Friday, March 31, 2006

Awaiting Queen Jeanine

My organizer, Queen Jeanine Baron of Streamliners, is coming on Monday and what I want us to do is develop a filing system and plan for handling materials. If she can help me figure this out, or hold my hand while I figure it out, that will be excellent. I think she will be awesome in working this out with me.

Also it will distract her from her plans, which she has efficiently presented to me in an excellent-looking spreadsheet that is color-coded.

She wants to bring me project boxes and magazine folders in shades of gray and beige. I think not. First of all, it would match, and that would be boring. Second of all, it's too tasteful. Third, my friends will make fun of me, because my desk will look like something from Real Simple, a magazine that I find Real Stupid. But on a more practical basis, I will soon put papers in the box and on the box and then they'll be buried.

She also offered to bring in a battalion of people to help clean out my desk. If they were cleaning my house, I'd be singing the Alleluia chorus -- could definitely "Handel" that. But we are talking my desk...

Again, it's very nice, but I think not. It makes me nervous enough having one highly-organized person in my cubicle, but having several flitting around would drive me to do something odd, like throw papers, or undress, or wind-up all my wind-up toys, just to restore the right balance of disharmony in the universe.

Meanwhile, there is some harmony happening. My emails are now down to 400, from 4,330 when I started. I experimented for hours with Outlook and am trying to make my peace with it. I went through old contacts that had been marooned in there from a previous failed attempt in 2000. I have eight file drawers and I have organized one and emptied three.

Well, have a great weekend.


Jamie Joffe, the publicist, wrote in, a little embarrassed. She's been backsliding. I had written asking her for an update.

Here's what she wrote:

I caught myself using paper scraps for notes ick. I am going to try and get it together before next week. I am a bit more work/life balanced lately though...and that is good.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Give Yourself a Break

Maybe what we all need to do is take a deep breath and ease up a little. This morning I rode my bicycle into work along the Schuylkill, under the cherry blossoms. What a beautiful way to start the day.

Then I got a beautiful email from Mario Sikora, an executive coach, which I am going to print. I think he is right. And as always, and I so mean this, our Inquirer readers are truly the kindest and most generous and supportive people one could ever meet.

Dear Ms. Von Bergen,
I was reading your article in today's Inquirer about your efforts to get your office under control and thought I'd add my two cents.

The organization/time management consultants would never tell you this, but you are fighting a losing battle.

I am an executive coach and on occasion my clients ask me how they can get a handle on organization and time management. They have usually taken a Franklin-Covey program or something similar and despite the best of intentions they fall into their old patterns within days. I generally tell them to stop worrying about it and focus on things that are worth their time and energy.

Let me explain why: Being in the people-changing business for a decade now I've learned that people don't really change; not much, anyway. It takes tremendous effort to change habitual patterns because they are literally programmed into the wiring of our brain through a combination of genetic predisposition and decades of practice. Trying to change behavior means that we have to create and strengthen new synaptic connections while we allow the old ones to atrophy.

Under stress (or a deadline) our brain will follow the path of least resistance, causing us to fall into the old patterns. Thus, change of the sort you are attempting is a daunting task and I always tell my clients to do a cost-benefit analysis before undertaking any efforts to change. That is, what is the benefit from making the change and what price do you have to pay in time, energy and other resources to make it? If the benefit does not outweigh the costs, not only will you be unsuccessful, it is kind of silly to try.

So the question for you -- what do you lose by being messy and what will you gain from changing? What will it cost you to change and is it worth the cost?

If my clients end up committing to the effort of making the change, I recommend that they take baby steps. In fact, the attempt to change should be so small that they feel almost guilty for only trying that one thing. This has the effect of inspiring them to do more, rather than feeling overwhelmed and abandoning their efforts.

For example, when I recently decided to try to lose a little weight, I committed to simply switching to diet soda from regular soda. Now, instead of feeling deprived and abandoning my diet like I have in the past, I find myself doing more than I committed to. In time, I'll add another baby step. It may be slow going, but change is slow going. In your case, if you truly feel like you'd benefit from being more organized, pick one behavior to modify, the behavior that will provide the biggest payoff with the least effort.

Seems like a useful phone list will be the place to start for you so you can get rid of the excess paper. Focus on that for a month or two and forget about the rest for now. When you achieve some success, add another baby step.

Professional organizers are generally organized by nature and they tend to expect too much from the rest of us. Expectations that are too high lead to failure. Ease up on yourself and you might actually make some gains.

Warm Regards,
Mario Sikora

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Still A Mess?

Well, you can look in the Inquirer's Business section today and see the latest picture of my desk. It doesn't look much different and I am not sure whether I am making progress or not.

Yesterday, I visited Trina Lewis, the overwhelmed human resources manager who won our Inquirer Confess Your Mess contest. She's making progress and is thrilled with the changes. So are the other two folks we have been following, Jamie Joffe, the publicist who can handle her clients, but not her business, and Norie Wisniewski, the nonprofit executive director who was burdened by hidden disorganization.

Everyone looks better and feels better.

As for me, I can't tell. I'm certainly happy my emails are down to 550 from 4,300. I've emptied three file drawers completely and organized another one. I've culled story ideas that were 10 years old. Many were good, but realistically, I won't do them, because they are no longer pertain to my writing responsibilities at the paper. I've devised some new tickler systems and have been using them. Every day I get a step closer to figuring out how to handle my phone contacts, which, although organized, should be upgraded, given its importance to my work. But my desk is still messy.

So what's my problem? Or, do I even have a problem?

One obstacle is that I am completely skeptical of everything and everyone. Some of it has to do with being a reporter. Our job is to ask questions and question assumptions. Do that for 30 years and it gets hardwired into your psyche. The other day, for example, Trina's organizer, Barbara Bergeron, told her to abandon a system that she has used successfully for years in favor of another. Trina didn't even ask why. She just nodded. Maybe that's OK for Trina, but that's not OK for me. Convince me. I can be convinced, but not through just a random spouting of truisms. I've reached my lifetime limit on those.

When my organizer, Jeanine Baron, tells me to do something, I question it. She gave me a perfectly fine project management chart, with color-coded bars, to tell me what I should do to dig out. I think if I were in business, I'd be enthusiastic about this sheet and impressed by the various bars and time lines. I'm not. The best meaning is that she took the time to do it, and that's what I appreciate more than anything -- the good vibe she is sending my way. She wants me to have color-coded "project boxes" on my desk, so everything matches. Again, yikes. I don't like regimentation, but then again, I don't like chaos. Too many internal conflicts.

One thing that I am determined about is that this change will be fundamental. I am not content to have a clean desk for a picture just to slide into chaos in a month or two. This has to be real and it has to last. I'm working it... I guess we'll see.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Parallel Buckets

You may remember Trina Lewis, the overwhelmed human resources manager who won the Inquirer's "Confess Your Mess" contest. I wrote about her in Monday's Inquirer and also in yesterday's blog posting. She works for Union Packaging in Yeadon, a fast-growing paper box manufacturing company that has doubled the number of employees since she arrived. Besides all the employees, Trina's boss has given her additional and important responsibilities, but no extra help.
In yesterday's posting titled Trina's Buckets, Trina said she is making great strides in organizing the clutter on her desk, following the advice that Barbara Bergeron, of SOS Organizing Services in Chester Springs, gave her during a March 15 visit.

The physical clutter has been going well, but Trina said she's been having a harder time organizing her computer.

Here's what Barbara wrote in response on March 20:

"I'm thrilled to hear of your progress!! Keep up the great work.

RE: the electronic files. As a general rule it is faster to create a new file
systems (paper or electronic) and then put new items into the new system.
If the electronic system is feeling overwhelming (and it certainly seems
like it is) try this.

Pick one of your six categories. (Just to explain this, Barbara had asked Trina to divide her job into her main areas of responsibility. Trina listed six, including training, safety and employee relations.)

Then outline within that one category what you anticipate to be the sub-categories within it. This is very much like thinking about a paper system. Envision a file drawer that has been designated to hold one category, "training" for example. Now create the folders within that category. Now drop and drag files into those folders.

Other ideas: open two windows showing your file tree. Drop and drag the
old (one window) over to the new (second window). Try sorting files by
topic, by sender, by date, to group like files that need to be moved. You
can collect several files that belong in the same folder by holding the Ctrl
key as you click on each file.

Then move all that are highlighted at one time.

Remember, the goal is just to get the files in the same general area in the
beginning. Later you can create additional layers of organization.

Hope that helps..."

I second that emotion. This is one of those ideas that falls into the "Why Didn't I Think Of It" category. Very simple and intuitive, yet...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Love That Shovel

1:00 p.m.
While waiting for my editors to look over upcoming stories, I decided to start dumping drawers in the distant periphery. I threw out notes from companies I covered from 1994 to about 2000. A lot of them no longer exist: Zany Brainy, American Appliance. The Today's Man box with documents from two bankruptcies will go this afternoon. What I kept were some files and stories connected with the closing of Wanamaker's and Strawbridge's back in 1995 and 1996. We did a terrific special section when Wanamaker's closed and I had a lot of influence in how it looked. I'm very proud of that work, so that's staying, as are extra copies of some magazine pieces I wrote when we had a magazine.

What should I do with all the material left over from the Republican convention in 2000? I was one of the main reporters on that, particularly as we looked at it from a business point of view. Right now, I'm thinking of keeping the financial stuff and tossing all the rest. Otherwise, I'll box it and shove it in a closet somewhere here at the paper. I have three file drawers of stuff from it. I definitely want to get it to no more than one. That was an exhausting and exciting story to cover. I look at stuff and it reminds me. One day Pat Croce picked me up in his arms and carried me like a baby outside the Reading Terminal while people clapped. He had chosen me to be a pretend Republican delegate. I don't what part of that experience was the strangest!

6:15 p.m.
I did a little work in the middle, but I managed to clean out another 345 emails. Down to 550! Going home in triumph!

Trina's Buckets

In the business section of today's Inquirer, you can read about Trina Lewis, the overworked human resources manager from Union Packaging Corp. in Yeadon, whose responsibilities have grown faster than her ability to handle them all. (And it would help, by the way, if she had a little more help. Half an assistant, even though the half assistant is very good, is really not enough.)

That being said, she's doing remarkably well. Her first visit with her organizer, Barbara Bergeron of SOS Organizational Services in Chester Springs, took place on March 15. Here are some of her emails since then:

Here's what Trina Lewis wrote on March 16:
I learned so much at our meeting yesterday. I have taken 20 minutes
yesterday and 20 minutes today to start the process of 'digging out' and
the results are amazing. Everyone that comes in my office comments
about the transition that is happening. I have taken a few work in
process photos that I will send you. Not only am I using the
information but I am also passing on the information to one of my
co-workers who are struggling with organization. We thought I was bad
with the 4000 emails, but he has 9000.

March 20th email from Trina:
As an update: I have a new duty added to my job description, I have to
pick up my boss', co-workers', and employees' jaws when they walk into my
office these days. Taking Barbara's information to heart in the four
twenty minute sessions that I have utilized since last week's meeting,
the transformation of my office is astonishing to say the least. I am
having a harder time with the file clean-up (computer) because I find
that takes a lot longer before results are seen. I can spend twenty
minutes doing that, and it seems as if I have made little to no
progress. Believe it or not, I look forward each day to the twenty

March 21st obnoxious bragging email from Trina (Although, as of yesterday, my email is now down 895 from 4330, so email THAT, Trina!):
Down from 4300 emails to 1600.
Another observation. Many of my coworkers are working overtime to clean
there offices since I have started the process. Also if I am working on
something and have a lot of papers on my desk there are smart comments
about me keeping up my new found organization.
The highlight was yesterday when my boss came into my office for the
first time in about three days and was very surprised and happy at my

Tomorrow, I'll tell you what Barbara recommended about organizing electronic files.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

More Shovel Grabbing

1:10 p.m., Saturday, March 25:
It's just after 1 on a Saturday afternoon and I'm here at work, again, trying to dig out. I'm feeling very determined. My emails have gone from 4330 to 2000 and more will go today - at least 1,000. I've decided to intersperse the email jettisoning effort with other activities, such as beginning to go through various piles. I realize that I want my desk to be clean at the end of this, even if the end is a month or so from now. Not only do I want it clean, but I want it washed!

You know, of course, what the irony would be. The irony would be if I am sitting here cleaning out my desk, with the goal of being more joyfully and calmy productive, and then find out that I'm actually cleaning it as a courtesy to this cubicle's next occupant if we lose our jobs when the Inquirer finally gets sold. Well, no point in worrying about that now...

3:22 p.m., Saturday, March 25
1,500 emails and still tossing. Goal: Down to 1,000 by 6 p.m.

I actually wrote a quickie little story off one of them that we can use in Monday's business newsletter. Another one, which I obviously saved because "someday" I planned to use it as material for an article, turns out to be pertinent to a story scheduled to run in the Inquirer this week. The story, which had its genesis from a different email, is already written and I never ended up using the info from this email because it was lost among the 4,330 that had been in the basket. It may be too late now, but it also might be worth an extra call. Maybe on Monday.

Tossed out about 25 email reminders of soccer practice for my younger son. Soccer season was over five months ago! Believe me, I'd rather write than shovel, but,... back to work.

5:55 Saturday, March 25
895 emails left in my inbox -- that's down from 2,000 when I walked in the door five hours ago. I'm very happy with my progress. My only regret is that I didn't get my phone contacts system in place. I've given myself a lot of work in the future when I transfer the numbers over. But, again, why worry now. I predict that by the end of the week, I'll be able to get to the 300 to 400 range. Of course, I now have lots of emails in folders, but I'll also be able to cull through them in little nibs as time goes by. Time for dinner!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Getting Things Done

Sometime before this series ends, the Inquirer will be running a Q&A interview with David Allen, author of "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity." We'll also have a longer online interview that you can listen to through our website and hopefully through this blog. His book is number one on Business Week's paperback bestseller list, but it's been on the top 10 list for 22 months.

There are snippets of the interview that probably won't make it into the paper or on line, like this section on the management of ideas. Since I worry so much about handling my story ideas, I asked him how he handles his:

Jane: One thing that gets on my desk in terms of piles are ideas for stories and one reason they stay on my desk — of course, I don’t get to all the story ideas that I have -- is that I really develop a fondness for them.

David: Old friends.

Jane: Yes. Even though, I don’t do them, they are exciting to me. Then, if I don’t do them, I feel guilty about them and I try to think how I could resurrect the story idea for another story later.

The piles on my desk represent both possibilities — a forward exciting possibility — and also the possibility for redemption for these ideas. What do you think? What does that mean?

David: The best way to have ideas is to get a lot of good ideas, according to Linus Pauling, and that’s really true. There’s nothing wrong with having lots of ideas, it’s just you have to agree with yourself that it’s a someday/maybe, it’s not a commitment.

(Note: Someday/Maybe is one of David's filing categories. Among the others are "Next Action" and "Reference." Someday/Maybe can include work ideas or even life goals, such as "Learn Spanish." When a Someday/Maybe moves into the takeoff zone, it is called a "Project" if it involves several steps.)

Jane: Right.

David: I have a much bigger list of someday/maybe projects than I have active projects, but I rethink both of them every week.

Jane: Your Someday/Maybe list in your book didn’t seem similar to what mine would be like.

David: Well I have a lot of sub-categories. I have a sub-category of ideas I don’t know what the heck to do with. These are creative ideas that would be interesting in some point and I just have a category. I have a category called "Ideas???" and I just throw those things in there.

Jane: And you look at them?

David: Every few weeks. If I need a creative idea, if it is time to write an essay for my newsletter, I go look at all the ideas I’ve had before. Now seldom do I actually write any of those, but it’s nice to go back and look at them. Going back to look at them surfaces the creative process where I’ll often come up with some configuration of it.

So, it’s subtle in there between what you keep around and what’s fine with you to keep around, because of the creative incubation process, and what you keep around and create guilt because of it. You have to know yourself really, really well, to know the difference.

Jane: And that, of course, is the hard part.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Three New Habits

Well, my desk isn't cleaner. I'm more confused than ever about how to organize my contacts and I'm torn between just throwing stuff off my desk and doing what I should do, which is mine it for precious phone numbers to put into a system -- well, what system?

So what have I gained so far?
Three new habits -- more or less.

Habit One: Deal with all the emails every day. I have been doing that consistently for two weeks. I either toss them, respond to them or file them. I still have 2,200 on backlog, down from 4330, but I have some confidence that I could get to zero in about five or six hours.

Habit Two: Wash out all cups at night. But I didn't do that last night when I worked until 1 a.m. I could barely make the walk to the car in the parking lot, let alone all the way to the sink and back. I washed them this morning.

Habit Three: Pray before starting to work. While my computer is humming to life, I thank God for work that I enjoy and pray for the health and safety of my family. I also pray for the safety of my colleagues around the world who are reporting under dangerous circumstances. Then, I ask for God's help to make it through the day, especially on a day when I'm tired, so I don't screw it up, so I remain fair and compassionate and so I find a little extra to encourage someone, either here in the office or out in the world.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I'm Exhausted

Organizer Queen Jeanine, (Jeanine Baron, Streamliners Inc, Blue Bell), has come and gone. She spent a lot of time with me and I am very tired. Too many ideas and projects, and they are all about order, and I am not about order. I'd rather sing or dance on the file cabinets or throw a pie, or, ok write a blog, or write anything or interview people, or..., well you get the idea.

To a point, I enjoy systems, in a kind of utopia fantasy way, like Henry David Thoreau at Walden leading the simple life. But I also fantasize about an umbrella in a drink at the beach, which is more appealing at the moment. If someone could deliver a Manhattan straight up, that would also be good.

Jeanine's whole point is that all this organizing can be taken care of in bite-size chunks, and it's her job to teach me how and what to chew. I'm mixing metaphors here, away from the Digging Out, but maybe I should switch that to Digging In...

Anyway, I think she wouldn't want me to be tired, but to be energized, so I quickly went and got a cup of tea, which is helping.

Also helping is that I already did our first thing on our Action list, which is transfer my phone list to a USB drive, so I can use it at home. This is a big deal, because today is the first day I ever touched a USB Flash Drive and yet I was able to handle it. If you don't know what one is, it is like carrying a huge file cabinet with you, except the contents has been shrunk to the size of a key chain. When you plug it in, you have given your computer the equivalent of many file cabinets of extra storage space. So, you move files or copy files into it. Then you unplug it and take it with you.

To operate it, my husband gave me an electric wire, which is like an extension cord. One end attaches to the unreachable nether regions of my computer and the other end snakes around to the front where it is quite handy. Jeanine knew where to attach the cord and did it, which would have given me tremendous anxiety. After she left, I managed to move a copy of my phone list to the USB drive. I am tremendously satisfied with that accomplishment. To geeks, that is like saying, hey I managed to pick my nose using my finger! But baby I feel great about that USB. What does USB stand for anyway?

My phone lists are, as I suspected, a tremendous hassle. Now I understand why so many people hate Microsoft, because Microsoft Outlook's contacts management software seems so slow and cumbersome. Now I have to ditz around with it, and that does not seem like fun. I already hate it. Who invented this sytem? Plus I have three stories to write before Friday, at a minimum.

So why change? My ultimate goal is portability, which I have achieved in part with the USB. I have no immediate plans to get a Blackberry-type device. But this is the way the world is going, so I need to put myself in a position to go with it.

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

Because I've watched a couple of these organizers work, I know that they'll either ask one of two questions, which are related. One is "What bothers you the most?" and the other is "What would this look like if it were perfect?" In the motivational and organizational books that I've been reading, the second question is key -- "envision the outcome."

So what would be a perfect day?

I would come into work calm, coffee in hand, and perhaps not even turn on the computer until I had gone into a confererence room with a couple of newspapers. I would have a schedule of a about a dozen websites I would read sporadically over the course of a week or two for updates. Ideally, I should spend about an hour on this, including reading the many magazines and trade journals I receive. Some mornings, at least once a week, I would abandon this plan in favor of having coffee with a thinker or idea person on my beat, just to chat about the world of work, which is my world, as a writer here at the Inquirer .

Then, I would look over the day's events and check my email. Checking the email can take a lot of time, because I get about 75 to 100 a day. Our Philadelphia Inquirer business department publishes a newsletter, and that has an early deadline, so if there is anything to be written I must do that. Right now I am blogging, and that has to be done early, because online readers supposedly like to peruse their computers at lunch.

Then I would move into the events of the day, interviews, phone calls and writing, able to make clear decisions about what stories I should be handling and what I should be either trying to pawn off on someone else or ignoring.

The pace builds, particularly if there's a story for the next day's paper -- then my life is quite intense from about 2 to 6:30 p.m. The pace also builds throughout the week as we prepare for the weekend papers, which are largely produced in advance. I often work late on Thursday nights -- anywhere from 9 to midnight -- because I want to make sure my weekend stories are written so my editors can have them when they arrive Friday morning, our busiest day of the week.

Of course my desk would be relatively neat with very few piles of papers. My phone numbers would be organized and I would be disciplined about entering every business card I get into some sort of contacts system. I have huge stacks of them now -- here, at home, in coat pockets, on my dresser, on the kitchen counter. Not good. Every phone number/email from a story would be duly noted in my phone lists.

This all sounds quite nice, but in reality, there are lots of duties competing for the first hour of my day, which in theory is supposed to run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., like most reporters at the Inquirer.

Sometimes I spend the first hour on myself. We tend to work late here and if I want/need/deserve time for myself, I need to take that time in the morning so I can still recover if an emergency daily story comes my way. Those days I might not come in until 10:30 or 10:45. What am I doing? I'm at home cleaning the bathrooms, studying Spanish, exercising at the gym, or volunteering at my kids' school.

As we start marching toward deadline, my flexibility decreases and there is little likelihood of getting out early -- by early I mean at 5. The end of the day is less predictable and when I get home -- usually around 7 or 7:30, I am really very tired. My eyes hurt and my arms hurt and I can just about handle making dinner and folding laundry. In fact, the laundry folding is therapeutic.

Well, we'll see what Queen Jeanine, (Jeanine Baron, Streamliners Inc., Blue Bell) says about all this. I'm looking forward to meeting her.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What Should I Wear?

My organizer, Jeanine Baron, is coming tomorrow, so it’s time to consider important issues about my worklife.

What should I wear???!!!!

Jeanine, of Streamliners Inc., has already intimidated me with an email in which she talks about ”tools” with that unabashed techy-yechhy glee that I find vaguely pornographic. Thank God she didn’t talk about “solutions,” which is one of those industry jargon words that makes me want to well,... never mind.

She wants me to buy a $400 piece of equipment that scans business cards. First of all, I’m the queen of cheap. I’m not buying anything, not even a label maker. Secondly, the Inquirer probably won’t buy the scanner either, not with us on the verge of being sold. I'm confident that the Inquirer will keep us stocked with reporters’ notebooks and pens.

Personally, I don’t care what she thinks about my messy desk. Believe me, I’m not easily embarrassed, as you all know. From doing this story, I’ve seen a lot worse and people are really suffering far more than I am.

Also, I hope she doesn’t give me a lot of generic advice. That’s another thing that nauseates me. At my age and in this job, I’ve nearly reached my lifetime limit in the drivel department and my tolerance for it is diminishing. I'm hoping she'll understand what I need, which is mainly coping with ideas and with my phone lists.

Here’s a weird thing. I’m torn between wanting to be an ordinary mess that she can easily handle and wanting to be unique, because who wants to be a lemming? My mother used to tell me, “Jane, please don’t think you are normal.” I'm not sure if she was bragging or complaining. Probably both.

Jeanine wrote me two emails on Sunday — one is more technical with talk about csv, which is comma separated values (hmmm... is this better or worse than family values?) and OCRs, whatever they are. I am actually looking forward to the technical help, though, because I don't think she'll laugh at me when she sees what I don't know.

I liked her less techy email better, so I’ll quote it directly.

Here’s what Jeanine wrote:

"We all bring a certain degree of chaos and distractions to the workplace each day... Whether you're overwhelmed with the amount of college choices that you and your 11th grader need to mull over, or thinking about a heated conversation you had with your spouse at the breakfast table, all forms of distractibility can take a toll on productivity in the office.

Studies are now showing that multi-tasking has a significant negative impact on one's short-term memory. According to the journal NeuroImage, managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task. Therefore, productivity is best achieved by creating an that increases one's ability to concentrate and focus by minimizing distractions. Make sense?

Here's where things typically fall apart for most individuals who strive for and struggle with maintaining that focus:

The basic principles that are required for getting and staying organized are deep-rooted in the executive functioning area (prefrontal cortex) of the brain. It may surprise many of you that your Blackberry is not keeping you organized after all! (Doesn't surprise me. I don't have a Blackberry.)

The prefrontal cortex monitors all intentional actions that organizing depends upon - planning, filtering, categorizing, decision-making, prioritizing, and sequencing. Many of us can actually perform these 'thinking' tasks with varying degrees of success to create that 'oasis-like' state in our cubicles and offices.

When the heat gets turned up, the thought of managing the 'oasis' quickly reverts to wandering through the desert. Turning the heat up at work, that is elevating one’s anxiety, typically through the volume of work that needs to be accomplished, pressure from outside sources (like the recent purchase of the Inquirer), or constant interruptions stimulates another part of our brain – the amygdala, which sends thousands of neurohormones for a ‘call to action.’

Unfortunately, action drives out thought. We’re no longer making choices to prioritize, organize, and sequence, but instead, we’ve reverted back to our conditioned response – adding more paper to the piles that already exist and the host of other habits that are called upon by this response to the emotional hijacking that occurs under stress.

Creating and working in a controlled, productive environment takes thought and practice and a good amount of diligence to maintain. Often, when I begin working with clients, they’re looking for a ‘silver bullet’ to solve their organizing dilemmas, and are usually surprised to find that the answers to creating their ‘oasis’ by getting and staying organized lie within.”

Those Pesky Pens

If you have noticed today's Philadelphia Inquirer, you'll see that I updated the story of Norie Wisniewski, the executive director of Interfaith Caregivers, a social service agency in Haddonfield that provides services to the homebound.

One of Norie's beefs had been that she was always had to lend her pens out and never got them back. Organizer Ellen Faye, of Straighten-Up in Cherry Hill, gave her one of those suggestions that is so obvious, yet so often overlooked. Take extra pens, she advised. Norie loved that idea and started packing pens to lend.

Someone, as a joke, started sending her pens anonymously. She has received, so far, four packages of pens. No letter, no note, no clue about the identity of the senders. She's completely mystified. But one was funny. It had a return address: "467 Lost Pen Drive, Inkland, Fla."

Sunday, March 19, 2006

I'm Grabbing My Shovel Again

3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 19, 2006
When I started this project I had 4,330 some emails. On Saturday, March 11, after a day of creating systems and files, I moved the number to 4,200 and kept it that way all week, making sure I dealt with every email every day. When I left Friday I had 3,700, because I spent one hour getting rid of 500 by sorting by sender.

I've also been keeping track of the volume. On Wednesday and Friday, I had 76 emails each day. On Tuesday, I had 100, and on Thursday, 96. I'm not sure if that is normal or alot. What do you folks get and how do you deal with it?

My goal today is to dump at least 1,000 more before 6:30 p.m! I have coffee, water, aspirin and unlimited access to my editor's chocolate stash on his desk, so I'm ready to go!

6:30 p.m.
I made it! I got down to 2713 -- the 13 are brand new since I left work on Friday and I will try to trim them down now.

7:00 p.m.
Down to 2,500 and I quit. Most fun? Tossing out way too many emails from my bosses. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Judging from how many emails I get from my many, many bosses, it takes a vast urban metropolis to supervise me. Thanks to them though, I was able to cut so many and so I now feel very productive!

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Cubicle As Oasis

Last night I was interviewed on Christopher Lydon's "Open Source" radio show broadcast from Lowell, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. My role was to be the "mess," and I was chided for having a few half-full cups of coffee on my desk. (I did clean them before I went home!). Anyway that was all in good fun.

But Chris asked one question that captured my imagination: Why are so many people interested in getting organized, or de-cluttering?

And I have an opinion on that, based on no knowledge whatsoever, just my feelings.

I think the world feels increasingly chaotic. We have a war in Iraq with no end in sight. Oil prices continue to increase, which touches us daily in how we heat our homes and use our cars, both so fundamental to our ordinary pursuits. There is a widening gap between the rich and the poor and the opportunities don't seem as promising, not only for us, but also for our children. On a very micro-level, our jobs here at the Philadelphia Inquirer don't feel as secure as they once did now that our company is being sold.

To me, organizing is about a sense of control and order in a disorderly world. If we can manage our little eight-by-eight foot cubicle and create a calm oasis, we can have refuge from the world. And then, from our cubicle oasis, we can, perhaps, gain the strength to move confidently into the chaos, whether it be corporate or global.

It's really survival of the spirit and not just a silly obsession over clean coffee cups.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Contacts and Phone Lists

I'm still struggling with how to keep track of my phone numbers and other contacts. Many of my colleagues have moved into Microsoft Outlook, which is provided by our company. They have the PDAs and sync up their home and work computers.

Others have lists in Word. I have lists in Word, but most of my main phone lists are in our in-house publishing system, a Unisys product called Hermes. I also have several phone lists on Excel spreadsheets. All my phone lists are fairly well indexed and there is a way for me to tap into them from home, I think. But it is cumbersome.

Sometimes I think I should switch into Microsoft Outlook, but I've been discouraged because the job seems overwhelming. As you can imagine, reporters probably have more than the usual amount of contacts and our contacts are extremely important to us. That's how we do our stories!

This morning an interesting suggestion came from Ellen Faye, of Straighten-Up, in Cherry Hill. She is one of the organizers I've been working with in the Digging Out series.

She said I should hire a kid -- maybe one of my boys -- to enter my contacts in a Microsoft Outlook program at home. At first I dismissed her idea. For one thing, I do not want to carry a PDA around -- I like to travel light. I don't even carry a purse. I just hate schlepping stuff. I have a cell phone at home, for example, but only take it when I really need it. But a PDA could be useful in some circumstances. I just don't want to be controlled by it.

Also and more importantly, I had always been reluctant to have others enter my contact information because I very much want each contact sorted into categories, in fact multiple categories. For example, I might want to put a local painter's union leader under union, under Philadelphia, under construction.

An intern, or my kid, would not be capable of making the distinctions they way I would like. But, then, inspiration dawned. They could fill in all the standard contact info and I could go back and add the categories. That would be much less time consuming.

Hmmm... Now I just have to figure out how I'd pay for it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Take A Deep Breath

Figen Genco, an organizer and feng shui practioner from Richboro, Bucks County, wrote in to say that her experience shows that real change can only occur when the person wants to change. They also need to understand the psychological roots of their "messes," which are often an outward manifestation of inner turmoil and lack of clarity -- not genetic messiness or busyness.

To begin to change, she said, people should be directed in their psychological, physical and emotional preparation, starting with an evaluation of the work area so it is properly arranged. The de-cluttering work should be done, for the most part, by the individual, so the physical memory of the work and the relief stays with them.

There are ways, Figen wrote, to get your spirit prepared for the task of cleaning out. One of the most important is a breathing exercise.

Here's what Figen wrote:
Open a window if you can, before starting to work on your area… Light a candle…
The goal of any Meditation is to be able to control your mind…to be able to have one chosen thought without interruption…to control the physical body.

Learning how to breathe in preparation for meditation is important. Proper breath not only replenishes the body, but also connects one’s body with Spirit. This type of breathing, in Huna tradition, is called “HA Breathing.”

The ancient Hawaiians practiced this through deep, conscious breathing. Breathe deeply through your NOSE, as you exhale through the MOUTH, make a whispered "ha" sound, which moves the breath through the body like a fountain of water, washing away impurities. As you hold the exhale, the breath condenses the air and water and moves it into the ground where it solidifies to ground you.

Sit upon a firm but comfortable chair so the vital energy can directly flow into the soles of your feet and up through your body without restriction of bent joints.

Take a deep breath in through the NOSE, to the count of 7, filling your lungs completely. Inhale with the intention of your breath reaching the top of your head.
Hold the breath to the count of 7. Imagine your lungs being filled with pure oxygen.
Exhale through the MOUTH to the count of 7, exhaling completely, mouth open wide (opening the jaw), loudly whispering the word "Haaaa," Imagine your exhaled breath moving through your body like a fountain of water, washing away impurities.

Hold the breath for the count of 7.
Inhale to the count of 7.
Hold to the count of 7.
Exhale to the count of 7.

Figen's e-mail does not include how to end this exercise, but my guess would be that you should do it until you experience a sense of peace and calm that will give you more inner strength to deal with some of the emotions raised as we throw things out

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Sort By Sender

Carmelita Scott took pity on me after reading on the blog about my efforts to dig out of my e-mail last Saturday. I came into work, opened my inbox and had 4,335 messages.
First I set up files and folders, then I tried to whittle it down. After a whole day, I got rid of just 100 e-mails. She sent me a sympathetic e-mail thanking me for my efforts in writing about this issue and also encouraging me.

Here's what Carmelita wrote:
"Without going into graphic detail I will say that my own situation with piles of stuff in my office and an overflowing inbox is similar to yours.

As for email, the one-at-a-time approach is great for keeping on top of email. However, when you are dealing with a large backlog such as yours (or mine) I've found another approach helpful to quickly trim the volume down to a more manageable number.

Group your inbox by Sender and go through it that way as a first pass. I found that I could delete large blocks of things that way - for example deleting all 38 items from a newsletter I didn't have time to read.

When I've gone through this process myself I found that it really helped me psychologically to have the success of a large number of messages gone early on. That kept me from feeling quite so overwhelmed at the sheer volume of it all."

Carmelita also recommended that I read this posting on line: Getting Your Inbox to Empty: Dealing with the first email purge" at Thank you, Carmelita, for your advice. I'll definitely try it, maybe even later today, if I get a chance.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Director Loves Her Clear Portfolios

In a few hours, I'm driving to New Jersey to visit Norie Wisniewski, who is the executive director of Interfaith Caregivers in Haddonfield, and her organizer, Ellen Faye, of Straighten-Up in Cherry Hill. Interfaith Caregivers teams volunteers with fragile elderly or homebound people to provide a helping hand -- with transportation, grocery shopping, companionship. Many clients are at the end of their lives and Wisniewski knows how precious their time can be.

I was with them when they first got together in January. Norie told Ellen that because she knows her clients' time is precious, she helps them first. That means that she falls behind on some of her own administrative tasks, such as keeping on top of e-mail or managing meeting notes. Plus, Norie never fully understood a computer system that had been set up for her.
Since then, they met once, on February 9. I wasn't there, but they both sent me reports.

Here's what Ellen wrote:
Norie and I met on Thursday, Feb. 9, from 1 to 3 p.m.

I wore corduroys, a sweater, jacket and boots - casually professional. Norie wore her signature red! Our session began with general discussion about how things were going. Norie was excited about a few small changes she made and the big improvements that resulted.

We talked about:

·Having extra pens - and how that small change made her feel in control and carrying the plastic sleeve so that materials wouldn't get intermixed. Her calendar and her frustration with people changing appointments. From our first meeting she was able to figure out that by using pencil in her calendar she could make changes much easier. She has begun to code tentative meetings with question marks, and then can just erase the "?" when the meeting goes definite.

·Her waiting time when donors/volunteers are late. Norie has always brought work to do - but is going to make a conscience effort to schedule her meetings in a way that better matches the personality of the person she is meeting with. If they tend to always be an hour late for breakfast, she is going to schedule lunch or afternoon meetings instead. We also talked about reframing the experience when people are late - that she just has to let it go and see what opportunities await her instead. So instead of sitting and stewing about wasting an hour, she should consider the time a gift to think about, plan or do something else.

I then presented Norie with the Needs Assessment Summary from our first meeting. She reviewed it and discussed how I handle it if the client wants to change the order. I explained that it was a fluid document that was meant as a guide and that it's purpose was to keep us focused on those tasks that were identified at our first meeting as most important as well as to direct us as needed. If the client wanted to change direction, that was their choice.

Norie commented that she wondered if it would be valuable for her to summarize certain meetings she has in the same fashion.We talked about how much time it took to write up the notes and how I felt that it couldn't be a boiler plate kind of paper - but that it had to be specific to each client, or in her case, meeting. I find the summary very helpful in solidifying the client's situation and needs in my mind so I can keep them focused.

The one thing that I told her I felt strongly about was finishing a task before moving to another - that an unfinished task is as good as wasting time, money and resources, because if the area is not well organized the client won't be as successful in maintaining the area.

With that we moved on to the first project, analyzing and adjusting the organization of files on Norie's personal computer to ensure easy access to frequently utilized files. We began by bringing a smaller chair behind her desk so we both could see her computer. I sat at the computer but Norie eventually ended up sitting on the desk next to me so that we both could see the computer screen.

First I evaluated what was going on on her computer. It appeared as if her files were added to the agency's network, but not put on the server in any logical order. Some files were on the server, some were in "My Documents" and some appeared haphazardly on her system. (They had just recently undergone a computer upgrade in the office - but since her tech guy cancelled two appointments on her and she couldn't find the files she needed on her system we decided that she couldn't wait for him anymore and we just had to make it work.)

Since there was no reason for her files to be on the server I copied all the files back into My Documents. We then began setting up file folders just as we would do in a manual file system.
Many times I got up and showed her visually in a physical file how the computer file system mimicked the typical file drawer, with folders, sub-folders and documents inside.

Many file folders had been set up on her system - but when I asked where a specific document should go Norie would give me a different folder name. We kept setting up new folders and put very few documents in the existing folders. We discussed how she wouldn't want to have too many folders to look in but that what would most likely happen, is that the old folders that were there that she didn't use we could delete so only the ones that she would think to use would have documents in them.

I suspect that someone else set up the initial folders for her. But if her thought processes wouldn't lead her to those folders then they were as good as worthless. If she wanted to find an old file on "Spring Event" and her mind thought "Fundraiser," then it would do no good at all to file the document into "Events" or "Special Events" folders. If Norie thinks "Fundraiser," then that is where it should go!

We progressed through about 75 percent of her documents. Norie felt the need to delete obsolete files which we did some of as we went along.

For homework, Norie is going to look into one or two folders a day and delete obsolete files. When I return, we will finish processing all the document and then look into the files further to see if and where sub-files will be beneficial.

Filing takes a balance between breaking things down enough to find them but not into so much detail that one is overwhelmed by the number of files there are. This is what we will work to bring into the best balance for Norie.

Norie and I clearly connected from the get-go. There is a mutual level of respect and admiration that is making this project productive and fun. I felt that the session went very well and much was accomplished. I think Norie felt relief in having easy access to the files she uses most frequently.

(Comment from Jane: Ellen has told me that she feels very good about working with Norie, because it is her contribution to the Haddonfield community. Norie is out working in the field and working hard, Ellen says. But if Ellen can make Norie more effective, Ellen has also served her community.)

Here's what Norie wrote:
I am so pleased that I was selected for this project.

Ellen has been so positive and practical to work with.Everyone always compliments me on how organized I am and Ellen realized immediately that I could move things up to another level. Ellen understood that I wanted more time in my life, not that I necessarily felt unorganized. There are many things I would like to do and often I feel short on time. How liberating that Ellen took away my small plate and gave me a bigger one! Also, working with senior citizens and the disabled, I am faced daily with the fact that life is short. So to be given the gift of more time is just that, Ellen's gift to me.

Ellen's ideas are also so easy to implement. I was able not only to accept her suggestions (she is so non-threatening), but also to explain to her that sometimes the nonprofit world is a bit different from the corporate sector and volunteer staff and paid staff also can be worlds apart. She was able to understand immediately my perspective on things.

Ellen asked that I give her some stressors in my daily life. Committee meetings were a struggle as many times I am given items unrelated to that committee. In order not to lose papers or have things dog-eared, I put them in my committee folder. Thus, a golden opportunity to misplace items! Ellen introduced a plastic box system - a box that contains the committee folder, my daytimer, and three pens. Any random items I receive at the session go into the clear container - I automatically see them and have to deal with these items, when I return to the office! No way can they stay in the wrong folder or get lost!

The three pens idea is so practical. Ellen asked if I am ever asked to borrow a pen. It had just happened in the hour before at a meeting! It was as if she were a mind reader! Instead of focusing 100% on the comments being made, I wanted - maybe even needed - my favorite pen back. In the last several weeks I tote my favorite pen along with 2 disposable ones in my box!!!! I can lend pens out with a smile and never even imagine getting or not getting them back!

Ellen also suggested a simple change in entering dates in my daytimer. If a meeting doesn't have a definite date, but 4 that are questionable (I usually give my availability first for meetings and when the group selects a date they get back to me). Though always written in pencil with a ???? next to the meeting time, Ellen took my procedure to a different level. I now enter the ??? followed by a ( ) with the alternative dates inside the ( ). When it is time to erase the dates not being used, I don't have to search for them - they are right there in the ( ). Brilliant or just simple, I am not sure, but definitely a time saving device for me!

My computer files were very annoying. Scattered here and there, Ellen gathered them together and gave me the responsibility of cleaning them out from the one location. Never for a second asked why I kept my history in front of me, nor suggested anything be deleted. Ellen simply asked if I trusted her. When I answered "Yes" I realized that I did just that and my life was on the way to that next level.

If our interaction ends today, if I have no more sessions, nor am given no more suggestions, I realize my desire to extend my day and to have more time, is a realistic goal. If an opportunity comes to join a new organization or have coffee with a friend, I can use my new gained time for these opportunities.

As both of my daughters are expecting my grandbabies within a day of each other, I know how I want to spend my gift of time.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

I'm Grabbing My Shovel.

11:45 a.m. Saturday

I came into work at 9:00 a.m. today determined to organize something. And shortly thereafter, I found myself stumped.

It’s not that my mess is so overwhelming -- it’s just that I don’t know what to do.
My copy of David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” is in my hand, getting more raggedy by the minute as I try to figure it out.

The first step in his book is to “collect” everything and put it in a giant “in-box.” Well, I’d be here for the rest of my life!

Then you empty the in-box, according to a sensible work flow chart that he has developed. A lot of it involves making lists and then committing to weekly or daily reviews. The reviews are the key to success.

There are three troubling categories for me — “projects,” “someday/maybes” and “reference.”

Some things are projects, meaning currently active — something involving action in the next days or week or two. Inquirer projects include this series and following developments on a handful of stories. Home projects include trying to help my 11th-grader find a college.

Here’s my question: What are ideas for articles? And then, how do I handle the supporting documents for those ideas? I think the ideas are “someday/maybes.”

Reference, I’m pretty confused by -- what to keep, what to toss.

After a lot of thought and a lot of reading and re-reading — about two hours worth — I decided to “collect” two things — my emails and my idea drawer. I decided not to try to figure out my phone system.

Just for the record: As of 11:45 a.m., Saturday, I have 4335 emails in my inbox, 891 unread. Don’t be too impressed with 891 unread. That’s not as bad as it sounds. I have my email set up so that the first three lines of the text are what comes up on my screen, so even without opening them, I have a pretty good idea about their contents. It also allows me to delete many immediately, without waiting for them to open.

My plan, which I will start in about 10 minutes, is to handle 100 emails at a time, then pick one of my email folders to purge. I’ll do that for awhile, until I get disgusted, then I’ll switch to handling the ideas.

As for the ideas: The way I have kept my ideas organized in the past is through a simple numbered list on a Microsoft Word document on my computer, which is matched by a similarly numbered file folder in my closest drawer for supporting material. The reason it’s not alphabetized is because I don’t want to narrow my thinking into one word — usually my idea is a sentence or a paragraph.

Also, I don’t want to waste file folders - I use them at least twice. Once an idea is over, I can toss the material out and put something else in. The ideas can be big or little. A big idea would be a thorough look at overtime, which is a topic I find interesting. A small idea would be a one-time profile of a person or a company.

The flaw has not been a regular review of the ideas. That will change.

Well, it’s a lot more fun to write about this then do it, so I better quit and get to work. I’ll report back in a few hours — if I survive.

1:00 p.m. Saturday:

I promptly abandoned my plan of going through the e-mails.

Instead I set up e-mail folders, or what David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done,” would call buckets.

There is now a much simpler structure, with the following folders:
-- Companies, for the companies I cover, such as IKON or CDI.
-- Current, for e-mails related to my current stories.
-- Ideas.
-- Inquirer, for procedures, memos and updates on our company being sold.
-- Nice Stuff, for nice comments from readers or colleagues to look over when I get discouraged.
-- Personal, cute e-mails from the kids, update on soccer practice (not for me!), book group info.
-- Reference
-- Tickler, which is folders set up by date.

The reference file is a mess, because it now contains many random folders on topics that had just been scattered around my e-mail inbox. But at least they are together, and I can cull them bit-by-bit.

Now I’m going through my idea drawer and tossing out stale, stale, stuff. Check out this headline: “Hispanic market tops $235 billion in 1995.”

4:00 p.m. Saturday

Still haven’t gotten near my e-mail but I did trim down my idea drawer from over 200 ideas, many of them more than 10 years old! Now there are 15, most of them current, but none particularly pressing.

Most of the pressing ones are on piles on my desk, or on scraps of paper, somewhere. That’s because my idea system had become so unwieldy that I wasn’t even writing them down anymore.

Part of this feels good — I feel lighter.

But there’s another sad part to it and I’m beginning to understand why I’m so reluctant to toss stuff related to story ideas.

Whenever I have a good idea for a story and I don’t write it, I feel guilty. We probably all feel like that about our projects. Sometimes I know I’ve let people down — people who have an important story to tell and rely on me to tell it. Sometimes I know I’ve let our readers down because I haven’t been able to get to an interesting story or tell them about an interesting idea or debate.

As long as the ideas were on my desk or on a list, I could have hope that maybe I would do them. All those ideas in piles, drawers, lists represent the possibility of redemption for the stories and for me. Maybe we all need to forgive ourselves sometimes.


Well, I'm going to get a cup of tea and start shoveling e-mails!

6:30 p.m. Saturday
I am really beat. But, I did get through 110 e-mails in a very disciplined way! First-one-first, answering and dealing with each as instructed in the David Allen book. In some cases, the e-mails went to a reference file, in other cases into an action file and quite a few went into the "Digging Out" project file. Lots of deletes, too. It took me about two hours to get from 4,335, which is what I had at 11:45 a.m. to 4,233, which is what I have now. I also processed all that came in during that time.

My biggest triumph was sticking with the methodical, one at a time approach. But, I can't spend two hours a day on this. Maybe as they get older, they'll be easier to dump.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Who's The Boss? You or the Clutter?

Something about the E-mail from retired manufacturer Ken Lehr in Cherry Hill reminded me of my parents and my grandparents, particularly my father and grandmother.

They are both dead now, but they would have been appalled at my situation here at work. The mess is not the problem in itself, but they would see my situation as revealing a lack of discipline and an unacceptable acceptance of low standards -- on the order of settling for a B in school when A work is your natural capability.

I don't want to sell myself short here. I have a lot of discipline in many aspects of my life, including here at work. But there is no reason I can't do it better. This little tongue-lashing from Ken Lehr is exactly the tone and type that I would have received at home as a child. Kind, stern, and right to the point.

Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

"You must get to the bottom of the clutter to solve your organizing problem. If you have 4200 E-Mails on file, 900 of which are unread, your surroundings are controlling the problem and you. Do your friends a favor and discard 90% of the E-Mails you have read and "filed", read the recent unread E-Mails, decide what to do and discard the rest. By the time you tiptoe through the pile, it will be too late for most of the answers anyway.

(I like the italicized part -- why should the piles control me? I like being the one in control!)

"It starts with a daily schedule, freshly written daily, on a 3 X 5 card, or its equivalent, detailing what must be done that day. The biggest users of time are mail, E-mail!!!, and [CELL!!!]phones, none of which are controlled by the recipient. A little discipline can bring these time users under control; but it is not possible without the personal schedule."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Worried About Getting Started

I'm planning to come in here this weekend and work on my desk. But as it gets closer to the weekend, I'm feeling more and more anxious. I'm reading "Getting Things Done" by David Allen, which is a book recommended by a couple of folks who wrote in. I understand his thought process and it makes sense, but I'm not sure how to cope with ideas that may or may not germinate into stories. Are they "Projects" or "Maybe/Somedays?" Next week I'm scheduled to interview him, so I'll be asking his advice. But I need to get started or I will look like a blithering idiot -- probably do already.

As you can tell, I'm feeling discouraged.

One thing that has been great is that a couple people reported that they've already begun to clean up. Rob Schimmel, an executive at Royal Electric Supply Co. in Philadelphia, already cleaned off his desk as a result of Digging Out. He reports that the table behind his desk is still a work in progress. His co-worker, Lisa, wants him to get even more organized because his desk is in the front of the business and gives a bad impression. But I'm encouraged for him.
Jim Topley, owner of Crystal Clear Custom Pools, told me he put down the paper, went into work and cleaned up! Wow! Someone else said that the egg timer tip worked. Bonnie Warren, a songwriter, who actually wrote on a song on this topic, wants us all to get together somewhere and sing or make up poems about the problem -- maybe toast our triumphs or tragedies.

Let me know how it's going. Maybe it'll cheer me up. Thank you.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Word on Word

John Robinson is a retired software engineer who thinks that many people don't fully utilize the basic Microsoft Word programs on their computer. He thinks that I should handle my phone lists using a simple Word table. He plans to teach a class soon on using Word and is interested in how people use it, so if you want to post about that, especially if it helps you be organized, please do.

Here's his email:

"Having had your disorganization problem many years now, I read your article with great interest. The photo on the first page is quite impressive, although I wondered at first if it is really only a prop perhaps to make the article more credible.

Also, the fact that you look so happy in the photo doesn't help in this regard. But the content of the article convinces me that you have a problem, and it is very similar to my own case. It encourages me slightly, because I've solved at least one thing you seem to be having trouble with: Names and phone numbers on scraps of paper.

My solution is as follows: Since you have a computer on your desk, you probably keep it on all the time, and therefore you can immediately enter people's phone numbers and other info into your computer, rather than writing them on scraps of paper.

Since you are a professional reporter, you absolutely must have MS® Word on your computer, and so you can take advantage of Word tables. These are fantastic tools for storing and retrieving people's names, addresses (both street and e-mail) and telephone numbers, and any other pertinent info about the persons.

If you create a table with five columns and a few rows, you can enter the name in the leftmost column, the street address in the next one, the e-mail address in the third one, the telephone number in the fourth one, and any comments / info in the fifth one. Then when you are tempted to write down a person's address, etc. on a scrap of paper, just lunge for your keyboard instead, and enter the info in the first blank line of the table.

You could do a quick search on the person's name to see if you already have the information somewhere in the table (If your problem is as serious as the article implies, you probably have the same person's info on several different scraps of paper)."

John's point is well-taken and I think it would be very useful, but I'm not sure it's entirely right for me. I'm still thinking about this.

I have a lot of different ways I handle phone numbers and I'm trying to see what would be a more effective system. You have to keep in mind that a reporter's most valuable asset, other than a reputation for integrity and accuracy, is her phone list.

Here's what I do:
a. I get a lot of phone calls and voice mail messages. These I take down immediately in a stenographer's notebook, which I try to use for that purpose only. I often fail to transfer these numbers into the right place later and I often scribble other notes in these books. BAD, BAD, BAD!

b. People I need to call over and over again for stories, or people I think I will need to call, I do try to enter on our company's internal publishing system in a document that my colleagues can use it if they know about it. That list is fairly well-organized by category and of course is searchable. For example, I cover labor unions and so all the union phone numbers are together and separate from analysts who specialize in the staffing industry, which I also cover. But I don't always add the names to the list. BAD BAD BAD!

c. I also keep several Excel spreadsheet lists of "regular people" as I call them. These are just people that I meet in the course of reporting whom I think are intelligent or have an interesting viewpoint. They aren't experts or officials, which is good. That's because they are less likely to manipulate the news as much as some of the other people I deal with. Sometimes I call one of them to informally kick around an idea. They are almost an informal advisory board. Most of the people who have written to me for this "Digging Out" project fall into that category. I think it's great to know John Robinson, in this way, for example. My "regular people" lists I keep to myself, because my personal relationships forms the basis of the list. I very much value these relationships and I'm actually proud of these lists. I think Excel is good for this purpose, because I can see a lot of names at one time. This is sort of a variation of what John suggests that I do for all my numbers, but I think the tables would get to be too big.

d. A list of "source" numbers that is also confidential.

e. At one point, I tried to use the Microsoft Outlook Contacts, but it was cumbersome so I gave up. I'm kicking myself for that, because it seems to be a pretty good system.

What do other people do?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Purple and Gold High Heels

Tomorrow I'll post something useful, but this email really made me laugh. It comes from Wendy Oyler, a former nurse who is now a quality assurance and credentialing supervisor for a company that reviews medical insurance claims.

Here's what she wrote:
"Everyone at work asked if I had read your article. They felt I was a true contestant. I am the butt of many jokes. They took a copy the photo with your article and pasted my face on top of yours and used white-out to make my hair and blot off your face completely (which I think shows excellent judgment on the part of Wendy's colleagues!). It took all day for me to find it on my cube wall."

Wendy goes on to describe her complicated job. She recruits experts to review medical claims, and sometimes has to find 10 at a time. She sorts out what specialty applies and refers the claim to the proper expert. She maintains contact with various governmental agencies. To do all this, she makes numerous lists, which she loses.

And now, to add insult to injury, here's the last paragraph from the latest email from Wendy, whom I love, even though I don't know her, because, well, you will see in a second:

"We are having a client come in-house next week and I was told to box most of the stuff on my desk and move it to another area till the visit is over. It will be hard to move those purple and gold-chained high heels I bought at a demolition sale in Ocean City this fall just for a joke on a special occasion."

It sounds like if you have the kind of job that Wendy has, you need to keep a pair of purple and gold-chained heels at your desk.

I think we can all relate. I have a pink tiara I got on my 50th birthday, a toilet key chain with an loud flushing sound that I use to annoy my co-workers, a UPS bobble doll, a plastic banana that I pretend is my phone, a voodoo figurine, wind-up walking teeth, a plastic iguana, and a modeling clay computer made by teenage son when he was five.

Do I have to get rid of this stuff? I don't care what they say -- I'm not going to.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Where's the Paper?

In a few minutes I am crossing the bridge into the wilds of Joisey to visit a company where the boss is totally anti-paper. Of course the company sells document management software, so it is trying to practice what it preaches to its customers. Still I really can't imagine an office without paper. Apparently this boss is very adamant about no paper. There's not even a copy machine in the joint. Everything is scanned and read on line. OK, what do people read in the bathroom? They probably have to smuggle the newspaper in. I wonder if workers have little secret stashes of paper squirreled away. What do the desktops look like? I'll let you know next week.

On another point entirely...
In today's Inquirer business section, you will see an update of the story of Jamie Joffe, the publicist, and her fixer Susan Sabo, of Organizers Inc. in West Chester. Jamie is the one who works well for her clients, but had messy business practices, now in the process of cleaning them up. One more tip from Susan that didn't make it into the story. When organizing files, obviously, put the ones you use most often closest to you. As for the labels (which she said should be made with a label maker), they should be on the side of the file closest to you for easy reading. Also line the labels up. That way eye doesn't have to hopscotch all over the file drawer when you are looking for something.

One more point: By tomorrow, I will be printing some of our emails from readers. There are some in the newspaper today, so you can see the kind of reaction we are getting. Click here to read some of the emails and here to see a summary of what they wrote.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Get An Egg Timer

On Wednesday, I drove to Lafayette Hill to hang out with Jamie Joffe, the publicist, and her organizer, Susan Sabo, of Organizers Inc. in West Chester. Jamie, as you may recall, operates her public relations firm out of her home. She does a good job for her clients, but is only now getting a grip on some of her routine business practices, such as invoicing, filing and most importantly delegating.

You can read about the whole session on Monday in the Inquirer, but there was one little delicious tidbit from Susan that won't make it into the paper because I ran out of room.

Suppose you have an odious task, such as culling through a backlog of files or emails. It must be done, but it is so daunting and depressing and boring that you just can't even bear the thought....

Here's what you do: You figure out how much time you can endure this dreadful job. Please underestimate. If in a fit of enthusiasm, you say, "An hour!," that is not good. Figure more like 10, 15 or 20 minutes, something reasonable and sustainable.

Bring in the egg timer. Set it for the time and then do not be interrrupted. No phone. No email. Avoid people. When the buzzer buzzes, you are done! Quit!

"Because the timer is ticking, it reminds you to stay on task," Sabo said. "People will say, `I can always do something for 15 minutes.' They have momentum then and they might do it again. But even if you don't do two sessions, you've done one and Score!"

The key, she said, is doing it every day. A small amount daily is a better than a sporadic bursts of enthusiasm, which leave you too exhausted to go on. Speaking of being too exhausted to go on, I have been working four 10+ hour days, so I have no plans to post anything on Saturday or Sunday, although I might try to come in and attack the desk a little. It's scary to contemplate.

More on Monday.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Clutter Cousins

My friend Susan Warner had a great idea - "Clutter Cousins." I happen to know her inspiration for this idea.

Sue used to work here at the paper and once a week, she and another reporter, Jennifer Lin, would run up to the Art Museum at lunch. Naturally, they talked while they ran, and the outgrowth was a book published last year, "Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Running." They found that they encouraged each other to run, that they were more committed to it because there were two of them and that their running collaboration, which started out as exercise and companionship, eventually led to a great burst of creativity, e.g. the book. In their book, they describe other women who drew support from each other as they ran.

Sue's very similar idea is that we should become "clutter cousins." We can find a partner, perhaps a co-worker, and collaborate on getting organized. That way the dull and lonely work won't seem so dull. Maybe on lunch hours, "clutter cousins" can take turns sitting with each other. One sorts, organizes and tosses as the other chants, "throw it out, throw it out." Plus, the cousin can help make decisions. Is the memo from the boss on the company mission statement worth keeping? ("Throw it out! Throw it out!")

Even better, you can bore your "clutter cousin" with your great triumphs such as "I cleaned the bottom drawer in my file cabinet!" Your clutter cousin will be genuinely glad for you. Who knows? Maybe you'll even write a book!

Perhaps two of you will meet through this blog and become "clutter cousins." Of course, be careful. But if you do decide to become someone's clutter cousin, either at work or through the blog, please let me know or at least post about it. I think other people would be interested in reading about how it works.

More to come...

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Publicist Loves Her Labeler

This morning I am going to meet organizer Susan Sabo with Organizers Inc. at publicist Jamie Joffe's home office in Lafayette Hill. This will be the second time the two have gotten together. Jamie, as you may recall, does a good job for her clients, but her business processes, including filing and invoicing, are messy. Jamie had just hired an assistant but didn't know how to delegate work to her. If you want to know more about Jamie or Susan, you can click on "The Disorganized Publicist" in the right-hand column.

Before I go out there, I thought you might like to see the exchange of emails that started before Jamie's and Susan's first visit on January 25 and continued through yesterday.

Here they are:

January 9, 2006 from Jamie:
I do not like to self-promote, but I am a total mess. I run a PR business out of my house and have a few large clients. I spend at least 15 minutes 3x a day looking for old emails, files, media info -- Jamie

January 25, 2006: 8:45 p.m., three hours after their firstt meeting, from Jamie.
Hi Susan - Thank you again for your time today. I have already reviewed tomorrow's calendar, and made a to-do list. It was a blast - and I am excited to get started! - Jamie

January 26, 2006: 5:17 a.m (These people are nuts!), from Susan
Dear Early Bird ~ It was a good meeting. Talking about the places that are snags for you and developing systems to put some of those things on autopilot will clearly help you have a better quality of life and continue your huge success!
What did your husband say about the idea of setting up QuickBooks for billing? – Susan

January 26, 2006 , 8:06 a.m, from Jamie
We are going to set up everything this weekend. I will email you photos. -- Jamie

January 31, 2006: 8:53 a.m., from Jamie
Ok - today is a BIGGIE - we are starting to reorganize my files. Just found my engagement announcement in my 2005 Cirque Du Soleil file (that was 1996). -- Jamie

January 31, 2006: 6:39 p.m., from Jamie
I love my label maker: Why didn't I buy this sooner? I labeled tonight's leftovers and my son Josh labeled the dog in case she forgets her name (and learns to read). Starting making my files, Alexis (Jamie's assistant) is going to start sorting piles. Today I was able to find my Blackberry, cell phone and keys in under 5 minutes because the mess from my desk has been sorted into piles that now need to be put away. -- Jamie

February 1, 2006: 10:53 a.m., from Susan
I don't remember if we mentioned this on the phone so I'm writing to summarize another issue highlighted in that initial interview with Jamie - - she's using routines and tools taught to her by her first job. We're updating those routines and employing current tools. - Susan

February 01, 2006 11:26 a.m., from Susan
Glad that the label maker is working! Sounds like you and Alexis (her assistant) are initiating a good setup ready to be 'your system'. Why don't we set another time to get together for me to see your progress and strategize for the next steps? I'm thinking a couple weeks down the road so you can work through those files and all. – Susan

February, 15 2006 12:46 p.m from Jamie
(I asked Jamie what was still working since her initial enthusiasm and what was difficult. Here was what she wrote back)
"Honestly, just keeping up with it and knowing what to keep and what to throw out. I had a client in last week's Daily News, and threw it out by mistake. This kinda stinks, because the client didn't see it and now I have to track it down.
I also am unsure of how many folders I need, when do I consolidate? Or do I just throw everything into each client folder? I am psyched to see Susan again to answer this and other pressing questions. I did also buy a headset, which I LOVE. – Jamie

February 27, 2006 8:45 p.m., from Jamie
A few things I have done or not depending on who you ask.
While I have been great about keeping notes in one notebook, the whole filing process is overwhelming. What should I dump? I am so petrified that I will throw out something I need.
I am also going to the container store to try and manage my media things.
There are some piles, not too many, but I need to make files. Also one last thought, are my files efficient? Hopefully Susan can help me with this when I see her this week. -- Jamie

February 28, 2006 6:14 AM, from Jamie
This morning I am here trying to get back on track, I have some piles here that
I am working through - it is hard not to keep everything, as I always
get ideas from things I see...
I am dumping the chicken curry recipe, I have 5 others, and it doesn't
belong in the middle of my real estate client's file.
Back to work!!! – Jamie

February 28, 2006: 7:52 a.m., from Susan
Tomorrow we can develop record retention guidelines, as we call them, for you to use when deciding what to keep and toss. Then we designate where to put what you keep. That's the creation of the standard organizing procedure. The procedure will give you a method of sorting papers and quick decision-making on the retain/remove part of the process. See you tomorrow. -- Susan