Corralling unruly receipts [video]

[youtube=] [watch "Corralling Unruly Receipts on YouTube; 1:54 of your life]

This week's video installment features a verrrrry old trick I use to keep all of my credit card receipts in one spot, but as I mention in the video, hey, it occurred to me once out of nowhere; maybe it hasn't occurred to everyone yet.


  1. Get a large envelope—mine is a size 12 (4.75" x 11")—of the type my union used to use to send me big, fat residual checks. Bank statement envelopes are also good, if you still get those in the mail. You can also use a regular letter-sized envelope, of course, but you will not be able to shirk your bookkeeping duties for as long as I do.
  2. Trim off the flap of the envelope.
  3. Staple the top (cut) edge of the envelope to the top, inside flap of a manila envelope.
  4. Insert in file drawer and watch your life magically change!

I guess I should note here that if you do not have a filing cabinet or use files, this will be of little-to-no use to you. However, you may find the video entertaining. (You would have to be really bored to do so, but oh, well.)

Thanks, please feel free to leave helpful comments, and if you do, please don't forget to be nice!

xxx c

P.S. January's newsletter went out today! If you're subscribed and did not get it, please check your spam folder. Partly because it's a good one and partly because, well, there are going to be a few changes in newsletter-land soon, and them what ain't opening their newsletters regularly are likely to find themselves out in the cold. And if you're not subscribed and you like this blog, you should be!

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 19: Contact clutter


I wiped almost a thousand people from my life today in less than two hours.

To be fair, many of them were 'bots, duplicates and other sync-rot from Google Contacts and Address Book. But a fair number were people, actual human beings, whom I've met along the way, one way or another, and either lost touch with or wanted to lose touch with, but didn't have the nerve to delete.

Pruning one's address book or Rolodex back in the hard-copy days could be a melancholy affair. Did you cross out that dead (or dead-to-you) person, or let it ride? Did you pull the little white cards from their metal (or later, plastic) spools, conceding defeat, acknowledging opportunities abandoned and hills not conquered? Or did you leave them in there thinking "Maybe...maybe this year I'll go back and reconnect with Ken over at Spacely Sprockets?"

Today, it seems easier but really, is it? The select/delete action is so simple, but so brutal. Just like that, these people and the promises those relationships once held are gone forever, again and again and again. Almost 1,000 of them, in less than 120 minutes. For every one that was a relief to let go of (and trust me, the photo exercise from Brooks' workshop primed me for some serious eradication action), there were 10 that were harder, and one or two that made me downright melancholy. Decluttering photos made me feel lighter; decluttering my address book just made me feel that much closer to death.

Okay, it also made me feel like a loser. When I'd see all the information I'd plugged into some of these entries, contacts that I added to be a friend or opportunity collector more than anything else, I felt like there was a big, red "L" stamped on my forehead. Talk about sunk costs! These entries represented hours and hours of my life I'll never get back: hours I could have put into making something or reading something or just actually being with someone.

We have versions of The Container Store and IKEA's excellent storage solution porn aids all around us. It is so much easier to feel virtuous rearranging and categorizing than it is to take a cold, hard look at what we legitimately have at our disposal that is of utility.

I'll talk more about my criteria for cutting (and keeping) later on, in a screencast showing how I organize my contact management system (if you can call Address Book that without laughing).

In the meantime, may I repeat my mantra of the past almost-three weeks: Let go, let go, let go...


Image by Sreejith K. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Clearing my (psychic) clutter, Day 16: iTunes clutter (video)

I've somewhat neglected the removal of digital clutter thus far in my quest, as I'm home amongst the physical stuff for now and will be removed from it for 2+ weeks while I'm on the road.

I did take some putter-y, relaxation time to declutter my music files over the past weekend, though, and as I was combing through things, sorting and deleting, it occurred to me that there might be some utility in sharing my methods for taming the electronic hydra that is my iTunes folder. This screencast runs down a bunch of tools and tricks I've gathered over the years and includes stuff like

  • using tags to create playlists
  • the kinds of playlists (and playlist groups) I've found useful and fun
  • setting up a master playlist so that you can let iTunes deejay your whole collection without having that pesky podcast, screaming guitar or Christmas song jump in and stomp on your audio buzz

Show me yer rig! (iTunes edition) from communicatrix on Vimeo.

Remember, if you click the little button in the bottom-right corner of the player, you can watch it in full-screen mode. And if you click through to Vimeo, you should be able to watch it in high-def, very helpful with all that teensy type. Also, I've enlarged the mouse pointer thingy this time, which may help with legibility.

Not strictly about decluttering, although it gets one thing off my to-do list!

Please let me know what you think in the comments!


Book review: Work the System

cogs and gears of a gigantic machine

I suppose there are small business owners and solopreneurs and plain old freelancers out there who never find themselves with too little time or too much stress, but I've met a lot more of the other kind.

Most of us seem to spend most of our time running from fire to fire, an all-too-recognizable analogy, along with Whac-A-Mole, that perennial favorite of arcade-dwelling masochists everywhere, that author and business owner Sam Carpenter evokes many, many times in the revised 2nd edition of his 2008 book Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less.

If we're lucky, we come to a moment of awakening, then follow it up with the kind of right work and right action that will get us out of the hole we're in; if we're not, we just work until we or our businesses drop dead. Carpenter was about as close to the breaking point both personally and financially with his telecommunications outsourcing business when he had, as he calls it, a kind of out of body experience: he rose up and was suddenly able to see his business differently; it was not a mass of fires but a working organism, a gigantic but self-contained mega-system made up of many smaller, self-contained mini-systems that all worked (or didn't) together. The picture worked for this engineer-minded businessman, and in that moment, he both vowed to right the system to its natural state of balance, and began the process of systematically (haha) doing so.

I've yet to describe my own epiphany in detail (saving it for my book!), nor have I fully internalized the idea that everything is a system that can be broken down into components, but I completely get how everything in Carpenter's world suddenly made a whole lot of sense, because he could actually see things differently.

And even without fully internalizing the Work the System concept, I can see instantly how I already have implemented orderly processes in many of my own life's systems, which gives me hope that I might be able to wrassle the bear that is my business to the ground with sound principles applied methodically. I point to my homemade, SCD-compliant yogurt as Exhibit A: if you'd told me 10 years ago that not only would I make my own yogurt, but that I would do it with the nonchalance and regularity of brushing and flossing my teeth, I'd have laughed...after I put down my leaded Coke and Chee-tos. And the more I scan for them, the more I can, as Carpenter suggests, start seeing them everywhere: my Photoshop workflow for creating presentation templates; my years making silver jewelry in metalsmithing; even the way I can come up with a cheese omelet and hot espresso in the morning on autopilot.

The Chief Atheist used to like saying (and, I imagine, still does), "Life is a series of techniques." This is the kernel of Carpenter's thesis, to which I might add, "...nestled together like a series of Russian dolls or CSS boxes." He says it rather overly, perhaps, section the first, which is all about the underlying theory, nudges hard up against being overly repetitive, something Carpenter cops to: it's too important not to flog at length.

On the other hand, parts 2 and 3 fly by, full as they are of actual examples from Carpenter's life and business: of the systems implemented, of the kinds of documentation he developed for them, of the crazy lessons he learned along the way. And he's funny! And earnest, and real, with diverse interests! The commie-pinko-liberal-hippie in me completely grooved on all the references to '60s and '70s musicians (anyone who brings up Zappa in a business book is my kinda guy), while the nerd in me nodded along to his invocations of Stephen Covey and his 7 habits, or Gerber and his E-Myth.

Obviously, I haven't "worked the system" for my business yet. The process begins, as I mentioned above, with a thorough internalizing of the concepts, followed by a crap-ton of paperwork (he walks you through that part, as well as sharing the documents that he developed for his company).

That's okay. First, I don't mind paperwork, and second, I understand first-hand that once you spend a little time up front thinking through and plotting out and implementing a system, the time saved on the other end is tremendous. Just ask someone who's lost cognitive faculties and is having to re-learn how to do everything with new neural pathways. Or hell, make yourself a PB&J with your feet: you'll see right quick.

Me? I'm already sold, and starting work on communicatrix 3.0: the well-oiled, smooth-running, mole-free version...


Through this evening (Tuesday, July 14, at 6pm PDT), you can get a free PDF version of Work the System by visiting the website and entering your email address. Click here now, dammit!


Image (top) by Elsie esq. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Burger King® method* of Getting Things (Really) Done

moleskine pda supplies I spent yesterday getting coached into organization by one phenomenal couple of personal productivity experts.

It was everything I'd hoped for. And nothing I expected. (Or, shall I say, feared.)

What I feared, and you can see this coming, if you've thought it through, is that I didn't clean up enough for the cleaning lady. Or balance my checkbook properly for the bookkeeper. Or any other of a number of analogies that basically boil down to Oh, god...please don't let my complete inability to do things the Right Way reveal the Hopeless Failure of a Human Being that I truly am.

I was expecting a protracted walk-through of my lame computer file structure, my equally lame physical files, my overflowing in-basket, my scores of lists and calendars and other Helpful Toolsâ„¢ creating redundancy and general chaos. Instead, we started with a surprisingly quotidian question:

"What's a typical 'Colleen' day?"

And so I spun it out for them: the getting-up and getting tea. The booting-up-of-computer and making-of-bed. That first, fantastic blast of email & Twitter goodness: all the missives and blog comments and howdy-dos from my friends, real and virtual, that have popped up between bedtime and now, thanks to auto-mailers and insomniacs and my location on the West Coast. Eggs and coffee. And then...well, then a day that could be anything. All writing or a mix of writing and talking and design. A lot of, as I told everyone I met at SXSW, farting around on the Internet. A 2.3-mile walk around the Silver Lake reservoir at some point. Consistent inconsistency, from somewhere around 7am to somewhere around 10pm, seven days a week, 350-odd days a year.

They listened and smiled and nodded. Non-judgmentally. With genuine courtesy and curiosity.

Emboldened, I mentioned the soundtrack of "shoulds" that accompanied my tasks like a non-stop iTunes playlist. I should be doing something else. I should be doing this better. I should do this now, but let me deal with it later.

After taking in the entire sweep of me and my neuroses, we got to work. Which, as it turned out, meant getting all my stuff in front of me, where I could see it in one place. And learning a few simple ways to process new stuff so that as it came in, I could put it in a place where I could find it later.

Amazingly, there was no talk of best practices or Holy Grails or Right Ways of Doing Things. There was just me, and my process, and some gentle guidance towards self-discovery of the best way to support it.

On my own, I realized I was carrying around a paper calendar because I thought I should, because I had seen someone else's paper calendar working for him. Like gangbusters. So I had tried several times to implement this paper calendar system: to map out my day to the 10-minute pod the night or the week before, and sit down each morning and follow it word for word.

It worked, a couple of times. And it felt great, having a whole day full of getting all these things done.

It also felt like a nun standing over my shoulder, guilting me into being a good girl. Or a noose around my neck, loosely tied, perhaps, and pretty...the Hermes scarf of nooses. But a noose, still.

I do not do well, you see, with being told what to do: I do well with suggestions, and the breezier, the better. I like the feeling, illusion or not, that I'm choosing my actions moment to moment.

No doubt this tendency to suspect the walls are always closing in is why marriage felt more like a straight jacket than a security blanket. I remember distinctly proposing to my then-husband that we privately and quietly divorce, but continue to maintain the outside appearance of being married. That way, we'd catch no flak from pesky outsiders, and we would have a profound and glorious shared secret: we would be choosing to stay together every single day; we would co-create our relationship as we went along.

No wonder that scheduling thing didn't work out too well. Or the marriage, for that matter.

At some point toward the end of our day together, Jason and Jodi explained the faulty reasoning behind so many well-intentioned attempts to get organized: if I perform these this binder...sort according to this system, I will be free.

Instead, the way to look at it is more like this:

I am free.

I can employ my freedom in service of my unique goals and gifts. By getting very clear on what those goals are, whether by assiduous self-observation or third-party assessment or giving myself the space to let them bubble to the surface, or any combination. By any means that works for me.

I can also employ my freedom to unearth my natural working style. And then, again, to find the services and methods and structure to support it.

Like anything else, it takes a little more work and finesse to find your own way in the world. It's like the difference between couture and off-the-rack. Or styling things from the ground up vs. Garanimals. It takes a little work to find the unique sculpture locked in every slab of marble. But it's there. And, to paraphrase old Martha Graham in her famous confab with old Agnes de Mille, if you don't find it, you will seriously harsh on the planet's mellow.

I wish, oh, how I wish, that there was one answer in one book, and that all I had to do was find that book. Instead, the maps to your map are in the books. Look at that person's journey, and see what you can find in her struggles or his mishaps or their lightbulb moments that makes you tingly. The truth comes at us sideways, usually, and when we least expect it. Our job, I increasingly believe, is to prime ourselves for reception...and reflection...and synthesis.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with getting yourself a nice, new Moleskine notebook or a sexy MP3 recorder, if they'll make the journey sweeter. I'm down with the gadgetry.

But for me, for now, the road to enlightenment is paved with some calendars output from iCal shoved into a plain, old artist's sketchbook with a Uniball Micro shoved down the spiral.

Wave as you pass by on your way...

xxx c

*For those of you who have never subjected yourself to the media matrix, "Have It Your Wayâ„¢" is the trademarked tagline of the Burger King corporation, and a cornerstone of their operations, marketing and positioning. Because, as anyone who's ever tried to order a Filet-O-Fishâ„¢ with extra® tartar© sauce and No Cheeseâ„¢ has discovered, having it your way is not the way of certain other major quick-service establishments.

Image by walker clevelands via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

There's also a wealth of wonderful shots (for inspirational/idea-unsticking purposes) with the simple Flickr search of "moleskine" in the attribution/non-commercial/as-is section of Creative Commons licensing; one favorite is this one by Mike Rohde, which has a staggering comments section.

Revolution of the High-Tech Luddites

terrie YAMO

I've been a dork all my life, but I'm still just barely a geek. I love the toys (DVR, nano, anything from Adobe); I fear the code.

My boyfriend, a.k.a. "The BF", who has about 20 extra computing years on me (but is a year younger, damn him) also likes the toys but is very, very good with the code. A genius, in fact. No, seriously, it's been quantified. He also has greater facility with the pen tool, better hair, AND a penis. If I couldn't cook, I'd kill myself.

The point is, dude knows his way around a computer. He'd better; he owns seven of them. (I think. I officially lost count on Sunday after we brought the new 17" PowerBook home from Fry's.) Yet from Day One (and I know this, because I have the emails to prove it) he described himself as a "high-tech Luddite". I chuckled to myself reading that way back when, and made a mental note to have sex with him as soon as possible because that shit is HOT.

Anyway, ten months later, I'm marveling over not only how right he was, but how right on. Code isn't the enemy; coding, like writing or painting, might even be considered useful in some circles. It's the shiny object factor of computers that'll bring you to your knees.

The way I see it is this: back when I was 10, I had a prodigious creative output. In addition to going to school full-time and maintaining close relationships with an elite but good-sized circle, I taught myself to draw, kept a diary, sent letters, wrote horrible plays I forced my cousins to act in, and not only administrated but provided news coverage for an entire doll village of 50 (in three columns...with a t-y-p-e-w-r-i-t-e-r).

How did I manage to do all of this and still have time to ruin my eyes reading under the covers?

Well, there was none of that pesky cooking to get in the way, to be sure, but there was also the now-quaint practice of doing one thing at a time. You wouldn't think of talking on the phone while you watched TV while you did your homework because: (a), you'd get your butt stomped for not taking your homework seriously; (b), you'd get your butt stomped for hogging the phone when there might be an important long distance call coming in; and (c), you'd get your butt stomped for having the TV on, period.

Compare this, if you will, to today's scenario: me, at the G5, on hold with the phone company, watching (insert crappy TV show here) playing in the upper-left hand corner of the screen, listening to (insert crappy talk radio show here) playing on the radio, updating the ER website as I back up files to the external hard drive, peeling off every now and then to stir whatever's (yes) cooking on the stove.

Maybe I will kill myself.

Or maybe I will just say "no". No, I don't need a second digital cable box hooked up to the computer. No, I can't realistically keep up with 45 feeds*. No, having 10 different email accounts (at last count) isn't making life easier; it's making things exponentially more complex, which is making me exponentially more scattered and anxious.

I've talked about paring down my offline crap; now it's time to tackle the electronic focus-fracturers. No more slave to the electronic overlords, I; from now on, it's Paul Ford's Amish Computing all the way.

My escape plan combines elements of the methodology laid out by the geek bible, Getting Things Done, by David Allen mixed with tips I've culled from my online brethren (Lifehacker, Lifehack, 43 Folders) to help me in my quest.

Call it irony if you will; I think of it as poetic justice.



*Pared down from 71 at the start of this post because of the deep, deep shame I felt upon seeing this hideously high number.

Photo of dork playing a dork in a dorky play taken by some yearbook geek from E.T.H.S. circa 1978

Getting my house in order

lists For someone who likes organizing, I'm not a particularly organized person. Oh, sure, I like the fou-fou labeling and 43 Folders and fetish trips to Office Depot aspects of it, but all of that is window dressing belying my real status as Queen of Mt. Perilous, that towering stack of unknown "to-be-handled" paper that I never, ever seem to be able to reverse-traverse my way to the bottom of.

I paid Asshole Tax last month, though, in triplicate (dinged thrice for automatic transfer of funds to cover payments out of checking) which so disgusted me, I made an appointment with my tax preparer for this coming Monday, which for me is the economic equivalent of throwing a party to make oneself clean the house. I have a high tolerance for nagging guilt (half-Jewish + raised Catholic = guilt bonanza) but an extremely low tolerance for wasting money. In fact, the only time I can take it is when I'm really sick, really tired, or on vacation. And, if the pricing on Tylenol in Las Vegas hotel gift shops is any indication, I am not alone in this.

But something has got to give. Despite my well-nurtured (but probably innate) bent for overachievement, I cannot, it is clear, do it all. And I'm of the belief that one can really only commit to three projects really well at any given time. Why three, I don't know. But I've tried four, and I think it goes without saying that I've tried five to fifty-six, and really, three is the limit. Whether or not you have any kind of a life worth living outside of your to-do list, which, God willin' and the creek don't rise, I'll continue to enjoy.

So I'm starting right now. Instead of going to 43 Things and doing it, I'm going to out myself here. My three things. Bam, bam, bam: laserlike focus, until they're done (or done enough) or i've decided they're done (as opposed to defaulting into discarding them). Previously, my Three Things have included such super-fun tasks as...

  1. Write screenplay.
  2. Find attorney.
  3. Get rid of horrible rash on face.


  1. Get well.
  2. Put on weight.
  3. Get off of medication.

But I have never, to my knowledge, made "Get house in order" one of the three things. So here we (gulp) go:

  1. Finish pilot presentation for "#1 & #2".
  2. Achieve reasonable proficiency on piano and guitar.
  3. Get house in order.

I realize that #3, the thing that's kicking "Blog every day" off of the list, is kind of a gigantic, squishy catch-all, especially when compared to (hey!) #1 & #2. I suppose it's just such an intensely personal batch of items that I'm a little uncomfortable sharing it with all 47 of you. But Mt. Perilous is first, to be immediately (and I mean IMMEDIATELY) followed by tax prep. After that, I'll see what I feel is appropriate for public consumption. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up making my whole process public, like Evelyn is so bravely doing.

But what I am definitely doing is giving myself permission to be less than perfect here. As communicatrix, the Blog, serves communicatrix, the Vastly Flawed Human Being, I'll employ it, in service of this task, or as occasional diversion. Just maybe not as often. And maybe not as deeply.

Or who knows? Maybe it'll be deeper and richer and better than ever.

Let's see where the journey takes us.

xxx c