The missing piece for our household’s functioning–Power Hour!

Last week, I wrote about how our household functions well because of the Weekly Review. That really does work well, but there was something else that wasn’t going quite right…

The problem: Non-urgent, nagging tasks

I noticed that some things were falling through the cracks. You know how sometimes an important but non-urgent letter arrives, and you think, “Ah yes, I’ll deal with this,” and in the end you don’t? This was basically what was happening to us.

It happened to Jacob with sending stuff back a couple of times. He ordered a couple of shirts online, tried them on, didn’t like them, and meant to return them. He left them on the dining table, so he could see them easily and thus remember to send them back. But returning them didn’t feel urgent.

I reminded him several times to start the return procedure, but he told me to, “Relax, pumpkin.” Okay, I relaxed. When he decided to return them, he realized that they should have been returned within 15 days, and today was day 16. Too bad. Now we were stuck with unwanted shirts.

I tried to identify the problem. What had gone wrong in this situation? Well, this task didn’t have a time when it could be done. The assumption was that when Jacob had time, he’d get to it. But things that don’t seem urgent or important often don’t get done in a timely manner.

The solution: Power Hour!

And then it hit me: We need to make time to do these things! All kinds of random errands and seemingly unimportant or non-urgent things need a time when they can get done. So I blocked an hour per week on both of our calendars when we can do this. Gretchen Rubin calls this Power Hour, which is a strikingly fitting name.

This is how Power Hour works: throughout the week, we put stuff that needs to be tackled in our Inboxes (a container for each of us), and during Power Hour, we take the stuff out and do what needs to be done. It works surprisingly well because an hour doesn’t feel like a lot of time to dedicate to nagging tasks, but it’s enough to keep things going and not get bogged down by forgotten tasks (or shirts that don’t fit).

This is one of those really practical ideas that seems simple but makes a big difference. At least for us it’s been very helpful. You certainly don’t need to implement this as a couple; one person can benefit from Power Hour just as much.

Would you like to try Power Hour? How do you tackle nagging, non-urgent tasks? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

The Home Weekly Review: Why our household is functioning well

In our home, we manage to get quite a lot of stuff done without too much stress, and we also get to relax and do fun stuff together. How do we do this? The key is the Weekly Review.

There are a couple of things we need to keep track of in our household. Both Jacob and I have work obligations that we need to communicate to each other, irregular working hours, and additional projects that need extra coordination. On the home front, we do substantial meal preparation since we cook all our food (each of us eats out about once per week), and we also exercise 3-4 times per week. Not to mention that we’re getting ready for a baby, which (who knew?) means that we’ve had to do more shopping than we’ve done in years.

How we started

Soon after Jacob and I started dating, we needed to coordinate schedules. We’d usually spend the weekends together, and on Sunday evening, when he was dropping me off, we’d talk about when we’d see each other next. Needless to say, this wasn’t the best time to have that conversation because both of us were trying to remember our schedules for next week off the tops of our heads. This led to lots of back-and-forth texting in the beginning of the week and too much logistics for a fresh couple.

One Sunday afternoon, I suggested a simple idea to him:

“Hey, how about we sit down and look at our calendars now to figure out what we’re doing next week?”

It was super quick and easy. We spent maybe 15 minutes comparing our schedules and figuring out when would be a good time to meet up. We kept this up for months until we moved in together. At that point, there were many more things to discuss, so I proposed adding some structure to the Weekly Review. I adapted it from my own weekly review which I do for work, and it was surprisingly effective.

We still do the Weekly Review every Sunday. We usually do it in the afternoon (before our meal prep), and it takes 30-60 minutes depending on how many things we need to discuss. Here’s what our Weekly Review looks like.

What we include in our Weekly Review

  1. What did we do this week?
  2. What went well?
  3. What didn’t go so well?
  4. Did things fit our priorities?
  5. What will we do next week?
  6. Food plan
  7. Financial overview

We sit next to each other with our laptops, and we go over the past week according to our calendars. There are several reasons why this exercise is useful:

  • It reminds you of everything you’ve done that week;
  • You may remember that you need to follow up on something or finish something up, so you can create a reminder or task to reflect that;
  • You can assess what went well during the week, so you may choose to attend an event you liked again, hang out with people you enjoyed, or continue to apply a time management strategy you tried out;
  • You can also assess what didn’t go so well. Maybe you thought you’d be finished with a task in an hour but in fact it took three; maybe you tried to pack in too many tasks in too short a time and felt stressed or overwhelmed; maybe you didn’t spend enough time on something you find important (such as putting together baby furniture…) or you worked hard but didn’t make time to see your friends.

The past week

I assess my week in this way, and then Jacob assesses his. We try to figure out what we’re happy with from the past week and what we can improve. We can also, of course, make suggestions about the other person’s things or share if something the other person did didn’t work for us.

We also ask ourselves whether what we did in the past week fit our priorities. You can have a very productive and perfectly organized week, but if what you did didn’t make you happy or if you missed something and couldn’t fit it into your life, you need to think about making a change. It’s okay if not each week fits our priorities, but we need to watch out for many weeks in a row feeling unsatisfying or draining. This could add up and lead to burn out, unhappiness, or health problems, so it’s much better to catch it early.

The upcoming week

Then, we move on to the next week. Again, we look at our calendars and discuss what we’re going to do. We discuss any logistical issues or things we may need to coordinate (who needs the car when; when we’re going to see which friends; when we’re going to assemble some baby furniture… do you see a pattern here?).

Then, we also check our tasks and projects (Wunderlist lists and Trello boards) and think about when we may do what. This we can often do individually, but we can also ask the other person in case we need some input. Often, we catch time conflicts in this way and manage to resolve them because there’s enough time (instead of it happening the night before).

We also leave some time as ‘couple time.’ We used to make the mistake where we completely booked ourselves with stuff, up till the end of the evening. It’s easy to do when I wanted to finish a little bit of work after dinner or when Jacob was studying for an extra qualification. In the end, we chose to reserve some time for those things but also leave some time for quality time together. A little bit of time like this a couple of times a week allows us to feel connected even when we’re doing a lot and juggling many other responsibilities at the same time.

Other stuff

Then, we look at our food plan for the upcoming week. I usually make the food plan because I care about eating delicious and non-boring food which is also healthy and makes me feel good. Jacob likes his food to be healthy, but he doesn’t care much for variety; he could eat the exact same weekly menu all year round, but I can’t do that. Thus, I look up cool recipes and add them to our weekly menu to spice things up. This also gets us ready for our meal prep session which follows after the Weekly Review.

Finally, we do a financial overview. We track our spending and use You Need a Budget, an app that helps us reflect on our spending and set budgets and financial goals for ourselves. We check this as part of our Weekly Review to see how we’re doing on different budgets, where we need to stop spending, where we can spend more, or what categories we need to transfer more money to. This also makes us more aware of our spending and how we might like to change that to reflect our priorities better.

Until next week!

And that’s it for the Weekly Review! It has both purely administrative and logistical uses such as time management and planning, and it also facilitates reflecting on our priorities. We both really appreciate the Weekly Review for what it does for our household; seriously, Jacob never wants to skip it because it contributes to a much smoother work- and life-flow. And for me that’s great because what could be more fun on a Sunday afternoon that the Weekly Review?! Really, nothing!

Are you tempted to try the Weekly Review? Do you do something similar in your own way? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Janina Pieterse

How to organize your home for functionality, not for perfection

Every autumn, I get a yearning to organize my home and make it super tidy. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was in its perfect place and looked just right?

However, this type of compulsion to tidy up can leave me overwhelmed and exhausted, as I wrote about in this blog post, so I resist it. I try to engage with it only as long as it’s helpful instead of when it’s making me annoyed or impatient.

I’ve read a couple of organizing books recently, and I’m currently reading Julie Morgenstern’s organizational classic Organizing from the Inside Out. While reading the first few chapters, I completely fell in love with the idea of a perfectly organized home. How pleasant and peaceful it would be to have a completely tidy room! But then I thought better of it. Is it really?

I noticed an interesting distinction: Julie Morgenstern talks about organization in terms of functionality and efficiency, while I think mostly about aesthetics. She emphasizes that you should observe your own habits and tendencies and build your environment in a way that supports you. For instance, if, after coming home, you like to dump your mail on the dining table, take that as a given. Perhaps place a box for incoming mail right there on the dining table or very close to it and create a routine where you go through that inbox every evening after dinner. It’s much easier to maintain a system, she argues, if it’s adapted to your needs rather than if you have to adapt to your system.

Adapt your organizational system to your habits

This has been a major light bulb moment for me. I don’t usually care much about functionality or efficiency. As long as things have a place, I’ll put them there, even if it’s a little inconvenient. But Jacob, my husband, really likes things being convenient, and I can see why.

So, right now we’re in the process of moving things around in our kitchen. In the past, we assigned spots for pots, pans, and plates based on where they fit. While this is also clearly important, sometimes the arrangement is not super convenient. We don’t keep our spices, for example, close to where we cook, and it’s not particularly nice to have to move spices back and forth across the kitchen multiple times. This means we end up leaving the most commonly used spices out on the counter, which annoys me.

As a solution, we’ve now moved our spices to a shelf right above the cooking area, which is super convenient. We used to keep our teas there, but teas don’t need to be close to the cooking area, so why keep them there? Hopefully, we’ll now put away our spices rather than leaving them on the counter.

This is a small example, but it has important consequences if applied on a larger scale. If things are convenient to use and easy to put away, then our organizational system has a much higher chance of surviving. Then, we can have a tidy home without the maintenance feeling tedious or burdensome.

Perspective shift

For me, this has a bigger consequence as well. Being tidy, to me, represents having things in perfect order. If one thing is in the wrong place, this means I’ve failed, which makes me so uncomfortable that I need to move this thing immediately.

In contrast, if the emphasis is on functionality, the whole perspective shifts. When things are reasonably tidy, great, the organizational system is working well. When things start getting messy, it means our habits have shifted a bit, and the current system doesn’t accommodate them as well as it could. We can identify the problem and make a few small changes, so the system starts working well for us again.

Note that the emphasis here is not on perfection. It’s on having a reasonably well-functioning organizational system. Also, it’s perfectly fine and part of the deal that we need to constantly keep adapting our system, so it can be in tune with our current habits and demands.

Do you have an organization system that works well for you? Or, on the contrary, one that doesn’t work well? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Tidy up with purpose and not out of compulsion

We often tidy up because we are fed up with the way things are and we need to make a change. But we’d better approach our home and belongings with a sense of purpose.

A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening, I placed my dinner on the table and set up my tablet to watch an episode or two on Netflix. I had a new series suggestion, Tidying up with Marie Kondo. “Oh, no, no, no,” I thought to myself. “I can’t watch this, or I’ll turn into the tidying monster again.”

The perfectionist at home

When I lived by myself, everything had a specific place, and things were, almost always, in their exact place. I had a shelf for all my spices, and they were all arranged in rows, with the labels facing precisely forward. When friends came to visit, they marveled at my tidy, organized closets, cupboards, and shelves. They also thought I was a little crazy.

But more importantly, when something wasn’t in its right place, it made me stressed. I couldn’t let it go, and it gave me an unpleasant, gnawing feeling, like it was pulling me to fix it. And, inevitably, fix it I did. Every evening, I was organizing my clothes or cleaning the kitchen counters.

I was operating from the flawed belief that once everything is tidied up perfectly, I will finally be content and at ease. But that never actually happened. When I was done cleaning or organizing for the day, I tried not to look around for fear that I’d see something which had to be “fixed.” Because I was compulsively reacting to things that bothered me, I had to immediately eliminate the thing making me uneasy. There was no space to step back and let it go.

My spices were way more organized than this.
Image credits: Pixabay (CC0 license)

Exposure therapy

When my husband (then boyfriend) moved in with me, I experienced mild shock for a few months. I knew I couldn’t ask him to live by my unreasonable standards because I realized they weren’t helpful. But the fact that things were not in the way I liked them really bothered me.

I now understand that I was basically going through exposure therapy. I was being faced with the things that caused me stress, and little by little, their strength over me subsided. I didn’t have to fix things right away because even if things were not perfect, that was okay. Nowadays we have a reasonably tidy home, unbearably messy according to my previous standards but reasonably organized according to my current ones.

I still sometimes get annoyed by a messy pile of boxes or clothes, but I no longer react to the compulsive pull to fix it immediately. Instead, I can say, “Hey, I don’t like that pile over there, can you please take care of it?” and sooner or later, he’ll do it. Or, if it’s something I need to take care of it, I’ll set aside time on my calendar when I can tackle the issue.

The intentional approach to tidying & organizing

The goal is not to feed the compulsory need to tidy up immediately. Instead, the idea is to reflect purposefully on what we’d like and how we can make that happen.

I appreciate that about Marie Kondo’s method: she encourages people to think about what they want to keep and what they don’t, how they want to make use of their space and how they want their home to feel. It’s not about being super strict and keeping everything perfect all the time; rather, it’s about treating our home and our possessions with intention.

In the end, I am watching Tidying up with Marie Kondo. It has inspired me to clean out/organize a couple of areas of our home, but the effect has been very different from before. Instead of turning into the “fixing monster,” I’m much gentler to our home and to myself. My guiding goal is to make the space more pleasant, cozy, and usable instead of needing to eliminate and make it good enough, as though it wasn’t good enough already. And, most of all, I am grateful for such a wonderful home.

What do you think about tidying up? Do you have a tidying monster within, or are you quite content with how things are? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

The Joy of the Annual Review

One of my favorite events of the year just took place: Are you thinking of New Year’s Eve? Well, you almost got it…

My eternal love goes to the Annual Review. This is the wonderful time of year when I look back on the year that just passed and then look forward to the year that is to come. It’s a time for reflection on the recent past and crafting of the future.

The structure of the Annual Review

The Annual Review consists of three main parts:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What would I like for next year?

Reflect on the past year

I make a list for each point. Often we forget many of the things we did over the course of a year, so I remind myself of what has happened over the past 12 months. I look through my calendar and at the outputs of my Monthly Reviews. I also look at my list of goals for 2018 which resulted from my previous Annual Review.

For instance, some things that went well for me this year were:

  • Publication of my first paper (yay!)
  • Completed a Dutch course
  • Completed three strength training programs
  • Completed my 2019 Reading Challenge
  • Got engaged (yay!!!)

There are also things that didn’t go so well for me, for example:

  • Didn’t meditate consistently every day (went off track sometimes)
  • Got stressed and didn’t see things in perspective at times

I should note that I add to both lists as I think of stuff. It’s helpful to first think about things that went well and then about things that didn’t go so well, but it’s also fine to add things to either list as they come up in your mind. After all, it’s an organic process.

Reflection is just like fireworks: glamorous and awesome.
Photo by
Javon Swaby from Pexels

Plan the upcoming year

Then, I move on to planning the upcoming year. Again, I look at the calendar and think about what I will do when, approximately, and how the year would unfold. Most importantly, I think about what I’d like to focus on at different times throughout the year (e.g., different work projects, quality time with family, skill development, or travel).

I make a list of the things I’d like to accomplish during the upcoming year. My list for 2019 contains, among others:

  • Write a paper for my second project (now completed)
  • Begin third project (new)
  • Give bootcamp on Personal Organization
  • Play the piano at least 3 times per week
  • Meditate every day, even if only for 1 minute
  • Get married!

Review your list once a month

Once you make your list, make sure you review it often, around once per month. I do this as a part of my Monthly Review, but you could also do it if you put your list above your desk or on your fridge door. In this way, you will come back to the goals you set for yourself, and they will actually be useful.

The first time I did an Annual Review (in 2014), I made a to do list for 2015, and guess when I looked at it? At my 2015 Annual Review. Needless to say, that wasn’t super useful. While I had accomplished many of the items on it, I had completely forgotten about others. That’s why I recommend checking the list more often.

Reflect and plan based on priorities

As a part of my Annual Review, I consider my priorities. I reflect on the extent to which I’ve acted according to my priorities during the past year. In thinking about the upcoming year, I consider what actions I can introduce or adapt to in order to better fit my priorities.

By breaking things down like this, you get much more concrete insights because the priorities are the different categories, or themes, of your life. If you wonder, “What would I like to improve next year?” this question may be too vague to prompt any meaningful insight. But if you ask, “How would I like to connect with my family more next year?” you may get much more specific, and thus useful, answers.

Concluding remarks

Reflect together with a friend

As an extra bonus, ask a close friend or significant other to join you in your Annual Review quest. While I’ve done this by myself in the past, this year I did it together with my fiancee. This turned out to be a lot of fun! We asked each other questions and in many ways enriched each other’s reflection and idea generation. It was very pleasant and eye-opening to reflect on the past year together with someone else.

Resources

I’m very grateful for information on the Annual Review by James Clear and Chris Guillebeau. Check out how they do their annual reviews for some slightly different implementations. James also includes a section called “What have I learned [from the past year]?” and Chris shares a cool spreadsheet where he tracks his progress towards his goals as the year progresses.

Until next year, my dear Annual Review…

And this is it for the annual review. While I wish I could do it more often because I enjoy this time of reflection so much, the annual review takes place once per year by definition. In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with mediocre Weekly Reviews and slightly special Monthly Reviews… *sigh*

If you have no idea what I’m talking about or would like to know more, you can check out my description of my Review System.

So, did you try to Annual Review? What insights did you reach? What are you planning for next year? And, most importantly, did you enjoy it?
Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How to Be Organized and Spontaneous

Make room for spontaneity. And also: how freedom radiates from your calendar.

Yesterday, I gave a workshop at Donders Discussions about priorities and personal organization. I received lots of positive feedback as well as one of the most common questions: How can you be spontaneous if you plan out your time?

It certainly seems like a contradiction. How can we be spontaneous and follow a schedule at the same time?

When somebody is being spontaneous, she is being free, playful, unburdened by the world’s troubles and expectations. It’s a break from the constant cycle of working, doing, and pleasing. It’s refreshing.

Perhaps even more importantly, being spontaneous reminds us that we are in control. The idea is that if we are spontaneous, we can do whatever we want to whenever we want to. Our to-do lists and calendar appointments often feel oppressive, as though we’re subdued by outside forces, and we can only just bear the pressure. At the first moment when we can break loose, we leap into the air and do something spontaneous.

A way to bring some balance is to schedule time to be spontaneous. It sounds strange, but it’s crucial if you’re trying to be organized. What I’ve seen happen again and again is that people fill up all of their waking hours with work, errands, and things that are good for them. Unfortunately, then there’s no time left to let their soul dance. This leads to rebelling against the system they’ve established and giving it up altogether. Now, this is not helpful. The best system is the one that makes you more productive and does not feel oppressive but rather is sustainable. Such a system must include time when you can let go.

I usually keep 30-60 minutes every evening for doing whatever I feel like at that time. I make sure I’m done with all the tasks and activities for the day about an hour before I go to bed, and then I have time to do whatever I feel like. That usually turns into reading a book, watching a show, or talking to my boyfriend. In this way, I make sure I can let go for some time every day.

On the weekend, I make sure I have a longer block of time, such as an afternoon and/or evening, for doing whatever I want. Usually that turns into going for a hike, reading a book, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends. I had high hopes for this unstructured time: I imagined I would paint or go to concerts. But I realized that less glamorous activities such as hiking or reading a book make me immensely happy. This is just me. It’s important to figure out what makes you happy and what you like to do in your free time.

Remember: schedule free time.

Image from Chris Ford (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This is only one aspect of the problem, however. The main issue is that we see our tasks and appointments as oppressive, which creates the need to rebel against them. For example, if we are privileged enough, we have chosen the job we’re currently doing. We have chosen to buy groceries and cook dinner. We have chosen to have a family to take care of. These are not things that have been forced upon us; for the most part, they are the result of our own choices.

This is why priorities are so helpful. By setting and reviewing your priorities, you can remind yourself of the things you’ve chosen as important for yourself. For instance, when my work gets difficult or stressful, I go back and remind myself why I wanted to do this job in the first place. If I am tired and don’t want to cook dinner, I remind myself that I want to feel good and take care of my body.

Remembering our ‘why’ makes us feel like a powerful agent again instead of a helpless victim thrown about by circumstances and external expectations. For the most part, our tasks and activities are a result of our choices and thus should reflect our priorities. If not, we need to make a change.

Once you see your to-do list and calendar as reflections of your priorities and not as things you simply have to do, spontaneity begins to lose its appeal. If you’re already doing things you want to do during most of your day, you don’t need to break free and be spontaneous in order to feel like you have a choice in your life. You know you have a choice, and this is reflected in your daily activities.

In fact, you don’t want to break free anymore. Because what you put on your calendar is a reflection of your freedom to choose. Your freedom radiates from your calendar.

What do you think? Will you schedule free time now? I do you want free time to be completely free and unscheduled? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.