Learning New Habits

If you have been reading my organizing tips for the past 6 months, you know that I have just emerged from a home renovation project. The main motivation for the project was to provide me with my own washer and dryer for the first time in my life. However, after using communal laundry rooms for so many years, having my own equipment has taken some getting used to.

Our typical routine was doing three loads of laundry every weekend in the laundry room in the basement of my building. If you forgot to throw something in, or you got something dirty later that day, you waited until next week’s laundry. (You can see the downside of this approach in my earlier post How Many Should I Own?)

It took us a few weeks to break that habit. I realized that I could do laundry anytime I was at home and had the time to see a load all the way through the process. I didn’t have to wait until the weekend. I now do one load each week of things that don’t go in the dryer, and then a day or two later I do the rest of my clothes. The sheets or towels go in all by themselves sometime over the weekend.

We had some overnight guests for the last two nights, and right after they left, I laundered their towels. It was unprecedented for me to have guest towels clean and put away within hours of them leaving. I’ll probably do their bed linens tonight. You have no idea how happy this makes me!

I’m sure at some point, the novelty will wear off. But for now, developing this new habit has required me to disrupt a lifetime of training.

Too Many Tabs

There is a great internet meme that has been floating around for a while:

“My mind is like an internet browser. 17 tabs are open, 4 of them are frozen, and I don’t know where the music is coming from.”

I think of this meme whenever I am working with a client who has a lot of tabs open. These clients may also have multiple Word documents or Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations open and unsaved. They are also likely to have many e-mails in their Drafts folder.

When you start something on your computer and then don’t finish it — whether it’s a browser tab, a file, or a partially-written e-mail — it’s easy to lose track of what you were doing and what is still left to be done. This leads to inefficiency and duplication of effort.

One way to practice good computer hygiene is to close all of your windows and shut down your computer before you go to sleep. This ensures that you evaluate everything you left open during the day. If something is incomplete, make a note of it so that you can deal with it tomorrow or another day. You may think that leaving a tab or a file or a draft e-mail open will remind you to get it done, but there is too much visual noise on your computer screen and the result is overwhelm, not clarity.

The idea of turning off your computer may leave you in a panic. That is because you are under the illusion that by leaving your computer on and all of your windows open, you won’t lose track of anything. But here are some of the realities:

  • By working on files and leaving them open, you run the risk of losing your latest changes because the files haven’t been saved. You also run the risk of having multiple versions of a file.
  • By having a lot of unfinished e-mails in your Drafts folder, you run the risk of thinking you replied when you haven’t. You remember writing the reply but then you got distracted and never sent it, which is how it ended up in your Drafts.
  • By keeping tabs open indefinitely because you don’t want to forget about a page you found, you run the risk of losing track of it completely. Better that you should save a bookmark of the page.

The more you have open on your computer, the slower your computer will run, and the more likely it will crash or hang up. Then you will be forced to reboot it and you will lose track of everything. You will have better control over your time and your work if you take control of your computer instead of leaving it to chance.

Leave yourself some winding-down time before shifting gears from one activity to another. Save your work with a name that will help you to remember what it is. A file name default like “Document1” is not going to be much use. A file name like “NYSCA Grant Application DRAFT 9-29-23” will make it much easier for you resume work on that document at a later date.

Look in your e-mail Drafts folder. Delete the old ones that you will never send. Look at the more recent ones and see if it’s still worth sending these (with an apology for the delay). Your goal should be to have NO drafts in that folder. Then it will be noticeable if it a number shows up next to the folder name. At the end of each day, make sure you clear those out, either by sending or deleting them.

Now, about those tabs. If you get into the habit of bookmarking pages you want to find again and then closing the tabs, you’ll be in much better shape. Your browser will let you organize your bookmarks into folders. You can rename the bookmark before saving it so that you can remember why you want to find it again.

Getting out of the habit of leaving everything open will be tough at first, but, like all other organizing habits, it will give you greater peace of mind.

Carving Out Time for Yourself

When 2020 rolled around, I decided to keep track of how many books I read. I had no idea that we were about to get hit by a global pandemic and I would have more leisure time than ever before. When the year ended, I was delighted to see that I had finished 82 books!

At the beginning of 2021, I wondered if I would be able to keep up that pace, as I expected things to become more “normal” as the year went on. To my great surprise, the total number of books I read in 2021 was . . . (drum roll, please) . . . 91.

That’s a lot of books. Some of them (like Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land) took me more than two weeks to read. Others, like some of the murder mysteries I love, took only a couple of days.

So how did I do it? It wasn’t just more leisure time. It was time management techniques.

First of all, I start each day with list of things to do. When I review my list each morning, I identify which of the items must get done that day. These are my “A” items. It may take me all day to finish up my A items. But on days when I get my A items done and there is still time available, I have a choice. I can get started on the “B” items on my list, or I can do something fun as a reward for getting all my A’s done — like reading a book.

Second, I remove barriers to reading. I read e-books using the Kindle app on my iPad or my iPhone. That means I can read anywhere. If I’m riding on the subway or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I pass the time by reading on my iPhone. If I am lying in bed waiting to get sleepy — or I wake up in the middle of the night and am unable to fall back to sleep — I can read on my iPad without disturbing my husband. If I finish a book and want to keep reading, I can log on to the library app and take out a new book — even in the middle of the night!

Third, I keep a list of books I want to read. They may be recommended to me by friends, or written by authors that I have already enjoyed, or the next book in a mystery series I’m following, or something I read about in the newspaper. I keep this list in Evernote so that it’s always handy, no matter which device I’m near. So when I’m ready to find a new book, I have a long list to choose from. Not everything is available from the library when I’m ready for a new book, so I end up putting books on hold. Most of the time, I’ve got one or two books in my Kindle app and another one or two on reserve.

These are some of the ways that I can keep my reading going. You can apply these rules to any activity that you want to do more of:

  • Use the activity as a reward for getting your work done (and not as a way to procrastinate).
  • Remove any barriers to performing this activity.
  • Be prepared by having on hand what you need to perform this activity.

I hope 2022 brings a lot of time for you to do your favorite things!

Coming Out of Hibernation

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve just emerged from a 16-month hibernation.

When New York City shut down in March of last year, it was such a shock to have all of the hustle and bustle grind to a screeching halt. My daughter asked me how long I thought it would take before we were back to normal. I told her that the flu epidemic of 1918 lasted two years, so we should expect at least year and a half. But deep down, I really didn’t believe it would take that long.

Little by little, I abandoned old habits and adopted new ones. Early on, I stopped wearing my rings because I was washing my hands so much. When mask-wearing became mandatory, I stopped putting on makeup and lipstick. I abandoned earrings because they interfered with the headphones I was wearing for virtual organizing sessions and Zoom meetings. I got used to wearing jeans every day. (At least it wasn’t sweat pants.)

Because all of my outside activities had been canceled, I spent more time reading books, finishing 84 books in 2020 and 55 so far this year. I even found time to polish my fingernails regularly, which I hadn’t done in years because I never sat still long enough.

For me, the thaw began earlier this year when I became vaccinated. But the big change was when the CDC announced that masks were no longer necessary for vaccinated people, except where explicitly required (such as on the New York City subway and bus system, and in taxis). Our local stores relaxed their mask mandate, and then my apartment building did. I no longer needed a mask to step outside my apartment door! I felt so liberated.

While I had gotten used to wearing no makeup, I started doing a little just for fun. Now I’m back to my usual 2-minute makeup routine, but with milder lip color that won’t stain my mask when I take public transportation.

The jewelry issue was a little more complicated. I have had my ears pierced since college, but I had never gone a year without wearing earrings. My right ear was fine, but my left ear was just not cooperating. I wasn’t ready to give up earrings permanently. I have very short hair, and earrings coordinated with my outfit are part of  “my look”. It took some daily effort to get back to where I was, but now I’m able to wear any earrings I own. However, when I try on some of the more elaborate earrings, they no longer seem like my style. I may end up donating some of them.

My ring situation was even more complicated than my stubborn left earlobe. When I put on my wedding ring, it was too big, maybe because of the weight I lost during the pandemic due to my healthy eating program. I have had it resized and am wearing it again, if I can remember. Sometimes I leave the house without it because I’m still not used to having it on.

As for wearing jeans — well, that habit is here to stay. I also want to continue my reading habit.

I’m still contemplating how busy I want to become as things reopen. I enjoyed the less hectic lifestyle that was forced upon me during the shutdown. I need to keep an eye on my calendar to ensure that it doesn’t get overly full.

Interestingly, I’ve left the house several times recently without a mask even though I am going somewhere where I know I’ll need one. I guess I was ready to ditch that habit!

Getting Out of Your Own Way

Raise your hand if you are good at making excuses to avoid doing something. (I would raise mine, but then I wouldn’t be able to continue typing.)

If you’ve been reading my Organizing Tips for a while, you may remember that six years ago, I lost 40 pounds. You can find those details in “Lightening the Load“. Then I wrote about having kept the weight off for one year in “Keeping It Off‘”.

Given all the wisdom that I shared in those posts, it amazes me that I didn’t take my own advice earlier this year when I made a New Year’s Resolution to take off the weight I had gained last fall during an incredibly busy and stressful time. I thought I could do it myself, without any help. Then when the pandemic rolled around and I was staying at home, I made excuses like “I need to snack on comfort foods to make this crazy situation bearable” and “I need my daily glass of Prosecco and would go mad without it.”

I finally got sick of those rationalizations. Three weeks ago, I reached out to my nutritionist Carly Feigan. She welcomed me back enthusiastically and we immediately started on designing a food plan that would help me to achieve my weight loss goal.

Although I had used the pandemic as an excuse to avoid losing weight, I’ve discovered that this is actually an ideal time to get started on a new food regimen. I’ve got loads of time to shop, cook, and track my eating. It’s also a great way for me to feel in control of my life during a time in which everything feels out of control. I feel pretty stupid for not realizing this earlier and getting my weight loss project started weeks ago. I guess I’m only human.

So what excuses have you been making to avoid changes in your life? What rationalizations have prevented you from taking that first step to achieving an important goal? Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, and we just need to get out of our own way.