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Sunday, September 1, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
How to's for life
A monthly guide


By Kennan Knudson,
Seattle Times staff reporter

Welcome to September, when the laid-back days of summer morph into the driven and high-stress fall. School starts, along with soccer and PTA. At work, bosses return from vacation with full to-do lists in hand. How can you be ready?

Taking a day or two to organize your life will let you clear time for the things you want to be doing. Here are getting-started suggestions for the well-intentioned but organizationally challenged.


Quoted: "You'd be surprised at the number of people there are who are capable of doing things." — Michelle Walsh.

Michelle Walsh
Michelle Walsh, a professional organizer with Bothell-based Office Options, Inc., explains why desk organization is so hard:

"A lot of us were never taught to work at a desk. We need to figure out a structure ... 15 minutes a day will keep a desk organized. Don't think, "if I'm organized Monday, I'll be organized for the rest of my life." Things will get out of whack, but with a basic structure in place you can put it back together quickly."
• In order to delegate, you must come to terms with the fact that the task at hand will not be done exactly how you would have done it. Your mantra: That is just fine.

• Children, especially, are good at "upward delegation" (trying to get out of a job). Practice saying, "I'm sure you'll figure it out" — then leave the room.

• Maybe one of your co-workers doesn't mind scheduling, but hates billing. Daughter Jill thinks taking out the garbage is gross, but will do anything if it involves a spray bottle. Assign jobs accordingly, and the odds of the tasks being accomplished with a minimum of reminding are much better.

• When faced with a request to take on an additional task, "I'm sorry, but I really don't have time to do that right now," is a perfectly acceptable response. If you just can't make yourself say it, schedule appointments with yourself several times a week. If asked to do something during those times, say "I'm sorry, I have an appointment then." Which is true.


Tip: Save time by stopping the reply cycle — end messages with "No reply necessary" or "unless I hear back, I'll assume you approve."

• First thing in the morning, list all the things you need to accomplish. This is easiest with the aid of a calendar/planner.

• Decide what you'll do during those "in-between" times — return phone calls or contact the electric company with a question about a bill. Squeezing in small tasks maximizes your time to do other, more enjoyable, things. Stuck waiting somewhere? Keep things with you to do, like reading a brief for work or a newspaper article you've been meaning to look at.

• Plan play time as carefully as work time. If you've specifically scheduled a fun activity, you're less likely to let work time bleed into time with family, a significant other or yourself.

• Download your mind — write stuff down! Having schedules, phone numbers, etc., in a central location allows you to stop worrying about remembering and concentrate on something else.


Did you know? Americans waste an estimated 9 million hours a day looking for misplaced items.

• Create an "exit area" for each household member. Always put homework, lunch, briefcase, cellphone, etc., there, and there won't be last-minute panic on the way out the door.

• Make a list of frustrations with any given space, such as "The kitchen counter is always cluttered" or "I'm always losing my keys."

• Pick one area to start with. Ask yourself, "What needs to happen in this area?" Then gather everything you use to accomplish those tasks. Stuff that doesn't belong needs to be relocated to a more convenient area, or thrown away.

• Once you know exactly what you need to store in the area, buy or build a storage container that both fits in your available space and stores what you need it to.


Did you know? The average person spends 2,000 hours a year at his/her desk.

• Create a "Command File" with folders of bills to pay, phone lists, sports schedules, take-out menus and other vitals.

• Organize your desk by convenience — the A, B and C areas.

1) The A area is within your reach. This is where you keep things you use constantly: the Command File, pens, Post-its, etc.

2) The B area is within a chair's roll. Here you keep things you use almost every day.

3) The C area is for less-frequently used items like reference materials. By getting the C stuff out of the A area, you can save yourself 10 trips across the room to get the scissors.

• Once you have a basic structure of organization, just 15 minutes a day can keep the desk mess under control.


Tip: Reduce paper inflow — throw away junk mail before you put it down. Save only the stuff you really need.

Julie Morgenstern
Julie Morgenstern, author of the best seller, "Organizing from the Inside Out," says:

"Many people think organizing is about getting rid of things. It's not. Organizing is actually the opposite — it's about identifying what's important to you and making those things easily accessible. This is a much more positive, much less punishing approach. The idea is to store things where they are used, not just where they fit. I teach people to look to where the piles are, and create storage there."
• If you're like most of us, there are multiple piles of paper around the house that can be generally referred to as the "I'll get to it sometime" pile. The approach: Read, Route, Retain or Recycle.

• Create four boxes, labeled accordingly, and attack the stack with a merciless mercenary attitude. Before putting a document in the Read or Retain boxes, ask yourself hard questions like, "Why should I keep it?" If the answer is "well, I should read this article," it's time to toss it. (FYI: If the answer is, "The IRS will want this," you should keep it.)

• If you absolutely can't throw away that magazine with the interesting-looking article, at least reduce the volume: Tear out the specific article, and recycle the rest. Put the article in a file that you carry with you, to read next time you're waiting at the doctor's office.

• Open bills, put them in a "to-pay" file, and throw away the envelope immediately.


For more information on organizational strategies and attitudes, try: "Organizing from the Inside Out" (Owl Books, $15) by Julie Morgenstern or "Confessions of a Happily Organized Family" (Betterway Books, $13).

Illustrations by Boo Davis, Seattle Times staff artist

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