Jun 072012

While all of Regina’s books have been first-rate, this latest one, “The 8 Minute Organizer”, may be the most useful one yet. Because I’m so naturally disorganized myself, I’m something of a junkie for books and systems to bring some kind of order to my world. Regina’s other books have been very helpful for that – giving me organizational tasks that I can schedule throughout the year on my way to perfect neatness. But I’ve never seemed to accomplish them all. Some projects are just a bit large and intimidating.

The genius of this book is that it has broken down organizational tasks into 8 minute sprints – units of work short enough that they don’t scare me and that I have no excuse not to incorporate into my day. Unlike previous books that grouped organizational tasks by time of year – this one is organized by the area of your home. Pick the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen or your files – and there’s a chapter full of eight-minute mini-tasks focused around that area. You can pick the room most in need of attention. Or, as Regina suggests, you can pick one that’s not quite as intimidating and build up your skills.

the eight minute organizer

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There are several things I especially like about Regina’s approach. First of all, she’s called the “Zen Organizer” for a reason. There’s a definite undercurrent of calm, meditative philosophy in her books. You aren’t just organizing so that you can cram more stuff into your life. You are trying to achieve a healthy balance and a strong and calm mental and physical foundation for peace and tranquility. She even has advice on diet, exercise and meditation. You’re not just bringing order to your stuff. You’re bringing order to your life.

Another thing that’s a personal preference of mine is that I don’t like to be given TOO many choices in how to approach something. Or if there are choices, I want to be pointed at a “preferred” option. If I’m given the opportunity, I can tend to get lost in choosing the perfect organizational tools and systems instead of actually organizing. Regina tends to just tell you what to do, and I like that. Sure there are choices, but she’ll often indicate her personal preference, so I can just follow the clear instructions and get right down to business.

If you’ve had trouble getting started in organizing because your life is just too chaotic, this may be a perfect book for you.


Mar 052012

Droid-RazrI have to confess that I’ve been a little annoyed with some of Leo Babauta’s posts rejecting such things as iphones in the name of minimalism. To me, the neat thing about technology is that it can help you embrace minimalism by doing more with fewer devices.

I had held off on getting a smartphone simply because I didn’t think I’d use the features enough to justify an additional $30 a month on my phone bill for a data plan. Then my daughter got a Droid Razr, and when I saw everything it could do, I was hooked, and ran out and got one within the week.

My justification was that it could do so many things. My GPS had just broken – but my phone was now a better GPS than my stand-alone GPS. The Droid was a better MP3 player than my now-obsolete MP3 player. It was a serviceable e-book reader, so I’d always have a book with me. It keeps my schedules, to-do lists and emails. It can record voice memos and even transcribe them. It’s a great camera (ok, I don’t take many pictures, but it can save the day when you need one).  I have an excellent Bible reader on it, a meditation timer, and links to all my important documents. The last few weeks I’ve been saying Mass with just my Droid to serve as lectionary, scripture reader and music player. I even used it for meditation diaries and dream journals.

Funny thing, though, about those dream journals. Night after night after night, ALL I was dreaming about was setting up my new phone. Only natural, since I spend uncounted hours getting it “just right” and then scrapping it all again for another arrangement. I spent lots of additional time looking for just the right combination of apps. More still organizing my music. If the device was saving me any time, it was more than making up for it in the time I was investing in setting it up.

The other day, I switched back to a paper journal for dream and meditation journals. Even with voice transcription, it was just taking too long to put in a journal entry. My entries were getting shorter and shorter. So what if I don’t have access to my journal everywhere in the cloud? At least it has more worthwhile entries.

So… has the phone improved my life, or just made me its servant? I’m hoping that as my setup stabilizes and the novelty wears off, it will simply become a handy device that sits unobtrusively in my pocket and insures that I don’t have to carry a phone, camera, GPS, voice recorder, my latest book, my planner, my Bible, lectionary, mp3 player, etc. around with me all the time.

But I’m beginning to have a bit more respect for Babauta’s opinion that having the latest device carries its share of attachment to possessions.  Fewer possessions, perhaps – but definitely more attachment.

May 032011

Usually when I post articles, I like it to be something original, but today I just want  to send you to Leo Babauta’s website, Zen Habits. I’ve been a fan of Leo’s for quite cartoonsome time. Leo is an extreme minimalist (as you can easily tell from the design of his site). Most of his posts involve simplifying your life. Today’s post contains his 30 life lessons – to celebrate his 38th birthday. One of the best lists I’ve seen. Here are a few favorites:

2. Possessions are worse than worthless — they’re harmful. They add no value to your life, and cost you everything. Not just the money required to buy them, but the time and money spent shopping for them, maintaining them, worrying about them, insuring them, fixing them, etc.

20. A good walk cures most problems. Want to lose weight and get fit? Walk. Want to enjoy life but spend less? Walk. Want to cure stress and clear your head? Walk. Want to meditate and live in the moment? Walk. Having trouble with a life or work problem? Walk, and your head gets clear.

27. Create. The world is full of distractions, but very few are as important as creating. In my job as a writer, there is nothing that comes close to being as crucial as creating. In my life, creating is one of the few things that has given me meaning. When it’s time to work, clear away all else and create.

34. No one knows what they’re doing as parents. We’re all faking it, and hoping we’re getting it right. Some people obsess about the details, and miss out on the fun. I just try not to mess them up too much, to show them they’re loved, to enjoy the moments I can with them, to show them life is fun, and stay out of the way of them becoming the amazing people they’re going to become. That they already are.

Go to Leo’s site for the full list.

Sep 142010

grass Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth and Get Rich Trying by David Bach. Since my schedule has been very busy, I grabbed this little book from the library hoping I could read it in the time I had available. I was pleasantly surprised by the ideas and the quality of the presentation.

The premise of the book is to present ideas for changing various aspects of your life that will not only benefit the planet, but will also save (or make) money in the process. Bach is apparently best known as a financial expert – Start Late, Finish Rich being the title I’m most familiar with. It’s nice to see him put his expertise into the “green” arena, and his ideas are excellent.

After an initial section on assessing your impact on the planet, he’s grouped his ideas into such categories as transportation, energy use, water use, real estate, shopping, recycling, changes as a family, changes at work, and even making money in green investments and businesses. Every idea includes careful calculations on the exact amount of saving involved. For example, for $20 in basic non-toxic ingredients, you can replace the $600 a year that Americans typically spend on toxic cleaning products. Bring your lunch to work and save $2,250 a year, in addition to not creating a mountain of garbage from your discarded packaging from take-out.

If you want to sell green products, David has a list of companies ready for you. And, since you’re already online if your reading this, be sure and check out options for online bill paying and telecommuting – both saving money as well as helping the environment. David even shows you how to “green” your pets and children.

This is a nicely illustrated, short book of practical ideas that are well researched and easy to adopt. Why wouldn’t you try them out?

Jul 302010

happy I’ve noticed a synchronicity lately with regard to the idea of “goals”. At the very time when I’m feeling some personal frustration at not meeting some of my important goals – two of my favorite bloggers, Steve Pavlina and Leo Babauta, are posting about the idea of reducing the importance of goals in our life.

Leo, in his Zen Habits blog, writes that the problem with goals is that they may force us to work on things we aren’t really passionate about.

Goals as a system are set up for failure. Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are extremely limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

The ideal life, according to Leo, is one in which we follow our inspiration and passion at each moment. This is the kind of life that produces truly great results. Coincidentally (or not), Steve Pavlina has been trying an experiment in which he tries to follow his inspiration and passion in each moment. In the past, if a flash of inspiration came to him, he would write it down for later planning and scheduling. Now (or at least for the next few weeks of the experiment) he just DOES it.

When an inspired idea comes to me, I act on it almost immediately. I know that I have about a 48-hour window — maximum — to write and publish that idea. Otherwise the energy is gone. Trying to create that same content later is possible, but it’s much more difficult and takes a lot longer.

The experience is like catching a wave. I might wake up one morning and get an idea for a new article, and I know I need to grab my laptop immediately and let it flow through me. In those situations I can write nearly as fast as I can type, without having to pause to think.

This is an interesting tie-in to something Eckhart Tolle said in A New Earth. If you do something – even the simplest thing – in complete harmony with your higher self (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) then what you do will improve the entire spirit of the planet – even if what you’re doing is sitting on a mat watching the birds fly by. On the other hand, if you try to do something wonderful, and it is NOT in complete harmony with your higher self, then – no matter how externally wonderful it may seem – you are harming yourself and everyone on the planet. You are bringing an energy of disharmony into the world, and ultimately, that energy is negative and will have negative effects. When we work from the higher self, we are a conduit for the Spirit into the world:

For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13 WEB)

Some degree of planning or scheduling is probably useful in a world where everything runs by the clock and people are expected to produce on schedule. But perhaps we overdo it. I’m going to reconsider the importance of goals in the larger scheme of things.

Of course, this can be risky. As Steve Pavlina puts it:

Dealing with the unpredictability of what’s going to happen next is extremely unsettling. In order to make it through this, I have to let go of trying to control anything. I have to let go and trust

Which is what faith is all about. It’s not about clinging tenaciously to a dogma. It’s about trusting that Spirit will see you through.

Mar 082010

I’ve used several memory tricks over the years for such things as remembering grocery lists. I recently came across one that I hadn’t seen before, even though it’s extremely simple.  I tried out the method (called “linking”) from a website called buildyourmemory.com and found that I was able to easily memorize a list of 20 items that I still easily remember today, about a week later.

To really appreciate the method, you should first try out your powers of list memorization without it. Take the following sample list, look at each item carefully, but only once, and then cover up the list and see how many of them you can remember. If you’re like me, you’ll be rather disappointed. Ready? Here it is:

  1. Phone
  2. Rose
  3. Milk
  4. Paper
  5. Dog
  6. Orange
  7. Baseball
  8. Hamburger
  9. Pants
  10. Cement
  11. Beer
  12. Poem
  13. Fireman
  14. Pencil
  15. Ladybug
  16. Clown
  17. Scotland
  18. Beans
  19. Teacup
  20. Lamp

How did you do? That bad, eh? Ok, now here’s the method. You simply paint a vivid picture of the first item on the list, a phone, and connect it to the second item on the list, a rose. Imagine that you pick up the receiver of an over-sized, old-fashioned phone, and suddenly roses start sprouting out of the ear-piece  at an alarming rate. Let that sink in for a second, and then link rose to milk. Imagine taking a brilliant red rose and using it to stir a glass of milk, causing the milk to turn bright red and smell strongly of roses. Now link milk to paper. You hold a cup made of newspaper and empty gallon after gallon of milk into it.  You get the general idea.

Go over the list again and take a moment with each item to paint a vivid picture linking it to the next item in the list. Make the pictures as memorable as possible. For example, you might:

  1. Exaggerate. Make the item absolutely huge, or impossibly small.
  2. Use color. Make the item a strange, unnatural color
  3. Multiply. Instead of one item, make it an army of them, overflowing everywhere.
  4. Use the senses. Associate loud or odd noises, odors or textures with the items.
  5. Make the picture absurd, violent, crazy or even indecent in some way.

Your mind will find images like the ones above easy to remember. Try the list again. My guess is that this time you will find it relatively easy to remember the entire list. Test yourself again tomorrow and I’ll bet you can still remember the whole list of 20 items.

Obviously this is perfect for such things as grocery lists and to-do items. In the next day or so I’ll share other potential uses.

Do you have any memory tricks you use that others might find helpful? Share them here.

Mar 032010

I’m recently returned from a week-long conference of study and test-taking in the field of database design (my day-job), and find my mind completely burnt-out by the effort. Rather than wait till I feel especially inspired and creative, I’m going to adapt a lesson from one of my classes.

The class was on “agile” programming. I’ll quickly explain. More “traditional” methods of computer programming developed by such folks as the Department of Defense involved many stages of doing such things as gathering requirements and developing detailed documentation and designs before ever beginning to write programs. To be blunt, this effort to design the perfect program in advance doesn’t work very well. Requirements change. People aren’t sure in advance exactly what they want. And sometimes people don’t read documentation. The result is that a piece of software can take years to develop before everyone realizes that it isn’t really what they want. By then it’s too late.

“Agile” programming methods, in contrast, focus on building a program in small increments, with little documentation – but with immediate feedback from the people who will be using the program. It starts off pretty simple and crude, but at each stage, it gets better. And the people using the program can see how it’s progressing along the way, as their requirements change, or as they realize they didn’t really know what they wanted at the beginning. This results in better computer programs, more quickly, less expensively, and with happier users and programmers.

Perfectionism, in other words, is a trap. It’s not possible to know in advance, or in isolation, what the “perfect” system or solution will be. It’s much better to begin with an “ok” solution and modify it as needed along the way, as real-life situations suggest improvements.

As a junkie of self-development systems, I fall into the trap of perfectionism constantly. Some of you reading know exactly what I mean. Do you try each year to develop the perfect planning system, the perfect filing system, or the perfect diet, instead of simply starting with an “ok” system and making adjustments? Is your library cluttered with books about the latest perfect system for self-development? Is your closet cluttered with the latest exercise gadget?

For me, and I suspect for many others, perfectionism is really an effort-avoidance strategy at some unconscious level. We work at designing the perfect system because we don’t want to engage in the hard work of actually starting. There’s a very interesting book called The War of Art by Steven

 Pressfield that talks about creative blocks. Pressfield teaches that there is actually a psychic force or entity called “Resistance” which is actively engaged in the goal of preventing you from fulfilling your calling or destiny. Perfectionism is among the many tools it uses to keep you from actually achieving your goals.

To overcome resistance we need to discipline ourselves to take action – as if we were literally warriors.  A warrior has no time, in the heat of battle, to wait upon the perfect plan.  Take action today on your goals. Create even if you aren’t feeling creative. Whatever it is you do,  do it. Stop planning endlessly and actually put in some work – even if you aren’t feeling at your best. Mistakes can be corrected. But you can’t correct the work you never even start.

Feb 232010

peg So, I’m at a keynote speech in Las Vegas at a conference about data warehouses. I wasn’t really expecting to find good material for self-improvement here, but Frank Buytendijk, a Dutch management consultant at Oracle, surprised me. The point of his talk was that we Americana have a fear and aversion to “problems” that actually makes them difficult to solve.

You all have heard the sayings – “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”, and my favorite “It’s not a problem, it’s a ‘challenge’”. There are, if you’ll pardon the word, problems with this approach.

When we focus on solutions, we end up focusing on our own little piece of the puzzle. As the old saying goes, to the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. What’s missing from this problem-phobia approach is…. communication. We understand our part of the problem, but not everyone else’s. And so we champion the solution that fits our needs, and come into conflict with those who have other issues and problems – problems we are afraid to discuss because of our fear of problems. If we were all open in admitting the issues we are having and bringing them to the table, we might well find that someone sitting across the table has a perfect solution. We may also learn that the solution that meets OUR needs has an unforeseen negative consequence with the person across the table.

Buytendijk suggests a new terminology – if you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution. If we don’t come together and share our problems, we can’t do a complete job of fixing anything. So let’s admit it. It’s not a challenge. It’s a problem.

Feb 182010

Today I bring you a very qualified endorsement for a very popular book – The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Greene is basically a modern-day Machiavelli, and his book is about how to acquire and hold onto power, by any means available. I nearly put the book down after reading the preface, with its sinister defense of deception, mistrust and treachery and cynical condemnation of apparently honesty and goodness as either foolish or manipulative.

But then I started into the book, and found that there is actually some value in it. Some of the laws are simple social graces, such as not being to flagrant in outshining your masters, and, when change is needed, to introduce it gradually and not reform too much at once. Some are basic social wisdom as you might find in biblical proverbs, such as not speaking too freely and persuading people with your actions rather than your arguments. Some are excellent self-development principles, such as acting decisively and constantly re-creating yourself.  But some of the laws are simply evil, such as keeping people in a state of fearful terror and taking credit for the work of others.

I still think the book useful, however. Spiritually-minded people, especially very committed ones, have a reputation for being gullible and lacking in social knowledge. This was true even back in the days of Jesus, who observed that “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8).

Religions, spiritual systems and the ranks of spiritual teachers down through the ages have been full of clever men using God and enlightenment as tools to acquire power. In fact, one of Greene’s laws (#27) is to play upon people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following. If nothing else, Greene’s book is an excellent education for the spiritual seeker in the methods of manipulation that unscrupulous teachers and organizations may try to use. For that reason alone, it’s worth a read.

And it’s a very entertaining read. For each law, Greene provides fascinating illustrations from the pages of history, from Otto Von Bismark to Nikola Tesla.  Some stories illustrate the laws being followed, and others illustrate those laws being ignored, often with disastrous consequences. Just remember that you’re dealing with an author who is openly praising deceit and misdirection.  Learn from his book, but use your higher judgment.

Below is a video of the author discussing this book.

Feb 022010

One Year to an Organized Work Life by Regina Leeds. I had previously reviewed two other books by Regina Leeds (the “Zen” Organizer) . Those were One Year to an Organized Life and One Year to an Organized Financial Life. Since both were excellent, I was really looking forward to the middle book in the series, dedicated to organizing your work life. After all, I spend a lot of time at work, and the consequences of being disorganize at work can be even more serious than falling to pieces at home.

I was not disappointed. This is a wonderful book on workplace organization – but even more, on integrating your work life and your personal life seamlessly. As with her other “one-year” books, Regina takes what could be a daunting subject and makes it manageable by breaking it down into easy weekly goals for a one-year gradual makeover. Follow the program and you end up with a complete organizational makeover for your work life. You can pick up the book and start the program at any time, as most of the assignments are not prerequisites of each other.

Each month also includes a work “habit of the month” and a HOME “habit of the month”. What’s really amazing is the range of topics covered in this book. It’s not just another book on time management and paperwork. Sure, there are excellent chapters on those topics, but there are also a lot of topics that you don’t often see discussed. How to pack for a business trip. How to prepare your office to run smoothly while you’re on vacation. How to integrate your holiday plans with your work responsibilities. How to organize your computer, laptop and other virtual environments.

As usual, Regina devotes considerable time not simply to the mechanics of organizing, but to your mental attitudes. How to set goals, understand and overcome procrastination, and how to balance your family and work responsibilities.  Even how to plan your vacation. She never forgets that the purpose of organization is not simply for it’s own sake, but to make our lives better. She also keeps an eye out for the particular needs of the working woman, which is a topic where some other books fall short.

You can get excellent specialized books in any of the several areas Regina covers in this book – from goal setting to filing and paperwork. But for a well-constructed plan to overhaul every aspect of your work organization, it’s hard to beat this book. Give Regina a year and she’ll make your work life sparkle.

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