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.

 

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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.

We Need a New Couch. But Not Yet.

I’m tired.

I’m tired of piles and stacks of things.

I’m tired of feeling overwhelmed when I walk through the house.

I’m tired of seeing piles of things everywhere and just adding to them daily because that’s easier than taking the effort to find a place to put something. It’s easier and faster to just set it down on the already growing piles. And really, there’s an art to stacking things, right? I mean, there’s some skill in adding the next piece to the pile without it coming crashing down.

There’s a quote that I cut out of a magazine probably 3 years ago. My intention was to have it posted somewhere I could see it on a regular basis. Like so many other things, it got buried in the bottom of a pile. I found it recently and put it on my weekly planner, where I’ll see it frequently throughout the day and week.

But we never make it pass the quote to cleaning up the clutter. A few weeks ago Ben and I decided that we needed a way to keep track of all the things that need to be done, not just the piles that need to be cleaned, but the projects and tasks, and budget items. So, we wrote down every to-do we could think of on post it notes, gave each one of them a priority and stuck them on the wall. It’s not exactly a great looking decoration that blends well with our Dining Room decor, but it is a system for setting priorities.

We need to this because I’m tired. And I’m ready to feel like we are making decisions on how to use our time, instead of feeling overwhelmed by a growing “to-do” list.

And already, I have felt a freedom and a sense of release by just using our new system for a matter of days.

For example, I want a new couch. Ours is a hand-me-down that has served us quite well for the past 14 years, but it’s tired. It’s saggy and uncomfortable. So, when we started all this, I wrote on one of my post-its that in 10 years I don’t want to be sitting on this same worn out couch anymore. And there is a feeling of freedom and release that I have found by writing on a post-it. It is something that is important to me. And together we can determine when the time is right to buy a new couch. But putting it on a post it helps me. It is out there & won’t be forgotten. And I am ok with prioritizing things like fixing the back deck, and preschool tuition because I know that my desire for a new couch is not being ignored or forgotten. It’s been made known and we agree that replacing the couch should happen. But it’s no longer an emotional decision to replace the couch because I found a good deal on one online that I really like and ‘a deal like this just won’t come around again.’ (That’s not true.) When the time is right, and we have the funds, we will be able to find a suitable couch in our price range. (That’s the truth.)

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To me, this is the beauty of the post-it system.

There is also freedom in looking at the wall and choosing to spend my 15 minutes of free time while both kids are napping to put some work in on something we have collectively decided is a priority. And that means it is ok for me to ignore some of the other things I feel a need to be doing.

So, I can spend 15 minutes searching Craigslist and AutoTrader for a new car. I don’t have to feel guilty for doing that. (Even though there are lots of other things that could be done…sorting the books that don’t all fit on the bookshelf…so instead, they get piled in stacks next to the bookshelf.) And many days, part of me really wants to just sit and sort through the piles of books and get rid of what doesn’t fit on the shelves, because I really LOVE doing tasks like that. But that fire isn’t the one that needs to be put out right now, so it is better to just let it burn (or simmer, as it were) and we will get to the books when some of the other, more pressing things have been tackled.

I’m still tired. But we are already making progress on things and throwing post-its away because we are accomplishing some of what we have set out to do.

I stay at home with a toddler and an infant. I might feel tired for the foreseeable future. But I have a renewed hope that I won’t be sitting in this saggy, worn out sofa forever. One day I’ll rest these weary bones on a new sofa, and I will enjoy it all the more because we worked hard to get to that post-it.

Turning a Blank Wall into a To-do List. Just Add Post-It Notes (and washi tape)

We needed a way to keep track of our household to-do list. The various scraps of paper and online lists were not working out so well, and we were both overwhelmed with projects and tasks that never seemed to get done.

There were two big problems that our new way of keeping track of things had to solve:

  1. We can’t see our lists, so we forget about them.
  2. We don’t know what projects are most important.

We needed to have a physical place where we could see our list. It is too easy for us to forget about the list on a phone, in the Cloud, or even on a sheet of paper that gets lost in the corner of the office.

We also needed to be able to give things levels of priority. For me, if everything is important I get overwhelmed, and I do nothing. There is also a big relational component to setting priorities. Imagine this (real) conversation:

Beth: “I want to get a new couch”

Ben (in my head): “Our couch is ok, we don’t have enough money for a new couch, there are lots of other things that are more important than a new couch, our couch is long so I actually fit on it…etc.”

Ben: “yeah…..”

Ben (in my head): “we really can’t get a new couch….”

Beth may want a new couch today, or she may just want us to get one someday. I may give too much energy worrying that Beth really wants a new couch. Or Beth might be annoyed that we don’t have a new couch. Or she may not care at all, it was just passing comment. I have no idea. We don’t have a way to prioritize “new couch” among all the things competing for our time, energy and money.

Our new to-do system has to force us to set priorities.

Post-It Notes seem like a good way to make things visible in the real world. So we wrote down all of our projects and things we want to buy. We came up with three categories of priorities:

  • Not Ok – Things that are not ok right now. They need to be taken care of now. There cannot be very many of these at a time.
  • Ok – Things that are ok for now. We don’t work on these. They are ok for now. If they become more important we move them to the Not Ok section.
  • Out of Sight – things that we need to keep in mind for someday, but don’t need to take up mental space on a daily basis.

We used some washi tape to divide up the wall. Not Ok and Ok things go on the wall. Out of Sight things go somewhere else.

We try to do a quick check in every morning to see what we are working on that day, and an in-depth check in once a week. If something needs to be moved to a new priority we move it. We are not doing a great job making those check-ins really consistent, so that is an important next step.

We are already seeing some things to change for version 2.0, so more to come on how the system is working for us, and how it should change.

We are not the first to do something like this. I did not know it at the time, but our system is a really simple variation on the Agile Methodology and Personal Kanban. There are plenty of people doing similar things. For a business to succeed they have to learn how to focus entire teams on the most important things. Our small team of four has a lot to learn about how to do that for us. But we think it will be worth it to live a life that prioritizes the important things, while not neglecting the things that have to be done.

Post-It Notes, Priorities and a Life Well Lived

I want to live an intentional life. A life where I finish what I start, I am part of a story that is bigger than myself, and I use my strengths to push my boundaries and capabilities. A life where I am doing what I was created to do in my vocation, community, and family. I want our family to live the same intentional life.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact pain of not living this way. It is pain of unfulfilled potential, the pain of a reality that does not match dreams, a life that does not align with values, feeling stuck and powerless.

This manifests itself in lots of ways.

  • You can see it in our house when we are not purposeful in the things we own. As a result, our belongings overflow the space we have for them.
  • You can see it on our finances, when we have not done a good job saving for the future.
  • You can see it in our to-do list, which is full of projects we never start or finish, but that still need to be done.
  • You can see it in how we spend our time. Instead of prioritizing people, experiences, and growth we prioritize screens.

It is important to acknowledge our blessings. We live a good life, we are blessed with more than we need, we get to have cool adventures and work for causes we believe in. We have a great community of friends and family around us and we have access to great activities for our family. And yet, there is a constant low-level feeling of being stuck, disconnected, stressed and dissatisfied. If we don’t deal with whatever is causing those feeling they grow and become true issues that are front and center in our life, causing real problems. If we do not deal with them we are certainly not living an intentional life, or living to our full potential as a family.

A couple weeks ago we were feeling really overwhelmed with a big to-do list where everything was urgent, impossible to get done and hard to keep track of. Instead of being intentional with our time to make progress we let things continue to pile up (sometimes literally!) and become more overwhelming.

We have a tiny bit of knowledge about business-ey project management systems (really a tiny bit of knowledge) like Lean and 5S thanks to working with CI Solutions at The Journey and Kibo Group. We figured there must be some way to use strategic planning ideas from business to help us be more intentional at home. So we got out some post-it notes, wrote down all our projects and tasks, stuck them on the wall, and made up a little system for prioritizing our lives.

We will do a post later about how it works, but the two most important things are that our entire to-do list is visible and prioritized. It is literally on the wall (no, the real wall, in our house, not that thing on Facebook) for all to see. That’s it, not too complicated.

ben visible and priority

We have had the post-it notes on our wall for a few weeks now, and it has been really helpful. It gives us a way to talk about priorities. More importantly, it gives us the freedom to not think about most of our to-do list. If it is not a priority we get to ignore it (sort of, more on that later….).

This simple system of setting priorities has already helped us be more intentional with our time, money and energy. We have finished or almost finished a couple big projects that have been hanging over us for a long time. Success!

But we think there is more to do. It is really good that we are finding a way to manage our household to-do list, but we don’t want to just get really good at crossing off tasks. We want to live our entire life with intention, so we are going to do a little project. For the next few months, we are going to blog about our experience trying to apply our little bit of knowledge about project management and strategic planning to our family. Follow along, we want your ideas and input, and you might get an idea or two from us. Let’s learn together.

We want to know, if you live by yourself or with a family, how do you keep track of your household to-dos?