Tell me about this…

Every now and then somebody is at our house, sees a bunch of post-it notes on the wall and asks what they are for. We tell them a bit about what we are doing and they often say “I need to do that!”

So, if you want to try this out, here is what we did, step by step:

First Step: Motivation (or Why would I want to fill up a wall with ugly post-it notes?)

Figure out what problem you are trying to solve. We want to create value in the world, but the way we manage our stuff, time, projects, money, and relationships prevented us from doing that. The mental energy of keeping track of our to-do lists in lots of places and not knowing what was a priority was overwhelming and kept us from making progress. We want to change that. Our post-it note wall is step one, we have a long way to go.

Second Step: Write it all down

We both got a bunch of post-it notes and did some individual brainstorming. We each wrote down projects, to do, aspirations, or things we need to buy. We wrote one per post-it. We did this until we had a post-it for everything we could think of. I don’t know how many we had, but it was a lot, probably 100.

Third Step: Consolidate

We matched up our post-it notes so that we did not have any duplicates. Discussed them to make sure we both understood them all and added anything we missed.

Fourth Step: Set Priorities (or Give yourself permission to ignore things)

For us, this is the key. Our 60 or so post-it notes are totally overwhelming if we think about them all at the same time. They don’t even all fit on the large bulletin board we use. Some of them (the ones with the lowest priority) are posted in a completely different room. But without specifically deciding to ignore some things for the time being they all just stay in our head and take up energy that is better spent elsewhere. We put things into three big areas:

  1. OK – These are things that we consider OK for now. That is to say, we don’t have to deal with them right away and we are giving ourselves permission to ignore them.
  2. Not OK – Things that are critical and need to be taken care of soon. We are only allowed to have 5 of these at any one time.
  3. Do Today – Things we are working on today. We can only have 3 of these at a time.

Fifth Step: Make it Visible

If you just do steps 1 – 4 and then put it all in a drawer or in the trash it is interesting but kind of pointless. It has to be visible. We used washi tape, cork board and thumbtacks to put our board up in our dining room. You can do it however you want, just make sure it is somewhere you see and interact with every day.

board

Sixth Step: Check-in Regularly

Every morning we look at the board together and decide if anything needs to move to a new category and decide what we are going to work on that day. We move things around so it reflects reality. Checking in with the board every morning is our goal, we are far from perfect on that.

We try to do a more in-depth check in once a week to really talk through anything that needs discussion or to be changed.

Seventh Step: Update Regularly

If one of us thinks of a task or project that needs to be done we write it down and put it on the board as soon as possible. The whole point is to not hold these things on our head, so the sooner we write it down the better. We have a shared list we can access on our phones so that if we are not at home we can put it on the list and add it to the wall later.

That is what we are doing right now. We have a lot more learning to do, and some big ideas for next steps, but for now this wall full of post-it notes is making a big difference helping us set priorities and get things done as a family. If you want to give this a try go for it. Just be sure and make it work for you, you don’t have to do it how we are doing it. And send us a picture, we want to see it!

eBags Professional Slim Laptop Backpack Reveiw and Life Application

I am now the owner of an eBags Professional Slim Laptop Backpack (Thanks mom and dad and brother! Happy Birthday to me!). A quick review:

4 Things I like:

eBags Professional Slim Laptop Backpack

Orange! All backpacks should be orange inside. It makes it way easier to find things.

Compartments. Everything can have a place. My old backpack was just a sack. I was constantly digging around trying to find things.

Visual Management. Do I have a pen? Yes!

eBags Professional Slim Laptop Backpack pen holder

This hard case for chargers. I thought this was going to be pointless, but I think that this protective case is going to let me use my taped up charger for another year at least.

eBags Professional Slim Laptop Backpack Charger Holder

4 Things I don’t like:

Why did they use these cheap feeling plastic clips? Especially when they put a nice metal one inside to hold your keys.

eBags Professional Slim Laptop Backpack clips

Size. Most of the time can I fit what I need, but I think if I was going to do it over I would get something a little bit bigger. Trying to fit a planner, notebook, computer, book, and lunch is a bit tight. And hauling a bunch of kids’ books home from the library is a no go. Sometimes you just need to be able to cram in a bunch of stuff.

Openings. I wish all the zippers opened on 3 sides instead of two. Sometimes it seems hard to get things in and out.

Aesthetics. I like the look overall, but sometimes it gets a bit lumpy looking and the lines don’t stay clean. See “Size” above.

This is not a gear blog though. I am supposed to be writing about creating value as a family by living life intentionally, not blatantly trying to get you to click on our Amazon Affiliate links. I think there are some lessons to be drawn from the experience of different types of backpacks. My old backpack was a hiking daypack. It had one big storage area and one small one. It seems great to just have open space. Freedom! I can do whatever I want! The problem is that papers get lost in the bottom, books crush your computer charger and break the cables. There is no way to know if you have everything before you leave the house, and you just fill up all the space with things you don’t need. My new backpack gives structure to its organization. Things become easy to find, I spend less time searching for what I need, I have to be intentional about what I pack for the day, and my investments in gear are protected.

We are learning that this is true in our household, time, and budget. Our rooms without organized storage quickly become cluttered when nothing has a place. When we are not intentional to plan how we will spend our time at the beginning of the day the easy but unimportant things fill it (three episodes of Dr. Who? Sure why not!). Not planning how we will spend our money feels like freedom, until there is no money left. How we manage our stuff, time, and money are core to allowing our family to create value in the world. We have a lot to learn, this backpack is not going to change my life, but it is a small reminder that we can find ways to be intentional, and be better for it.

Abraham’s Calendar

We have seen for ourselves benefits of visual management. So we figured it could be helpful for our toddler also. My calendar is full of things like play dates and story times these days. And as we added in a day of school for Abraham each week I wanted to help him understand the concept of a week a little better so he could start to grasp that there was consistency to which day he went to school. I felt like without this visual management for him, he would maybe assume that I chose when he was going to school at random. He seems to do really well with consistency and routine so I figured with a new addition to our schedule as big as school, being able to see how it fit into the other weekly activities we do would be helpful.

I did a few brief searches online and saw a few things I liked. But I had an idea in my head of what I wanted and nothing was quite what I was looking for. And there were plenty to choose from with downloadable templates. But in the end, I decided to make something myself.

It is a very high-end calendar made of white poster board, some washi tape, and some activity cards I have hand-drawn. (A bonus of doing it this way is that it has really stretched me creatively, specifically in having to sketch out each card. Drawing has never been something I felt confident in, so this has been a challenge, but it has actually been fun!)

There is one column for each day and a star that gets moved from each day to the next. Some cards stay pretty stationary (church, school, etc.) Some cards I keep in a drawer and they get added as appropriate (birthday celebrations, doctor visits, grocery shopping, etc.)

One thing that seemed helpful with this way of laying out our week was that when Ben had a trip that spanned several days, I put one card on the day he left with a string connecting it all the way to the day he would return. I think this helped Abraham’s toddler brain begin to comprehend length of time and see that there was a finite time that Daddy would be returning.

I used to wait to tell him about something exciting that we were going to do until just before the event. (Sometimes, in the car as we were about to walk into the event.) A toddler can only understand so much about the concept of time and if I told him at the beginning of the day a friend was coming over to play, but then something came up and they didn’t end up coming after all, he would be so disappointed. So I hesitated some before making this calendar for fear of constant disappointments as cards had to shift around or be removed. But I figure it is a good way to start helping him understand that while we can plan things, sometimes plans change and we have to be flexible.

He really enjoys moving the star each morning. And it helps him feel involved while we are planning out our days and looking at our own board each morning.

So far it has been a really valuable tool. We recently added a token system as a way to limit the amount of screen time he requested. I’ll share more about that soon.

5S, offices, sustainablity, and other key words

We have lived in seven different houses and apartments. It seems like we always have one room that is the gathering place for all the things we don’t know what to do with. Right now that room is the office which is also Eden’s room. It needed to be cleaned and organized. Really, the room is basically unusable.

There is a printer on top of the shelves. It’s really easy to get to when loading paper.

So, we got to it:

We sorted, got rid of a bunch of stuff, found places for things, not perfect, but much better!

The problem is that a couple months later the room is back to its old self as a holding place for things we don’t know what to do with. We need a new plan, something that will help us get things in order, but also maintain that order.

 

DSC_9417
I took this picture a few hours ago. Not as bad as the room started, but starting to get filled with stuff again!

 

In manufacturing, there is an idea called 5S Methodology. 5S is a way of putting things in order and maintaining that order. It has five parts:

The first two are pretty obvious. Sort and Set in Order. In Sort we get rid of unneeded things. Think going though your closet to get rid of clothes you don’t need anymore. In Set in Order we decide where things should go and give them a place. We add labels so we know where things go. These two steps are pretty straightforward and satisfying. It’s nice to clean everything up and put things in place. The problem is that just like our office/nursery it takes about 2 days for all the work to be undone when we have some random stuff we can’t figure out where to store.

We missed the last 3 Ss. A lot of people do. Shine, Standardize and Sustain are about how we maintain the order created in Sort and Set in Order. This is the hard part. When we clean the office again, how will we make sure that we do a little bit of tidying up regularly? How will we make sure that Beth and I both organize things in the same way? And how will we keep ourselves accountable for maintaining that organization? For some people, this all comes naturally. Not for us, so we need to learn from industries that have figured this out through 5s and develop a system that works for us. This one is a work in progress, but I am pretty sure if we get one of these really ugly posters and put it up in our living room it will help.

Small Victories and building momentum

So, we had a couple months of crazy and didn’t keep up with our system well. BUT, right before that, we started cataloging all the things we have accomplished since we started this. And as we jump back in and attempt to make this part of our daily routine, it is encouraging to see the progress we were able to make in just a short amount of time.

Click here for a reminder of how we started this project.

Are you wondering how it is working for us? Has anything in the way we operate as a family really changed?

The short answer is that it truly is changing things around here.

We are more focused. We have a shared system for prioritizing projects and tasks. Both of us get to weigh in on what should take priority that day, or week. Personally, I feel a renewed sense of us working together as a team, rather than each of us just doing whatever we want to do separately.

And we want to be sure to celebrate our successes. Especially when laying out a big project like this, (a giant wall full of post-it “to-do”s with some pretty major things that need to get done, like ‘re-build the back deck’ and clearing off spaces that perpetually have piles), it is helpful to also include some small, easily attainable tasks. You know, like when those list-loving people write down something they have already done just so they can cross it off. It is satisfying to see progress. And to be able to see and experience how being disciplined can really pay off.

So here are some of our victories so far.

Ben and his dad finished a big portion of rebuilding our back deck.

There are still some pieces to be done to say that the project is totally complete, like rebuilding the railings and sealing the new boards. But the steps and decking have all been rebuilt, which really is something worth celebrating! It’s functional again-there were a few days where we didn’t have steps back there, so it was a bit precarious. And it feels good to walk on solid (not rotting) boards every time we go out the back door. (Which happens multiple times each day.)

This is an “in-progress” shot with the old wood. We now have new flooring and the old railings have been put back up. New railings are still to come.

We did a first round of sorting in the Office/Nursery.

We pulled everything out of the office that was on the floor. There were boxes of baby clothes, camera gear, broken kites, etc. Everything that was on the floor was pulled out to the Living Room where we sorted it, and we put back only what belongs in there. This has been on the ‘Not Ok’ part of the wall for awhile now, so getting started in this room was pretty satisfying.

Now, there are still 4 boxes of baby things on the floor of the Living Room. (Naptime ended before we finished sorting through everything and putting it back in the Office/Nursery.) And it has been over a week and these boxes still aren’t in their proper home (because I need to do some sorting through them first.) BUT one part of the big Office/Nursery project is complete. We can walk in that room without stepping over crazy piles and boxes of stuff stacked all over the room.

 

The books all fit on the bookshelf!

This was a bit of an afterthought once we got all the office floor things sorted and put back in their places. But when I look at that bookshelf (multiple times each day) I am proud of the hard work we put into deciding which books to keep and which ones to part with. And that we finally just did it. It’s been bothering me for months now that not all the books fit on the bookshelf. We even got rid of enough books that we had one whole shelf empty. We were able to put our DVD collection in that spot. And now we have one less box in a closet!

Finished the corner by the back door

Sometimes just finishing something because it will only take 15-20 minutes is helpful, even if it means bypassing the post-it system. I bought a card catalog at a yard sale this weekend and needed to rearrange some of the things in the kitchen corner to make it fit. But moving the recycling basket meant re-hanging the vacuum higher, which meant a trip to the basement for tools. We put it off until Sunday night, but it was getting frustrating with that corner not having things back in their place. So it made sense to just take care of it right then. Ben did have to abandon this mini-project to help out with bedtime routines, but once the kids were asleep he finished up quickly and we were able to re-set that corner in an evening.

This was a bit of an aside from our system of post-its and projects and priorities. But I really wanted this card catalog shelf. And I had birthday money to spend however I wanted. And by the second day of the sale, they were willing to make a pretty good deal, so it was a bit of a fun purchase. But moving it into the kitchen on Saturday morning meant we had to find a new place for the shelf that was already there. And then, re-homing the things that were residing in that original shelf, like batteries and light bulbs.

I suppose it is an example of being flexible also. Buying a card catalog was not on our radar. The right circumstances were there and it made sense, but adding a new piece of furniture meant rearranging what we already have. Our square footage is such that we have to be pretty intentional about the things we let take up space in our house. (But that’s for another post…) And a spontaneous purchase like this meant we had to live with an overcrowded corner of the kitchen or bump up rearranging that corner to the top of the priority list. And you can only reach around the recycling basket so many times to get to the peanut butter. Especially when the most-requested snack these days is peanut butter on a spoon.

So, we are celebrating a few small victories right now. Our system is working!

We know that a few of you have been trying out our system and have invested in your own set of post-its. How is it going for you? What are you finding helpful? What is discouraging? We are interested to know how others are using these ideas, and we want to celebrate your small (and large) victories with you!

Start, Stop, Start

Three months ago we were feeling overwhelmed with projects, we felt like we did not know what to focus on, and we did not feel like we were making progress on anything. So we started a little experiment using post-it-notes and washi tape to make our to-dos visible, and organize their priority.

ben visible and priority

Two months ago we were feeling pretty good about the progress we were making using our new system. It was helping us see the things we had going on. We were making decisions about what to work on and making progress on our big, overwhelming, backlog of projects.

But two months does not a habit make (at least not for me), and we did not stick with it. I want to Uganda for 3 weeks, then we were in California for a week. We never got back to checking in regularly, and making sure we were using the post-it-notes to set priorities. We were right back where we started. We found ourselves not using our time intentionally, and we were stalled again (and obviously not making blog posts).

A couple weeks ago we recommitted to the system. We updated the task list, restarted somewhat regular check-ins, and started setting priorities again. We are not perfect at any of this yet, and it has taken a while to get back into the system, but there is no doubt that it makes a difference for us. For me, the most important thing is that we are deciding on an almost daily basis what is most important and working on it.

This project is not a quick fix, we can tell that it is going to take time for us to really learn how to live intentionally with the time we have but we are making progress.

How much time and effort is $2.00 worth?

We sorted a bunch of books and had a box to get rid of. I figured I could sell them and make a little bit of money. I had two goals for this little project:

  1. Make money
  2. Not create another big project that was just going to be added to the list and never get done.

I figured I could make some money by selling the books directly to buyers on ebay or amazon, but managing that was more effort than I was willing to make.

I ran across bookscouter.com, which lets you find companies willing to buy your books directly for resale. That is what I wanted, send all the books to one place, get money back.

So I scanned the first book. No one was buying that book right now. It took about 5 books before I found one that somebody was buying, for something like $0.05. I picked a few books that seeme most likely to have buyers and made it to a grand total of $1.50 in offers. I decided to abandon the project. It was not worth the time and effort it was going to take.

Two takeaways:

  1. The sunk cost fallacy is real. It is really tempting to keep doing something simply because you don’t want to waste the time and effort you have already put into it.
  2. Choices may have cost. I might be able to sell the box of books for 15 or 20 dollars if I put a lot of time and effort into it, but it would be a distraction from more important things. $20 would be nice, but not at the expense of giving up other more important things.

But what about bookscouter.com? I am not trying to diminish the product they have built. If anything it served it’s purpose perfectly. It let me get offers on my books from multiple sources quickly and make an informed choice about where to sell them. My choice just happened to be not to sell them. If you want a box of books let me know, just come get them.

Notes from a Blue Bike vs REWORK

There are a lot of books, blogs, podcasts and people talking about living a simple life right now….so…trendy. But, I want to know: What is a simple life?

I happened to read Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World and started listening to The Rework Podcast around the same time.

Notes from a Blue Bike is Tsh Oxenreider’s memoir/guide to pursuing a simpler life (see Beth’s review for some details). As I read the book it seemed to me that she does not really live a simple life though. Her family’s life sounded a bit chaotic to me, including living in multiple countries and cities, switching schools, late nights, early mornings, and squeezing in work on her book and blog in between sports practice. She even says “A book doesn’t write itself, and so most of my time exploring the notion of slowing down went to crafting the sentences to describe it, leaving me no time to actually slow down. I breathed a hefty sigh of relief when I clicked, ‘send’ to my editor, and promptly went to bed.”

The Rework Podcast is “A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.” In Episode 2: Workaholics Aren’t Heroes they have a conversation about their principle that “40 is enough.” Basically, nobody in the company ever works more than 40 hours a week, and they never work after hours or on weekend, even if there is a big project deadline. If they start noticing that people are working extra or off hours they ask hard questions and figure out how to fix the problem.

So, who is living the simpler life? Tsh who has tons of flexibility, but a kind of crazy schedule, or somebody at Basecamp who has a set schedule, but knows they will never have to work odd or extra hours?

Tsh says:

The definition of living simply is “living holistically with your life’s purpose.” All the parts of your life are pointed in the same direction, towards who you are and what you were made to do.

I sort of feel like she is conflating simple and intentional (what do you think?). But no matter what, I appreciate that both Tsh and Basecamp have decided what they think is important to the family/business they are in, and are making intentional decisions to back up that importance. They both say no to things that prevent them from aligning their actions with their values, and make sacrifices to live those values out.

Today I Built a Bench

I have been thinking a lot about reinvention recently. How do you reinvent and remake yourself?

I was talking to my friend Bobby about this. He said I should read about Aldo Leopold. Leopold helped develop much of today’s Environmental Ethics and advocated for nature and wildlife preservation.

But he had a pretty big reinvention in his life. As told by the editors of Wikipedia:

Early on, Leopold was assigned to hunt and kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions in New Mexico. Local ranchers hated these predators because of livestock losses, but Leopold came to respect the animals. He developed an ecological ethic that replaced the earlier wilderness ethic that stressed the need for human dominance. Rethinking the importance of predators in the balance of nature resulted in the return of bears and mountain lions to New Mexico wilderness areas.[15]

Generations later conservationist still find this reinvention meaningful:

In January 1995 I helped carry the first grey wolf into Yellowstone, where they had been eradicated by federal predator control policy only six decades earlier. Looking through the crates into her eyes, I reflected on how Aldo Leopold once took part in that policy, then eloquently challenged it. By illuminating for us how wolves play a critical role in the whole of creation, he expressed the ethic and the laws which would reintroduce them nearly a half-century after his death.

— Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior[24]

But the bench. After our conversation, Bobby gave me a Leopold Bench. Aldo Leopold built this simple bench out of whatever scraps of wood he had available when he needed one. I am not really sure what meaning the Leopold placed on the bench, but over the years a lot of people have endued it with deeper significance than a simple bench. I wanted to do the same.

To me, the bench has meaning simply because it was a thoughtful gift from a friend, and encouragement that reinvention is possible. Leopold did it. There are lots of reinventions I want to make in my life. One of them is this idea we talk about on this blog; living a focused, intentional life. I decided I would not put the bench together until I had finished repairing our deck. There are lots of reasons it had not been done, but all of them were basically rooted in fear of a big project I did not really know how to do.

The deck is done (sort of, there is a lot to do still, but those things are for later. It is Ok for now). Putting the bench together is a symbol for me that change is possible and that I am starting out on on the process and journey of my own reinvention.

What do you want to reinvent?

Grownup Book Reports: Notes from a Blue Bike

My thoughts on Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World. Or, why we are not getting a new car. (Yet.)

Overall this book didn’t contain any earth-shattering ideas for us on how to live more intentionally. However, it was an encouragement to read of someone who is also attempting to live a life of intentionality and simplicity-especially in our fast-paced and busy American culture.

And while I admire this family’s deep need to maintain flexibility so they can travel and experience the world, that’s not a value our family shares. Well, not that intensely anyway. Certainly we desire to travel and experience different cultures and we most definitely want to expose our children to those that live differently than us. But I wouldn’t say it is the central theme of our family.

We are actually still working through how to articulate what it is our family values are. But a rough version would be that we desire to live a life that allows us to help others change the world. We don’t necessarily have a need deep in our souls to be front and center to changing the world. But we do feel we have a role to play in helping others use their gifts, skills, talents, resources to make big and small differences in the lives of people right here and across the globe.

But back to the book…

One of the most inspiring parts to read was where she talks about how they were able to pay off a significant amount of debt.I think what really struck me was that they were able to pay off an amount of debt that is more than we owe, while making less than we make. It’s not that we have to be making so much more money each month. It’s that you have to prioritize and sacrifice now for reaping the benefits later. And the sooner you tackle the debt (or whatever hard thing it may be), the sooner you can live free of that burden.

While reading this we had been talking about purchasing a new car. We have one car for our family. One that is quite well-worn and needs some significant work. By many people’s standards we would be well justified in replacing this car. And we do want to replace this car. We even test-drove a vehicle and were approved to take out a loan.

But then I encouraged Ben to read this book too. And one night he said he thought we needed to hold off on getting a new car. And deep down I knew he was right. Because even as I was reading about their mantra that “Debt is not a tool,” I knew that this was a better decision for us. Taking out a loan to get a new vehicle is not necessarily a bad decision. And for us, right now, it isn’t necessarily that it is a bad or unwise decision. But paying off some other debt, saving some money, and making this vehicle work for a little longer just seemed like a better fit for us right now.

So we aren’t getting a new car. Yet. But we have a plan and a system to help us get to that point. And so we are choosing to put this desire on a back burner. Which, honestly, isn’t fun. I was really looking forward to a newer vehicle with power windows and locks. And doors that all opened from the outside. But I have peace about waiting on this one.