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!

Related: More productivity tips

Your comments

Feed Follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

For me, "more with less" is about stress reduction...I don't have to keep up with all of the different things in my life and constantly feel I am forgetting something if I can get by with less and enjoy it more!

Being creative with what we have is how we stay away from too much clutter. Cutting the bottom off of a bucket and hooking it to a tree makes for a great basketball hoop!

"More with Less," (to me) means getting the most out of life with the least amount of wasted time, energy and resources. Like Asha said, keeping a calendar helps with the mental organization, but even things like recycling everyday items into new toys or gadgets is a great help!

When I am desperate for some retail therapy, I go online and fill the virtual cart to my heart's content... racking up thousands of dollars worth... and then I close the window without checking out. By the time I'm done, I've convinced myself that I don't need ANY of that stuff!

Try not to over schedule or commit to events or activities. They often involve more than just time.

I need to corral all of the info - 3 kids, mine, my husbands... from all of the craz calendars and notes into one space! And then And then there is the rest of the family; parents, cousins, etc... would love this giveaway!!

For me, it all comes down to planning. If I plan my time well, I can do more in less time. If I plan meals ahead, I can do more with less waste.

This looks like a really good phone to have :)

doing more with less is about staying organized so that i can multitask
k k g r a y 8 8 @yahoo

I'm still trying to declutter the horizontal surfaces, everything I touch seems to float to a surface instead of finding a "home". Digitizing things has helped some, so I don't have little notes everywhere.

I try to keep the stuff in our house to a minimum, thinking strategically about everything having a place, making kids stuff accessible to them (which means they can clean it up), and letting go of the things that are no longer meaningful/needed.

I do more with less by combining my errands into one drive and trip so I save gas. An example would be going to the store, post office and barbershop in one trip, rather than going at different times of the week. This way, I can do more with the money I have because of the less money I have to spend on gas! Hope I win!

I used to check my email through a browser; a few months ago I started using an email client. Now I can check all my email accounts at the same time! That's doing more with less!

Organization frees up space, time, and resources. If everything has a place, anyone in the family can find it quickly, so we don't need to waste time hunting for things or replacing them unnecessarily. Unfortunately, this is often more of a goal than a reality in our house but we are working in that direction.

This phone is amazing! I’ll be able to get so much more done with less when I get a smart phone.

I think we should spend more time talking and listening to our kids and less time worrying about what they're thinking.

I attempt to remain unclutterd in an effort to help my kids remain focused and relaxed!!

more with less for me is about using coupons and trying to get the best deal. I always ask myself..Do I really need this?? And If so can I wait until it goes on sale. I have saved so much using coupons which has helped me to have extra money to get other things that I need


I also use an "electronic brain." My cell phone has a calendar with alarms and you can repeat the alarm for years. So every recurring task is easily programmable with a musical reminder. I found if I just wrote it on a calendar I would forget to look at it. So this way my phone trills at me and reminds me of any task which needs remembering. ;)

I go into stores less often and find that I can do with out items I really don't need.

For me the 'economic downturn' has helped to force me to simplify and streamline everything. Dinner is 'what we got', there's always ingredients for soup it you keep a pantry stocked (breakfast can also be a great dinner) Movies are what's free at the library. No cable=no cable bill, etc. I use a paper wall calendar, a little one so I can throw it in my bag as I go. I have 'business hours'(for me it's 5am -10am) i.e. the time in which I take care of all the awful chores that I hate, at the end of business I 'close shop'. I do carry over the 'undone' on a paper checklist (I use a sheet a day desk calendar as my scratch pad/to-do list, it's a big block of paper, easy to locate) I find you don't actually 'have to' do most of what you have to do, and you don't actually need most of what you 'need'. For me the kids benefit from a lower stress level from mom and the opportunity to be creative and contribute to the family. This is just my experience. Not sure how it would work for everyone.

For me, "more with less" is all about finding ways to enjoy not having as much stuff as our friends and family. Boxes upon boxes of toys the kids never play with is clearly not as good as a small collection of toys with massive replay value. I try to apply this to my daddy gadgets, but I have more progress to make than my kids.

I want to get it for my wife, we are expecting our first child and this would be an awesome gift for her

Doing more with less could be decorating the christmas tree as a family. More work done in less time, and lots of family time together.

I give away whatever we don't need. Less clutter around the house.

More for less mean having an emergency kit in my car when I travel, and also carrying our own snacks and drinks so that we don't have to make expensive stops.

For me it's my wardrobe. I keep it very simple without being sloppy. I just try to take care of what I have and make it last so that we can use the money for my teenage girls to look cute and stylish! I am not tooting my own horn, trust me I have more magazine subscriptions than most people, but in this case for me less is better!

I like replacing many things with one multifunctional thing that takes less space and does more for me. For example I love how iPhone apps can do this. Bye bye alarm clock, boom box, day planner, mp3 player, dvd player, and so on. I've got all that in my pocket.

I'm determined to get more sleep. Going to bed earlier makes me feel like I have less time in which to get things done, but in truth I'm more productive when I'm well-rested.

Finding useful tools for organization are the best way to declutter my life. A simple basket for holding mail, or a closet shoe organizer for winter hats/mittens keeps our family a bit more sane.

We close comments after a month to guard against spam. Want to talk about this hack? Join us on Twitter and Facebook!


Free updates

  • Subscribers are my VIPs. My weekly newsletter includes a personal update, the latest from Parent Hacks, interesting links and news.

    Subscribers also get priority event invitations and occasional surprises via snail mail.

Asha's Book

  • At Amazon: Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less

    Find out why doing less is the key to resourceful, thriving kids, and a calmer, happier YOU.

    Minimalist Parenting is an encouraging roadmap for decluttering your schedule, your home, and your vision for family life. Reviewers call it "a much welcome alternative to the usual parenting advice."

    Learn More at Amazon

    Also available at Barnes & Noble or your favorite local bookstore.

New Book Coming Soon!

  • Coming soon: Parent Hacks Book

Start Amazon shopping here