really getting something accurate and helpful, or something that takes us off track? One of the common questions in profiles generally has to do with whether or not we like to be at parties or stay at home. My real response is YES, but that’s rarely an option, so I usually just put down that I’m the party person because that’s more of how I want to be perceived (why, I have no clue - perhaps someone should create a profile to answer that question).
I’ve frequently used a learning styles assessment with clients to see if it can be helpful in figuring out an organizing or productivity system that aligns with how they take in information. One of the reasons I like it is that people can put down more than one right response, or skip all responses if none of them seem to apply. I don’t have any hard evidence that it works, but it definitely gives us a starting point for discussion. If you trend kinesthetic, could that mean you need to set up systems that get you moving around the room? If you need to remember where you put something and you’re primarily aural, does it help to talk to yourself as you put things in place? Maybe. It seems to resonate with clients, and often gets us to a point where they are more comfortable repeating a new habit. But I always emphasize that the results are a first brush stroke - not the whole picture. I wouldn't want to put anyone into a strict box that keeps us from looking at more possibilities.
What profiles have you taken, and what did you think of the results? Did they help you? Depress you? Unnerve you? What is helpful to learn about someone else’s results?
Growing up my mother had a habit of keeping a paper calendar on the kitchen counter right underneath where the phone hung on the wall. These paper calendars were nothing fancy. They were the spiral-bound sort with the random scenery depicting each month on top and the dates below, but she never hung them up - so you never saw the pictures except when changing the month. I don’t think she ever actually even bought them. They miraculously appeared from the neighborhood real estate agent, or her garden club, or the water company. Every appointment, meeting, “ladies lunch,” seed planting, and road trip was recorded in her unusual, scrawling handwriting on the small squares (she injured her hand in a freak gardening accident when I was small - don’t ask). It seemed like she lived and breathed by its authority on our schedule.
She never carried this calendar with her anywhere, because she looked at it so often she never needed to. She did keep one of those smaller freebie ones from Hallmark in her purse - always blank - just to check things like whether or not the 4th of July fell on a Saturday, etc. Because, you know, that kind of stuff was critical in identifying your place in the timeline of life. Sometimes I would see her after a phone call or a church circle meeting working through the kitchen calendar with her readers perched on her nose, adding things weeks/months ahead of time to the squares, scratching others out. Always, always planning, and always aware of what was coming up.
Pretty much as soon as I learned to write, she asked me to put my activities wherever they belonged on the squares. Between the piano lessons and youth choir and band practices the squares got really crowded, but soon I too was in the habit of routinely staring at them for guidance. Daily. I knew my parents’ schedules as well I knew my own. Sometimes I would add a weird doodle or other graffiti I had created on a random date a few months out, just to harass her, but otherwise the calendar was sacred. My mother's pulling me into that ritual unwittingly left a mark that I don’t think I fully appreciated until recently.
We are now perplexed about how to handle our calendars if, for example, we prefer paper and much of the world revolves around digital. I routinely witness people get all apologetic when they pull out their paper planner as if they had just produced a folding road map or a slide rule. And really, those planners work great…at least until we forget them in the car, or lose them on a trip. It’s even worse when you have tech platforms that don’t sync, like when you’re a freelancer on Google, and your biggest client uses Outlook. Or your phone won’t “talk” to your computer. We all get meeting requests via email and when we click to accept we get a broken link or a blank page, which leads to additional steps we didn’t want to take.
There are no perfect solutions, of course, only good ones. Would it surprise you to know that I keep both a digital and paper calendar? Perhaps no, but the reason has nothing to do with not being able to make up my mind or being incredibly anal about time management. I started using a digital calendar in October of 2008. I kept the last paper planner I ever used as sort of a relic in my file drawer (that is also now becoming somewhat obsolete).
The digital calendar is how I run business and family life now (yeah, different areas are color-coded), and I share calendars with my husband who is on the same format. It has worked seamlessly for ten years - why mess with success?
Recently, though, I did get intrigued with the idea of writing in a planner again. I’ve always missed parts of the paper calendar ritual, so I did a little searching and found one I liked back in January. This “analog” planner has spaces for goal setting, review of weekly, monthly, and yearly projects, a little journaling space - even a page just for a mind map. You can fill in dates as you go, so there’s no worrying about wasting space if you start after January, or skip a week. And you know, planner does not necessarily equal calendar. I use this planner in a totally different way from the digital one, only pulling it out once a week for review and reflection. It has broad categories of events as opposed to exact times, and it anchors me to the process of goal management. Summarized, the whole ritual for me looks like:
* All appointments input as soon as they are scheduled
* Business in green, family in purple, reminders in navy
* Synced between my laptop, phone, and tablet
* Agenda for the day automatically sent to my email
* Day and week reviewed every morning - not just to get where I need to be, but also to plan the tasks related to appointments
* Filled in with goals and big projects back at the beginning of the year
* Each week filled in broadly (no times or exact details, just names or places)
* Reviewed on Sunday mornings
* Accomplishments and weaknesses noted
* Journaling on goals as needed
Between the two methods, I’ve found a groove that has not only kept me ]on top of appointments, but making steady progress on my theme for the year. Is it foolproof? No, but it’s close enough for me to feel comfortable and productive. You might choose a totally different ritual, but it pays to have one, and it doesn’t matter what the format is (or if it changes over time). The key is to work with it, look at it , and use it to your advantage.
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, coach, wife and mom, and serial list-maker. Excited to be in the long but worthwhile process of becoming a Certified ADHD Organizer Coach. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?
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