Jan 212010

I was starting to read Regina Leed’s book One Year to an Organized Work Life (which I hope to review soon) and happened on this wonderful little tidbit on why you should make your bed. Now I don’t really have a problem with making the bed. I’m used to it now and it bother’s me if it isn’t done. But I have to admit that some days I wonder just what the point it. After all, I’m going to mess it up again the next night. No one but me is going to see it. Why bother. If I were a bachelor, it probably wouldn’t get made very often.

But Regina had this to say:

“An unmade bed signals that there is no end to your day; you are dragging the activities, emotions, and energy of one day into the next without ever giving yourself the experience of a fresh start. When you make your bed, you will feel energized every time you walk into your bedroom.”

I hadn’t looked at it from quite that perspective – organization as a spiritual symbol to your mind. And why not? As a priest, I believe in the power of physical symbols to effectively represent spiritual realities – often much better than words ever could. A spiritual symbol such as a cross or communion can impact the spirit on a powerful and unconscious level. Making your bed can be a sort of sacrament. It communicates hope for a new day and a fresh beginning to a spirit that needs refreshing.

I suppose this is something of the appeal of Feng Shui, which I have to admit I haven’t taken all that seriously. Not that I don’t enjoy a well-organized and beautiful room. But the Taoist details – such as which direction things have to be arranged in, I have to admit that I really didn’t have much use for. But to people who are steeped in Taoist tradition, I can see how these details in a room’s organization would resonate on a subconscious level with years of previous associations. I’m still not sure it resonates all that well with Americans ignorant of Taoist symbology.

Feel free to disagree (or agree for that matter) in the comments.

Jan 042010

A few weeks ago I asked for some feedback here and on several other forums, in a post called “The Most Important Thing”. My question to everyone was, what is the ONE THING you could do, if you could do nothing else, that would have the greatest effect for good on as many areas of your life as possible.  I already had something in mind, and I expected to see a few variations of it in the feedback. Instead, I got a huge range of suggestions, and it was easy to make a good argument for ANY of them as being fundamentally important and productive.

In particular, the comments here focused on habits of mind. Open-mindedness, acceptance and love. All of which, I think, are basically aspects of the same basic state of mind. It’s impossible to argue that this state of mind isn’t fundamental to EVERY kind of positive change. And yet I’m going to argue (stubborn person that I am) that another habit is equally important. This habit is regular self-reflection.

It can be in the form of journaling, planning, or even a form of meditation. But speaking for myself, if my first and foremost habit isn’t regular self-reflection, then I constantly loose ground.

It’s interesting that as I’ve discussed new years resolutions with people this year, I find fewer and fewer people making them (or at least admitting to making them). There’s a broad disenchantment out there with the very idea of a program of self-improvement. People have failed at their resolutions time after time, year after year. They don’t want the pain of another failure. And so they’d rather not try. There are some respects in which giving up striving is a great idea – especially if what you have been striving after is an ego-based goal. I wrote about that conflict a few days ago in The Purpose of Purpose.

But surely not all growth and development needs to be ego-based. There are plenty of wonderful things to do just for the joy of them that still require some organized commitment – for example, to develop the mental outlook of open-mindedness, acceptance and love mentioned above. To treat yourself to a healthier lifestyle. To learn a new language, or skill. To practice meditation. None of these things is a one-time activity. You may need reminders. This is where self-reflection comes in. I’ll explain my preferred method for this. You can adapt it however you see fit.

You’ll need a small notebook. You can, if you prefer, opt for some kind of more elaborate planner with more organization to it. This might be particularly important if you have a lot of complex responsibilities to manage. For myself – a notebook does fine. I like the moleskine style notebooks. I usually settle for the cheap knock-off variety from my local discount or office supply store. But they’re not that expensive, so perhaps you can treat yourself.

The basic procedure is this. Every day, you set aside 15 minutes for reflection. EVERY day. This is the one key habit on which all my other self-development hangs. Take this time every day no matter what – as if your life depended on it. Take the time even (this is VERY important) if all you have to report to yourself is “I did absolutely nothing yesterday. I forgot all my goals and projects and just vegetated in front of the TV with junk food and I’m glad I did”. Self-reflection needs to be absolutely, completely non-judgmental. The important thing is that you reflect. You should view your life as if you were a saintly, accepting, compassionate outsider.

The only absolutely essential things to include in your self-reflection are the answers to these questions: What did I do yesterday? What would I like to do today? And these must be written down in your little notebook. If you reflect at night, then the questions may be: What did I do today? What would I like to do tomorrow?

As you get used to the procedure, we can elaborate a bit. Once a week, use your daily reflection time to set some weekly goals. Use an index card as your placemarker and list your repeating goals on it (such as taking a walk everyday). You can also use the book to journal, to record your daily thoughts, dreams, meditation notes and to capture stray ideas and tasks as they come up. I find that even though the day’s events and activities are all jumbled-up in my notebook, I can always find anything I wrote down easily.

As you progress with this practice, you will begin to notice patterns. You will notice that you seem to be avoiding some tasks and goals, and you can gently and objectively ask yourself about it. Is it something you really don’t want to do at all? Explore that. Are you noticing, in your review, that certain people and situations cause problems in your plans. Certain behavior patters may emerge where you can, with loving detachment, notice the cause and effect that operates in your life.

But the key point is to keep up the habit. No matter what. Let me show you why I think it’s key. Suppose you make a new-years resolution to exercise every day. In the normal course of things, you will probably go regularly for a week, then taper off to a few times a week, and then, a month or two down the road, gradually drop it. Another failed resolution. But if you are re-visiting this goal every day in reflection, one of three things is going to happen. In the first case, you will be reminded to exercise and it will become a permanent part of your routine. In the second, you will start to notice the long stretches of time when you don’t exercise and you will be forced to confront how you feel about it. Is the type of exercise wrong for you? Is the time of day not working? Is there a way you can work exercise into your day without using excuses to avoid it? Wonderful. You adjust your goal and keep with it. Or, in the final case, you may simply decide to admit to yourself that you aren’t ready to make that commitment yet. But you make this choice by facing it in daily reflection. You have learned something which you would NOT have learned if you simply let your exercise goal gradually fade away. And you will be able to revisit your decision in future goal-setting sessions during reflection.

I welcome any comments or suggestions on his basic framework – or other methods that suit you better.

Jan 032010

Just released in 2010, One Year to an Organized Financial Life is the latest installment from Regina Leeds, the “Zen Organizer”.  I’ve previously reviewed her book “One Year to an Organized Life” and found it a refreshing change in the field of organization. This book continues a winning pattern and expands it to an area where I (and many others) especially need some serious help – our finances.

Overhauling any aspect of our lives can be an intimidating. There are so many things we could do differently. So many small and large habits that need changing.  Regina approaches this problem by having us concentrate on only one issue at a time, one per week, over the period of a year. Every month she introduces one key habit for the month, one helpful tool for the month, and then introduces one change or habit each week, in nice bite-sized pieces. Follow through on these easily manageable assignments, and in one year, ta-dah! you’re financially organized. Or at least in a lot better shape than when you started.

One of the beauties of this approach is that you can pick up the book any time during the year and start the program. You don’t need to start in January (although January would make a great time to start). Some of the months deal with items specific to that time of the year. for example, in November Regina deals with gift-giving, holiday spending and organizing holiday parties and get-togethers economically. The fact that I tend to start thinking about these things in December instead of November is an indication of just how much help I need.

The chapters and assignments give some really exceptional ideas for spending less money, making more money, saving for the future and protecting yourself from life’s uncertainties. Regina covers insurance (of all kinds), investments, retirement, college planning, budgeting, entertainment, and the aforementioned holiday spending.  In this book, she has a certified financial advisor (Russell Wild) along to supplement her organizational knowledge with expert financial knowledge about such things as various kinds of tax-deferred savings accounts and tax-loss harvesting (if you don’t know what that is… you need this book).

When I open up a book on financial organization, I generally expect to hear that I should spend less, save more and make spartan cuts in my lifestyle. Perhaps that’s why I don’t generally like such books. The ideas in this book, however, are surprisingly fresh. I am getting a lot more new information out of it than I expected.  And, like her previous book, Regina doesn’t focus exclusively on the mechanics of organization, but also explores and rehabilitates your feelings about financial issues, through such tools as journaling tasks. The goal, after all, of “Zen Organizing” is a feeling of peace and security – not organization for its own sake.

So, if you feel your financial life needs some serious help (we know who we are), this is a gentle program that takes you by the hand and leads you through a year of easy steps to feeling much much better about your economic situation. There are no theories without simple, practical steps. Take the first step and give the book a try.

Dec 122009

presents3Let me share a system we developed this year for organizing gift giving in our family. This system was invented for two reasons:

1. All my children are at an age at which GIVING presents is as much fun as receiving them.

2. Economics are difficult this year. Both myself and my children are operating on very small budgets. Some of the kids can’t find work and others have had their hours cut back.

Last year present-buying was a bit chaotic.  I was running around at the last minute trying to “balance” all the gift-buying. The kids were having trouble getting gifts for everyone on limited budgets. A few gifts were almost duplicated. So here’s the system I came up with:

Those of us who have any money this year will pool all the money together. I turned this over to one of my more organized children with a bank account.

The children will meet together, divide this money up evenly and order or buy gifts for everyone.  They will have a brief series of meetings to decide on everyone’s gift. Naturally, each person is excluded from the meeting where their gift is being discussed.

The Organizer arranges purchases, recruiting others for driving and shopping as necessary. Our Organizer signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime (which I would highly recommend trying out). For the whole month, she can order Amazon gifts with free two-day shipping and no minimums! We can cancel after a month if we like and pay nothing.

All the gifts to each other will be “from everyone”.

I buy the gift for the Organizer myself. That way she doesn’t have to buy her own.

The advantages of this system for us are many. First of all, everyone gets to participate in gift GIVING. Those who can’t contribute money contribute time, energy and organization. Secondly, everyone can receive nicer (though fewer) gifts.  Each person trying to buy gifts for a large family with very little money results in frustration and lots of very inexpensive gifts.  Thirdly, a lot of the burden is unloaded from my wife and I. We don’t have to run around shopping, buying and wrapping (unless we WANT to). The children do all that as their contribution to the presents. And yet we (and everyone) have the fun of helping decide on the gifts, and the fun of watching them being unwrapped knowing what they contain – being in on the secret. Forth – there’s is no danger of duplicating gifts. The Organizer sees to that.

So there’s our new system. Please share your own ideas and systems for gift-giving in the comments.

Dec 122009

gtdGetting Things Done is the phenomenal best-selling book on organization and time management by  David Allen. Among fans of this time and project management system (actually more of a LIFE management system) it is known simply as GTD. The book has been around for a few years, and I ran into it in an office supply store, while shopping for some software.

At the time, I had been attempting to use Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits” system, which urged me to think about roles, responsibilities, values, etc. This is certainly a critical thing to do. But there just wasn’t enough of things getting done in my life, hence my interest in Getting Things Done.

Allen’s is basically an organizing “geek”. He leaves the values and roles to the other teachers. In his experience, what helps people out are basically “tricks”. Little techniques, systems and rules of personal productivity and organization that make the difference between accomplishing your tasks and getting buried by them.

Among the tricks:

Arrange your tasks by context, not by importance. That is to say, if you are writing emails, and have another email to write, don’t shut down your computer and go on to another task just because it’s theoretically the next highest priority. Write your emails while you’re at the computer. If something MUST be done, and it can be done in two minutes or less, do it the minute you process it from your inbox. This saves you the time of trying to file and retrieve it later. Use a label maker for your file labels (I’ll let him explain this one). Keep your inbox empty.

The genius of these tricks is that they form part of a complete personal productivity system to make sure that nothing gets lost between the cracks. Allen will guide you through taking all the ideas, all the floating pieces of paper lying around – and capturing them in a system that will bring them to your attention when they are needed – but not have you worrying about them before.

Part of his system for time management includes a simple system of project management – since most of us have to deal with “projects” in the form of a goal that requires multiple steps and tasks performed in order.

Allen’s system is so popular and so successful that it has inspired user groups, special products based on the system and countless spin-offs. There are even browser plugins to make Gmail into a system for Getting Things Done.

If your time and organization are a mess and you want a no-nonsense approach, try David Allen. His system will bring it all together so you can rest easy at night knowing that your personal system has everything under control.

Dec 022009

egypt_800x600 If you write about spirituality and self-development, it’s hard to avoid having something to say about The Secret, the run-away phenomena of a book (and movie, and CD) by Rhonda Byrne. I’ve enjoyed all three of them, and there is a lot that can be said about The Secret.
Just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain that The Secret is a book (movie video) intended to teach you the secrets of what is known in the spiritual development world as “manifestation” – the ability to create your own reality and all the things you need and want by through your spiritual intentions.

Let’s start with the good. I’ve truly enjoyed the book, the movie and the CD. All of them are skillfully done. They bring the highest production values and professionalism to a field of spiritual teaching where amateurism abounds. The movie in particular is engaging – even gripping. If you know someone who is manifesting bad things in their life, and have desperately wanted to help them but didn’t know how – give them the movie. It will have them hooked in a matter of minutes and teach them some excellent techniques and principles before it’s done.

The expert interviews are also well done – keeping the points crisp and moving at a brisk pace to hold the interest. The principles are well-taught, and I believe that they will drastically improve the life of anyone who uses them.

So what can be bad about that? Looking at the ratings for the products, you will see that the book in particular garners a large number of five-star ratings, and then a much smaller but sizable chunk of one-star ratings – enough to drive the rating down to a level that is frankly lower than the book deserves. So, most people love it, but a small but vocal minority hate it. Why?

There are some who are simply worried by the ideology. Does creating one’s own reality conflict with Christianity, for example (in my opinion, the answer is NO, but we’ll discuss that elsewhere). Then there are a number of people who have tried the techniques, but are unhappy with the results. They didn’t get what they wanted, or didn’t get it fast enough, or were unhappy with it when they DID get it – and are bitterly disappointed.

The fact is, there are any number of significant reasons why manifestation can malfunction. Some of these are discussed briefly in The Secret, but the book is really an introduction to manifestation, not a complete troubleshooting manual.

Any number of things can go wrong with manifestation, beginning with the fact that the unconscious part of our mind is much larger than the conscious part. While using our conscious mind to manifest can work well, we might be sabotaging ourselves subconsciously. If you really want to become an expert at manifestation, you will probably need to turn to any of the many books and websites that help you fine-tune the process. I’ll be reviewing a number of them, but one of my favorites is Steve Pavlina’s website, StevePavlina.com.

On a more fundamental level, however, there is a foundational issue that must be addressed. While manifestation is a wonderful skill to develop – it is NOT the whole of spirituality. Any spiritual teacher who has even glimpsed the nature of enlightenment will tell you that simply being able to produce a lot of STUFF will not, ultimately, make you happy. Most of us crave more STUFF in a desperate attempt to fortify our ego structures. If we only learn manifestation to feed our ego-driven desires, then manifestation becomes simply a form of black magic, which we employ to gain the whole world, while loosing our own souls in the process.

So if someone is in a desperate state of desire, I would first get them started on Eckhart Tolle or a similar spiritual teacher who can show them how to tame the ego before starting them on a crash-course in manifestation like The Secret. On the other hand, if you understand the spiritual nature of happiness and want to have some fun manipulating the material world for good, The Secret is an excellent introduction.

If you haven’t seen it – have a look at the first few minutes of the movie below:

Nov 272009

oneAs is obvious from this website, I’m a big enthusiast for self-development ideas. But not in a million years to I have enough time to follow up on ALL the self-development ideas I run across, or even all of the really good ones.

So I have an idea for collecting a list of the the ONE (or perhaps two or three) self-development ideas in each area of life that make the most difference. What one think could a person do, in each particular area, that  – if they had no time to do anything else – would be the best investment for the time and energy spent?

And I’d like to start it out with self-development as a whole. What ONE think, of all the other things that a person could possibly do – would make the most difference overall to improve their entire life. I have a few ideas myself, but I’d be very interested in feedback from any readers. What one thing to you do (or have you done) that helps the MOST in your life?

Nov 242009

calendar I had heard good things about Regina Leeds as an organizer, and decided to read her book One Year to an Organized Life. Call me sexist, but for some reason I haven’t gotten a lot out of organizational books by women. Perhaps it’s just the books I’ve picked, but they seem to focus on a more detailed level than I want. Of course, you could argue that it is just this level of detail that I most need.

But Regina’s book is a bit different. This isn’t simply a book of abstract principles or isolated hints. It’s a complete program for overhauling every aspect of your life over the course of a year. You can start the program at any time, because she has arranged completely independent sets of tasks, projects and experiments for each month (actually, for every WEEK of every month of the year). And these tasks include not only lists of areas of your life to organize (with excellent suggestions) but also such projects as journaling and analysis of your habits.

It’s the perfect book for someone who has no idea where to begin with organization and wants a complete step-by-step program. And since it’s arranged by the year, it would make an excellent Christmas gift for someone who wants to start the year off right. Regina will take you through getting your luggage in order, finding the right address book, decorating for the holidays and buying gifts – and virtually every organizational aspect of your life.

Regina is known as the “Zen Organizer”. Compared to the minimalism of someone like Steve Babauta, I think using the word “Zen” in connection with such a detailed organizational system might seem a bit misplaced – but I understand what’s intended. Regina’s book is just as concerned with the mental aspects of organizing, and the enjoyment of additional free time as it is with little tricks for conquering clutter.

Overall, an excellently done book – especially for someone who needs a complete organizational makeover.

Nov 192009


As a fan of organizational books,  methods and gurus, I thought I owed it to myself to listen to an opposing viewpoint.  The full (messy) title of this book is: A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder – How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (long enough?). The authors, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, make a compelling case.

Sometimes, the authors say, organization doesn’t give us a good return value for the time, effort and money we put into it. In fact, sometimes organizing makes us LESS productive, happy and creative. They churn through example after example in many fields: personal organization, office organization, city planning, politics, science, art. It would be easy to dismiss their examples as a few strange exceptions, except that there are so many of them.

A few simple examples: On a slightly messy desk, it’s more likely that I will see my most important or urgent papers and projects right in front of me. Sitting neatly hidden in a file cabinet, it’s more likely I’ll forget them. Overly clean houses can actually make allergies worse and breed more lethal bacteria than slightly dirty ones. Many scientific discoveries were made due to disorganized accidents. The time I save by having a neat personal filing system may not make up for the time I spend filing everything in the first place, and then maintaining that system.  Companies that invest in long-range strategic planning do no better than companies that don’t.

You get the general idea. The book certainly hasn’t converted me away from believing in the benefits of basic organization. But it gives me something to think about. I better realize now the benefits of incorporating a little controlled disorder into my life. It makes life more creative, more productive and more satisfying.

Abrahamson and Freedman certainly aren’t arguing against ALL organization. The best results, they find, happen when there is a mix of order and disorder – a basic ordered framework in which some creative disorder is permitted.

The fact of the matter is, the world is a messy place. As human beings, we have strong psychological needs to catigorize and order things. We like to feel that there is a safe underlying order in the cosmos. For example, there is a phenomena, which the authors discuss, known as the “just world hypothesis”. People have a tendency to assume that when something BAD happens to someone, they deserved it. A man who drops dead of a heart attack at 45 must not have been fit. A woman who is raped must have been engaging in risky behavior. This gives us a sense of security about the world, but the fact is, bad things happen to perfectly innocent people all the time. By assuming the “just world” hypothesis, we stigmatize innocent victims.

The cosmos is a facinating combination of ordered principles and strange incongruities, and so are our lives. It’s wonderful to rely on organization to make our lives more comfortable and happy – but let’s not try to organize out ALL of the strange and wonderful mess. It makes our lives much to sterile.

If you are a VERY organized person – I’d recommend this book. It will give you something to think about. If you are a disorganized person who feels horribly guilty all the time – this book might give you some comfort.

Nov 072009

helpWe’ve just re-purposed PathsToKnowledge to be a review site for self-development books, teachers and resources in the areas of: Spirituality, Health and Healing, Psychology and Relationships and Organization. If you have a favorite guru or author in any of these fields, please suggest them for review. If you would like to write about any of them, we’d be happy to consider posting your reviews. Use the comments of this post to suggest or discuss.

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