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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I try to reduce my grocery-store trips. This forces me to use up all those random ingredients from the back of the pantry, so it's not such a mysterious jungle in there.

Write down everything. You WILL NOT remember it all later. The thing you had to do, the thing from the store you can't remember, who's birthday?

putting our feet down on too many little plastic toys that only get played with for a few days. books & art supplies & music only please!

I put all appointments, events, etc in my phone's calendar so that I can quickly check it and calm those "I"m forgetting something" fears.

I’ll be able to get more done with less by consolidating my devices when I get a Windows Phone.

Doing more with less is always important to my family. We got rid of several unnecessary expenses so that my husband could stay home with our son and finish school. We lived on a lot less, but were very happy.

I have learned to do more with less since I suffered a back injury and haven't been able to work. I don't miss a lot of the extras that I used to think I had to have.

I'm all about clutter reduction and just generally reducing the amount of STUFF in our lives. Buying less, buying used when possible and passing along old toys whenever we add new ones to the house. It's an ongoing battle!

Doing more for less means decluttering and utilizing what we do have, and having 'frugal' as a priority in most aspects of our life as a daily ongoing occurrence.

I do more with less by spending my time wisely with family, friends, and loved ones.

i found the planing ahead really help but also good not to plan to far ahead because i never know what could happen i say live life 2 days at a time.

I get more with less by doing comparison shopping using Bing.

I started using Mint.com, and it was shocking to see how much I was spending on workday lunches. I've been trying to pack my lunches more this year. I got this cute little box (http://www.amazon.com/Fit-Fresh-Lunch-Colors-Vary/dp/B000FNCS5M) which makes it fun and convenient to pack the night before and run out the door in the morning.

I'm all about doing more with less by using free tools such as the Google calendar to organize my day, week, month, year...need I go on!!!

My more for less: Bake family goodies instead of buying storebought. Make extra and freeze for later. Do the same for meals: cook more, freeze extras.

For me, it is know I do not have to do everything, but I can do a few things very well.

long term block schedules so i can plan in advanced fun time and busy times. i know it sounds nerdy but it works out and i am not a particularly spontaneous person

I try to stay out of the stores unless I need something and then I take a list and stick to it. I use the internet to search for the best price before I waste gas.

I read the grocery store weekly ads during my lunch break. That helps me plan out my grocery trip and gives me meal ideas, so I waste less time trying to think "what's for dinner."

I do more with less by using awesome phone apps. There are many useful, fun, and creative apps out there that help make life a little bit easier to manage.

I do more by sleeping less. It is amazing what you can get done in the morning without distractions.

I have been de-cluttering my house and being strict on not bringing anything into the house that I won't use all the time.

Doing more with less means creating a tight budget and sticking to it, avoiding impulse buys, and saving for rainy days. Peace of mind generates productivity.

We bought a smallish home (<1,000 square feet) for our three person family. It forces us to get by with less, and that is good. And our mortgage is affordable. :)

I try to clean up the house during TV commercial breaks.

I get more done by using the Microsoft Outlook junk filters to see less spam.

I do more with less by baking from scratch and cooking meals instead of grabbing fast food or eating out. It saves money, but it's also healthier.

I think I can have "more" with "less"...time. Even though I can't stay home all day and hang out with my 5 year old, I probably do more than I could ever imagine in the relatively small amount of time I get with him. He inspires me to be the best parent possible and I really do like it when he bugs me to play with him...even if I'm in the middle of working on a project at home.

I work for state government, so "more with less" feels like my life. In my home, going from one to three kids helped me think about what we need. I have tried to pare down the toys and other kid stuff, thinking about what the kids really enjoy and purging the rest. This way they get to see their toys instead of wading through tons of junk all the time.

Mental hygiene is IT!!! I feel crazy is a cluttered house. Home schooling 6 kids, my house can be just that. I hate to feel like a nag, but even the kids appreciate de-junking their own room, telling me how relaxing it is. I'm always looking for stuff to get RID OF! Where does it all come from anyway???

I get my screen more organized with less hassle using Windows 7’s Snaps feature.

I bring snacks with me everywhere, especially while travelling. This helps avoid the low-blood-sugar rush to a regrettable fast-food meal.

I use my calendar constantly, and another way we try to declutter is when something new comes in, something old must go out, whatever the new thing is it must serve 2 purposes, or be planned to use for a *very* long time so we don't have to keep buying stuff - I find this rule my dh came up with a good help with the baby things (2 dd's under 3) so we don't have a zillion pieces of gear that are only good for 3 months before getting the next size thing.

Strangely enough, one thing that has really helped me out is the WII. I have workout "games" for it and I do one as soon as the kids get on the bus.

I find if I start my day off doing something constructive, it seems to continue. When I start my day off lazily, I never get anything done that day. It also really simplifies because I can exercise at home and save all the time and money of driving back and forth to a gym.

For a family of 3 living in a very small apartment, "less" is what we've become accustom to for our sanity. Breathing room is important and we're all happier humans for it.

Doing more with less means keeping your cars as long as possible especially when they are paid off.

For me doing more with less is all about my impact on the world. I use less plastic by carrying more canvas bags. I mend whatever we can when it breaks. And we don't get gizmos we don't need. That said, I think I need a smartphone.

I try to plan in advance as much as possible.
k k g r a y 8 8 @yahoo

Happy Thanksgiving! I am thankful for people who put their hearts and souls into blogging for us! I am thankful that the giveaway is a phone as I am in real need of a new one.

Doing more for less means buying a gently used car that's been cared for and maintaining it carefully for another ten years.

during the holidays i give coupons for watch your kids for 1 hour or clean your house. its cheap and easy and everyone is happy

Happy Thanksgiving! During the holidays, when I'm camped out on so many deal sites, I make sure to keep an eye out for kid's books and toys. This helps stretch my giving-to-charity budget so I can donate more to Toys for Tots, school libraries, etc. Amazon has a Flat Stanley boxed set for $7.50 now!

Our family mantra is "At the end of the day, it's just us," meaning that no matter what other chaos is happening around us, we're still a family and that's what the most important thing is.

More with less makes me think of the air force motto, "work smarter not harder."

More for less: Host a get together with your friends and have a clothes swap ...exchange your don't-likes and never-worns for things you can use. Everybody wins!

Doing more for less is all about doing dishes before, during, and after thanksgiving dinner. Saves a lot of time the next day.

P.S. happy thanksgiving

I do more with less by cooking in big batches. Having precooked chicken and beef helps me get dinner on the table quicker! It is healthier than buying precooked preprocessed stuff but just as convenient.

I love using google calendar to help stay organized. Everything important I need to remember I put on there.

I do more with less redundancy by syncing my files using Windows Live Mesh.

Declutter has been the theme in my life the last couple months. Even if I can tackle one drawer per month, getting the crap that we don't need in the garbage makes me feel LIGHT. Also, those pesky McDonald's toys. I bought a "mom's manager" calendar last week and I'm dying to scribble all of our family events in it. Dying! (does that make me lame?)

doing more with less could mean budgeting and adhering to it. It allows us to save properly and spend wisely

Before birthdays and Christmas, I have the kids go through their toys and clothes to collect anything they don't want anymore and donate it to Goodwill or pass on to younger friends. Making room for the things they will receive eases my mind and helps clean up, too!

The best example is my computer. Who would have thought two decades ago that I could set appointments, make calls, video chat with someone overseas, have my schedule synced and accessible through the cloud, keep track of my flight, and watch movies!

m and ms are probably my favorite more with less candy. i use them to decorate cakes, i use them in counting games with kids, and they just taste good :)

I like to make lists so that I can plan ahead.
k k g r a y 8 8 @yahoo

My grandmother taught me to "save steps". During chore time around the house, always have something with you to be returned or replaced as you move from area to area and room to room.

I am trying to do more with less by entering to win wonderful freebies!

Doing more with less sometimes means reusing grocery bags, or buying the recyclable types and using those. Saves the environment and saves the grocery stores money, which in turn saves you money.

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood...for a new phone!

I recently chopped off 8 inches of hair, all the way up to my jawline. It's SO much quicker and easier to do my hair now, which leaves more time and patience for all the other million things every morning. Plus, it means I can't just toss my hair up in a ponytail every single day.

Many of us try to do more with less - not in the sense of cutting corners but rather to get the best result for our time/energy/money. That's why I love productivity sites; having two kids raises everything to the next level! I think WP7 devices are great and hope to get one soon.

This phone would help keep me organized so that I can do more with less!

One way we do more with less is with leftovers. Especially during Thanksgiving time. An example would be using ham for lunch sandwiches and using the leftover turkey for quesadillas or my favorite turkey and tortilla soup! The phone looks great!

more with less is definitely about organization for me
k k g r a y 8 8 @yahoo

How to do more with less? I have in my own house a soda vending machine, when I feel like drinking one, I buy one. At the end of certain period of time, I open the vending machine to recollect my profit!!!

Doing more for less means delegating more responsibilities to the kids so my time can be used more productively.

I really like keeping notebooks around for ideas. It doesnt cost much and it helps me later on when I am bored or uninspired to give me new ideas

I really wouldn't know what to do with an iPhone! I know I would love the calendar!!

I believe simple goals are the answer. Set small attainable goals, and set lots of them.

Since quitting my job this fall, we are living more with less everyday! Now that I have more time, I'm really working on attacking the sentimental clutter that builds up. I have two small children adopted from China and find myself drowning in doodads from the adoption trips, preschool art projects (each one more precious than the last), and all sorts of other goodies. I'm planning to have a more tidy approach to collecting sentimental items next year. Each kid will get a notebook and only the best of the best of each month will be saved to the notebook. All else will get recycled. Wish me luck!

I like to hang my hat on the concept that there is no such thing as "having time" when you're a parent. You have to make time. And making time, like crafting anything else, takes the right ingredients and the right system. Although everyone seems to have their own recipe (to greater or lessor degrees of success), the critical ingredient seems to be consistency. And the primary facet of any system being the understanding of opportunity cost.

For me, whenever I am asked to take on an additional responsibility, I examine where I can steal the additional time from. So I never add to my schedule, but simply manipulate what is already full calendar.

For my family, it's about more experiences with less "stuff". Reading together, walking, sledding, museums, board games. We cherish these times.

MOre with less is about simplifying my life

Keep your brain clutter-free by keeping your work space, house, and especially your bedroom entirely clutter-free. I don't always succeed at that, but it does always work when I do.

I've always subscribed to the "more with less" mentality. For parenting, it can be giving your kid a box instead of a toy; washing disposable diapers to save the environment; etc. But seriously, try to stay away from America's disposable mentality as much as possible... use what you have to make something great.

Although I work from home in the publishing industry, I don't print anything out anymore. Instead, I rely on scans, emails, and saved screenshots of receipts and other documents. I've even started a blog for my kids (who are 8) so that we can save and share their best artwork without feeling horrible for tossing (or losing) their "treasures."

I went from getting/sending 3 FedExes a day and stacks of paper everywhere to just me and my laptop. It helps to feel like I'm helping the environment at the same time that I'm decluttering my house and mind!

For me its about buying less stuff, especially "tech" stuff, and spending more time face to face with my family, vs. online.

Like many people, we had to get by with less money this year. So, with four kids, we try to buy used items instead of new items or wait for the items to go on sale (love those 40% Borders coupons).

To do more with less, we try to have less. We clear out a lot of toys by selling them on Craigslist or by donating them to a charity store. We also gather up all of the small toys to give to my sons' schools for use in classroom "treasure boxes."

Trying not to over-schedule and take a break, especially on some weekends... I like the concept to 'let go' and leave it up to the calendar.

Another "more with less" thing we do is abide by the idea of fewer things but of better quality. I'd much rather two lovely sweaters than a whole closetful of tops that don't flatter me. Although I admit it's tough to do with kids' clothes -- the stains!

I just pulled out our Christmas decorations and I'm so glad that last year I took the time to get rid of a bunch of decorations I never used or didn't like. Now there's just three very manageable tubs. It's great!

It's about curbing my Target habit. I was routinely dropping $150 a week on stuff we really didn't need. I've cut it back to once a month, go in with a set list, and am not persuaded by a pleading 4 yr old for another toy.

For me, it's about scheduling everyone in Google calendar and trying to minimize the paper pile-up.

Do more with your kids by doing less with TV! Not only are you helping them be healthier and smarter, but you're building relationships! No one ever lays on their death bed and says "I wish I watched more TV"!

For me it is about making more of my kids happy (there are 5) with less money.

we have very little space in our house, so for us it's all about making use of what little is available for play and activities. we pretty much have to move something to do any other thing!

Doing more with less: I'm on a pantry clean-out kick. No grocery store for me until all those aging boxes of couscous and off-brand pinto beans are cooked and eaten! More pantry space and more room in the grocery budget.

I need to schedule everything super-tight, as there's only about 2 hours for errands, dinner, homework, baths, and storytime between getting home and my kids' bedtime. That means being super organzied, and making sure I have my to-do list streamlined and available at all time.

clutter. i try to rid my life of it. it simplifies things in a way that is so freeing!

I'm in school full time with a 6 year old in Kindergarten. My schoolwork is pretty demanding, but I keep track of everything in an agenda. Instead of getting overwhelmed by all the insanity, I take things one week at a time.

It helps me tremendously!

I'm in the boat with the "less toys are more" theory. We could have just sealed up my daughter's toy bin and donated it because she's only been playing with the 4 toys and books that are on top anyway. She's 28 months old and we found toys at the bottom of the bin she's had since before she could crawl!

We're trying so hard to reduce clutter, but it seems like for everything we get rid of there's something new to replace it. The big thing for us is to make a list before going to the store and sticking to it, that way we're focused and not so distracted.

i recently read the book, "getting things done" - and i'm with you on the mental hygiene. i try to empty my brain of all the open loops - pending projects and ideas for projects, and then physically go through the list when i have time.

My wife and I both reduced our work schedules so that we can be home more with our daughter (I work two days and she works three days). I believe it's a great balance where I can have adult interactions but at the same time having quality time with my daughter. We don't make as much money as we possibly can but the pay back in worth so much more.

For me it's routine, once it's a routine I can do it without thinking about it, that and knowing what things I can let go and put off without being bounced out of my routine and what things I absolutely need to make time to get done so as to stay in the routine and not forget things.

More with less... Our family size has ebbed and flowed over the years with elder family members living with us and with the birth of our first and only child. While many families that we know are upgrading houses and cars, we have been able to maintain our family in the same home that we first purchased and with cars that are 5+ years old.

My desk is so covered with notes and to-do lists I don't know where to start. Maybe combine the lists into one? Maybe hide under the desk.

I agree with the physical decluttering first... want to see the inside of my mind? take a look at my kitchen countertop. :-)

Lately, we've taken a little break from all of the "extra" things. We're home schoolers and believe me when I say these kids do NOT need any more socialization. I'm thankful for a chance to wind down a little around the holidays and appreciate a little quiet.

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