I’m officially on the list of the chronically distracted, and it’s not very often I find a trick for staying focused that works for more than about two and a half days. My general rule is that a system “works” if I find myself regularly coming back to it after a chaos-binge. I’ve tried digital calendars several times over the last twenty years, and I always end up back with paper. I’ve tried various formats for paper calendars, and I always end up back with an 8×5 week-at-glance. Turns out that’s the least-likely-to-combust organizational device for my brain.
This summer I stumbled on a new-old method of staying on track that is helping me quite a lot. Just like any other system, it may or may not be the one you need. But I want to talk about it because the how and why behind the way it works for me might give you clues about what might work for you.
A dry erase board? Really?
Technically we’ve got three dry-erase boards going, and that’s close to the ideal amount. (I bet I could use ten, actually. But I only own the three.) I’ve tried dry-erase lists before, and found them not-so-helpful. What was different this time? Let me tell you the story.
1. I had to go to a convention. In prepping our booth for the convention, I picked up two large (18 x 24 inch) brand-new dry erase boards, and a couple of easels. I needed a cheap way to create changeable signs for visitors to our booth.
2. Then I came home again. Suddenly I had these giant dry-erase boards and easels, and a pile of work to catch up on.
3. Also, my daughter was playing volleyball. Two kids were doing service projects. There were music lessons. And altar server training. What I thought was going to be my quiet “get catched up” week turned into non-stop zigzagging around town. Other moms do this from the get-go, but for me the taxi-service life was brand new. And did I mention I had other work to catch up on at home?
4. So I tried this temporary thing. I set one dry-erase board on the kitchen counter on a table-top easel. Each day I put the kids’ schedule on that one. I put the second dry-erase board on a freestanding easel in my office. I split that one into two columns, one containing my to-do list, and one containing honey-do items for the spouse.
5. It worked. Okay, I didn’t win instant-holiness the moment I weilded the blue marker. But the kids could look at their board and know what was happening that day without me having to remind them constantly. Meanwhile, I had a giant to-do list right in front of my face in very large print every time I sat down at the computer. Did I still goof off on Facebook sometimes? Yeah. Did I procrastinate over my least-favorite chores? Pretty much. But I still found that it was much easier to keep working and push away distractions when I had this enormous reminder of what I needed to do.
The decorators rebelled.
It turns out you can’t just fill your two smallest, busiest shared spaces with enormous signage and expect the natives to thank you for the new decor. A week or two into the “temporary” system, the spouse asked if we couldn’t have that counter back. He was even willing to hang to-do lists in the dining area — the last remnant of civilization in our “I live in a school-warehouse-junkyard” decorating scheme — just to clear the space.
I decided that now that we were all trained to look at our lists, we could see about moving the boards into the hallway. I knew from experience that you don’t want to put a dry-erase board behind a desk or table, because it’s hard to write when leaning over a pile of furniture. My husband gamely got out the level and stud-finder, and installed both big boards in the hall between the kids’ bathroom and the laundry room. It wasn’t as in-our-face as the premium real estate the lists had previously occupied, but it was a spot we all passed many times every day.
Status update: Out of sight, out of mind.
Mostly the new location worked, but not 100%. It was a little bit easier to ignore my list when it wasn’t right in front of my face.
Meanwhile, I had another problem: With all the work I had to do lately, and the little bit of goofing off I always seem to have to do, the kids never knew what I was doing in the office. Was mom on Facebook talking to her editor about a work project, or was she just clicking the ‘like’ button on everyone’s vacation photos?
Facebook-inspiration to the rescue: What I needed was a status update.
Something old becomes something new.
I had an ancient wooden-framed dry-erase board from way back when I was teaching the kids to read. It was small enough that I could put it in a corner of the office without overwhelming an already very cramped space. I created a “Mom is . . .” status line, and then left a large space for updating. I use my dry-erase status line to let the kids, and myself, know what I’m working on. They know — and I am reminded — if I’m working on deadline on an important project.
I also sometimes pick out a couple of the highest-priority items from my giant hallway to-do list, and put those onto the office status-board as my goals for that day. Yes, sometimes the must-do items end up staying on the board for two or three days before I can wipe them off — that’s how they got on the list in the first place. If I were eager to do the dreaded chore, it would already be done, right? I say as long as the thing eventually gets erased, I’m doing pretty well.
How about you? What methods have you found most helpful for keeping yourself and your family on track?
Copyright 2014 Jennifer Fitz