Tag Archives: organize

2 Tips for Reducing Stress

The very first time that I encountered “organization” as a cultural facet was in Germany. I was visiting there in 2002, and in the grocery store I passed a shopping cart in which the items were perfectly arranged. The groceries were stacked so well that there was no space between the boxes and bags. I can only guess that in an American “throw it in the cart” fashion, these same number of groceries would have filled the entire basket. Here, though, two-thirds of the basket remained empty. Following the same packing arrangements, this person could shop for a family of ten for two weeks and still not fill the basket.

I was so astounded that I stopped to study how the man or woman had done it. (They weren’t near the cart at the time.) It was amazing. Almost as if he/she bought the identical articles every week and had engineered this particular packing arrangement. I can only imagine what would happen if her husband asked her to get something different. “No, you can’t have sardines. The can won’t fit properly in the cart!”

GermanTreesA few days later, we were hiking in a wooded area and I noticed a few perfectly straight rows of trees on one side of the trail. Mind you, this wasn’t a garden or a park. It was a “forest.” It should have had natural disorganization but these trees were so organized that someone had clearly plumbed a line to plant them. Why?

I observe a similar mind-set in Japan. Organization is a cultural feature of the Japanese. Even after my two-month tenure here, a street full of perfectly parked bicycles still fills me with wonder. No one is straightening out the bicycles. Clearly, everyone parks their bikes straight, in a smooth line. It’s a national identity.

Osaka20140524_6571I tell myself a story about how this organizational propensity comes from Japan being a small island and having limited real estate. Over the centuries, the people have learned to make the most efficient use of their space. It becomes a characteristic handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. Of course, the flaw in my reasoning is that the Germans do the same thing on a huge land mass.

This propensity for organization reminds me of something I learned many years ago. A friend once remarked to me that she was cleaning up her house and getting rid of clutter because the distraction of it was draining her energy. (This was long before feng shui.)

It’s true. Clutter and disorganization actually causes stress. Think about how much longer it takes to find something that you need. Think about how many times you’ve picked up and put down that note or invoice (and then maybe couldn’t find it when you needed it). As you walk about your living space (tripping on clutter?), your eyes and mind are naturally drawn to the things in that space. Your mind has a conversation about that dvd that should have been returned last week. You look at the dust on the sill and plan to clean it soon. The more things in your living space, the more distracted you are. All of this drawing out and away reduces your concentration, your focus, your peace and your energy.

If you want to reduce the stress caused by your immediate environment, clean up, throw away, reduce and organize. Practice “a place for everything and everything in its place”. One of my favorite household tools was a label maker for containers and drawers that weren’t translucent. It’s peaceful to know where something is exactly when you need. It also saves time, and sometimes fights with your partner.

When you open the mail, be prepared to handle it right then and there. I once read a time management tip that said to put a pencil mark on each paper every time you touch that piece of paper. After a while, the marks on some of the papers accumulate and you realize just how much time you’ve wasted, and how much extra stress you’ve caused yourself by not immediately handling the matter. There’s usually no advantage to waiting.

There is a not so obvious parallel to the above stress reduction tip. When I was vagabonding across the United States (also many years ago), I ended up couchsurfing with an Oberlin college student. Something he said I only fully understood much later in life. It was a wisdom of amazing depth.

He told me that he was cleaning up his past by completing any open issues with past relationships. This meant contacting some people he hadn’t seen in a long time and saying whatever he had to say. Perhaps it was to say he was hurt, or that he was sorry. Perhaps, it meant asking for forgiveness, or telling someone he loved them. Perhaps, he needed to express how much someone had made his life better.

It turns out that uncompleted relationships and unexpressed emotions are the clutter of the soul. I discovered that this relationship detritus saps our energy in the same way that physical clutter does. Our mind has conversations about these “I should have said,” “whatever happened to,” “I’m sorry about” and other loose ends. These conversations take our focus away from the present. They sap our energy whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we’re aware of the conversation or not.

One sure sign that a past relationship isn’t closed is that the person keeps coming to mind. Instead of a peaceful focus on the present, where you are now, you expend all that energy in a conversation about the past. It’s draining.

It’s never too late to complete those relationships. Even if someone is no longer available because you’ve lost their contact information, or because they’ve passed on, it doesn’t matter. The conversation is in your own mind, so what is most important is your own intention to complete the relationship. Sometimes, you may be able to contact a person but they don’t want to talk. Still, you will be able to close that chapter in the same way as with someone who’s already died.

Feeding the fire, reciting mantra

This absentee completion can take on different forms. One way is to write a letter with the same care as if the other person is actually going to read it. Then send that letter into a fire, or a flowing river. Another way is to have a serious monologue in a secluded, quiet, neutral ground. The woods? It’s important to believe that, in ethereal quantum physics, the person can actually hear your message or receive your letter. Yet a third method is to have a role play with a live avatar. Usually this latter method works best with a paid counselor who is familiar with the technique.

Cleaning up your living space, and your past, will go a long way toward reducing your stress.


New Year’s Resolutions and Organizing Tip #42

An old Chinese proverb says:

Plan each day at dawn; each year, at New Year.

This is good advice, and the essence of long-term versus short-term goals. As far as long-term goals are concerned, everyone has their own, of course. I’ve learned that simple is better. Writers who are pitching a movie script know that they have to be able to capture the essence of the movie in a couple of sentences. If they can’t, then they don’t have a clear focus in the script. It’s the same with long-term goals. If you can’t express what they are in five to ten seconds, then you probably don’t have a good handle on them. It’s a New Year; time to think about it.

There are a few things that are, or should be, invariant. Health is the most important thing. Without health, the other stuff doesn’t mean a damn thing. Not far behind is relationships, including family and friends, and hunting-gathering (work, duh). After that, we create the world with our diversity of goals.

Once those pesky New Year’s plans are in place though, it’s the day-to-day action that makes the difference. It’s important to spend five to fifteen minutes every morning to plan the day. It doesn’t take any longer than that, and the difference it makes is phenomenal. It helps keep you in focus and on track. It moves the day along in the direction that’s most important to you, rather than reacting to the constant external forces. Naturally, there will be surprises. That’s part of the play of life. When confronted with those ugly barriers, bend like a young bamboo in the wind and you won’t break.toodledo

My favorite day planning tool of all time is ToodleDo. It has a couple of features that work just perfectly for me. The three things that make this tool indispensible are the priority, the star and the mobility

The ToodleDo list can be taken with you. There are mobile applications for Android, iPhone and Blackberry. Personally, I’ve found ToodleDo’s own “slim” web application sufficient for my purposes. I used to have two different apps on my cell phone, but dumped them in favor of the the web slim version. The basic service is free, and that’s all I use.

Although they have many options, including folders and contexts, I’ve discovered that simple is better. Keeping it simple means spending less time on organizing and more time getting it done. I don’t use categories or folders. I only use these features: Star, Priority and Due Date. All the tasks have a description and notes if you need it.

I set the priority according to these rules:

  • Top – I reserve this priority for a task that, if I fail to do it, and especially by the due date, it will cost me money. An example would be filing my income tax. As you can imagine, there are only a few of these.
  • High – This is also for tasks that will cost money if I don’t do them, but the outcome and the cost are not specific. An example might be painting the wood outside deck. If I don’t paint the deck at some point, I won’t be fined but eventually the unprotected wood will rot and cost me more money because I’ll have to replace it.
  • Medium – This is just about everything else. Medium tasks have to be done to keep everything in order, but probably won’t have any bad effects if I don’t do them. Cleaning the inside of the car is typical example. (Cleaning the outside is high priority because failure to do that eventually ruins the paint and the body. It won’t have a due date though.)
  • Low – I reserve low for projects that I would like to do, but won’t miss if I fail. They are more of an upgrade type of project.
  • Negative – Yes, ToodleDo has a negative priority. I like to put new ideas and dreams here so I don’t forget them.

The very best feature of ToodleDo is the Star. Each morning I peruse my tasks in order of Importance. (On the ToodleDo Main view, there is a Sort button on the toolbar where I can enable the Importance sort.) I set the star for, at most, three tasks. Those are the tasks that I’ll try to do today. Then I select the Starred tasks view. During the day, and on my cell phone, I only look at the Starred tasks.

It’s a very important point here: a maximum of only three tasks should have a star. As a practical matter, I’ve found it highly unlikely that I’ll accomplish more than that considering I also work and go to the gym. (That would be the health and hunter-gatherer goals.) Looking at the entire list to remind me what I need to do creates a huge amount of stress that seems to be proportional to the size of the list (which, at times, has approached 100 items). Setting three stars, keeps the stress down. It fools me into thinking I only have a few things to do.

Of course, if you’re so quick that you check off three tasks early, you can always go back to the list and star another one. On the other hand, three checks? It’s Miller time.