Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

No Regrets

When I asked my father, then aged 85 and about to move out of the home he’d built with his own hands 25 years earlier, whether there was anything more he really wanted to do, his response was memorable: “You can always think of more things to do in a day than you can get done. But, no, there’s no place I want to go and nothing I want to do that I haven’t already done.”

Snowy Plover, hand-carved by Donald Lukens (photo by Margaret Lukens)

What an inspiration, a life so well-lived as to be free of regrets!

My father is the source of my “organizing genes”. His well-appointed workshop was  legendary for being immaculate: no sawdust, no unlabeled bins, no tools without a home. When I was 12, we worked together on a large project: he painted some 50 empty coffee cans an appealing pale yellow and I hand-painted labels on them in black: “3/8 inch bolts”, “roofing nails”, “1/2 inch washers”. The ones that made everyone smile were the set of three labeled “miscellaneous”, “maybe here”, “it’s here”.

From his workshop my father turned out a succession of projects requested by his family — a desk for my mother, adjustable stilts and a toy sailboat and a slingshot for my son, a cuckoo clock for one granddaughter, a chicken coop for me, a playhouse for my brother’s girls, a coffee table for my sister, and much more — along with many projects inspired by his own varied interests. (The snowy plover in the photo was made for me at my request; if I had asked for a six-foot California condor instead, I probably would have gotten it.)

One year I phoned my parents at about 9 pm on December 31st to wish them a happy new year. My mother and I chatted for a while, then she said, “Well, I’d call your father to the phone, but he’s got a project that he wanted to finish this year, and he’s downstairs working on it.”

For a man in his 70’s and 80’s, January 1 was much like December 31, yet he valued his time, he established goals, and he did what was necessary to achieve those goals. He couldn’t come to the phone on December 31st; he had a deadline to meet!

His joyful dedication to his chosen work resulted in a long life well lived, with no regrets.

Last week I read an article about the regrets of the dying by Bronnie Ware, that I found quite striking. The author, who worked for many years in palliative care, assembled the top five regrets that she had heard repeatedly from those at the end of life. Listening carefully to those with very little time left can often help us clarify what matters most to those of us who, for now at least, have time to spare.

The one I found most surprising was the fifth on the author’s list of five, “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Wise men from Marcus Aurelius to Abraham Lincoln have observed that happiness is a choice, requiring very little to be within our grasp. Yet it seems that many of us have a hard time realizing that happiness is ours for the choosing.

My father had made that choice, and kept it throughout his long life, which ended this past Saturday, at the age of 92. Among the many things that I appreciate about him, one that I value more highly than the many objects he gave me  is the fine example he showed me of a life with no regrets.


Strengthen your success with a gratitude journal

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but also the parent of all the others. — Cicero

Gratitude journalsFor years I had kept a gratitude journal — a notebook in which I recorded things large and small in my business for which I felt grateful.

I knew that great thinkers from all ages and traditions had commended the practice of gratitude. Though I was never certain how the gratitude journal “worked,” I was aware that whatever I focused on was the thing I attracted, and I continued to find the practice helpful in combating the slumps that beset solo entrepreneurs, so I recommended it to many of my organizing and productivity clients.

Recently, I encountered scientific validation for the power of my gratitude journal (see source of original study below.) As described by Dr. Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness, “(the researchers) randomly assigned people to keep a daily diary for two weeks, either of happenings they were grateful for, of hassles, or simply of life events. Joy, happiness, and life satisfaction shot up for the gratitude group.”

Here’s my method for keeping a gratitude journal: Find a small notebook that pleases you. As you finish work each day, jot down a few things for which you feel grateful. Here are some of mine:

  • I am scheduled to teach the GO System workshop at (a client) next month.
  • Steve Overman wrote a recommendation for me on LinkedIn. What he wrote was warm, gracious, articulate, and deeply felt.
  • (One of my board colleagues) told me she is glad I’m president of the organization. She feels the group is more inclusive and welcoming.
  • Tonight I arrived home at 7 pm after an 11-hour day. The dog walker had already taken care of the dog. It was heaven!
  • I was able to refer (a client) to Susan Tiner for bookkeeping and financial organizing. I think it will be a great match for both of them.

Start your gratitude journal. Begin by recording one to five thoughts daily for a few weeks. Then use your journal as often as it seems helpful.

As you prepare to do a review of your accomplishments as part of your planning process, be sure to scan your journal entries to remind you of past accomplishments.

Do you keep a gratitude journal? What have you observed? Leave a comment here.

(Original study cited above: Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). “Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well being in daily life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, No. 84, pages 377-389.)

Recipe for productivity

Bon Apetit!

Bon Appetit!

Like a featured recipe in a cooking magazine, productivity has many ingredients. Some are obvious (oh, there’s beef in the beef stew!) while some are subtle (who knew that excellent doughnuts actually require a whisper of nutmeg??) We can leave something out, we can make substitutions, but the dish won’t achieve the same heights without all its parts.

Here’s the ingredients list for productivity:

  • Be clear about your priorities
  • Funnel everything into one system
  • Manage your time and energy
  • Know how to delegate and discard
  • Play to your strengths

Are you missing any ingredients? Is there something you’d like to add to your recipe?

The Ins and Outs of Burnout

iStock_000008031771XSmallIn the past two weeks I have spoken with two professionals, both highly capable and generally cheerful people, who are facing genuine cases of burnout.

We sometimes hear the tern “burnout” tossed around to indicate a variety of unpleasant conditions, so let me clear about what I mean. Burnout is not the same thing as stress, boredom, or frustration. Genuine burnout is marked by

  • a lack of productivity (there’s no work going out the door),
  • an inability to rest or relax (there is no balance between exertion and recovery),
  • a feeling of helplessness and disengagement (nothing makes a difference), and
  • a lack of reserves (any small exertion of intellectual or emotional energy is exhausting.)

When nagged with the feeling that we aren’t getting enough done, our first impulse may be to redouble our efforts, try harder, and work longer. And during these uncertain times, we often hear misguided advice to that effect: “Now is not the time to quit your job, slack off, or change course. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In actuality this course only deepens the problem.

What can we do if a case of burnout looms?

1. First, slow down. I hear some of you scoffing, “Slow down? I’m so far behind already! Only a clueless person would tell me to slow down.” Please, stay with me on this. If what you’ve been doing has led you to the brink of burnout, how will it help to continue in the same direction, only faster and with more determination? Doing more of what you’ve been doing will not lead to a better outcome.

2. Re-examine your goals and priorities. If you have worthy goals in your life, then sailing through changing winds and storms to reach them can be seen as just another part of the journey. If you do not have a compelling destination, trials and setbacks may seem senseless and punishing. Consider what things really matter to you. Know the difference between your “nice to haves” and your “non-negotiables”, and make time for the things that matter most. If you hear yourself saying you “ought” to do something, give that action extra scrutiny. Chances are it’s someone else’s desire, not yours. Consider what your life might look like without it.

3. People often reach the point of burnout because of over-work. Ask yourself whether you are overworked because you find it difficult saying no to requests, you let perfectionism drive you, or you’re afraid to delegate. With insight and a bit of practice, you can learn to set appropriate limits, delegate effectively, and declare something “good enough”.

4. Feelings of helplessness are made worse by a chaotic environment. Get help to organize your time, paper, and projects. Begin by bringing order to one area of your life, then move on to enlarge the domain of calm and order in your life.

5. Make use of supportive relationships. Human connection is a powerful force for recovery. As a professional organizer and productivity trainer, I am able to help my clients identify the resources they need to stay productive and fulfilled, and to keep healthy balance in their lives.

Detailed information about burnout is available in the well-written and comprehensive article at

Make up your mind

I received a letter recently from a client. It read in part:

... I also made it to the bottom of my inbox, and I’m not letting things “ripen” there. Your encouragement to “decide to decide” has been helping to prevent things from piling up. …

My client is succeeding because she is deciding.

Professional organizer Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger, has defined clutter as “deferred decisions”. A lot of what is lying around our homes and offices is there because we have chosen to put it where it is “for now”.  Too often that day on which we were going to make a permanent choice never comes.

One of the best ways to put your paper organizing into overdrive is to decide to decide. This concept is so important that organizer Kathy Waddill, author of The Organizing Sourcebook, makes it one of the nine key strategies required to become and stay organized.

If you’re holding back because you are unsure how long you need to keep papers, email me for a complimentary records retention guide.

Maybe you’re holding back because on some deeper level you’re unsure what the paper, email, and other clutter actually means to you. This is when I find coaching to be an effective tool to help my clients get organized. I ask coaching questions to help clients clarify what meaning is invested in the papers.

Know what you need to keep. Consider what you want to keep. Then take action to discard, delegate, file, and act.

What have you decided lately? What happened when you did? Leave a comment here.

What is focus?

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

What does it mean to have focus?



Simply, it means to do one thing at a time, while thinking about that thing.

Focus is one of the most potent organizing techniques available. Few things equal the power of focus for helping us perform at a higher level.

If an elite athlete is running one race, but his mind is on the next one, what happens to his performance in this event? It can’t reach its very highest level, because the athlete’s attention is not focused on the task at hand.

What do you do to maintain focus? What interferes with your focus? Let us know by leaving a comment here.

Goals: Whose Agenda Is This Anyway?

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

I’ll begin by assuming that your goals have all the essential ingredients that separate a goal from a wish, that is, they are specific, measurable, achievable, and time-limited. Before you adopt them, there’s another important test they need to pass.

Whatever goals you choose, make sure they really are your goals.

By all means set a goal to finish a half-completed degree, double your client base, buy a new Mercedes, or learn to fly a Cessna, provided it speaks to your passion and your purpose in some way.

No matter how irresistibly cool it would be to view the earth at 9,500 feet from inside the Cessna, if you don’t really like flying, it’s not the goal for you. Ask yourself, what about the image is irresistible? Perhaps it speaks to you of freedom, mastery, an elevated point of view, adventure, or another value. Shape that into a goal of your own by asking, how could I express more of that value in my life? Leave the pilot’s license to those who get a kick from manipulating machines, and find ways to make the freedom your own.

Achieving someone else’s goals requires an act of will. While willpower has its uses, it is essentially ego-driven and will never bring the kind of deep satisfaction that gives meaning to life. Your boss, your family, and your friends may praise certain achievements, but if those aren’t really your goals, they will never be energizing and satisfying for you.

Here are a couple of quick tests to indicate whose goal it is: ask yourself, If no one saw me or ever knew what I had done, would I still want to do it? If I knew I had only six months to live and could only do a few things, would I still want to do it?

How do you test your goals? Leave a comment here.

Goals: Change or Transformation?

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

My friend and master story-teller Pamela Grenfell Smith has posted a short, thought-provoking entry titled “What’s the Difference Between Transformation and Change”

What supports goals that are marked by spaciousness, richness and flexibility? What sorts of goals create anxiety, rigidity, and stress? Do you have any goals you’d like to shift from change to transformation? Record them here.

Are You “Chronically Disorganized”? Probably Not.

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

Do you think you may be “chronically disorganized”? Our first impulse might be to laugh and say, oh yes, that describes me perfectly!

It turns out that chronic disorganization (CD) is a technical term rather than a humorous one. It describes, not someone who often can’t find her keys or who pays a bill late twice a year, but someone for whom disorganization is severely reducing their quality of life. CD is marked by its longevity, impact, and resistance to self-help efforts.

This might describe a person in peril of being evicted because of the state of his or her apartment, or who has been unable to file taxes, not to get out of paying them but because gathering the necessary papers is simply impossible. It could be someone who is alienated from family and friends because of problems with organization.

Chronic disorganization may be rooted in varied causes, including traumatic brain injury, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, and other physical and psychological causes. In other words, it is not the same as the simple overwhelm that we all feel when confronted with too many voices calling for our attention and too little time in the day.

The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD) was formed to support those for whom disorganization is not just a frustration or a personal foible, but those whose lives are profoundly impacted by disorganization and the inability to overcome it without help.

The NSGCD maintains one of my personal favorite websites. It is, I’m happy to report, a model of order and ease. I’d like especially to invite you to explore the information-rich resource section. (Just resist the urge to print out all the pdf’s, which would create way too much paper clutter!) There you’ll find tons of useful information about chronic disorganization. Especially note the fact sheet which gives common characteristics of CD individuals.

If you recognize yourself, a friend, or family member here, don’t hesitate to contact me for help in locating more resources for this person.

Full disclosure: I earned a Certificate of Study in Chronic Disorganization from the NSGCD several years ago. I believe it is essential for anyone who works with organizing and productivity to understand CD and recognize it when they see it. If you need help, I’ll be happy to point you toward some wonderful people who do this work (I don’t). There are many skilled and compassionate people who can help.

Are you trying to help a chronically disorganized person? Are you chronically disorganized? What has been effective? If you recognize yourself as CD, what do you wish us “average messies” could understand about what it’s like to be truly CD?

Following Through: The Pink Poker Solution

If we as humans are “wired” to forget about non-essential projects as readily as a lizard forgets about her eggs, how will I ever learn Spanish before I arrive in Sevilla or get my taxes done before April 14th?

I must shape my circumstances and surroundings to support my goals, to keep my top objectives squeaking more loudly than anything else. There is an art to devising cures to match the challenge.

One of my goals is to keep my office orderly, emptying my paper inbox and my email inbox regularly. It’s a matter of smooth functioning in my office and, as a professional organizer, also a matter of professional integrity. I want to “walk my talk”. Like most of my clients, however, I am inundated with incoming items. How can I improve follow-through on my empty in-box goal?

When friends or colleagues are coming to my office, which is in my home, I have to clean up the papers or risk public embarrassment. To make this goal squeak loud enough to get my attention, I arranged for a group of friends to meet at my home once a month for girls-only “pink poker”. When I have invited half-dozen women, who are my friends and also respected professionals, to my home the last Monday of every month, I have created a firm deadline by which I really must empty my inbox. Spending time with friends is priceless; a more orderly desk that’s easier to maintain every day of the month is a bonus.

I’ve also opened my office for a monthly mastermind group meeting. Inviting guests creates a deadline for my goal where none existed before.

Do you have goals that would come closer to reality if you applied a “pink poker” solution? Commit them to writing here. And stay tuned for more solutions to different kinds of following-through challenges.

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