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October 31, 2005

The Value of a Deadline

In honour of NaNoWriMo, the annual contest to write a 50,000-words novel in a month, I've been thinking about the value of arbitrary deadlines and goalposts.

It can be hard to think about time in large units. To plan massive projects or stay motivated by a goal many years in the future. So I trick myself by aiming at micro-goals: when I was running in high school I would do sets of sprints up a hill that was longer than I planned to go. When I was almost at the point where I had planned to stop, I would extend the goalpost a little: tell myself I would run as far as that light post ahead, or to that mailbox. I tricked myself into doing a bit more than I thought I could.

I use the same technique now with work I'm not keen on doing (alas, I get no runner's high from sweeping). I'll set out to do a project with a small time limit on it: 20 minutes of taking books down and dusting them, for example. Then I'll extend the goalpost, and decide to just finish this row of books.

Some people think that there's a real power in stopping where you are, but I find that discouraging. I don't like seeing jobs half-done, or stopped at odd points. For me, stopping at a sensible point not only leaves a room or job more orderly, but it gives me the feeling that I did more than I was supposed to, which is a good feeling.

So if I were to be writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, I would take the number of writing days in the month and divide the word count by them. Let's say I knew I would not be writing over Thanksgiving, so there are only 25 writing days in the month (also, it makes the math easier). That means I'd have to write a minimum of 2000 words per day. That's a doable amount for me, because I write fast and furious when I'm writing (when I freelanced I wrote at least 10,000 words a day on top of a full-time job, though those edited down to considerably fewer), but it's a heck of a lot if you've never written professionally. Heck, even if you have written professionally, 2000 good words a day is some work. So chop it up. Plan to write 1000 words, then challenge yourself to write another 200, and then another 200, and so on. See if you can't add an extra 200 while you're there: every extra word you write earlier in the month is a word you won't have to write later. Set up your goalposts, but keep moving them.

Another great use for a slam project like NaNoWriMo is a massive decluttering. It's getting near the holidays, when people entertain more, and maybe you want to get the house in shape. Why not set a goal of decluttering a square yard every day? Or map out the month with a goal for every day: tomorrow I'll sort the paperwork on the desk, Wednesday I'll clean the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. As you do each task, you can add on to it, go a little further. You'd be shocked at how much you can get done with small goals and big pushes.

October 16, 2005

Getting Ready to Sell

I've been reading a lot of web sites with tips on how to sell your house faster lately.

Not because I want to sell my beloved pile, but because they give me good ideas about how to make fast, cheap changes to where I live. In fact, many of the tips make me wonder why people would not do that to begin with.

For example: Sweep the front walk and plant some flowers. These are a couple simple ways to make a house look more inviting and home-like. So why do people even have to be told that? Because when it's your own house, it is home, so you don't need to make it look more that way to sell yourself. On the other hand, doing some landscaping around the house will make you happy every time you see it, and it's relatively cheap. Just remember to water those plants.

Don't mask smells with scented products. The real estate agents rightly point out that this will make everybody who visits you wonder what you're trying to cover up. Smells come from somewhere: find out where and get rid of it (musty bathrooms may need a ventilation fan replaced or installed). Wash your kitchen floors and walls regularly (yes, the walls get dirty if you cook at home). You want people to notice a nice, fresh, clean smell when they walk in the door, not "Clean Scent" deodorizer.

Have you considered painting those rooms? A fresh coat of paint can really spruce up a room, especially if it is not plain white. Lots of people paint once before they move in and never paint again because it will be too much effort. Well, use the opportunity to declutter all the stuff piled around the walls and paint that room. While you're at it, washing the glass covers on light fixtures regularly not only brightens the place up, but removes any fly corpses waiting up there to gross somebody out.

Don't turn on all the lights, or use side lights instead of overhead lighting. Let's face it, overhead lighting sucks. It glares, it is unflattering, and it takes all the character out of a room. Table lamps and floor lamps can make a room much more attractive and interesting, and it doesn't take much effort to use them rather than a horrible overhead light.

Dump the knick-knacks. Large collections especially. They look busy and get dusty fast, and it's hard to appreciate anything small and grouped together from ten feet away. The test I give little jobbies is this: when I'm doing anything other than looking at them, are they in scale with what I'm doing, or too small or too large? I have smaller things on bookshelves (one or three in a space between books), larger things in a shelf by themselves, and the few very large things I have are either furniture or garden ornaments. I don't have room for a life-sized stuffed panda in my living room.

Hire a cleaning service to give the place a going-over. Agents hire cleaning services to get the stuff we miss every day, like the gunge that builds up around faucets, and the grease in cracks in the cupboards -- this is the stuff buyers notice right away, but don't think you never see it, even if you never notice it. We hired a cleaning service to come every other week and do the big stuff (floor washing) and the details (gunge removal), but you can make a huge difference in your house by hiring a service as infrequently as twice a year for a thorough cleaning. Costs vary depending on what you want done. Make sure to have them dust your bookshelves, because you would not believe what is in there.

Clean the curtains and carpets regularly. We tend to forget the curtains and carpets. They become part of the furniture, as it were, and we can forget that any smell or dirt or dust in the house gathers in them, too. There are carpet cleaning services that also do drapes, or you can rent a cleaner and do it yourself fairly cheaply. I installed machine-washable curtains in the messy rooms, so I can just take them down and throw them in the wash.

Clean your upholstered furniture, too. Especially dining room chairs. If you have upholstery in a messy room like the kitchen, consider getting slipcovers or making them yourself. Slipcovers, of course, should be machine washable, or you are kidding yourself. Yes, chenille looks lovely... for five days, and then you have to dry clean it. Do you really want to be dry cleaning dining room chair slipcovers every week? I don't think so.

Clear everything off the fridge or message boards. I'm a big offender on this one. I'll leave a note to myself up for so long that I couldn't even tell you when I wrote it. Or menus from delivery places, or coupons for toilet paper. This stuff needs to get off the fridge, off the cork board, and only important messages should be there, so you can see them. It'll clear the visual clutter from the kitchen. An effect that will be improved if you also stop using the countertops for storage. Find a home in a cupboard or shelf for that stuff. If you don't use it every day, it should be put away. If you don't have a place to put it, get rid of something else to make room.

That's far from every tip for staging a house. Real professionals have an eye for what will work and what will not, but it all comes down to a few simple principles:

  1. Refresh surfaces with paint, plants, or cleaning

  2. Remove visual clutter that comes from collections or accumulations

  3. Little things can make a big difference

October 5, 2005

Sensitizing Yourself to the Mess

One of the things you will notice about really obsessive tidy people is that they seem to be unable to not notice the mess around them. For the rest of us, those stacks of magazines just sort of become background noise after a while. But the obsessive notice them every time they see them, so they are more likely to sort them and put them away.

You can use this to help yourself learn how to be a tidier person. It's actually quite easy (and easy to go overboard). Pick a type of mess, like dirty dishes all over the house. Pick only one type of mess, and make it fairly simple, because this is really going to get to you. Start small: if your house is awash in piles of paper and you insist upon trying that first, choose a subset like magazines. Now walk all over your house looking at dirty dishes. Stand in front of the sink and really look at the pile there. Just see it, rather than glossing over it. Every time you come into the kitchen, look at the pile of dirty dishes. Count them, if it helps you keep aware.

You don't need to do anything, but for the next week, look for dirty dishes everywhere. Notice the used coffee cup on your officemate's desk. Watch how busboys handle used dishes at restaurants. I guarantee you, after spending that much time sensitizing yourself to the sight of dishes, you will want to go around and pick them up, and you will notice them much sooner. Eventually, you will get to the point where you just can't stand to see a dirty dish abandoned in the living room, or a stack of dirty dishes waiting to be washed or put in the dishwasher.

One warning: go slowly. Choose one type of mess and stick with it until you feel like it is internalized. Then move on. Don't do one type of mess a day, or even week, or possibly even month. You're changing how you think, and how you see the world. Of course, if noticing dishes also sensitizes you to paper napkins or something else, go with it, but don't push yourself. We're not trying to induce psychotic break here.

October 3, 2005

Do What You're Doing

One big reason why we have trouble getting things done is an inability to concentrate on what we're doing. Either because we're being interrupted (by kids, pets, noises outside, coworkers) or because we are interrupting ourselves (checking e-mail, refreshing that message board, getting the latest scores).

The real problem is that we're spending a lot of time not actually doing what we're saying we're doing, and thinking that means that we can never get it done. Instead, we should learn to concentrate on what we're doing right now: to be fully in the moment. This is a principle that can be applied to every aspect of life. Instead of sitting around at work thinking about what you're going to do when you get home, or even worse, sitting around at home thinking about work, take those times and concentrate your energies. At work, do your work. I was surprised when I applied this and found myself running out of work to do halfway through the day, because I was suddenly so efficient. No more late nights, trying to get something done that I could have finished that afternoon. And that freed me to be more fully at home when I left work. I could think about what I wanted to do in my free time during that time, and not worry about a work problem.

We make a lot of excuses for why we can't get things done, and some of them are just ridiculous. If there's a noise outside, an adult human being with no diagnosed mental disorder should be able to ignore it and work. Yes, even the sound of jackhammers, and the only exception I will make is for anybody who has to listen for something fairly quiet under that sound. I worked for some time in an office next to a freight train track, and apart from it being impossible to hear each other talk when a train was going by, everybody learned to work with it.

The big excuse I hear is that there are constant interruptions from kids and coworkers. Kids and coworkers need limits set for them, and you need to learn how to set those limits. You owe a duty to both of them, either to care for them and supervise them, or to respond to them when the problem is urgent. But getting your work done means learning how to delegate responsibility, and perform triage on emergencies. It also means learning how to say, "I'm working right now; I'll call you when I have time to talk."

Like outside interruptions, ones you create for yourself can seem really urgent. You sit down to work on your novel, and the first thing you do is check your e-mail, just to be sure there's nothing critical there. An hour later, you remember you wanted to be writing, but now the time you had for it is eaten away and nothing gets done.

To deal with internal interruptions, you need to know what they are. For me, it's catching up on the various web sites I visit regularly. I often come home with a specific task in mind (tonight I will do the laundry) and the next thing I know, I've frittered away hours on stupid things, and the task goes undone. To deal with this you have to ration the interruptions. Trade fifteen minutes of engineering calculations for fifteen minutes of blog-reading, for example. Or take the laundry and homework to the laundromat, and afterward give yourself an hour of reading that great book about plant propagation. Give yourself a time you must spend doing the actual work you need to get done, and also a time you can spend doing the fun thing you want to do (or the thing that wastes your time). When the time is up, the activity is up.

Learn which tools are good and which ones are more distracting. For me, an RSS reader helps keeps the blogalanche under control. For some people, having a little desktop widget that shows the latest headlines is just too damned distracting. This is a very personal thing. You learn what works and what doesn't by observing yourself, and noting what you were doing when you got distracted.

Again, learning to concentrate and work on what you're doing without day-dreaming takes work. But the only guarantee there is in life is that if you keep doing nothing, you will get nothing done. By learning to concentrate your work, you can take advantage of concentrated doses of time, and get more of the things you want to get done done. The biggest (and worst) excuse is, "I can't get enough work done in fifteen minutes." But you can get some work done, and that's more than you were getting done before.

The key is to learn to turn on the intensity quickly, to be able to focus immediately on the task and pick up from where you were. And then, of course, to be able to turn off the intensity just as immediately. This is not easy. It does not happen the first time. It takes practice. But it is possible for anybody to learn this with time.

NOTE: No, I do not believe your self-diagnosed ADD is a reason why you might not be able to do this. If you have doctor-diagnosed ADD, you are likely taking medications that make it possible for you to concentrate, and you don't need this pep talk. If you have diagnosed yourself with ADD, you need to either see a doctor about it or admit that you're just out of practice at concentrating and get with the program. If you want to get things done, there's no excuse for letting brain chemistry hold you up, and there's no excuse for pretending brain chemistry is what is standing in your way.