Planning with Fractals in Mind – Review, Sort of

I always appreciate discovering lesser-known things – yes, always, at least when it comes to organizing, time management, productivity, and other things that fascinate me.  I wish I could remember how I come across some of them, as is the case with the e-book “Clear Mind, Effective Action” by Jim Stone where he talks about his Fractal Planning system. Are you already rolling your eyes or afraid to read more?  Talking about fractals and planning systems might sound intimidating or like a non sequitur, yet this is the type of thing I’ve encouraged all of you to do – at least to some degree – use what works from the systems around us and then find ways to adjust for the parts that don’t work as well.

Therefore, let’s talk about his approach, fractals and all.  What do you think of when you hear the term fractals?  The way he envisions fractals is as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-sized copy of the whole” which he says is how Wikipedia (at the time of writing) defines it.  What is critical about fractals in his view is that they surround us and “creative productivity (like most business projects) grew via fractal processes” so a successful planning tool would incorporate fractal awareness into it.

He offers several different ways to envision fractals around us.  One of those is a tree, where you take a main branch off a tree and it looks like a smaller tree.  If we continue, taking a branch (he refers to this as a sub-branch) off this other (main) branch, this also looks like an even smaller tree.  And so on.  Sometimes there are some random variations at each step, as with this example of a tree, yet remains an example of a fractal.

Tree as an example of a fractal we see and take for granted

Tree as an example of a fractal we see and take for granted

Part of what that means is the versatility for breaking things down into ever and ever smaller parts – the splitting (or fracturing) mentioned above that is still a smaller representation of the bigger picture.  Yet, fractal can also be seen as a way to build things up through the branching process.  This can be seen with the Koch Snowflake (animated to see the process in one direction) – where you can see how both breaking down as well as building up applies.

Isn’t this what we need when we’re planning our tasks and priorities – the flexibility to approach things from any direction?  Sometimes we’re stuck in the forest, unable to see the trees when we’re trying to plan.  Other times all we can see are the trees – or to put it another way – we’re busy thinking in the big or small picture view and struggle with aspects that go beyond that view.  Or maybe we’re just not clear – it’s somewhere between the two extremes – yet wherever we might be, it’s important to have a planning tool that will support us as we capture our thoughts.  And then we can take that planning as far as we need to for maximizing our productivity and minimizing our stress – fractal like in either breaking the steps down or building our plans up.

Von Koch Curve showing the fractal nature

Von Koch Curve showing the fractal nature

Essentially the idea of fractal planning comes down to the idea that being aware of the fractal nature – of our plans, our goals, our entire lives – will help us as we’ll work better, becoming more efficient and effective while our stress will decrease.  As Jim Stone says, “”If you set it up right, with a planning tool that allows you to break down projects to any level of detail, your plans will just grow naturally from your brain‘s innate desire to break tasks down as you go. That‘s what fractal awareness does for you. It helps you see that your whole life can be represented in the same plan, and you can trust it to grow organically, just like a tree grows (because that‘s how plans grow, too). And don‘t worry. There is no ―right way to break down your life plan or your projects and sub-projects.”

I love the optimism of this – while the skeptic in me wonders how realistic this is for everyone.  Oops, even I can slip into the temptation of 1 solution for all of us.  This is simply an example of one person’s solution to planning and productivity challenges that were not solved from another system out there (David Allen’s Getting Things Done are evident in places).   His approach also assumes you are 1) comfortable with technology and 2) that you sit at a desk the majority of the time – where it’s easy and convenient to be interacting with your list.  [Please note that I have no data on his paid online system – and am considering writing another piece that discusses some of the issues I see with this system; this post is about the ideas in his e-book.]  Nevertheless, the idea of fractal awareness shifting how we view things intrigues me – without needing to adopt any other piece of his system.  Are there any ideas that capture your interest?

Book Review: Making Peace with the Things in Your Life

With the extreme numbers of organizing books available, this book was on my radar, though cannot be sure where it would have landed if it hadn’t been included as part of the coaching program I took.  We weren’t required to read the whole thing, just a section – though once I had the book I was reading it.  Making Peace with the Things in Your Life: Why Your Papers, Books, Clothes, and Other Possessions Keep Overwhelming You – and What to Do About It by Cindy Glovinsky, M.S.W., A.C.S.W. is quite possibly one of the best books on organizing I’ve read.

This book takes a different approach than many organizing books out there – it’s designed to help you look at the internal stuff that happens around Things in your life.  Often when dealing with all the stuff that surrounds us, we target the physical items first and this doesn’t always work well – the stuff keeps returning.  Cindy Glovinsky is trained as a psychotherapist and walks the reader through many aspects to explore around the problem with Things.  It’s designed to get you ready to use all those other more typical organizing books available.

One of the aspects that I really appreciated was that early on she talks about chaos and order – how “the two interweave in a perpetual, ever-changing dance.”  She spends a little time talking about how these are both part of our universe and serve a purpose.  Here I go again, my passions – the balance, the self-acceptance, the inevitable changes of life – this is part of life.

You might have noticed that when the word Things appears, it’s always capitalized.  This is done throughout the book to draw your attention to it and change your perspective on the stuff around you.  Generally I dislike the device of using capitals in such ways, though I found that it did shift my perspective.  The word itself is wonderfully vague so it can apply to any of us, with whatever it is that we have.  Her language and use of aliens and characters convey her compassion – for others and yourself.

If you want quick and easy answers, this book is not for you.  It takes you through the major tasks needed to make lasting change. The book is broken into 4 parts – Part I: assumptions about Things; Part II: systematic inventory of Thing habits and Thing feelings; Part III: possible causes of Thing problems with suggestions for coping with them; Part IV: putting what you’ve learned into action.  In the introduction she acknowledges that figuring out what is going on for you with Things is hard work and that it might feel like this is a lot of trouble to go through, yet “[O]nly action informed by insight can lead you out of the circles.”

As with many things – from time management and scheduling to organizing and beyond – there’s a need for the foundation.  I look at David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) as foundational work for scheduling and managing time (at least so far in my reading), which means that Franklin Covey might not work for you until you get the basics of GTD.  If you struggle with handling your stuff well, Making Peace with Things in Your Life is a great foundation on which to start.  Then you might move on to the books dealing with physically handling your stuff and space.

Getting Things Done

It has only been in the last year that I actually picked up and read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.  As I’ve mentioned before, my father was an avid follower of Franklin Covey – this is what I learned about how to structure time and productivity.  I’ve also seen how often Franklin Covey does not work for people – clients with binders never opened and frustration.  This is just another reason there is such a plethora of systems for people – one way doesn’t work for everyone.  David Allen doesn’t care what tools you use, he outlines his way of organizing your time and productivity.

A major component of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach is the idea that if something will take you less than 2 minutes to accomplish – you do it now.  If it will take you longer than 2 minutes, you then evaluate where it needs to go: into a specific day/time in your calendar or into your organization system to do later (or to delegate it).  If you can successfully apply this, you cannot procrastinate those fast tasks and will in fact getting things done.  Also intrinsic to this system is the need to review your system at regular intervals from the daily to the Weekly Review.

There are 5 stages to mastering work-flow: collect, process, organize, review, and do.  One of the steps people gloss over is often the collecting – it can be hard to really collect all of your tasks, emptying your mind of everything and getting it down on paper (or electronically).  Our brains can only hold a certain amount of information at a given time – we need to have it collected somewhere concrete.  Processing is about deciding on the next action item, which I wrote about in “Decide on the Next Action.” Organize for him is where you add the action to your calendar or appropriate list.  Review is critical to any time management system; you need to stay aware of what is on the horizon.  Finally, do is for deciding on what you will tackle next.

One of the most intriguing aspects of what David Allen talks about is his “4 Criteria for Choosing Actions in the Moment.”  Many systems focus first and foremost on the priority of the task, not with Getting Things Done.  This applies only to those tasks that aren’t important enough to be in your calendar already.  His criteria are:

  1. Context
  2. Time available
  3. Energy available
  4. Priority

Context is an easy initial criterion since if the task requires a computer, but you are not near one, you cannot do it.  Time and energy available are self-explanatory, and do need to be evaluated before deciding on a task.  No matter how high the priority might be to work on ‘x’, if you do not have the time or energy, it’s better to wait until the initial 3 criteria are in place.  I think choosing your next action based on following these criteria could ease the stress I see people putting on themselves – the rational for why they need to wait.

Most productivity systems promote the importance of thinking beyond the immediate – Stephen Covey wants you to create a mission statement for your life; David Allen is no different, he talks about the six levels for reviewing: the runway or your current actions to 50,000+ feet or life.  David Allen clearly outlines what the six levels are and I find this more accessible than a mission statement.  Too often this is an area we neglect in our planning, yet is a worthwhile task in order to keep us in line with where we want to be.

Although this book was a bit dry, I appreciated many of his ideas.  It has flexibility built into it, with the idea that you don’t put things into your calendar that aren’t time sensitive.  I’ve been know to be one of those people who will put things into the calendar with the best of intentions and then to avoid it.  I’ve learned how important it is to keep the calendar a sacred space and now have another way to approach the other tasks – to consider the 4 criteria.

The key to any system you use to manage your time and productivity is to make time for reviewing.  It’s likely most of us fall off our systems from time to time – I know I do – but we need to be able to get back on the system.  David Allen lays out the steps to hopping back onto it and makes it easier to do so.

Book Review: Buried in Treasures

There are 3 names that come up again and again when it comes to the topic of hoarding – from their independent work to their collaborative work: psychologists David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee.  All three wrote, Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding and although it was not the first book I read on the topic, it was the book I was always intending on reading – it’s “that big” a book on the topic.  I read it more than a year ago now, and happily made notes (and have the book to refer to) for both this review and how it can apply to those I work with.

First, let me share that I was almost shocked when I found a copy of the book – it was quite a bit smaller than I’d imagined, coming in under 200 pages long.  It’s also very much a workbook of sorts for people wanting to tackle their struggles.  Similar to many books on organizing and hoarding, it tries to make it clear that unless you are ready to make changes, they will be hard to come by.  It is discouraging to hear that the success of “recovery” is minimal; that it takes continued efforts and mindfulness.

This is the case though for all of us – and applies to any changes we want to make.  As they say in the book, “People start to work on their hoarding problem when the reasons for change outweigh the reasons for not changing, and not a minute sooner.”  Now if you take out the word hoarding, it applies to changes in general.  Changes are difficult to make, whatever they are, and we need to be ready and truly motivated.

They spend some time talking about reinforcement, positive and negative, and how these are critical to self-control and exert powerful influences over our actions.

“We all tend to be motivated most strongly by immediate rather than delayed consequences.  This is a big part of the problem: instead of being able to step back and appreciate the long-term consequences of our actions, we become slaves to the here and now.  …long-term consequences, unpleasant as they may be, simply are not very powerful motivators compared to the immediate…”  Buried in Treasures

I see this in myself sometimes, and this does seem to be universal – we struggle with what impact our decisions will make down the road.  Or even struggle to make decisions in general, though not making a decision is ultimately still making a decision.

I’ve talked before about how I dislike the term “hoarding” and I will even talk to clients about how I myself have some “hoarding” tendencies.  On some level, we all do.  I do have close to 2,500 books.  My husband teases me sometimes about the number of containers I have.  I can resonate with the desire of collecting.  The authors were sharing a story and although the level of my stuff does not compare, it hit home for me: “…defining himself not by what he did, but rather by what he had and what he hoped to do. … Now ask yourself: is the amount I have proportional to the amount I do?”  I, like some many others, have big dreams – many ideas and hopes – and collecting items for that one possible day translates too often into having excess clutter.  Now, I evaluate whether the things are relevant for me currently or are more for a dream.  I can always find those again if it becomes more than a dream.

The authors spend time talking about some of the common struggles people face – the idea of “how did this happen to me?” There are many tips and techniques they share.  Two of them stood for me. One is the idea of the OHIO principle, which I talked about in a previous post – where you move pieces along in your system and aren’t worrying about loose ends because it’s been “handled.”  The other was “elaborative processing” where people have “the tendency to think of more and more uses for an object.” I played with this for myself, how creative could I get – and at what point do I not care anymore what it’s potential is.

In closing, another quote – a goal we all share, to find balance in our lives:

“…for most of us, successfully navigating life means striking the right balance between that feels good and what is good. … There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer; it depends on the person and situation.  But living a balanced and successful life does involve, at least some of the time, inhibiting things that are immediately reinforcing and instead choosing things that will pay off in the long run.  Another way of saying this is that we run into trouble when we become too dependent on immediate rewards, and lose focus on long-term goals.”

Review: Organizing from the Inside Out

At this year’s NAPO conference, Julie Morgenstern gave one of the keynote presentations and after that, she signed her books.  I didn’t bring the one book I owned for her to sign – Organizing from the Inside Out.  Although it’s been a number of years since I’ve read this book cover to cover, I do periodically reread sections.  I also liked this enough to borrow Organizing from the Inside Out for Teenagers from the library and then to buy a couple of books at NAPO (which I then got signed!).  I look forward to making time to read those down the road.

One of the things that I appreciate about both books I’ve read by Julie Morgenstern is that she insists you find your way to the organizing answers.  If you’ve read her book, you’ll have seen many similar posts from me.  I also use a quote from her in almost every presentation I give since it resonated deeply for me:

Being organized has less to do with the way an environment looks than how effectively it functions.  If a person can find what he or she needs when she or she needs it, feels unencumbered in achieving his or her goals, and is happy in his or her space, then that person is well organized.  ‘Organizing is the process by which we create environments that enable us to live, work, and relax exactly as we want to.  When we are organized, our homes, offices, and schedules reflect and encourage who we are, what we want, and where we are going.’  — Organizing from the Inside Out, first chapter

This is a critical piece to me when I talk with people – that what is important is their definition of being organized.

In Organizing from the Inside Out, she spends the first 2 (out of 4) talking about general principles: “Laying the Foundation” and “Secrets of a Professional Organizer.”  Part 3 is the main chunk of the book and spends time talking about specific rooms and items (i.e. purses, suitcases, filing cabinet, memorabilia).  She wraps the book up with “Time and Technology” briefly, and has a whole book Time Management from the Inside Out (one I did buy and will read!).  She also provides several appendices with further resources.

As an organizer, I appreciate that she spends some time addressing the possible things that are getting in the way for people struggling with organization.  She also spends time talking about the steps that people often want to skip when embarking on getting organized.  She breaks the process down so that it’s easy to understand and follow.

I’ve mentioned before I’m not a big fan of acronyms, I find them hard to remember and largely unhelpful, and she does use one as a basis for getting organized.  It’s SPACE: sort, purge, assign a home, containerize, and equalize.  Essentially I can appreciate this steps, especially the need to do them in order after you’ve completed analyzing the situation, strategized, and then moving into the attack mode (where SPACE comes in).  She offers time estimates for the rooms and items, as many people struggle with figuring out how long things will likely take them.

If only organizing books could solve everyone’s clutter problems! We all know they don’t, sometimes it takes someone else coming in and helping.  Fresh eyes, fresh perspective, someone to ask those questions and wait for an answer – these things we cannot always do for ourselves.  I love how she encourages you to think outside the box and find the inner style that will make organizing work for you.  I also know that for just me, that this is often extremely challenging to actually accomplish – and my organizing struggles are minor compared to some people.  Some of her ideas seem great as ideas, but I sometimes question the practicality of them.

There is a plethora of organizing books available, and I would recommend this one.  Some of my clients have more than a shelf full of books on how to get organized – and although I’ve not ready most of them (gasp!); this would be one to keep (and yes, I’d encourage you to recycle most of the others).  It has the essentials on getting and staying organized, if you can follow her steps.  This is probably why there are so many books out there, maybe another speaks to you and your style.

Styles of Procrastination

Do you procrastinate? I think everyone does. Period – everyone, at least to some degree or another. The question really comes down to whether your procrastination is interfering with your life – and the degree will vary between people. Some people are guilt-ridden with “minor” procrastination and others can procrastinate with much more tolerance. Some of us want to minimize the procrastination behaviors while others are managing as it is.

My mom would tell you that I’m a chronic procrastinator. I’m notoriously bad about sending letters and packages in a timely way. I certainly see that there are areas where I do procrastinate and in general, I’m fascinated with procrastination. This is one of the reasons I picked up and read It’s About Time!: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them Dr. Linda Sapadin with Jack Maguire.

As it says in the title, she breaks chronic, pervasive, and deeply-rooted procrastination into 6 styles: perfectionist, dreamer, worrier, defier, crisis-maker, and the overdoer. She provides a quiz so you can figure out which type or types are your personal style. The quiz focuses on the 6 types with 10 questions where you answer the questions with 1 of 3 possible choices: frequently, sometimes, and rarely or never. There’s an easy formula for calculating your scores and where you get a score of 10 or more, this makes that type of procrastination a major style for you. When your score in a type is 9 or less, this is a minor style for you.

Each type then gets a chapter with examples of people who’ve struggled with this type of procrastination and why. She spends most of the chapter addressing 3 areas that will make a difference in changing this type of procrastination: changing how you think, changing how you speak, and changing how you act. For the changing how you think, she has a visualization for each of the 6 types.

I took the quiz, twice, actually! I took it as I started the book, and scored 10 or above in 4 of the 6 procrastination styles. Later I was talking to various people about how I had read this book and how I scored high in several areas (a case when scoring high is not such a good thing!). I decided to retake the quiz, mostly just out of curiosity. That time my highest score was a 6 in one type. My conclusion is that the test is not statistically valid, since I could get wildly different scores and is a reflection of my own state of mind. (For those of you who don’t know me, you might not realize that I have a self-critical nature. ☺) It’s completely plausible to me that I would get different results, and the truth is that my procrastination probably also ties in with my state of mind in the moment.

I appreciate that she focuses on the idea of helping the reader to find ways that work for them – she’s not implying that there’s a “right” way to be, so she’s “inviting you to change from your personal path of avoidance – the BUT path—to your personal path of resolution—the AND path.” The number of case studies, examples of others who’ve struggled is varied and was easy for me to relate to the styles. People’s behaviors vary greatly within each of the types of procrastination.

The visualizations for each type of procrastination are interesting, and create some major repetition since the directions are included in each chapter. I’ve never been one for visualizations, so this did not speak to me much. I could see how the visualizations could be helpful for people though.

From what I can tell, from looking within myself, to working with various people, to friends and family – procrastination is a highly complex behavior. As a whole, breaking procrastination into 6 styles seems too limiting. There are too many other possible issues involved with why we procrastinate. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting look at procrastination as it relates to our personality.