There’s a system for that!

When I was a child, in a country far, far away, there was no television.

It was South Africa, and what there was, was the SABC (look at page 8), divided into three categories: the A service (in English), the B service (in Afrikaans) and Springbok radio (with adverts! And popular music!).

And on the A service, every weekday afternoon there was a 15-minute children’s programme.

I’ve tried to find these programmes on the Internet, but they aren’t there, so we are going to have to rely on my memory. I remember a weekly programme where a woman called Midge talked to a squirrel called Frisky, and they played music requests and read out birthday wishes.

There was a serial about a pair of children who lived in what I now think was the Bo Kaap, voiced by Gabriel Bayman. I still find this strange – why in apartheid South Africa were the lives of coloured children being celebrated on a radio station for white people? Perhaps the intention was to indoctrinate us into the supposed inferiority of coloured people? If so, it didn’t work. The lives of those children sounded wonderful to me, and their walks up and down a windy hill sounded impossibly exotic (we lived in Johannesburg at the time). I wanted to be where they were, to be friends with them. But that was a dream that could only come true a long time in the future.

And then there was a rather strange serial about a family in which the father was a time-and-motion scientist. He was the comic relief (when I think about it now) and kept making his children do things like take baths in which he would time how long each component of the bath routine took, and then make them bath again, taking more measurements, until he could get bathtime down to mere minutes.

It is telling that all these years later I remember the father clearly (he had an American accent) but have no clue as to who the children were or what the rest of the plotlines might have been.

I was fascinated by the idea of time and motion study, by the idea that you could apply systems and knowledge to everyday things, in order to make them more efficient.

It was an early indication of my lifelong interest in systems – how they work, what they do, how they can help make human life better.

(Systems thinking also underlies my true superpower: the ability to untie knots. You just have to start in one place and follow the steps until the piece of string is straight again. Simple really.)

A look at my posts over the years shows how often I talk about systems:

A system for getting things done
Filter, filter, filter – the key to email organisation
Simple self-care – just get organised
A tip for working with multiple tabs in a browser
Three ways to save time by getting things done faster
How to make a list that lasts
Curation: How to find shareable content for your readers

I know that a lot of people think systems are boring, or nerdish, or “not fun”. And yet, so much of society runs on systems (just think of trying to distribute a Covid vaccine without a system). And so many things could be made easier by applying systems thinking.

One mundane example: when I was young, we had a linen cupboard. Indeed, many people have linen cupboards. In our house, I abolished this years ago. Applying systems thinking, I wondered about the inherent silliness of taking all the laundry off beds in different rooms, washing it, folding it and then putting it all in a central place. Only to have to take it all out of that central place and carry it around from room to room in order to change the beds.

In our house, all washing gets folded and then put away in the room it belongs in, all in one go! Kid’s bedroom cupboard has kid’s bedding and kid’s clothes in one place, at the same time. You have cut out that distribution step from the linen cupboard, and saved time. Plus there’s now a cupboard or shelf that you can use for other things.

That man in the children’s serial would have loved me!

If you would like to apply systems thinking in your own life, I’d suggest the following steps:
1. Identify a task that seems irritating and futile (opening and closing the kitchen cupboard doors every time you take something out or put it away, for example).
2. Throw away any preconceptions you have about how things “ought” to be (kitchen cupboards must have doors… surely they must?).
3. Figure out what would make this process simpler by thinking through the steps in the process and seeing where the inefficiency is (taking the doors off the cupboards! yes!).

Our kitchen, in a midday mess.

4. Implement your change and see what happens. In the case of the cupboard doors, the fear of course is dust and grease getting on the dishes. But if the dishes get washed often, that’s not an issue. In our kitchen, the cupboard with the everyday plates and glasses has no doors. Everything else still has them – not used so often, so the doors are less irritating.

If you can apply systems thinking to something simple, and like the result, you can scale up to pretty much anything. Email? No problem. Getting big projects done? No problem.

Figuring out where all the pairs of scissors go? I’m still working on it.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Main picture: Photo by MK Hamilton on Unsplash

Simple self-care – just get organised

The other night, my 17-year-son said: “Mom, you were right.”

I sat up and listened. It turns out he had been persuaded by a video he saw on YouTube that he does indeed need a diary to keep track of his schoolwork.

I smiled, and said we would go buy one.

Readers, I have been telling him he needs a diary since he left primary school, when the school made every kid keep one for their homework.

I am an organised person because being in control of things makes me less anxious. And large parts of the way I organise things, especially in the home, are derived from a guru in the United States.

I found my guru when that same son was much, much smaller and I was trying to balance being a working freelancer with caring for him (and he was as lively as a box of frogs) and doing my share of running a home.

I had the constant feeling that things were slipping away from me. I was talking to a colleague at one of my workplaces about my frustration about not being able to find something in the house.

Flylady, she said mysteriously. You need Flylady.

And she was right. I did need Flylady.

Marla Cilley, aka the Flylady, is a person who lives in Brevard, North Carolina in the States. She runs a business in which she offers a free email service and website which aim to help people get rid of clutter and sort out the chaos in their lives. (The business model is that she sells all sorts of organising and cleaning tools which support her method).

Her approach is simple: start where you are, do things in small increments, take care of yourself (that’s my take on it, anyway).

The true magic of the Flyady method though is that it is not about decluttering your home, or sorting out your paperwork, or getting your house clean in one big swoop. It is about finding sustainable ways to do those things, and finding ways to keep doing them. Marla Cilley is about systems and the importance of sorting things that are apparently mundane and boring into doable tasks that in the end make your life better.

To give one small example, her starting step for everyone is to clean your sink. She says:

After you do this, you will keep it shiny by drying it out after each time you use it and making sure when you go to bed that it is shining so it will make you smile in the morning. This is how I get to hug you each day! That shiny sink is a reflection of the love that you have for yourself. Our FlyLady system is all about establishing little habits that string together into simple routines to help your day run on automatic pilot. You can do this!

Read that paragraph carefully: she is saying the one small step is the start of a routine. Don’t clean the whole kitchen and then three months later you are back where you started. Just clean the sink every day, consistently, and then build on that.

At first I leaned heavily on Flylady, mainly in the department of daily and weekly routines. Before I had a baby, I used to do the washing when it occurred to me. Now, 15 years later I am still following the routine I established in those early Flylady days: wash clothing twice a week, and bedding over the weekend.

As time went on, I have developed my own system and no longer have the needs of a small human to consider. But there are fundamental Flylady things that I still do, and always will. Here are those things:

1. You can do anything for 15 minutes

Flylady’s basic principle: don’t procrastinate. Just set a timer for 15 minutes and start. Just start. I do this all the time – and once you’ve started, it’s easier to keep going. I cannot emphasise enough how revolutionary this is and urge you to try it. The next time you have some slightly unpleasant thing you have to do, and have been putting off, set a timer for 15 minutes and start. At the end of 15 minutes (and this is the important bit in the learning phase), stop and go do something nice. You can repeat the sligthly unpleasant 15 minutes tomorrow, or later in the day. This simple thing can really break logjams at work and at home.

2. The calendar

I order a Flylady calendar every year even though it us ruinously expensive to have it shipped from the US. Partly because it is my way of saying thank you to Marla and her team, but also because it is a superior calendar. It has really big blocks, so you can write lots of things in it. And that’s important because everything should be written in it. The regular extra-murals, the birthdays, the social engagements of everyone in the house. In our house, if an event is not on the calendar it doesn’t happen.

3. Routines – write them down

Flylady advocates a Control Journal, in which all the information about running your house is stored. She says: “The control journal is our own personal manual for listing and keeping track of your routines.”

I have never liked the name Control Journal and I know it seems ridiculous to write down the things you do every day but it does help.

To this day I have a diary in which I plan the week, and have items like “do the washing” (see above). It means that no matter what else happens, no matter how much real life throws curve balls (and boy does life throw curve balls) I have list of items that need to get done to support all the other things I do.

Remember – all of this means figuring out what the inter-locking systems are that you need to live a good life!

The heart of the Flylady method is the idea that you should love and care for yourself. And that is such a profound thing: you are not doing self-care by having your toe-nails done. You are caring for yourself by paying attention to the small, mundane details of your life, by drinking water and getting enough sleep and tackling all the anxiety-provoking chaos in the corners of your home and workplace.

To quote once more from Flylady – by using the parts of her system that work for you, you are:

(Changing) your To Do list from a stew of chores into a daily walking meditation on the value of life.

That’s a quote from an emailed testimonial to Flylady. And how valuable is it now, when Covid-19 has made all of us more aware of how valuable life it, while at the same time taking away all the things we thought were important?

And here in front of us are our homes and ourselves, waiting to be loved.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Main picture: Mikael Cho on Unsplash



One handbag shall bind them all

I have friends who have different colour handbags for different outfits. It appears that they transfer the contents of their bags on an almost daily basis. And that they must have a shelf of handbags somewhere in their houses.

I also know people who change handbags every few months, buying new ones just because they feel like it.
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Please, thank you and tidy up – a way to live

When my son was little, and I was on older mom (I had him when I was 40), my mantra was to pick my battles. I decided I didn’t care if he used the couch as a jungle gym, or refused to eat anything but noodles and apples and bacon. I did care though about safety and teaching him not to hurt other people. And manners. Manners were important.

So I made him say please when he wanted things, and thank you when he got them, using that old trick of asking for the magic word. He has always been a quick study, so pretty soon the magic word was an emphatic “please and thank you”, said really fast. He figured if he said all the magic words at once he would get results.

When he went to primary school it turned out manners were not the only thing required – there was in fact a colour-coded wall, emphasising kindness and respect and responsibility, among other things. Those all seemed to me to be good things, but perhaps overly complicated for small children to comprehend and encompass.

Codes of conduct

I thought a lot about codes of conduct then – after all, they are everywhere. Many shops have versions of them enshrined at check-out counters, and big institutions spend lots of money on staff get-togethers where such things are workshopped. Even (and this will give you pause) South African public servants have one.

And yet all around us people are plainly not living according to codes of conduct. That might be because none of us are all that good at living according to complex sets of externally imposed rules.

So, based on my experience as a parent I suggest something much simpler. A code of conduct that works in any set of circumstances I can think of goes like this:

Say please – that means you don’t expect things to be given to you with no work on your part. So no entitlement, no stealing, no grabbing. No commanding people to do things for you. No expecting someone to have sex with you when they don’t want to. No expecting people to keep house for you with no recognition of their work.

Say thank you – that means living with a sense of gratitude, of humbleness and of respect for other people. Taken together, please and thank you mean that you have truly looked at the other person, and seen what they give to any situation, and that you have fully bedded down the idea that things are not due to you just because you exist. Think how that might transform situations in which privilege is at play!

Tidy up after yourself – that means tidy your room, tidy the communal kitchen when you have made a sandwich, pick up after a picnic. It means corporations thinking about the environment. It implies taking responsibility for your actions, in everything you do in the world. You leave things better than you found them.

Of course, these ways of interacting with the world have to go deeper than a surface appearance of good manners. When we teach small children manners, we start with the externals, but a central parenting project is to bed these attitudes down so that they are second nature, and are a reflection of respect for people and for the planet.

And that’s it. I would suggest that if everyone, from the president down, lived with these three things at the centre of everything they do, we would not be the mess we are in.

As to my son, to this day people tell me he has beautiful manners. We are still working on tidying up though.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

Main picture: Courtney Hedger on Unsplash

How to make a list that lasts

I come from a family of list-makers. My mother, my sister and I make lists for all sorts of reasons – sometimes we even make lists that list our other lists (think particularly about moving house).

I maintain a system of to-do lists for my working and personal life – I currently work for three different clients and could not possibly keep it all straight in my head if I didn’t have a list for each of them.

Those lists are simple affairs – the things I need to do on any given day, in my diary, ticked off as I do them. The key thing about them is that they differ from day to day.

But what about when the list doesn’t vary much over time? Think for instance of grocery shopping. If you do a big monthly shop, you’ll probably be writing the same list every month: washing powder, tinned tomatoes, rice, noodles and so on. For those, I would suggest another organising tool: the recurring list.

One list to bind them all

Instead of writing that same grocery list every month, I keep a master list in Excel (or Google Sheets) which I print whenever the dreaded Big Shop is due. Then we look in the cupboards and check the printed list: if we have enough washing powder, then it gets crossed off the list. If we need noodles (we always need noodles), it stays on the list.

Because we generally shop in the same supermarket, I also have the list organised to reflect the layout of the shop. For instance, there’s a category called “Side of Shop” which contains such varied items as frozen peas and bread because in our local Checkers, the bread is right next to the freezers where the frozen vegetables are kept.

If I find something in the shop that we need, and that is not on the list, I write in on the paper list in my hand. I keep that piece of paper and when I next print the list out, I add that item.

Other kinds of recurring lists

I have use for recurring lists: holidays.

I have a camping list and a self-catering list, because those are the two kinds of holidays we are likely to undertake.

Before each holiday, I print the appropriate list and stick it into a bulging hardcover book, which then goes on the kitchen table and is used as we get ready. The holiday book then goes in the car, and while we are on holiday any essential item we discover we need but didn’t pack gets written in the book. Back home, it gets added to the central list.

Dear reader, before we had these lists we once went camping without the duvet, and once managed to forget the tent pegs. With the lists, we have forgotten things – but never anything as vital as the tent pegs. (Though we did once leave the tent’s flysheet behind: we thought it was in the tent bag but it wasn’t).

It takes a little work to set up a recurring list the first time you do it, but over time they get more and more refined – until they feel like an old friend, just waiting to help you get things done.

And who doesn’t need one of those?

Main picture: David Ballew, Unsplash (the caption reads: It’s always fascinating to read a stranger’s shopping list. I found this one in the parking lot of my local Walmart in Carthage, Missouri. Between the odd assortment of items, the notepad from a New Orleans hotel, and the contrast of white paper on paint and asphalt, it made a really interesting picture.)

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).