Keep your focus (and tidy the basement while you’re at it)

photo-49If you’re like me, you probably have a wide variety of personal and family projects that threaten to occupy your mental space when you’re supposed to be doing other things. Sign the kids up for camp! Plan the summer vacation! Buy shelves for the basement! While you want to have these projects done at some point, they don’t have to be done tomorrow. But in that nebulousness lurks a problem, because all these personal projects start to mass together in the mind. They loom on your mental docket, where the sheer volume of them, together, starts weighing you down. If you’re not careful, a long list of personal projects can keep you from focusing on work during work hours, or enjoying your kids when you’re playing in the basement and keep seeing that, yep, the basement really needs some shelves.

Is there any way to lighten the load?

What I’ve found helpful — borrowing a page from David Allen — is to keep making a someday/maybe list consisting of these kinds of projects. I add to it as I think of stuff. But then this is key: I assign myself one non-urgent personal project per week. Just one! So one week I sign my kids up for camp. The next week I buy the plane tickets for our June trip. The next week, I hit IKEA and buy shelves for the basement. After that I finish readying my chunk of the taxes for our accountant.

I make this personal project schedule several weeks in advance. That way, if I find myself thinking of shelving while I’m on Travelocity looking at plane tickets or (worse) while I’m supposed to be editing an article on deadline, I can tell myself there’s a time for shelving, and now is not that time.

As an added bonus, if you assign yourself just one personal project per week, you’ll probably do it. One is doable. Certainly, in the course of a week, you can find 15 minutes to buy those plane tickets. In the course of another week — a different week — you can find 30 minutes to fill out the camp forms and make copies of the kids’ medical records. Finding an hour to go to IKEA and another hour to wield an allen wrench on those *#$*# bookcases is a bit more complicated, but that’s why you schedule that project for a week that’s a bit lighter on the professional side.

Sure, you may be tempted to try to tackle more than one project at a time. But that’s when projects get derailed. Slow progress is powerful as long as its steady. If it’s not steady, then you stop making progress, and that’s when life starts to feel overwhelming again.

When do you tackle personal projects? How do you fit them into your life?

Photo of my new IKEA shelves in the basement. Tuesday’s Women’s Money Week topic is finding time and boosting productivity.

39 thoughts on “Keep your focus (and tidy the basement while you’re at it)

  1. As you know, I do a lot of project management at work. There is a PM approach we’re discussing implementing at work, called Kanban. So I decided I should try it out, and set myself up an online Kanban board for my home projects. It is too early to say, but I think this is going to be a stroke of genius, particularly if I can convince my husband to use it, too. A kanban board is like a glorified to do list, with “backlog” and “in progress” sections. The kanban approach to project management emphasizes managing the in progress work, so that you don’t get too much in that column (that tends to decrease productivity). But the board lets you capture your entire backlog so that you don’t worry about forgetting it. And of course there are the usual reminders when a task is coming due, etc. I’ll have to play with it some more to see if it is really helpful at home (or at work, for that matter), but it seems promising.

    1. @cloud
      I would be interested to know more about that program. At the moment I am using a series of folders within folders to keep my various different projects organised. However, I’m concerned that at a certain point that this will get a bit unweildy. A program with electronic reminders that also lets me keep my records straight sounds ideal.

      1. I’ll probably write a post once I figure out if it is useful or not, but if you are curious now, google “Free online kanban boards”. I’m using one called Kanban Flow.

  2. I love this idea! However, as much as I can see its value, I am finding it difficult to accept the rule that I can only do one personal project per week.

    How I usually deal with personal projects is ignore them in favour of other things I have to do or would rather do (e.g. prepare for work, read a book, visit a friend), until they build up to such a degree that I try to do all of them, while letting everything else slide temporarily. This is usually a bad thing because it gets me behind with more important priorities. Even worse, it can make me feel as if I have done heaps of “work” and need a significant break from the other, often more important, things that I want or need to do, such as working on a project for my e-portfolio (at present, I don’t have one, just a lacklustre resume that hasn’t been helping me get the jobs I want in a tough job market. Your article for CBS helped me realise that I need to prioritise this activity and accept that while resumes used to work for me, they just aren’t going to anymore).

    For the last 8 weeks I have had a number of personal projects floating around in my head that I have not acted upon (e.g. clean my spare bedroom, buy new work pants and shoes, get my hair cut, renew my membership of a professional association). However, the idea of spreading these activities out over 8 weeks seems unacceptably slow, even though if I had started this 8 weeks ago they would all be completed by now, plus a number of other goals I haven’t had the head space to dream up.

    I am going to try this for the next couple of months and see how I go. However, just thinking about this makes me want to go on a frenzy and do them all on my next day off – I guess old habits die hard.

    On a deeper note, this has helped me realise why I have always failed to effectively use calendars, or plan things more than a week in advance. The idea of planning very far in advance just seems weird to me, probably because I haven’t done it before, except for deadlines that have been made by university, work and other people. I live very much in the now, as far as planning goes. This is fine for genuine crisis planning, but it seems to me that this could be the cause of needing to make crisis plans…

    1. @Nadia- I think this was my realization, that while one a week seems slow, in 8 weeks, I’ll have done 8 sizable personal projects. There’s no virtue in aiming to do 8 in one week, and then doing none of them. Or doing one and feeling like a failure and being distracted. Better to aim to do one and do one, then move on.

      1. I have to do more than one personal project a week or the backlog overwhelms me, my kids get on my case, and I end up living in a house I don’t want to be living in. But your system can still work if you bump it up to 2 or even, occasionally, 3 personal projects per week.

        1. @Karen A

          I think the real thing is deciding upon what is an urgent versus non-urgent personal project. By the sound of it you are kept busy by a lot of urgent personal projects. (I know the feeling!)

          But it is the non-urgent ones that seem to never get done for me. For example, realistically, getting my haircut is not an urgent task. I am probably the only one at work who notices I have split ends. However, it is important to me that I get my hair cut fairly regularly (I am trying to grow it and keep it healthy) and yet I have not found time to do this in the past 8 weeks because I have been bogged down by urgent personal and work projects.

          Is there anything that is important, but not urgent, that you have been wanting to do for a while but you never seem to get done?

          1. Nadia, Unfortunately, I had to change my work situation in order not to fall unacceptably behind at home. One a week is better than none a week, but it just wasn’t enough.

            For haircuts in particular, for a while I was taking advantage of my hairdresser’s Saturday morning hours. I got up and dragged the children there also at 9 am and we were out by 10, just in time for soccer practice. I also found that making the next hair appointment at the end of the last one, and getting it on my calendar, made it more likely to happen.

          2. I just cleaned out my home office space, which was a non-urgent, but important, personal project. I had let that go for about 9 years (my son is 9), and some of it for almost 20. In particular I have a file cabinet that had stuff in it from the early 1990’s. I still wanted that stuff for sentimental reasons, I just found a better place for it in a closet that I don’t go into that often, rather than a file drawer that I could use regularly for something more urgent, important, and timely.

          3. @Karen A – I definitely have some files that need to get on the project list. But I have to limit it, because at this point in my life, I don’t want to, say, not read with the kids, or not take on an important work project, because I need to clean out the files. There is some time slack, but I prefer to use that time slack for reading or trying to see friends.

          4. Laura, yes, that’s what I did for 9 years (or 20). But then I also ended up doing that same thing for other places–drawers, shelves, closets, computer hard drives, all kinds of different areas of my life. There became too many areas, “virtual files” where I just didn’t want to go, didn’t want to open them, because they were Pandora’s Boxes full of who knows what. I started to feel alienated from the rooms in my own house and out of control. The office at work became a refuge from the stuff at home, at first. Then the office started to get like that too because my boss was too busy to organize or deal with any of her own non-urgent stuff, both real and on the computer, and delegated that task to me. So no matter where I went, home or work, I had these overwhelming, but sort of non-urgent, undone projects lurking in the background. I ended up leaving the job–it seemed pointless to me to leave my own organizing projects undone or pay someone to do them, in order that I could do someone else’s organizing projects.

        2. @Karen – I could see two. Sometimes I do one on the weekend, then one early in the week, which is technically two within any 168 hour period.

  3. @Laura. Google…. With our calendars synced and the productivity apps available, my wife, children and I always share information and keep our schedules, goals/projects in check and it’s all free…

    Problem – My wife has Adult ADD. If she forgets her phone when she leaves her phone at home, all bets are off. If she leaves her phone at work, all bets are off. If she leaves her phone at the checkout at the grocery, all bets are off. If she throws her phone away with her keys when she takes the trash out, all bets are off. (Honestly, these things happen)

    Answer – The kids now recognize she has these tendencies and, with the pop up calendar reminders, assist her (and I)

    With today’s information age and productivity apps, it is immeasurable for someone with enormous creativity who cannot keep on task thru no fault of their own

    1. @Crete- I can only imagine how hard it was for some folks in the days of paper calendars. I am fine with my paper calendar and to-do lists and find electronic ones more confusing, but then again, I haven’t lost the calendar yet (knock on wood). If I do, chaos will reign.

      1. That’s the good thing about the “Cloud” (and especially for those with ADD) you can access your calendar from any computer (or mobile device) anywhere, anytime. So even if you can’t find your phone, someone will let you borrow theirs for 2minutes 🙂

  4. oh my gosh, I would never get anything done if I only had 1 a week (but good for you).

    I have about 7 – 10 things per week and I split them up according to category – like all phone calls one day, emails another, errands usually on the weekend, etc.

    1. @Marcia- these aren’t things like grocery shopping or bringing the books to the library or picking a slot for the parent-teacher conference, and other things that really do have to happen in a limited time frame. These are far more nebulous. Planning a summer vacation could happen at any point in the next 3 months. There may be upsides to doing it soon but it doesn’t have to happen soon. And then things like shelves which never have to happen. I’m not going to buy shelves, get a desk for the guest room, do my taxes, plan a summer vacation, sign the kids up for camp plus 5 other things like that in one week.

      1. I was just going to ask what you consider a “project”. Like “sign kids up for camp” – if that includes actually researching them, checking availability, and cost, etc. vs. just calling up the one you want and booking them in? I assume the former, and heck yeah, that’s plenty of accomplishment for a week 🙂

        1. The camp thing tends to strike me as urgent. It is deadline driven and if I don’t get them signed up in time I miss the early bird special discount.

          Or worse, the camp I wanted gets full and I have to scramble and find something else, which parachutes a big time waster right into the middle of my schedule.

          Planning trips, I’m thrilled to be able to delegate completely to my husband, who enjoys it, is good at it, and gets good deals on hotels and rental cars.

  5. I usually do something like this. However some tasks never get done for years because they’re pushed aside for more urgent tasks and I need to force myself to do them all in one lump. And occasionally I’ll have lumps of time in which I’m waiting for people to get back to me for work projects. So on the to-do list today is making appointments for over Spring Break next week. I’m going to get my hair cut (last cut: over 16 months ago), get my pants hemmed (waiting 3 years), and see an allergist about whether or not this wheat thing is real or in my mind (7 months).

    1. Hair appointment made for Saturday in the City.
      Allergy appointment made for Wednesday morning of Spring Break.
      Alterations shop picked out– would make an appointment but they’re walk-in, so I’ll go next week. Possibly on Monday, or no, I will do it after the allergist on Wednesday since I’ll be out and about anyway. I will write it in my day planner.

      Sometimes a person just needs to lump everything at once, especially stuff one has been putting off for ever because every other important but not urgent thing seems like more fun.

  6. I LIKE this ! Laura

    This is great life for productive balanced life. I think the point to just pick one. Important but not urgent and just do it. sounds obvious but isn’t. I am trying to see films by female directors so I keep a written list on my desk and put it not right in front of me but where it can be seen… so like when we are going to the movies or I have some free time (not often) I can say hey how can I order or go see this film. Reducing clutter and keeping these important not urgent things written down seems good as does limiting your work hours and not letting your inbox be your to do list. You can’t control life but you can try to be an informed consumer of your own happiness… by having a plan etc.

  7. I really like this. It sounds slow to only do one/week, but that is actually way better than what I’ve gotten done so far this year! I have a “someday” list that basically has home projects listed on it—some have been on it for over a year—and they are all BIG projects (paint living room, organize all photos, etc…). I love the idea of having small actionable “life” items, similar to how I organize my work to-dos.
    For smaller errands, sometimes batching them does make more sense, though, as Nicoleandmaggie commented above. If I take an afternoon off and head across town for a dr appointment, I’ll add in a quick stop at the bank and the post-office, for example.

    1. @oilandgarlic – hence the brilliance of the someday/maybe concept. You’re not committing yourself, but you don’t lose those good ideas.

  8. Brokamp’s article today at GRS is about doing exactly the opposite, taking one day to do all of your financial chores.
    On monday we have a post on a similar idea— do you do Bach’s latte factor or do you sweat the big stuff so you don’t have to sweat the small stuff (a la Vanderkam). Obviously we come out on the side of maximizing your utility function subject to your budget constraint.

    1. @N&M – I look forward to the post! Yep, I am in favor of buying less house (and car) than one can afford, and some other big wins. Within that context, buying a few extra books on Amazon, or superfluous cheese at Costco, doesn’t matter as much, especially if it makes you happy.

  9. Hi Laura,

    I have a similar list on my computer of things that I want to do around the house. I like to do them when my husband’s traveling and I’ve sent the kids to grandma’s house. It gives me uninterrupted time to focus on what I want to get done, they’re having fun, and I’m not taking away from family time.

    I also have one hour a week scheduled after work on Wednesdays before dinner to do office type things like paying bills, budgeting, booking travel plans, etc. Saving all those things to do at once makes it easier and takes less time for me. Plus it helps me stay on top of things.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing it!

    1. @Heather- I know a number of people have an hour or so scheduled for household administration. It’s not a bad idea — probably much more efficient than paying a bill here and there and filling out forms randomly. Plus it keeps you from obsessing about things at other times. You know that on Wednesday you will pay that bill.

  10. I love this and have this mantra too pretty much. Some weeks I get 0 done, but other weeks might get 2 things done.

  11. I was wondering Laura if you have ideas on how to quickly/efficiently manage a budget? I used to keep a detailed spreadsheet or use Pearbudget and deduct every single line item. I just don’t have time to do this anymore but know that I need to do something! Thoughts?

    1. @Jennifer – Unfortunately, I really don’t have good tips on the nuts and bolts of budgeting or particularly good programs. I think a monthly check in is probably wise as a low-key way to handle this. If one category seems high, you can consciously choose to address that in the next month. If a budget has less wiggle room, though, that isn’t going to work as a strategy, and then one needs to arm oneself with spreadsheets and such.

      1. Thanks everyone/Laura. Yes, I just found Mint yesterday! I think I may be in love. Laura, you should definitely check it out.

  12. I’m also on the David Allen/”Getting Things Done” bandwagon. Love the Someday/Maybe and “Waiting For” folders idea, and especially his thoughts on 1) the 2-minute rule: if it can be done in 2 minutes or less then do it now; and 2) Do a Brain Dump: write things down or you’ll forget them and could feel unnecessarily stressed over it.
    Agree that “slow progress is powerful so long as it is steady,” and I’d also add to that Gretchen Rubin’s idea that devoting 15 minutes a day to a project that is not your favorite (i.e. photo organization) is a great way to get it done and feel better about it.

    1. @hush – I tend not to follow the 2-minute rule. It’s not that I’m opposed to it, it’s that sometimes I don’t feel like doing things. Sometimes it turns out they don’t need to be done! Not always, but I guess I’m always holding out hope.

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