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Clean House in a Year

Full Disclosure: I’m not using this method at the moment.

I want to get the kids more involved, and specific requirements seems to work best. We’re using the list Motivated Moms. To that, I add things that I want to get more attention (cook supper), and subtract things we don’t need (replace hand towels every 2 days). Each week we agree on the jobs that it only makes sense for us to do (I’m the only one with a driving licence), then take turns picking the rest. Any job that will take more than 20 minutes counts extra. (Dad already contributes 40 hours a week for the paycheque, plus anything to do with the roof (I hate heights), plus internet support, plus helping out as needed elsewhere.)

So far, so good. The fact that it’s an Official schedule, rather than one Mom dreamed up helps. So does everyone seeing all the work that gets done, and that they are doing no more than their fair share.

Will that deep-clean the house in a year? No, since it might not allot enough time to our worst corners, but the basics will get done. Most weeks there’s a “clean a drawer” or deep cleaning task, which can be used for the easiest, or most-annoying, space. There’s enough difference in the specific tasks that you don’t get to go through the same box each week.

The method I’m about to describe should work, but it takes more supervision and initiative. The task descriptions are much vaguer.

The system has three parts: Daily, Zone, and Project.

Daily, well, you don’t need a system to know which days to do them, or how much to do. Include a tour of the entire house. Carry a basket, and at least get everything back to the right room. Leave everything that can wait 10 days.

Zone cleaning is for things that the perfect homemaker does weekly, and for spring cleaning, except the spring cleaning is spread over the year.

Divide the house into 10 zones. Assign each zone a number. On days ending with 1, spend 15 minutes in zone 1. On January 5 you spend 15 minutes in zone 5, and on February 20 you spend 15 minutes in zone 10.

Each zone will get personalized attention every 10 days. That’s not weekly, but still pretty good. Do whatever will make that room more comfortable. Start with general tidying and routine work. Then work on deep cleaning. Even if half the session is routine, you’ll still spend 4.5 hours a year deep cleaning.

Only take out what you can finish in the allotted time. Do one dresser drawer at a time rather than dumping them all. Remember, anything you spread out will stay that way for 10 days.

The 31st of the month is for resting, or catch-up, or an extra session on a bigger project.

Zones 9 and 10 miss out in February. Treat them as missed days, described later.

Single rooms can be divided into 2 or more zones. Mopping the kitchen takes 15 minutes, so is a zone of its own. Appliances and cupboards might be a second kitchen zone.

A zone can have more than 1 room. If one room is erratic (my entry hall needs more work some seasons), combine it with a less-urgent room (my craft corner can wait till next season).

A corner or concept can be a zone, if attention every 10 days is suitable.

Over the first few months you might even finish a zone. When that happens, you can re-organize and combine rooms, or invoke the Project.

Only have one Project at a time. When you finish a zone with time left on the clock, work on the Project. With only one active project, you’ll only have one messy in-progress area. It will get attention frequently, and get done.

If you miss a day or two, you can either ignore them and stick to the calendar, or double up for a few days to catch up. (Only do half the time in each zone.) If you often miss the same days (month end at work means you often skip zones 8, 9 and 10), maybe reorganize the zones so those are a bit lighter.

If you miss several days, start with zone 1, but only do things that can’t wait. Then do the urgent things in zone 2, and so on, until the timer rings. Once the zone matches the calendar, go back to the normal schedule. Again, if you often miss the same days, maybe reorganize the zones.

Like I said, this season I need to plan with the kids, and make the chores specific. With any luck (and a bit of self-discipline), I’ll be able to keep it up when school starts.

So, I’m throwing the other system into the world to see what happens.


But not always 10%

Maybe 10% isn’t so great.

I’m working through 3000 emails from 2008. Most can be deleted now. Maybe 1 in 20 is worth keeping. The first few sessions were encouraging. The thrill of a new project, and the ease with which I cleared out all the emails from a group that closed, and all those oh-so-valuable coupons and newsletters, was deceptive.

After a week, though, I’m struggling to keep up. It’s boring. It was easy to do 300 the first day, but a week later I’m worn out just doing 150. (See the power of 10%? 8 days and I’m down to half.)

I’ll probably keep the pressure up, since seeing the number go down is the only thing that keeps me going. (And, yes, I do want to do this. My email program is getting slow due to the volume of the archives. It’s just … tedious.)

Or, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep for two nights, and everything is tedious.

Pros and Cons:

Staying with 10%

Pros: Keeps momentum up. Visible progress each session. Each session gets easier.

Cons: Tedious.

Lowering the Percentage:

Pros: More likely to meet and even exceed each day’s goal.

Cons: Slower progress. Project is less exciting. More temptation to spin up another plate. More likely to skip a day (it’s only one day out of a 60 day project, and since it’s only a small number I can do double tomorrow.)

If I go too low, it feels silly, almost like I’m gaming the system. Yes, it’s still getting the work done, but the progress feels too slow to count.

Raising each Day’s Goal:

Nuts, since I’m already struggling to finish a session.

Changing to Constant Goal:

Pros: Even faster progress, since it won’t go down as the total goes down. 10% of the original will have it cleared in 10 days (if I don’t burn out).

Cons: The easier emails are already dealt with. The remaining ones are harder, and that will increase as I progress. Even though I’m pretty-much doing them in date order, I often see a group such as a monthly catalog that I can delete all at once. After processing 6 weeks’ worth, though, I’ve done all the monthly catalogs, so that effect may not be as large as it was earlier in the project.

A bit of math: At 10% each day, calculated at the start of the day, a 100 item backlog will be cleared in 28 days, and a 300 item backlog will be cleared in 38 days. In practice it takes less time. Most days, finishing a conversation will take me over the goal. As the pile shrinks, it just seems silly to do only a few items a day. 3000 items will be cleared in 60 sessions. If I set a 10-item per day minimum, that drops each one by 23. (The last 100 takes 10 days vs 33.)

We’ll see.

I’m also working on a second, more-recent, paper filing backlog. I was doing 10% each day, but lately that feels too high, maybe because the email project is wearing me down. The paper pile is now on 3 items per day. That’s not enough to make fast progress, but it doesn’t seem silly as long as the goal is to keep it active rather than see progress. I’ll speed it up once the 2008 email is done.

The 10% Rule for Paper

In my last post, I described the 10% Rule for clearing an email backlog.

For paper, the process is a bit different, mostly because it’s harder to see what’s there and to pull things from the middle, but also because there’s more walking around when dealing with physical items.

First, I divide it into 3-inch sections with coloured paper. Then I measure the height of the pile in inches and calculate 10%. Yes, inches, not estimated time. Next I triage each section, one at a time. The small sections keep the triage from being overwhelming. The goal is triaging, so no 2-minute rule.

After a month off, I find triaging twice a week, with 1-week look-ahead is reasonable. If I notice that everything in a section can wait an entire month, I’ll label that section “triage not necessary until July”.

If the urgent items are done today, they count towards today’s inches. If they’re not done, then they don’t count. They’re still backlogged, and are part of that measurement. (If they were important enough to pull out, why didn’t I do them today?)

Most of the time, I take the oldest paper and deal with it. It’s usually a surprise, which keeps the job interesting. Every so often I hit a coloured paper, which is rewarding.

If, from previous passes, I know several papers can be dealt with as a batch, or that are part of the same project, I might pull those as I triage. They stay in the backlog measurement, though, until they’re done — just like the urgent items that weren’t so urgent. I only group things that make a lot of sense grouped. Most of my paper is either filing (either permanent or part of a much larger project where I can honestly count putting it with similar papers as done) or one-offs that don’t benefit from batching.

Usually, Papers stay in order of arrival, or at least between the same coloured papers. Things that are related usually arrive together, so there’s a bit of organization there. Also, it lets me say, “I’ve dealt with everything that arrived before June 1.”

I’m using this on the current post-vacation backlog. I’m also using it on two other backlogs, which started as vacation backlogs but then got added to (oops), then finally triaged and set aside for later. I have a few other backlogs (projects that got out of hand, and files that need purging), but those three plus current email, plus my 2008 email archives, are enough on my plate.

The 10% Rule — How to Bust a Backlog

I’m recovering from the 1st vacation of the summer (which was preceded by a two-week crunch on two important projects). As usual, there’s a huge backlog of email, including all sorts of little things I thought of while away and emailed myself about.

The 10% rule rocks for this type of backlog, where most tasks take under a minute, but some might take half an hour.

Divide your tasks into groups (folders) of 50 to 100. (For me, that’s about 2 weeks of email per folder, but for this example I’ll use 1 week.) Don’t worry about making the folders the same size. They won’t stay that way, and near the end it’s nice if they are different sizes. Date works well since it groups conversations, but also leaves things mixed up a bit, in size, complexity and associated emotions. (Unless you want to deal with five customer complaints in a row…)

Every few days, triage the backlog, one folder at a time. Since the folders are small, each one is doable. Look ahead by a week, just in case your next triage is delayed.

After the triage (if it’s a triage day), do 10% of each folder, as measured at the start of each day. If it’s likely that you’ll have another vacation before clearing this backlog, then start with the oldest folder each day, or take turns. If you start with the newest, then the oldest might sit around forever.

Handling the email backlog has to be an active project, not something you squeeze in as you can. Otherwise, like most projects, it won’t get done. Even worse, backlogs grow if you don’t keep working on them.

After that do anything you like to choose the next one.

Early on, I sort by conversation. All 15 attendees publicly thanked the hostess? That’s 15 emails, dealt with. That’s 15% of a 100-item folder. Or sometimes I roll a die and count, so the choice is random, then maybe deal with all the emails in that conversation.

“Do” means deal with fully. Update notes, print, file, telephone, whatever. The only exception is when you deal with that type of task in a batch, even when not clearing a backlog. Move it to the inbox for that process. Be wary, though, of that batch getting too large and unwieldy. Also, it’s tempting to leave things at that intermediate stage until you find everything that might go in it. That leaves a huge, unwieldy batch at the end.

Yes, you can do more in each folder, but only if it’s silly not to. That’s very important with the first few folders of the day, when you need to pace yourself, but less critical with the last one. I do the folders in the same order each day, even if I don’t get to all of them. (Another reason for triaging with 2 days in mind.) That way, some of them actually get cleared.

Believe it or not, I round down, not up, unless rounding down gives me zero. In theory, that means the last 10 items take a day each. In practice, dealing with an entire conversation at once often takes me over the 10%, and when the list is down to 5 I get enthusiastic about finishing. (It’s rare that more than one folder will be this small on a single day. Again, if it’s the first folder of the day, you should pace yourself and do the minimum.)

If a conversation spans two folders, it’s okay to deal with the entire conversation, or to deal only with those in the current folder. It’s okay to deal with things out of order.

When the folder is large, go for the low-hanging fruit. It has to be done sometime, so may as well do it now. (Also, if I have to eat the frog first, I go to a different buffet.)

When the folder is smaller, and the uglier items are left, your quota is smaller.

Incoming email goes into another folder. Treat that as you normally treat your inbox, such as “to zero by day’s end” or “no more than 20 pending”.

If an incoming project involves email in the backlog, may as well deal with the associated backlogged email. In the morning, that counts towards today’s 10%. If you’ve already done today’s 10%, you don’t get the same credit, but at least tomorrow will start with a smaller target.

Incoming email stays in the inbox until the end of the day (unless its dealt with immediately). At the beginning of the next day, move it to the newest of the backlog folders — before measuring the 10%. If it’s Monday, use the brand-new folder for this week’s backlog. (Unless you’re an inbox zero person, in which case, your usual rules apply.) That most recent backlog folder will go up and down a bit, depending on incoming vs 10% of start of day. Eventually, though, it will no longer be the most-recent backlog folder, and it will go down.

If you can’t keep the 10% pace at least 3 days out of 5, then you probably won’t clear the backlog in a reasonable time. Maybe you’re putting too much time into each item, or maybe you have too much incoming work.

This method usually knocks a month if inbox neglect down to nothing within a week or two. Urgent things get dealt with on time. You don’t go numb dealing with screens full of email. It doesn’t interfere with my handling of incoming work. Folders get emptied, so you see real progress. You never have more than 200 items in front of you at one time, so it’s not scary, and it’s easy to review each folder for urgent items.

Bad Advice — The Bits I Forgot

Don’t expect to be able to do all the neat things in a single job. Ain’t gonna happen, and even if you can, it’s a bad idea. Eggs in basket.

If your job folds, then all the things you enjoy and that keep your life interesting, and that keep you interesting, fold with it. Remember the stereotype male who, once he retires, has nothing to do? It’s even more insidious. If the job you love becomes the job you hate, then the things you loved doing there aren’t just gone, they’re contaminated.

You also can’t do them all at once. Sometimes, education or family takes priority. With a bit of attention, though, you can tweak things you already love (or want to try) into things that make you interesting and encourage you to learn.

Bad Advice

I very narrowly avoided suggesting on his blog that the blogger re-evaluate his desire to be fully self-employed, given all the struggling he was doing with motivation, tasks he really didn’t want to do, and lack of enjoyment. And then I read another blogger tell 18 year olds to take the path less traveled rather than university.

Anyone need me to spell out what I think of this advice?

The “be your own boss” movement is way past the balance point, just like “everyone should be a cog in a machine” used to be.

I know a few people who are happiest fully self-employed. I know a few who are happiest as cogs. Most people who are satisfied with their careers are in the middle. They have an important role within a larger team. They have freedom and trust to do their own job as they like, as long as the work gets done. They are consulted by those whose work affects them (and they consult their coworkers).

One size does not fit all, and watching people who might very well be happiest as part of a team, where people work with their strengths, frustrates me. By insisting they have to do all parts of the project themselves, they spend too much time learning skills they’ll never be good at, not enjoy, and rarely use, and they don’t get to focus on the skills that have potential. They’re letting doors close. They’re not locked, true, but the longer you are away from a door, the stickier it gets.

Taking the road more traveled and doing the degree or apprenticeship does not mean you have to be a boring cog. Far from it!

The second article lists fifteen or so things you should do while on the path less traveled. Guess what? Most of my friends who took the path more traveled did all but meditating and blogging. They got meditation’s benefits from other activities, and spend time doing rather than blogging.

I’m not devaluing his list of things to do. Someone who had done most of the things on that list would be an employer’s dream, if only they had a practical skill that the team needed, and could easily prove it. With today’s economy, those extra experiences are the difference between a great candidate and yet another graduate.

However, it’s comparatively easy to travel and learn and teach and even sell things at any time in your life, including school. It’s very difficult to set aside four years for study at any time other than the traditional time.

So, to the first blogger, I say, “Are you really sure you’re cut out for the independent life? Is this really easier for you than a job with more traditional features, at least for the bulk of your working time?” To the second, I say, “Please stop devaluing the traditional path.”

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