15 November 2010

Three essential tools for clearing mental clutter

Thanks to ad partner FM and sponsor Microsoft and Windows Phone 7, I've been invited share my take on the concept of "More With Less."

There is so much I could say about how "more with less" has applied to my life, especially during this last year. I'll try to resist the urge to get philosophical and stick closer to the spirit of Parent Hacks, which is practicality. In practice, nowhere has "more with less" has been more obvious than in my ongoing mission to declutter.

If you're a fan of productivity/lifehacking/getting organized blogs, you've probably read your share of "declutter-and-change-your-life" manifestos. The promise is that when you get rid of stuff you don't want, need, or use, you'll be rewarded with free time, a pleasing home, and mental clarity. Less stuff, more happy. The message is seductively simple. The follow-through? Hard. Especially when you're wrangling little ones who conspire to interrupt your sleep, complicate your schedule and toss Cheerios onto every horizontal surface in your life.

In the last six months, I've made remarkable headway in my quest to declutter. I owe some of my success to timing: my kids are now past Cheerio-throwing age. But I've also discovered that, before I could declutter our various bulging closets, I had to clear out the most overstuffed container of all: my mind.

The chronic distraction and forgetfulness often pegged as "mommy brain" isn't just a consequence of sleep deprivation. For me, it's what happens when one mind is responsible for handling the details of three lives: mine and my kids'. Too much input, too many variables, changing too quickly, and brain goes BOOM.

As such, every time I tried to do something declutter-y like clear out old toys or organize the linen closet, my mind would revolt long before I finished the job. And you know what half-finished decluttering projects produce: more clutter.

What changed? I finally put tools and systems in place to support my poor, overtaxed brain. More importantly, I've made an in-sickness-and-in-health commitment to using these tools every day:

My calendar

Everything with a date or time associated with it goes into my calendar. And I mean everything. All the obvious stuff (appointments, classes, birthdays), plus the stuff I figured I'd just remember but never do (when my friend expected results of a troubling medical test, when to give my dog his monthly flea medication, when to send more lunch money to school with my daughter).

Now, the parts of my brain formerly devoted to sorting and remembering obscure dates (when's the field trip again?) can rest, secure that something much more reliable is on the job. Plus, by constantly interacting with my calendar, the dates are reinforced in my memory -- which makes tracking it all that much easier.

The key: your calendar must be with you at all times. I use an iPhone synced with Google Calendar, but any paper or electronic calendar will work just as well.

My to-do list

While my calendar provides the big-picture view of my week, my to-do list helps me navigate each day. If your experience of parenting is like mine, the logistical variables change too quickly to map neatly onto a schedule. My to-do list has become the viewfinder for all those moving targets, large and small, that need my attention now, at a fixed point in the future, or someday.

I have found that an electronic to-do list is more useful than a paper version because I can sort and manage so much more information. When I find myself with ten minutes of free time (in a waiting room, say), I find myself making lists: gift ideas, quick pantry meals, my Life List, etc. Because I use an app for the job (Things for the iPhone), the lists have somewhere to live; in the past, my jotted-down paper lists would die a meaningless death at the bottom of my purse.

As with my calendar, the act of writing these lists forces me to break tasks into component steps, and gives me a clearer picture of my responsibilities. And it frees me from the overhead of having to remember it all. And, every time I do something, I get the visceral satisfaction of checking the "Done" box (we parents need to take props wherever we can get them).

My ability to delegate

The mental space created by my calendar and to-do list has prepared me for the most powerful tool of all: delegation. I've already got some paid help including a housecleaner and a neighborhood babysitter for our weekly date night. But in the midst of mental chaos, delegating chores to my kids felt like too much work. Shortsighted, foolish, irresponsible, even, but true.

Now that I've learned how to break my own tasks into simpler steps, I can help my kids do the same. Now that I've practiced using my beloved brain-support tools, I can create simpler versions for my kids. Again, timing helps: they are old enough to pitch in. But it also turned out I needed to strengthen my own skills  before I could teach them to my kids. Too bad: this job would have been much easier for all of us had we started years earlier. (Take note, parents of toddlers.)

So, if you find yourself trying to declutter your garage for the umpteenth time, take a step back and assess your cluttered mind. That may be the most important place to start.

What's your Parenthacker take on "more with less"? For me it's about mental hygiene, but what about for you?

The giveaway has ended. Thank you to all who participated.

And now for the goodie part: the Windows Phone 7 giveaway! The contest runs from 11/15/10-11/29/10. ONE winner will be chosen at random on November 30, 2010. You may enter once per day each day the contest is open.

This giveaway is brought to you by the new Windows Phone 7. Less MIA. More PTA: Learn about Windows Phone online and see it in person at local T-Mobile stores today.

Be sure to read the official eligibility requirements and contest rules before you enter. Important highlights: The contest is only open to residents of the United States and the District of Columbia who are 18 and older. Comments must be between 25 and 250 characters in length.  There are over 50 other sites participating, so you can enter there as well. Good luck!

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For me it's about not trying to overschedule the days. One outing or activity is all we can handle with little ones.

For me, it's about simplifying the little things -- we use 1 soap for the whole family, 1 bottle of shampoo, everybody wears white socks, everybody wears white underwear & undershirts (so laundry is streamlined), we roate 21 meals in the same order every 3 weeks ... if there's any way I can simplify an operation, I try to do it.

Doing more with less....for holiday gifts!
I think that sentimental gifts are the most memorable way to do more with less. My favorite gifts are photo calendars, filled with memories. These are easy and affordable, and can be tailored for families and friends.
Lastly, don't forget to spend a little something for those who can't spend - whether it is adopting a family for a holiday or buying something small for a toy drive. When I was little, I was the recipient of a secret toys-for-tots gift (I had no idea where it came from, it was left at my doorstep), and it helped me continue believing in Santa although my family was not able to afford gifts that year!

I'll be different. It's about the kitchen counter. If it's cluttered, I have no chance of uncluttering anything else.

The shredder - most every document I need is online in some form or other - bank statements, old tax returns etc so I shred shred and shred, I've freed up about half of my basement and filed the rest, it's great and makes me feel so much more organized! I can't afford a smart phone but would dearly love to have a calendar with me wherever I go!

Last year, on one side of the family, we opted out of Xmas gifts entirely and planned a trip together instead. It was one of the best decisions we've ever made!

If I can get rid of physical clutter, it helps clear me mentally!

it's true uncluttering your mind helps. also, not piling crap all over my dining room table which is my landing pad for most everything!

More with less for me is all about toys. My kids don't need a whole bunch of toys to have fun. My 3 year old's favorite toy right now is a piece of ribbon.

We simplified our menu planning. We eat pretty much the same thing every week. Less variety equals way more freedom right now, and it's a very good tradeoff for our family. The kids like the predictability, while my wife and I like not having to put a lot of effort into planning shopping or agonize each night over what to cook.

Combo of Google Calendar and Toodledo (todo list + notepad), both synced through to every device I own and every computer at which I work. No matter where I am when I need to know something and/or need to add something, my e-brain is always there and synced up.

for me it's about the old mantra of 'reduce, reuse, recycle'... making your THINGS as useful as possible for as long as possible.

I have way too many products in my bathroom and my closet. So I've given myself incentives for using up what I've got - no new clothes until I reach my desired weight, and no bathroom remodeling project until I finish every last bottle of shampoo, bath soap, toner, cellulite-fighting body lotion. I also think of how the French would do it. Which multi-tasking product or wardrobe staple would pass muster with Juliette Binoche?

Doing More With Less: Reusable grocery bags. It's environmentally friendly, it cuts down on the clutter of plastic bags and, because they're cloth and comfortable, I can haul more things in fewer bags, which cuts down on the time I spend bringing groceries and such into the house.

I find making the distinction between things I can (personally) change vs. system-wide battles, and trying to check off the former while accepting the latter helps.

Organizers and containers save my life! They hide the clutter and keep everything organized. Stress for me stems from not being able to find things. Whether it is work or my child (sometimes I lose them on purpose, just joking…), I need a handle on organization

With 2 little ones (3 tears and 3 months), I am trying to learn how to expect less from myself. And forgive myself if I don't gt my whole list done everyday. As long as everyone is fed and had all the love and attention they need, the day is a success!

I think you can live your life to the fullest with less distractions.

Lately I've been focusing on reusing or re-purposing items already in our possession instead of going out to buy something new. It helps us save money and it keeps our home less cluttered.

For me, more with less is all about using what we already have or what we can get for free these days. With the holidays around the corner I'm trying my best not to spend an extra cent anywhere I don't have to!

for me it's a goal - but I'm certainly not there yet!

I have found that if I turn off the computer, I can get soooo much more done. The internet can be a great time saver, but an even bigger time waster.

As I tell my three daughters: I can only do one thing at a time. And if I remember that, I get more done with less stress.

For me it's about buying less, less things, and more value on what we have or can reuse.. Buying less food and finding more nutrition and activities in the art of cooking with the family not only are we over burdened with stuff and things but we've also been filled with junk from stomach to closet. Time to step back and start over..

I am at the other end of the spectrum. My parents have become my children. So decluttering my mind is important and I like your idea of adding everything to a calendar.

I think making sure that we focus on getting things that we really need is important to having more with less.

Most definitely make lists, lots and lots of schedules and lists. I have actually written on previous schedules, time to make a new schedule. And once I do that, my day seems to run much more smoothly. However I don't like to spend money on crazy palm pilots and such, I like the simplicity and readily duplicate copying ability of Post-its. Call me old-fashion :)

This doesn't answer the question, sorry, but it reminded me I've always meant to thank you for a Parenthacks tip that has helped me so much: creating a "Possibilities" Google calendar to remind me of things going on that we aren't committed to, but would be fun if we're free and everybody's ready for an activity.

Now I guess I'd better answer the question: I do more with less by realizing our house has finite square footage and getting new furniture to solve organizational issues doesn't help. I have figured out ways to repurpose CD towers, desk hutches, shelving units, and more. Takes some imagination, but ultimately it's easier and less wasteful than getting rid of furniture that's outlived its original purpose and then acquiring new stuff.

I'm a google calendar/Gmail addict. I often email myself notes or passwords because I know I can always access my email and search for whatever it is I'm looking for.

With less money to spend on groceries, we decided to plant a garden full of veggies. Since mid simmer, we've noticed a difference in the bottom line. Also, we eat healthier. So, more goodness for less.

keeping the entry way uncluttered. it's so hard to do but makes such a big difference.

I have been meal planning every week. When I have a week that works well (new recipes are loved, similar ingredients) I keep that "set" which includes recipes and grocery list. I'm hoping after doing this for a while, I will have enough ready meal plans, that I no longer need to meal plan!

Like you, I've ditched most paper calendars/reminders and moved EVERYTHING onto a bunch of combined Google calendars. It's amazing how much that simplified things.

for me, doing more with less involves trying to ensure that things have multiple uses. It's a philosophy that I originally took from Alton Brown (who hates one use kitchen items) and now try to apply to all things in my life.

More fun with less toys. It really is possible, and really does work. Now if I could only convince the grandparents...

When we lived in a 1bed condo, we started the 1-in-1-out policy. Anything we brought home had to have an empty/shelf drawer for it or something else had to go to make room. It just becomes a habit. It made us stop to think before we bought something, "Where are we going to put it? What are we going to give up to make room?"

That works with calendars, too. Start with an empty calendar. All downtown would be first be filled with things like "Relax" and "Hang with Family." If you want to add some activity, you'll see that you have to remove one of your "relax" hours in order to do it.

We also schedule straightening up time, that we do as a family. Not as much of a drudge if you do it all together.

Doing more with less. for me it's many things.
- Reuse, reuse, reuse...when possible
- Cook more, eat out less
- etc.

"More with Less" for me means using what we have. I try not to run out and buy something new before trying to use what we have in the house first. For example, not buying new mittens for my toddler when I could easily knit a pair with some leftover yarn. Keeps costs AND clutter down!

When I was a new mom, I didn't realize how much stuff we would buy just for fun. Now that I have 5 children, I realize that it is too hard to stay organized in our home when we have too much stuff. The less we have, the less time we have to spend cleaning, and the more time we can spend doing fun things together as a family.

I agree entirely about mental clutter being a root problem for me (and how my house operates). With a preschooler, toddler, and impending baby, I really miss the opportunities for reflection that my earlier adult life offered. On the other hand, I now greatly appreciate a few silent moments when my thoughts can flow without a request for more milk or a ground skirmish over a toy.

A critical question for me lately has been high tech versus low tech (as in "Will this task be best served by a high tech or low tech solution?"). This quick evaluation yields surprising results. Addressing baby shower envelopes when I already have a spreadsheet of guests seems like a high tech no-brainer, but factoring in my perfectionism in print materials I know it will take me over an hour longer to create a satisfactory file and then manually feed all the envelopes through our aging printer. Low-tech wins because I have decent handwriting and can whip a 30 longhand envelopes in about half an hour. Holiday greeting cards will get the high tech compromise of sticky labels. I lose a little time to formatting, but don't have to wrestle everything through the printer.

Cooking dinner every night (which simplifies our routine and finances) has essential high tech components. By using a menu planning service (relishrelish.com) that creates a sorted shopping list, we can plan a week's meals in minutes. We add a few other groceries to the list (in pencil). Jim and the kids go shopping, and I cook the meals. We rarely lack ingredients (a chronic problem before), and menu selection/list creation save us lots of time. We also eat a wider variety of dishes as we are not limited by my own culinary imagination.

I also use Google calendar for all kinds of reminders, but the to do lists and pocket calendars remain analog for the time being.

Prioritization of needs vs. wants is huge. Do I REALLY need new clothes for the winter or will they do just fine? Coming to terms with things like that lets you treat your family to things a bit greater than the "less" you've been carrying on with.

Living within or below your means, intentionally and not allowing your children or yourself to be overscheduled.

I get tons of clutter on the countertop from just the mail. I've started going through the mail and right when I bring it in. I open it, and if it's a bill, I enter it right into my online bill pay and file it. If it's an invitation, write it straight onto the calendar and throw it away etc. I have a special inbox where I keep things that need attention later. Dealing with it straight away has helped my counter top not become a clutter zone.

It's all about lists.

Donate or Keep? I've chosen to give more away than to keep. Really gives me a fulfillment that cluster does sitting around! That's one less thing on my TO-DO-LIST..

I reuse and repurpose almost everything!!! :D

I love organizing and being organized, but find that I'm better off if I use the time/space/tools that I have, rather than succumbing to the temptation to buy some great new organizational tool that will solve all of my problems. Of course, a smartphone probably would really solve all of my problems ;-)

I love the idea of getting rid of everything: ah, simplicity. But reality is a whole 'nother topic. Sometimes I feel that twinge of regret right as I throw away the offending items (especially if they belong to my husband). Should I have kept it? Will my life be ruined now?
Thanks for the inspiration!



We don't have a lot of storage space in our house, so as soon as something is past its prime use, it goes. I donate things to charities, to other friends as hand-me-downs, or it gets tossed in the trash. Not much hangs out here.

I at least try to keep surfaces clear in my house. My husband has a tendency to cover every bare surface, which just makes me insane.

Usually I love technology hacks, but I just can't get with electronic to-do lists. A little post-it is so much more satisfying--I scribble my task down right away, I get it done, and the thrill of physically throwing away the day's post-it is so much better than just clicking "done." Ok, so most days I end up transferring some items to the next day's post-it, but at least the act of writing helps me focus on the task!

For me it's about not committing to things in the first place- there's a lot of freedom in the word no!

getting rid of distractions is huge. But I can't wholesale turn off the internet, because that is my information resource for my job (I am a student studying for my ph.d. in science). I've found the Firefox addon Leechblock to be helpful in curtailing my recreational surfing (ie keep me the hell off of facebook).

Right now I use a paper calendar, but would love to have Windows phone to help with the clutter. I spent the day filing tax papers and going through magazines to take to the hospital and doctr waiting rooms.

For me, it is all about the planner. I carry mine where ever I go. All of us have a different color (there are 5 of us plus one for my brother in law who is an occasional sitter). I can see where the conflicts may come up while scheduling, and keeps me on track with my event days.

I also love other gifts you can make. Ive bought fairly cheap picture frames and made collages of me and that person.

Doing more with less means not buying a bunch of new stuff -- finding ways to repurpose and take care of what we have. Old shaggy sweaters make wonderful winter pillow covers, for example. We purge regularly, make sure any clothes are clean and donate whatever we can so things can be USED and not just buried.

In our recent move, I really questioned all of the items I owned and the purpose it serves me. As a result, those things I hold onto "just in case" but I havent used yet were donated or recycled. It wasnt a perfect process and I feel like I still have things I don't need, but I feel like such a weight is lifted from me! Getting rid of "stuff" really has given me peace of mind and I feel like I can do more as a result. Thanks for the opportunity.

Mental hygiene: love that phrase. I think so much better once I've got everything organized in my head, which usually means putting it on paper first.

Over the course of my work day, I use three different desks and computers - home and two jobs. I love love love MS OneNote. I carry it on a flash drive and can drop myself a note any time, all day long :)

Shopping online lets me compare reviews, which helps me avoid wasting money and cluttering my house with junk. Plus, I often find that if I can have it now-now-now because of the shipping time, the impulse to buy goes away.

Saving money and handmade gifts this Christmas equals holiday vacations. it's gonna be a fun holiday season with the family this year. Will be even better with the windows phone. ;)

Keeping little things cleared out is key. Clutter breeds more clutter (in our house at least). If I can keep the kitchen island clear, the rest of the kitchen stays clear, and it keeps a better attitude of tidiness throughout the house. But leave some mail on the island, then the lunchboxes pile on, then the recycles don't go out, then it quickly spirals out of control through the rest of the kitchen and throughout the house as they all say "why bother?" when asked to pick up their socks.

Bulk purchasing is big for my family. Too many trips to the store of the day are big time wasters whether the kids go with you or not!

Invest in a 2nd freezer, join a warehouse club and buy in bulk. As long as it it used eventually it is the way to go.

I think it's all about realizing that less other obligations (extracurriculars, social outings, commitments) provide more family time with who/ what really matters. Decluttering your life if you will...

For me, it's picking 3 things I have to do every day and doing them. No more than 3 or else it too easily becomes overwhelming.

I am in a constant struggle to declutter and organize my mind and physical space. I have just started using the calendar on my phone to make a positive start in getting everything in line.

I am all about taking a cat nap in the middle of the day to organize my thoughts :)

This phone would be great to archive my recipes and have it on hand when I’m cooking. O.K maybe not on hand, but right there on the counter.

For me the key to decluttering is learning how and when to say "no".

I go in cycles with the mental and physical clutter. I'll be swept up in the de-cluttering project on a weekend, and maybe I'll be good till Wednesday, and then it all just falls apart. Sigh. I guess I just need to maximize those inspired weekends.

If I have leftover sauerkraut after cooking with it, I call up my pal Saul, and we make ruben sandwiches. Great way to do more with less with Sauerkraut Saul!

I just put all of my leftovers into a blender and chug them until I am satisfied. Mmmm leftover smoothie, so smooth ;)

My parent hack is that I use my current phone to keep todo's based on location. when I am near that location, my phone alerts me of things to do in that area. Currently working on a similar app for WP7, so if I win, bonus I can test it on live hardware!

I love your idea of mental decluttering. For me, doing more with less means, simply, doing less. Is that class important? Is that assignment worth it? Would we really enjoy ourselves at that party? Do the kids really want to go to the museum, or do they need a day at home in their PJs? We say no whenever we can and save our energy for the important, family-oriented things.

Mental clutter...I'm drowning in it!

My calendar and my cell phone are the 2 things that I rely on heavily to stay on task and keep focused. And when I'm at home, stay off the phone and away from the computer.

Doing more with less sometimes means working on the go. Which is where my laptop and a good smartphone comes in handy. Go windows phone

I use the old adage if you haven't thought about using it in 6 months or used it in a year then give it away. If you don't love it then dont buy it. If you can't find a home for it in your home in your mind then dont buy it. My easiest tip - don't bring the mail in your house. Go to the mailbox - sort the mail on your way back in (recycle, shredded or keep). Most of our bills are electronic now but we still get a lot of mail.

Google calendar(synced phones, for appointments & special dates), & the catch.com notes app (for todo lists, notes, reminders). Both of these have optional sharing to stay on the same page. Our Groceries app helps, too!

We use Microsoft OneNote and its great shared notes features to stay organized.

I am trying to declutter our house, we just have too much stuff for our house. I am trying to make sure everything has a place, and if it doesn't then I am looking at if we really need it or not.

I get more (of the important stuff) done by doing less (of the unimportant stuff)... and I've accomplished this by learning to say NO. No, I can't be in charge of the neighborhood Christmas event. No, we can't make it to every party we're invited to. That allows me to say yes to the things I really want to do!

I love using an online calendar system, one for me, one for kids, one for work one for sports. Helps my brain process the millions of requests, and dates that are thrown at me daily. I also started printing out a monthly calendar for my four year old so she can track the days and know what's happening and prepare herself.

It's helped simplify life incredibly.

Gifts - that's one place. We're trying to simplify with fewer gifts that mean more or are useful.

For me - I want to have my life easy to access in one place - I carry a smartphone and keep my details there. It's a lot easier than wondering if I put an event on a particular calendar or not. I also appreciate the reminders. Plus, with a good task app, I can keep track of what I'm getting done and what I'm not.

And finally for meals - we plan out our menus to minimize eating out and to make sure that someone can take care of the meal if the other gets delayed for some reason.

We are living this concept now as we have recently become a one income family. I do my best to stretch the budget with menu planning and coupon clipping. You would be surprised how much that saves for us!

i need serious help to unclutter my carry around suitcase needed to keep my life in order. a new phone with all these features would be a saviour! to my brain and my back!!

cutting back on the insanity, dont try to do too many things at once and making realistic goals

We recently moved back to my home town and have half of our things in storage. Funny thing is, even though we only have a fraction of our "things" with us, I don't seem to miss the things we don't have.

By using Quick Steps in Microsoft Outlook, I do more and do it quicker.

I like the TO DO list, but I especially need to cross off the unnecessary or never-going-to-happen items. Then I can know I've chosen not to do them and I can mentally let them go.

Trying to recycle and reuse and declutter my home. Make my own soap and cleaning products.

I try to do a lot of my shopping online. A lot of times, I'll get so involved with reading reviews, the buy-it-now impulse will pass and I realize I don't really need it. Fewer purchases = less clutter and more money in the bank.

Hmm, just realized that was similar to my tip from the other day. Here's a new one: I've been trying to give "event ticket" type gifts for birthdays and holidays. It creates nice memories, and doesn't get left on the floor for me to pick up later.

Whenever I get mail, I am typically very disappointed. It is usually junk mail, with the occasional "suspicious package." What I usually do is keep a sort of "incinerator" out back to burn all of my junk mail. Great way to do less with more!

Knowing when to say no to invitations or events.

I'm all about replacing my stone-age phone with a revolutionary one. And I'm sure with it, i'll be doing more in less time. Thanks for the giveaway.

I need to spend some time everyday to remind myself that life isnt overwhelming, a deep breath to remind myself to keep everything in perspective and things arent that bad

I think that lists lists lists and lists are the best way. The GTD process of organizing, and getting it out of your head works well for nearly everyone.

Calendars are a huge help. And the Outlook Quickstep is a great shortcut tool that helps me quickly create some of my common tasks, appointments, and emails while on the go. The win phone 7 will be a great mobile tool to aid in this

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