All posts by katrina

But It Was So Expensive!

A few years ago one of my co-workers came to my office to ask a question, and I noticed she was pulling at her sleeves.

“Is there something wrong with your sweater?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “It’s just that it’s made of angora, and angora makes me itch.”

“Do you think you might be allergic?” I asked.

“I know I am,” she replied, “It’s just I have a lot of cashmere and angora sweaters and I always forget about my allergy when I’m getting dressed in the morning.”

“If you know you can’t wear it,” I asked, “Why do you still own it?”

She frowned and furrowed her brow. “It was so expensive!” she said.

This is a sentiment that I have both heard – and suffered from – way too often. Sometimes we have things we know we should get rid of, but it’s hard to part with them because we still remember how much they cost in the first place.

When an item costs a lot of money, we feel compelled to get our money’s worth. All else being equal, it is logical to get as much use out of our possessions as possible. But not all possessions are equal. For my coworker, wearing the sweaters had become an unpleasant experience, one that she would avoid whenever she remembered to do so. As such, the sweaters no longer had any personal value to her at all, regardless of how much value the market placed on them or how much they cost originally.

In this world there are plenty of items that have monetary value in the market but no value to certain individuals. Lawn mowers have clear monetary value, but are generally of no value to apartment-dwellers. Diabetic test strips are not valuable to people without diabetes. Tampons are of little direct value to people who don’t menstruate.

An object that sits in a box in your closet and makes you feel bad is of no value to you. It doesn’t matter if it used to be of value, or if you thought it might be, or if other people would say it’s valuable. If you aren’t using it or enjoying it in anyway, the value to you is zero. That is true even if you spent a lot of money to acquire it. The money is gone, no different than if you’d spent it on a fancy dinner or gambled it away. If you are done using it, you are not getting more of your money’s worth by keeping it around.

What’s more, objects like this tend to have a value of even less than zero, because you have to store them or clean them or simply deal with the regular reminder of that money you spent. They cost time and effort just by staying in your home. Let the local thrift shop make some money off these items – all they are doing is costing you more.

One hesitation people often have with expensive items is the desire to sell them and recoup some of the cost. I understand this desire, and there are times when it makes sense. But most of the time you will struggle to find a buyer willing to pay even half of what you paid originally. Add in the work to photograph and post the listing, the cost of shipping or delivery, and the general headache of dealing with it, and you are throwing even more resources at an item that already cost you a lot. What’s more, the notion of “I’m going to sell that” is usually how items stick around in some forgotten corner of your house, constantly nagging at you to put more work into them.

Your Mission:

Go through your home and find any items you are keeping simply because they cost you a lot to begin with. Acknowledge that the item probably gave you a certain amount of joy at one point, and that it also taught you something about yourself and how you want to spend your money. Maybe even thank it, KonMari style. If you really want to try selling the item, mark a date on your calendar a month from now. You have one month to get this item out of your house. If you can’t sell it in that time, let it go.

Doing Your Future Self a Favor

Not long ago I decided to transfer some of my retirements funds from one brokerage company to the other. For reasons that are too annoying and too complicated to get into, I had to do this manually through what’s known as an “indirect rollover”. The mechanics of it are simple: Brokerage #1 cashes out my current IRA (Individual Retirement Account) and sends me a check. I deposit that check into my normal bank account, then I call Brokerage #2 and tell them I want to take that exact amount of money and put it into an IRA with them.

If you do this correctly, the transfer happens tax-free. If you do it wrong, you can end up with a hefty tax bill. There are really only two rules to worry about: get the money into the new account within 60 days, and tell the IRS about it when you file your taxes. None of this is difficult, so long as Future Katrina does everything she needs to do. So I made sure to set her up for success.

I wasn’t too worried about doing the transfer in time since it would theoretically be done in about a week. However for added security and peace of mind I put two big reminders in all caps on my calendar for the day when my 60 day clock would run out, as well as 10 days before that so I’d have ample warning.

The thing I was more worried about was remembering to tell my tax accountant about the whole thing. Brokerage #1 said they would send me tax forms for the transfer, but I didn’t want to risk them getting lost in the shuffle or trying to remember the terminology to tell my tax accountant, especially because I was also transferring some other funds between the two companies that would be taxed differently. I have a folder where I keep all the tax-related forms and paperwork I receive throughout the year so it’s easy to find them all come tax time. I took out a sheet of paper, scribbled a big note to myself with all the key information about the transfers, and put it in that folder. When it’s time to collect my paperwork and send it to my accountant, there will be a big obvious message from Past Katrina ensuring that Future Katrina does the right thing.

There are two key components that made this work, one mental and one practical. The mental one is the practice of thinking ahead, of noticing when a task or project isn’t done and imagining what the future version of yourself will need. This mentality is what made me think to add reminders to my calendar and write a note for my taxes. The mental component will often manifest as worries before you are able to turn them into a plan.

The practical is the set of trusted systems to store all that forward thinking in. I already had a calendar that I referenced regularly, and a spot for tax papers to live. Without these things in place it would have been much harder to prepare for Future Katrina, because I wouldn’t know how to get messages to her. I wouldn’t be able to accurately picture the moment when she would need my help the most, or where she would look for that help. But because I trust these systems, I can trust them to carry the info along to the future and find Future Katrina at exactly the right moment. They are my time machine, and Tax Day Katrina is going to be very happy they were in place.


How to (Eventually) Sort Greeting Cards

This morning I decided it was time to finally organize my greeting cards. More specifically, my greeting cards insisted on being sorted when they were so over-stuffed that it was getting difficult to open and close all three of the shallow drawers I’d been shoving them in.

What!? You mean that Professional Organizer Katrina Hamilton didn’t already have a perfect and codified system for sorting incoming cards and letters? That she just haphazardly tossed them into a drawer?

Yes, of course. Because I didn’t need a system until now and I wouldn’t have known what to implement even if I’d tried. A system that isn’t needed is just clutter, and one that’s established in ignorance is doomed to fail. So I waited until my drawers were bursting, and then I got to work.

The important first step was to determine why I wanted to keep these cards in the first place. A lengthy letter or note from a dear loved one makes sense as an obvious keepsake, but a generic Hallmark card my aunt and uncle sent me on my birthday? Do I need to keep that? If so, why? For me, I wanted to keep a card like this because I knew that there would come a day when my aunt and uncle wouldn’t be around anymore, and I would treasure having a few pieces of paper with their handwriting on it.

One of the reasons it was important for me to define all of this first was it told me a lot about how I should sort things, and what I could immediately discard. I was sorting by people, which means everything from my grandma went in the same pile, regardless of if it was for Christmas, Easter, or birthday.

In addition to regular cards from friends and family, I also had some related to organizations. So all the cards from my old coworkers were in one stack, all the thank you cards from people at church were in another.

And then there were the weddings.

The last 10 years have brought me a lot of wedding invites. At first I put them all in one big stack, but I quickly realized I needed to spread them out more, because some weddings had multiple cards: save the date, formal invitation, shower invite, thank you card, etc. So I dedicated one side of the floor to weddings, and made sure the names were all facing up so it’d be easy to match thank you with invites as I found them. Seeing all these wedding invites laid out on the floor filled me with so much joy and gratitude. All those happy days, all those wonderful people who asked me to be a part of their commitment.

It also came with a lot of grief. One of the faces is no longer with us – he died less than two years after the wedding. One of the weddings was for March of this year – right when we all went into pandemic lockdown. The wedding still happened but in a much smaller way than the invite suggested. Three of the weddings got completely postponed to next year or later. So in addition to the joy, there was a lot of disappointment and sadness on that side of the floor.

Since the drawers had been overflowing and more cards will come in the future, I knew I couldn’t put everything back. I had to decide what would stay in my handy drawers and what could be moved to permanent storage. Piles of cards from my immediate family and close friends would continue to grow over time, so ideally they would stay in the drawers. But other piles, such as the one from my old job, were never going to grow again. I had all the cards I was going to collect from that category, so I knew it could be stored away in a box somewhere.

This moment of decision turned emotional quickly. The piles from my grandparents will not be growing anymore. I have all the cards I will every receive from them. I’m thankful for all the years we got to spend together, and thankful I can still see their handwriting when I need to. While most of the wedding invites can be stored, I will keep the three postponed events in the drawers as the start of my wedding pile. Those events will happen some day. They remain an open book.

Since the three shallow draws are wide enough for two stacks of cards per drawer, I can comfortably maintain six categories. I looked at the piles of individuals and events and settled on these:

  1. Immediate Family
  2. Aunts & Uncles
  3. Weddings/Babies/Graduations
  4. Christmas (from anyone who doesn’t have their own pile)
  5. Friends & Letters (AKA meaningful cards with longer, heart-felt notes)
  6. General (catch-all for the remaining thank you cards, well-wishes, etc.)

These categories make since for me because of who I receive mail from. I would never impose these categories on someone else, and I wouldn’t have known to make them for myself without the piles in front of me. They provided the evidence I needed to see what categories I really had.

For long-term storage I wanted to find a box where I could store them all upright like files, however I didn’t have the right size box in my house. Everything was either much too big or much too small. So I grabbed a shoebox and lined them up inside, using post-its to delineate the sections. I can’t put the lid on because the box is too short, but the other dimensions work fine.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not permanent. This is only half of the project. I know that I still have several stacks of old cards in bins at my parents’ house that never quite made it to my apartment, and I’ll have to combine them all before I can consider buying the right box. What’s more, I’m not committed to keeping every single one of the cards I currently have. Once they are all together I can start to assess which ones matter the most to me and recycle the others.

Knowing all that, it could have been easy to put off organizing the cards until I had everything all together and knew exactly what I needed. But putting it off is exactly why there are still cards at my parents’ house. I’ve never wanted to bring them to my apartment because I knew I didn’t have a plan. But then I couldn’t make a plan because I didn’t really know what I had. The drawers hitting their breaking point was the push I needed to complete this first step, and everything will be easier now that it’s done. Sorting the remaining cards will be easier. Finding the right storage box will be easier. Keeping the incoming cards organized will be easier.

We can’t always wait for everything to be perfect to act. We can’t wait for every other project to be finished before making progress on this one. I certainly had other, more important things I was “supposed” to do today. But this had been nagging at me for a long time and it feels like a weight has been lifted now that it’s done. Those other things I had to do will still get done – they always do. And I got to spend my Sunday morning going through old memories and preparing for new ones.

Six Small Things You Can Do When You Feel Helpless & Hopeless

As humans it is easy for us to get trapped in thought patterns. We develop relationships with the way things are and what we’re used to, and then the physical characteristics of our environment start to reenforce our behavior. Changing your environment, even if it means inviting temporary discomfort, can effect those though patterns.

Obviously rearranging your pen cup is not going to turn an election or end the pandemic. But changing the relationship with how we move through life, and especially with how we process incoming information via our devices, can change our thinking. It can make it easier for us to see new ideas and opportunity where there previously seemed to be none. It can remind us that certain things are still within our area of influence, even if many other things are not.

If you are currently dealing with feelings of overwhelm and anxiety over how much in life feels completely out of your control, try a few of these small things:

  1. Change the lock screen and background on your phone to something simple and soothing (perhaps just a solid color).
  2. Rearrange the icons on your phone’s home screen (either to make it more efficient or to make it prettier).
  3. Clear EVERYTHING off your desk, dust and wipe it all down, and put it back in a new arrangement (even a “sub-optimal” one).
  4. Turn your phone to grayscale, usually done through the Display Accessibility Settings (your phone is way less interesting in black and white).
  5. Turn off all the notifications, banners, and badges on your phone, except maybe for calls and texts. Turn them back on one at a time as you miss them (you won’t).
  6. Use the incognito mode on your browser today. You will have to manually log-in to every site you want to visit (Good).

NOTE: These are not invitations to avoid action and responsibilities. They are starting points if you are already doing exactly that. If you are currently paralyzed and doing nothing helpful for yourself or others, then going straight to good, useful, productive work might be impossible. And constantly chastising yourself for NOT doing that work will only ensure continued inaction. You might need to harness some small change to breakup the relationship you’re currently in with inaction. Good luck.

Stop Trying to Get the Most Out of Your Space

For years I hated the plastic bins under my bed. There was something cluttered and frustrating about it that I couldn’t identify. It was strange because to anyone else the space would have seemed very organized. All the objects were intentionally sorted. The bed was just over 54 inches wide, so there was the perfect amount of space for a couple rows of 18 inch bins directly in front of 36 inch bins. Everything was in a bin, and every bin fit under the bed. I was making the most of the space available, so what was the problem?

After years of slowly downsizing my possessions, I was able to permanently get rid of enough stuff that I no longer needed the 18 inch bins. I still used the bigger bins under my bed for storage, but suddenly I was happy about it. Suddenly it seemed right, suddenly it worked. Suddenly I had several inches on either side of the bed for just…space. Nothing was sticking out at all, and the remaining bins were barely visible when I walked into the room. I could slide them in and out easily because there was a little extra wiggle room. There was more space for my toes when I was changing the sheets. That seemingly empty space was still being used, but for action and activity rather than objects. I didn’t realize that the space I had been using for storage was space I needed to live my life.

When I’m touring a client’s home for the first time they often point out a few places that they are hoping to “utilize better”. What this often means is they want to be able to fit more stuff into a spot that is awkward and difficult to use, such as a very high shelf or tricky corner cabinet. But sometimes those awkward and difficult spaces are not meant to be filled. Because the space isn’t ideal, leaving a little extra room is the only way you’ll be able to see what you have and grab what you need easily. The more you pack stuff in, the harder it becomes to use any of that stuff. There is value in empty space.

There will be times where circumstances dictate that you have to Tetris a space to make it work, where the amount of items you need to keep just barely fit into the space available, and there’s no practical way for you to keep these items anywhere else or change the furniture or space to better accommodate them. But in those times, know that you are making a choice. You are saying that the current volume of stuff is worth more to you than being able to live with it easily. You would rather keep all your current possessions even if it means that every time you need one thing you have to pull three things out. There are times when this is the right choice. The important thing is to never let it be your default choice. Don’t assume that the solution to an awkward space is to figure out the best way to use every square inch of it. The solution may be to store less in that space, either by moving lesser-used items to less-convenient areas, or preferably by having fewer items in general.

Empty space is what allows you to eat dinner at your table every night. It’s what allows you to sit several feet away from your TV screen and enjoy a movie. Empty space is what hallways and backyards are made of. The empty space of your home is the only part you ever actually get to live in. Protect it, honor it, make room for it.

Alcove by Michael Johansson
Alcove by Swedish Artist Michael Johansson

Six Unbalanced Areas of Your Life

As I try to navigate my way through living in a pandemic, I often feel like everything I need to do is of equal value, and therefore all of it is worth doing right now. I need to check my work email, but I also need to do my laundry, I need to exercise a little, I need to make myself lunch, I need to respond to the email from yesterday, I need to write my novel, I need to finish that TV series I started, etc. I allow all of these items to be equal in my mind, all of them feeling like they are what I should be doing and also what I should be putting off in favor of something else. And if I spend all day doing one type of thing and ignoring all others (or staying paralyzed and doing nothing), I feel terrible and wonder where my time went.

We’re all familiar with the idea of work/life balance, but that is not the only scale on which activity can be measured. Here are some other categories of distinction I’ve found useful to consider:

1. Complex vs Routine
How much fresh brain power do you need?

Complex: create a gardening plan, figure out a computer backups solution, write a novel, learn a new recipe, run a meeting

Routine: weed the yard, fix breakfast, read a book, do a puzzle, attend a meeting that could have been an email

2. Fun vs Practical
Is there a purpose beyond your own present happiness?

Fun: watch TV, play a video game, chat with friends or coworkers, bake something that isn’t good for you

Practical: reorganize the garage, clear out your email, sort through digital photos, meal prep for the week

3. Reactive vs Proactive
Are you doing this because you want to or because someone/something else is prompting you?

Reactive: return a phone call, buy a baby shower gift, sew a button back on a shirt, fix the lawn mower

Proactive: learn to quilt, start a new TV show, change a process in the office, build a shed

4. Maintain vs Accomplish
Once you do the work, will it be done or will you need to do it again (in the next five years)?

Maintain: practice an instrument, do the laundry, clean the kitchen, exercise, submit expense report

Complete: fix the dryer, create an emergency kit, buy a new desk, get all power moons in Mario Odyssey

5. Family vs Self
Would you still be doing this if you lived alone?

Family: cook for others, play with children, book appointment for a parent, have family game night, discuss partner’s work troubles

Self: work on a hobby, learn a new language, complain about your work troubles to a friend

6. Taxing vs Restorative
Over time, does it fill you up or wear you down?

Taxing: scroll social media, do physical labor, teach children to do anything, write a difficult email

Restorative: journal, take a bath, watch a movie with someone you love, clear off your desk


You’ll notice that no side of these scales is the “correct” side, or even the enjoyable or easy one. Each side is potentially negative if you spend too much time there. Spend too much time on accomplishment over maintenance and things will fall apart. Spend too much time on family over self and you might lose your sense of identity.

Every item exists on multiple scales at once. For example Family Game Night is routine, fun, proactive, maintenance, family, and either taxing or restorative depending on whether you’re introverted or extroverted (and how competitive your family is).

You probably keep a good balance in some of these areas already, and you probably have a suspicion about which one(s) you are routinely unbalanced in. If you’re unsure, take your current task list (the FULL one that includes home, work, longterm, etc) and try to sort the items into the two sides of one of these areas. Repeat until you find a category so unbalanced you can’t ignore it, and focus on adjusting the ratio for that one.

Depending on the person, balance doesn’t necessarily mean equal tasks on both sides. I’m a pretty ambitious and goal-oriented person, which means I can skew more towards practical over fun because oftentimes practical things are fun to me. But if I have 25 things on the Practical side and 2 on the Fun side, even I can admit I’ve gone too far.

Remember that balancing yourself out is not always about adding more to your plate – it may require things to be taken away. This is especially true right now as you are under so much stress. If you’re currently working, you might need to compensate for the kind of tasks you do at work. If your day job involves a lot of complex tasks, you might need to focus on more routine tasks in your home life to prevent exhaustion. If your job is mostly routine tasks you may want to look for complex things to ensure your days are fulfilling.

This is not about becoming hyper-productive while sheltering at home or “getting the most out of your quarantine”. It’s about keeping a sense of rhythm when other rhythms are lost. You would never insist that a friend spend all day sorting photos or all day pulling weeds. Remember to be at least that kind to yourself.

The Duration

On March 2nd I spent the morning listening to the greatest hits of 1918. Coronavirus concerns had just started to get serious in Seattle, and many people were drawing comparisons to the 1918 flu (often referred to as The Spanish Flu despite its American origin). I thought listening to the songs might give me some perspective about how much things had changed since humanity’s last great pandemic. More than anything, listening to it gave me the reassuring thought, “Hey, at least we’re not also fighting World War I.”

As a society, we don’t experience war quite like we used to. Modern wars that are fought overseas have less impact on the daily lives of many Americans. We’ve separated ourselves into a class of people effected by war, and a class that is not. But a disease is different. It is not limited by wealth, class, or race. This is a fight from which no one, quite literally, is immune.

They used to use the phrase “the duration” a lot during the world wars. Because the war really did effect your everyday life, you could apply it to any change that was intended to last the duration of the war. It’s helpful, because it allows you to declare an indefinite change to life without making it a permanent one. Right now, businesses and governments are tending to hedge their bets by making all proclamations last for only 2-4 weeks at a time, with a promise to update or extend if necessary. But I think at this point it’s clear to people that any measures we take are in place until this is over. They are here for the duration.

My gym is closed for the duration. My volunteer work won’t happen for the duration. I can’t see any live theater for the duration. Holiday parties are cancelled for the duration. I probably won’t be able to visit my parents in person for the duration.

It’s a sad thought, all these things I won’t have for an unknowable period of time. But it’s also helpful to remember that they won’t last forever. Back when I was studying to be an actor, the best piece of advice I got was to always have something fun planned for after an audition. That way, this one worrying, stressful event didn’t feel like the last thing I’d ever do. Oftentimes it was as simple as promising myself I would get an Orange Julius on the way home.

This morning I started making a list of everything I’m going to do AFTER the duration. Clients I will followup with, friends I will get coffee with, places I will visit. I don’t know when this list will come to fruition, but it’s nice having it. It’s nice remembering that this won’t be forever. Like any war, there will be damage along the way that cannot be undone. But there is an end, even if it isn’t in sight.

I’m fortunate that many aspects of my work can be done over video chat, since so much of what I do is talking people through their problems, and how they talk about their clutter is as telling for me as seeing it. Still, in a time when everyone is suddenly trapped at home with their stuff, I wish I could be there with them to sort through it in person. Unlike in 1918, we’re lucky to live in a time in which being isolated at home doesn’t mean being cut off. I’m still here for all of you via phone and video, whether that’s as a client or just as a friend. And I intend to keep writing, so if you have anything in particular you’ve been struggling with let me know, and perhaps I can turn it into a blog post to help others as well.

We’re here for each other for the duration. And on the other side of the war.

On New Year’s Resolutions

By now, more than 80% of New Year’s Resolutions have been abandoned. If yours was among them, here are some possible reasons why:

1) You didn’t actually want it

Perhaps you set a “should” resolution – something you think you should be doing that you don’t actually want for yourself. It’s very hard to achieve a goal you have no genuine interest in.

2) It was too ambitious

If you set your sights too high, you will very quickly find yourself failing to meet expectations and getting discouraged. Even if your big, ambitious goal is reasonable long-term, it may have been too much for one year.

3) It wasn’t challenging

When it comes to goals, too easy can be just as bad as too hard. If there’s no challenge to your goal it’s unlikely that the process will be very rewarding. Goals that are too easy to accomplish are also easy to put off, and easy to forget about.

4) You didn’t turn your goal into actions

If you set a goal to lose weight, but don’t plan any changes to your diet or activity levels, it will almost certainly not happen. You are what you do every day, which means that if you want to make a big change, there needs to be something you are doing every day or every week that is moving you in that direction.

5) You weren’t prepared for hurdles

A plan that only works if you never get sick or have a stressful work week or go on vacation is destined to fail. For a resolution to work there should be a plan or cushion to accommodate the unexpected (but ultimately foreseeable) events in life.


The thing about the New Year is that it’s arbitrary. Today is just as good a day to start a new habit as January 1st was. So if you’ve already abandoned your New Year’s Resolution, you still have a chance to start fresh. Figure out what went wrong last time, create a plan for how you’ll do things differently, and pick a new starting date.

How does tomorrow sound?

Your Mission:

If you’ve got a failed resolution you want to revive, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I actually want this, or do I just think I’m supposed to want it?
  2. Is the goal I set for myself both realistic AND challenging?
  3. What is the thing I’m going to do either every day or every week that will get me to my goal?
  4. When and how will I check-in to see if I’m still on track?
  5. What will I do when I get off track?

A Problem for Another Day

Margaret was a small business owner who worked and saw clients in her home office. She generally kept the space clean and inviting, but she wasn’t happy with how her set up was working and hired me to help fix it. Much of what we did to improve Margaret’s office was simple: rearranging furniture to improve workflow, recycling unneeded paperwork, and adjusting storage areas to solve recurring annoyances.

The real revelation with Margaret came when we moved away from her desk and onto her lesser-used cupboards. I often find that people focus on the mess they interact with regularly, but disregard the clutter that’s been there for years. Margaret opened the first cupboard, pulled out a few binders, and began sorting them into the established piles for recycle, donation, etc. She was moving through things pretty fast, but there was a large box inside the cupboard she wasn’t touching. I asked her about it.

“That is everything that’s left from my old job at the University. I was a teacher there for several years,” she said. “But that’s a whole big project. That’s a project for another day. Not today.” She went back to sorting the binder in her lap.

“So,” I asked, “What’s going to be different on that day?”

She stopped her work with the binder and looked at me blankly, so I tried to explain my question.

“If you think it should be done later I totally understand,” I said. “Maybe something else needs to happen first, maybe you want to use your time with me differently. Those are all good reasons. I’m just curious what will be different on that day.”

“You’re saying we should do this now,” Margaret said, looking at the box. “You’re right, we should do this now.”

I wasn’t trying to trick her. I took Margaret at her word that this wasn’t a project for today, and I wanted to help her create a plan for the future. Oftentimes projects linger in the back of our minds because we haven’t thought about what our first step will be. I was just trying to find Margaret’s first step.

But Margaret, like so many of my clients, knew her own problems better than I did. She took my innocent question and saw the truth reflected back at her. We began to sort through the box.

It had been three years since Margaret left her job at the university. She sorted through the papers and realized instantly that everything she actually wanted to keep was already stored digitally on her computer. Nearly all of the paper went in the recycle, with a few binders moved over to her office supplies to be repurposed. Then we got to the gifts.

“I taught a lot of international students,” she explained. “So they would give me these little presents.” It was a cute collection of dolls, bowls, and fans.

“Do you have good memories of these students?” I asked.

“Honestly I don’t remember most of them,” she said. “It was just a thing they did, to give gifts to teachers.”

It’s hard to get rid of gifts of any kind, but I suggested to Margaret that she consider Marie Kondo’s philosophy: the real gift from the students was them giving her something. It was their expression of gratitude that mattered. Once received, it was up to Margaret to decide if she liked these objects enough to keep them.

“Do you like any of them?” I asked. “Do any of them remind you of your favorite students?”

“Not really, not anymore,” she said. “Maybe…” She poked around the pile and pulled out a few small items. She put the rest in a bowl and handed them to me to put in the donation pile behind me. The cupboard was empty. It took less than ten minutes. Margaret sighed in relief and disbelief.

I explained to Margaret that her problem, ultimately, was that she’d developed a relationship with that box of university stuff. Her relationship was one of denial and deferral. And the longer she put off sorting through the box, the more problems she imagined were inside it. She knew there were gifts, so she imagined them all to be the important kind that meant a lot to her. She knew there were papers, so she endowed them with all her years of teaching. That box became equal to that job in her mind. Her whole career at the school was in there. It’s understandable that she thought it was too big a project for us to tackle on that particular Sunday. It was too big to tackle on any day. That’s why she kept putting it off for another day. Another Day is the longest day of the year, the day when absolutely everything can be accomplished. Unfortunately, the only day you ever have is today. Another Day never comes.

Inbox Zero: Emails You Keep as Reminders

We’ve all had an email that we left in the inbox to serve as a reminder for something. Perhaps we even marked it as unread, thinking that would bring more attention to it. Maybe it’s a task we still need to do, maybe we can’t deal with it until next week, or maybe we’re worried the other person won’t get back to us in time and we’ll have to nudge them again. Regardless of the reason, we leave the email in the inbox as a reminder so we won’t forget.

The problem is, this is the exact opposite of how reminders are supposed to work. The brain is triggered by novelty (things that are new or different), and the brain adapts to repetition (things it sees all the time). The longer an email stays in your inbox, the more often you’ll choose to ignore it, the more it will become part of the scenery.

In contrast, a good reminder shows up when and where it is most useful. If an email can’t be dealt with until next Monday, that’s when you want it to appear in your inbox again. If it’s related to something you have to do at work tomorrow, that’s where you should see it. If you want to get those reminder emails out of your inbox, you’ll need to find a better system to remind of you things. Here are some of my favorite systems:

1. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook

Boomerang is a free program (as a Chrome Extension for Gmail or in the Microsoft AppStore for Outlook) with two main features: 1) It gives you a Send Later button, allowing you to write emails now that won’t be sent until a specific time in the future, and 2) It has a boomerang function that will remove an email from your inbox but send it back to you under certain circumstances, such as “send this back to me if they don’t respond in two days”.

2. Calendars Reminders

In addition to adding date-specific reminders to your calendar like any other event, most calendar programs have the ability to set reminders for existing events. For example in my early days of employee reviews, I would set my Google calendar to email me 10 days before an employee’s anniversary so I could set up their annual review.

3. Task Management Apps

Any task manager worth using will include reminders as part of the system. My favorite is Asana. I can create a task, set a date for it, and throw it on the very bottom of my “Later” list, hidden from sight. A week before the due date Asana will automatically bring it into my “Upcoming” section, and on the due date it will show up in “Today.” This means I can throw any long-term tasks into Asana and forget about them, confident that I’ll be reminded when it’s time to do them.

4. Waiting Folder/Label

In my previous accounting job I often ended up with small issues that needed to be reconciled but were temporarily on someone else’s plate. For these things, I had a Waiting folder. Items that were currently someone else’s responsibility went in the Waiting folder, and I went through the folder every Friday to see who I needed to nudge. The key to making a Waiting Folder work is scheduling a regular time to look through it, otherwise items may get forgotten permanently.

5. Siri / Okay Google / Cortana

The majority of modern phones and computers have some kind of built-in digital assistant, and this feature can be great for capturing thoughts for later. I use Siri on my iPhone, and I’ll often tell her things like, “Remind me to email Brian when I get home” or “Remind me about tote bags tonight at 7PM”.

You may find yourself needing to use several different systems to account for all the different types of reminders you need in your life. I’m currently using four of the five I listed above. I would recommend starting with the system that feels most intuitive, and exploring the other options as needed.

We leave emails in our inbox to nag us, to keep being a bother until we finally do something about them. But if we can’t take action on it right now, that nagging is just another form of distraction.

Your Mission:

  1. Choose the reminder system(s) that seems most appropriate to your life and your emails
  2. Identify 1-3 emails you’ve left in you inbox as reminders
  3. Ask yourself “When and where will I need to see this next?” and replace each email with a reminder
  4. Check back in a week to see if more reminder emails have appeared, and if your current system(s) can accommodate them