Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dream Dinners - First Impressions

I came across a coupon for Dream Dinners to have the meals prepared for me for no additional fee, so I placed an order which I picked up this afternoon.

My first thought is: wow, my world is small. My food was available for pickup between 3 and 6 and since Trajan was supposed to have swimming (Hurricane Dolly changed that) and I needed to pick up Jack, I decided to run over at 3, pick the stuff up, take it to the house and go back to work. I was back in front of my computer in under 20 minutes. This is my office to car in the garage to Dream Dinners to the house to the freezer to unpack back to the car to the office to park in the garage and then back to my office. And that 20 minutes includes one light and the fact that it was raining.

Back on topic: I was immediately greeted when I got there. The employee took my name and came back quickly with all of my meals. While my meals had already been packaged together to allow for quick pickup, she took the time to go through my order list and the food to make sure everything was there as she loaded my meals into the cooler I'd brought. I was given a couple minor tips on some of the entrees and I was on my way!

While in the store, I discovered that when you package your food yourself it's really just combining things. Everything is already chopped or diced or otherwise prepared except for the combination step. Since all the meals are basically just assorted mush combined in a sack, I worry that this limits the food they can offer since it doesn't allow for incremental cooking or sautéing components. What I got all looks good though, so we'll see.

When I got the food to the house, I started to put it into the deep freeze, but I decided that I should make things as easy on myself as possible and so I put it into the freezer in the kitchen. Since I cleaned the freezer out a few weeks ago, there was plenty of room to put everything in in an organized, easy-to-access fashion.

We're going out of town this weekend, so I placed everything but the Hawaiian Chicken into the freezer.

So far, Dream Dinners has been a simple, reliable, clean method to get food. I'll obviously have to reflect more once I've actually prepared the meals and we've eaten them, but no complaints to date.

For those of you who are cost-focused, I ordered 14 3-serving dishes and 1 6-serving dish as well as three side dishes and the total out-the-door cost was $193.35. To give a comparative baseline, the food for the sample week of The Scramble that I did was just over $100 or so.

Freezer Cooking

I haven't really looked into the "do-it-yourself" freezer cooking method, but one of the books that I looked at in the lunch section made me think about this. The book was from the 30 Meals in One Day system. This sounds very interesting, but I'm having trouble turning up specific information or reviews of these products. Particularly, I'd like to read people's thoughts about the software component of the system.

I found "A Beginner's Guide to Once a Month Cooking" which looks pretty informative, but I'm a little intimidated by the whole idea. I made all Trajan's food from the time he started eating to 9 months because of his food sensitivities and I did this in very large bulk sessions with freezing, but somehow I don't think that could have prepared me for this endeavor.

From what I've seen so far, these books seem to contain recipes as stand-alone items. I think I'd feel better if I'd find one that belongs more to the "planning school of thought" that specifies what recipes I'm making, a master shopping list and a moment-by-moment guide to what I should be doing in terms of prep and cooking to move through the recipes. I know some people might have problems with being told what to eat, and that's probably why I can't find a set version, but we eat anything and I really think a step-by-step guide would be so much easier for an initial try.

What's the cost difference of preparing meals this way versus through something like Dream Dinners? There's obviously more flexibility as to the size of the recipe you make and what recipes you cook, but does Dream Dinners use their bulk purchasing to get a cost advantage?

What's a good option as a resource for someone approaching this once-a-month cook and freeze approach? Any that should particularly be shied away from? Any of them provide planning assistance in terms of recommending side dishes?

Lunch Planning

With the increase in people brown-bagging their lunch, it seems like there would be a definite market for a product like the dinner meal planners that specializes in lunches. Meals for the week, a complete grocery list and steps for preparing it including what can be done the night before. It would be particularly cool if this was tied in with one of the dinner planners to minimize ingredients and steps, but that's a bonus in my mind.

I for one would definitely pay a dollar a week (this seems to be the typical price of the dinner planners) for something that took the decision making out of planning lunches, provided a combined shopping list and included packing/prepping/eating tips.

This service should include some of the features that I look for in the dinner planners such as allowing you to change out or remove meals if you desire. Also, it would be nice if it included information about what recipes required refrigeration (ie can not be unrefrigeratored for 4-6 hours), whether they are "brown-bag" friendly or require more of a box or laptop-type case, if they can be prepared the night before and whether they require any tools/equipment for at-time-of-eating preparation. It might be nice if there were checkboxs where you could indicate your preferences for these issues before you began your customization, but just being able to remove/add recipes would be sufficient.

I haven't searched a lot yet, but so far I haven't turned up something that provides this service. There are recipes and advice, but no site seems to offer a "we'll tell you what to eat each day and you just have to follow our instructions" program.

A company called Laptop Lunches that makes a lunch packing system has a pdf that provides some basic ideas for things to go into a lunch. They provide this same list along with a lot of other information and tips on their website and have a photo gallery of lunches packed if you are a visual person. If you order their system, it includes a guide (which reviews well on Amazon)containing recipes and tips and they have a couple books (even a vegan one) and a dvd available on their site with more information about lunch preparation. In addition to the basic set ($35), they have a larger, fancier one called the Lunch Date ($115). That's pretty pricey, but I could see someone who had been using the basic system consistently deciding to take the plunge though I think you could definitely build a similar enhanced system yourself for less. Get a bag that you like (bonus: it's personal), a thermos and a soup type thermos and you're there. One final nice thing about the system is that you can get additional inner containers so you don't have to wait until the previous days are clean to prepare it.

Another fun site I turned up is Lunch in a Box. This site has a ton of information about preparing bento style lunches to the point that it's actually pretty overwhelming. Unfortunately, there is no "starting from the beginning" sequential section or book, so I think implementing this would be a little difficult.

There are some books that look like they would be good tools for someone to generate their own plans, so this might be the best course of action to take. Identifying a book that balances taste, variety and nutrition with quick, simple and convenience is a real challenge, but some books worth looking at:

Lunch Box: Creative Recipes for Everyday Lunches - this looks like it might be good at helping to expand our minds about what can be a packed lunch. Review complains that they're too healthy and not tasty enough.
The Brown Bag Lunch Cookbook - has an intentional adult focus, includes general lunch prep tips. Not currently in stock as new. Many of the recipes seem like they would take a while and this is a complaint within the reviews.
Brown Bag Success: Making Healthy Lunches Your Kids Won't Trade - kidcentric, but includes a monthly planning cycle approach which might ease the planning burden. Reviews complain about extensive use of peanut butter (many schools are peanut free) and lack of health-value/poor nutrition.
The Healthy Lunchbox - focuses on healthy, nutritional meals written under American Diabetic Association. Provides logistical information about preparing and packaging lunches. Reviews indicate that recipes appeal to adults as well as kids. Has a unique interview to ask kids (though I imagine you could do it yourself) to get lunches they actually like.
The Top 100 Recipes for a Healthy Lunchbox - this is another kid-centric cookbook, but does not limit itself to traditional kid ingredients and does emphasis healthy recipes. A review notes that adults enjoy the recipes as well. Appears to be just recipes without any instructional content.
The Lunchbox Book: Nutritional and Creative Ideas - provides flexibility and information for altering recipes for food allergies and some other health conditions. Only 30 meals included and focused exclusively on kids.
Lunch is Ready: 30 Meals in 1 Day - bulk preparing and freezing, but for lunch! A different approach, but one that I could see working well. Contains over 200 recipes, so more content variety than many of the books and all are freezable. Currently unavailable though.
Lunchbox Menus for You - Contains 40 5-day menus each with a shopping list! Claims good nutritional basis, but I worry that the meals are too basic/simple. Reviews say it is well-formatted and easy to use, even making the shopping lists removable. Only 86 pages and I'm a little worried how they fit all that information in there and it seems like it may be too kid-based.
Lunch Boxes and Snacks: Over 120 Healthy Recipes - in addition the recipes, it includes information on how to pack lunches and what can be made the night before. Reviews indicate that the recipes are varied, tasty and suitable to adults as well as kids.
The Brown Bag Lunch - Not too much information available, but very positive reviews lauding the taste and appeal of the recipes. Every recipe includes information on how it should be packaged and when it needs to be prepared.


My final thought on this issue is if you decide that you can create this system and fill this gap, please don't just make a kid-centric, bland program. I'm pretty convinced that if you feed kids flavorful, diverse meals, they will eat them. I'm not saying you can't recognize the existence of some picky kids and provide some options or functionality to handle plain-jane eaters, but there are so many working adults and kids who eat all kinds of food who will really enjoy the broader menu.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Meal Planning Software

I completed the Scramble sample and overall was very happy with it. I'm picking up some Dream Dinner meals tomorrow and will evaluate that, but if I decide I want to take the meal planning route, I think I will probably just go ahead and join the Scramble. It seems like the best degree of specialization of the programs on the market now; it incorporates side dishes, and updates your shopping list based on the meals you pick.

Despite my selecting them as the best options, there are definitely areas in which they could improve and areas of this genre that are untapped. I have examined both the areas in which a product could be distinguished within the industry first and then things that are specific to The Scramble.



Areas for Differentiation in the Industry


With all this thinking about meal planning websites, I have had some ideas of ways that either one of the existing meal planners could distinguish their product and increase market share or a newcomer could even enter the field and do well.

Allow other additions to shopping list. All of the current products that I've looked at provide a shopping list and some alter this list to match your customized meal plan, but none allows you to enter in other extraneous products. Being able to stick your need for cereal and Ziploc bags would be of value. Ideally, the site would place as many of these added products as possible in the correct section, but it could just put them all in one lump and perhaps allow the user to drag them to the correct sections before printing.

This is an area that a company could distinguish themselves to an even greater degree by adding some additional functionality. By allowing email or SMS submissions (look at I Want Sandy for the functionality idea) or even an iPhone app, they could provide full grocery store list support. There are tons of options, such as Jott, that could be used to make this as easy as possible. Any company looking at this should be careful that adding this ability just adds flexibility and does not add burdensome, mandatory maintenance, but done carefully, I think this could be a great may to make a product distinct.

Include relevant skill tutorials. I actually got this idea from an NPR story on yarn. This story discussed a store called Jimmy Beans Wool that has established a strong market share by unique features such as video reviews and project support. I think a meal planning site could see a similar result if they added tutorials, possibly even video ones.

In my mind, there should be general tutorials, i.e. how to dice an onion, that can be accessed from the website, preferably with a clearly labeled, easy-to-find section of their own. I do think they need to have a stand-alone area, but I think their best value would come from each recipe containing links to tutorials applicable to it. In the case of a program like The Scramble that already has a system set up to customize what you print, the system should allow you to select any or all of the applicable written tutorials to include within your weekly printout.

Ideally, there would be both written tutorials and video tutorials, as this would facilitate transfer of knowledge and successful mastery of the contained skills by a variety of types of learners.

Allow Addition of Subscriber's own Recipes. Allowing easy, stress-free customization of a weekly plan is a big selling point of any of these programs. Allowing the subscriber to import his or her own recipes could enhance this feature. As far as I know, only Meal Mixer currently supports this functionality and it is much more time-intensive than what I believe most people are looking for in this market. A company considering this should review some of the many desktop recipe tools in order to implement this as best as possible. There is a good review of 10 Mac-based products including the popular Mac Gourmet to look at as a starting point.

Implementing this functionality would not allow subscribers to add their favorite dinner meals, but also additional side dishes to add to the program as well as information for meals such as brunch that are outside of the normal scope of most of these programs.

Features such as allowing importing of recipes from other websites, discussed in detail in the review above, should be considered, but I think it's important that the company make its first priority keeping the website as straightforward and effortless as possible. Include a feature if it can be blended in, and particularly if it's an option that members can just ignore with no ill effects if they so desire, but consider it very carefully if it will add required time requirements to the subscribers.

Add-on Support of "Other" Meals. I think it is critical for the majority of programs in this genre to stick to the core area of 5-7 weekly dinners by default. However, add-on options that provide assistance for other meals would enhance the appeal of a program. Allowing members to opt-in to adding other meals to their planning and their shopping list would make the product make more closely with the needs of most members throughout a week.

As discussed, the ability to add your own recipes should include these meals, but I think a strong program should include recipes of their own. If the member wants to incorporate them, they should just have to customize their plan and then the recipes will be included in the weekly plan and all the ingredients will be added to the shopping list.

Planned Lunches/Leftovers. This one was actually my husband's idea and I think it's a great one. Contained either within the normal recipes themselves or perhaps as options you can select through the customization process, recipes using related ingredients, leftovers or byproducts could be provided. So, if you're making a meatloaf, a tip for how to combine this meatloaf with bread and some greens to create a sandwich. If you're already baking potatoes, a recipe to make one into a twice-baked potato while you're eating dinner that you can then take for lunch the next day. If you are making pesto for a baked pasta, a recipe for a sandwich incorporating pesto along with directions on how much additional pesto to make.

Calendar Interface. The most basic implementation of this would be to provide a calendar each week that contained all the meals that you'd added for the week. I would like to see this calendar include slots for all the meals that are not included in the planning program as well that you could fill in. Adding some drag and drop ability to move meals around would be nice, but if a company had the technical savvy to get this done, I'd actually advocate developing an interface with products such as Google Calendar, iCal and Outlook. For the sake of simplicity, the company could just develop an interface with Google Calendar as members could then use Google Calendar to update one of the other products if they so desired.

I would like to see the ingredient details and even the entire recipe appear in the detail part of the entry for each meal if this interface with Google was achieved.

Panic Week. A final feature that I believe could be used to distinguish a meal planning site from all the others would be providing what I'm dubbing a Panic Week. This would be similar to the normal weekly plans, but would emphasis quick and easy to the extreme. This would exist so that a member could select it instead of the normal weekly plan if they were feeling very overwhelmed or had a very crazy schedule that week. In my mind, this would consist of quick, simple, low-prep meals, ingredients that are easy to locate and perhaps even some attempt to minimize the number of ingredients needed.

Membership Expiration. This is more of a general issue than a suggestion for a site in the genre. I think these sites, particularly if they are incorporating some of my ideas above, should carefully consider and clearly communicate their policies for memberships and expiration. If your membership lapses, do you immediately lose all of your saved calendar history, menus, recipes and more? Do you have an inactive period in which all your account information will be saved such as one year? Do you commit to maintaining the information for all your members regardless of active or inactive status for as long as you are in business?

General Evaluation. If you are considering starting a site in this genre or have one now that you are reviewing, I think my list of issues to be considered in evaluating a meal planning site are a good think to make sure you consider.


The Scramble-Specific Areas for Improvement

Website Improvements. This is the area needing attention. Overall, the site is quite useable and not bad to look at, but there are some specific areas where it's not performing at it's best.

The FAQ needs to be changed. Tomorrow. Even today would not be unjustified. There are many FAQ products and tools that have been developed including many free and shareware products. If researching and choosing one of these does not make sense either for the short-term or at all, a reasonable alternative would be just to create a list, perhaps divided by the current categories, of questions and answers. It's almost bad enough to advocate removing it entirely if that's the only option, but since a lot of this information is quite valuable to potential subscribers, if they can get into it that is, this isn't actually a good idea.

Links to the sample menu need to be available throughout the website in much the same fashion that the subscribe links are. This kind of product is very personal and since the shortest subscription is 3-months, I think they would get more subscribers if they facilitated more people knowing about and trying the sample menu. This attitude should expand beyond the basic site. For example, there should be a visible, colorful button saying something to the effect of "free Scramble sample menu" placed on the owner's blog that takes the reader directly to the sample menu. Ideally, this will be a page written for this purpose that provides some of the traditional basic info/links as are on the homepage, but the first priority should be to ensure that getting the sample is almost mindless for the person who clicked the link even if this means just linking to the normal sample page.



The "buzz" area, consisting of subscriber reviews, could be improved. Adding the ability to do a search or view by topic would make these more useful. Ideally, the company would go through and tag these with key words when they come in prior to posting to facilitate this. If the company were willing to set up tags, I would highly recommend they then add a tag cloud (example shown). This would not only help people find the comments that are relevant to them, it would also be a visual way of communicating information from the large number of comments that most visitors will never review.

Communication. Despite sending an automatic response to comments stating, "we value your input and will respond to your comment/request within the next 24-48 hours," I have received no response after 14 days. I hope that there won't be much need to contact them as a subscriber, but knowing that they are available if there is a problem, including billing, would be a plus. If they can't manage responses due to volume and time constraints, they should at least get rid of the email promising reply.


Cost Information. There is currently little cost information on the site unless you dig into some of the articles or fight your way into the FAQ (I don't recommend this). As this is actually a strength of the program, I think they should make this more visible.

Articles. Adding links at the top of the articles page to each subject would enhance the value of this resource. In addition, providing the weekly Scramble tips, such as the previous sample one about how to adapt the plan for smaller families, would make absolute sense. This is possibly available now for subscribers, but I have found nothing to indicate that this is so.


General Appearance. This relates to the first topic of website improvements, but while those ideas were specific, this is a general, vague feeling. I don't like the website. I noted that from the onset as The Scramble's biggest problem. I have had trouble identifying what I don't like about the site, but it's blatant enough that I think they should spend some time with a website designer and see if they can figure out what they could do to improve the appearance. This was the best of the five programs that I looked at, but the appearance is such that it has made me hesitant to make a commitment to them.

It might be the huge font on page such as the "buzz", the odd blank spaces between things, maybe the color scheme, or the odd positioning, but something is very aggravating. Why is the quote on the home page positioned at the absolute top of its framing box with large space below and quotation marks that seem out of line with anything escaping the frame? Why is there a huge space under the title of the main page? Why is the font used in basic narrative sections larger than any header or button anywhere else on the webpage? Why is there text in a green font that's very light?

In an interesting irony, the webpage given for the webpage designer just loads a red "x".

For fairness, the website is definitely useable, possibly excluding the FAQ. It's just not at the level that I would expect. Possibly, since the site has been around for five years, they just haven't updated it in which case it is actually nice for 2003. If this is the case, then they really need to suck it up, defy inertia and decide to make a change.



Conclusion

There are a plethora of companies in the meal planning software industry: Meal Designer, Daily Home Planner, e-Mealz, Meal Mixer, eMealsforyou, menus4moms, Menu Planning Central, Dinner Planner and more. Reviewing their sites, much less preparing a sample week, for each is a daunting task. The Scramble seems to meet our purposes, so rather than dedicating the next six months to trying others a week at a time, I am most likely just going to try The Scramble for a quarter. However, if there is a product that someone particularly likes and recommends, please let me know because I will take the time to try any recommended products.

Despite this plethora, I do believe that these is a position for someone to enter the market with a new subscription product and be highly successful by distinguishing themselves from the field and having a well-conceived web product. If you decide this person is you, let me know and I'll be happy to be a beta tester.

If you are lookingn for some more general information, reviews, Real Simple published an article in 2006 looking at 6 of the sites.




Bonus: I just saw that the sample menu for the Scramble has changed! Five different meals, five new sides and a new article. I don't know if they routinely change their sample meal, but if so, it's a brilliant idea to get more people to decide to subscribe. Provide a free sample one week out of each month and send notification of this update to opted in people and they could be golden.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Web appearance and style definitely matters...

I'm beyond buried, but at least for once in my life I recognize this is a problem and am working to get a path out of it and to prevent this from happening again which will hopefully keep our whole division a little more coordinated as a bonus :-).

But here's my tidbit of thought for the day/week. The appearance of your website matters if you are trying to present a product or service. Really for any website, but especially if this is something you are incorporating as a part of your livelihood.

I really support the people who are not only willing to admit this, but acknowledge that their current webpage isn't what they want to be presenting to the world and more significantly, put in the work to make a change and defeat the danger of apathy breed by years of appearing that way.

We have a good friend who provides private dog training, classes specifically tailored to companion dogs and provides high-quality boarding through her company, Buddy's Chance. She's actually had the site since earlier days when she provided pet-sitting services, so she definitely had years of familiarity with the status quo.

Courtesy of the wayback machine, here's how the general layout of her website looked on April 5, 2007: http://web.archive.org/web/20070405230251rn_1/www.buddyschance.com/Austin_Dog_Trainer.html.
Now, here's how it looks as of today: http://www.buddyschance.com/

Serious improvement, don't you think?

She's someone who appears to be a natural at resisting the allure of the status quo for the satisfaction of her desires including quitting her law firm to follow her passion and love of dogs. It's a different attitude from what I often see in the world in general including myself and I really find it refreshing.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Why do I keep repeating the same dumb cycle?

Many of you, essentially everyone who's actually potentially reading this, know that my lungs are a mixed bag. I'm incredibly blessed by their size, their power, their capacity, etc. I can hit 130+% on most lung function measures when things are good. On the other hand, things often aren't entirely good. I have issues with inflammation, hyper-reactivity, swelling and gunk that are known to pull my function down. This is something I really should know.

The plus side is that until I get to exceptionally bad levels of inflammation or infection, my baseline function is so good that I'm able to function pretty dang well. The down side is that unless I get to absurd levels of inflammation, I am able to keep functioning and am not forced to even notice consciously that I'm having issues much less take action to deal with it.

Between my pulmonologist and my allergist, they have identified a great regimen of drugs that work not only to keep me functioning at my top levels, but to allow me to engage in pretty much any activities I want to with minimal potential side effects. Take a tiny pill in the morning, two at night, do two inhalers twice a day and nebulize one drug and I'm pretty much guaranteed to be problem-free unless I have an infection. The problem? Me.

I start feeling better lungwise every year around May and then I drop a drug here and a drug there until I suddenly haven't taken anything in a month. I think I'm fine. In fact, I'd normally keep thinking I was fine until September or so. In reality, I'm adequate, but definitely not fine or ideal. Why do I do this? I really think it's just laziness. It really isn't much of a hassle to stay on my meds. The only one that presents a problem at all is the nebulized drug and my doc is okay with me just doing it weekdays and I can do it at my desk while I'm sorting my email and looking through my workload for the day. It's just easier to not. And since some of the drugs have lasting effects and I start from a top-notch shape, the descent into problems is gradual and I just don't notice it.

I'm writing this because I went to the allergist for a regular appointment today. Just an annual because you have to do those to have them keep seeing you happily when you have problems. I walked in with a declaration to the PA, who I absolutely love, that I was healthy and that was something she wasn't used to seeing. Well, she subtly made me keep talking and moving and things throughout the appointment including a lung function test and by the end of the appointment, got me to admit that I was not in great shape. That I was experiencing distracting, though clearly not life-threatening, tightness in my chest at least a couple times a week. They have a brilliant computer system that allows her to fax the prescriptions straight to my pharmacy while I'm sitting there, so she faxed over fresh prescriptions for all the drugs after getting me to state that I should be taking them. Not only that, but she loaded me a hefty bag of samples of everything I'm supposed to be taking so I could go ahead and get restarted right then.

Well, it's only been one night, but based on how I felt waking up this morning, this is why I was so tired and just puttering. I wasn't breathing as well as I can and so my sleep was no where near as a high a quality as it should be. I had actually gotten to the point this week that I was trying to figure out what doctor to talk to in order to get serious amphetamines or something. Who would have thought that the solution was just to respirate to my full potential?

So, props to talented, patient medical professionals who really care about their patients and how they are and are willing to work to fix a situation even with the patient doesn't see that it's there.

I'll leave the debate about whether I should have an Epipen within a foot of my person at all times for another day. Medically, I know the answer, but I really do think you have to balance that with other life issues.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

0 for 0 in 0 (for now!)

Note: don’t start what’s hoped to be a new habit or project on a Monday. Just doesn’t work. Flat out and it will work better if I accept the limits of my current commitments. Paul and I go out together each Monday night while Rebecca babysits and between that and Trajan’s ISR lessons, I end up with negative time.

You might have deduced from this introduction that I have not made progress in the 10 in 10 for 10. Not only did Monday not work, but I ended up having to go back to the office for several hours the next couple of nights. However, this is not me giving up on the idea, but I’m going to delay the start of it until a time that I’m in better shape to actually meet this goal.

This will not be immediate, because I have my hands full with a different project for the next few days. Between my frustration with Vista, my “affair of the heart” with the iPhone and discovering that my Dell laptop is one of the models that people have worked to adapt to Ubuntu, we decided to go ahead and order a MacBook Pro for me. It’s on a Fedex plane somewhere between here and California. The tracking says it will be here tomorrow, but based on the rate other parts of my order shipped, I’m expecting Monday. So, I’m busy going through the Dell machine (it’s under a year old) and backing everything up to our NAS drives because Paul can’t really go to work at converting the hardware to Linux until I’m sure I have everything off of it.

Also, I expect to be near hopelessly distracted over the next few days beginning as soon as I can download the iPhone 2.0 software. I have iTunes 7.7 and so I’m in the ready position and am just waiting for the 2.0 software. I know I could get a copy through other means, but I think I’ll just wait till it’s done in the automated fashion. I’m a sissy as evidenced by the fact that I’ve never jailbroken my phone.

On a final note, first night of the Scramble was a happy success. Not too many dishes, tasty and really hit the spot. Trajan LOVED the green beans. It was actually kind of scary the degree to which he liked them. They were pretty basic. Steamed in a skillet with oil, garlic and some lemon juice.

Meal Planner Software/Website Evaluation Criterion

I've had a couple more meal planner programs added to my list and I will be working my way through their samples, but I wanted to take a moment and outline some of the criterion that I will be using to evaluate them and decide which one will work best for us.

First, issues that can be evaluated outside of their trial:

Access: can I get the information with just a browser or do I need installed software? Will the plans load on the iphone? If so, just the shopping lists and menus or can I do their customization?
Cost: fundamentally, what is the cost of the program? And, does it automatically renew? Give you an option to renew? Send a reminder email before it renews? And for what period of time do you have to make a commitment?
Usability: I know I'm a little fussy, but the ease of use of the site and its presentation really matters to me. Both in terms of being able to do the "meal planning" as quickly as possible and just not being annoyed by a messy site.
Flexibility: Can I customize our plan for the week? Is this done easily? Can I make alterations to the grocery list? Is the flexibility that they offer not offset by an unjustifiable accompanying increase in complexity and time demands?
Responsiveness: I am going to try to come up with a question for each company to see the rate and thoroughness of their response. Hopefully, it won't matter how quickly I can get in touch with them, but it's nice to know just in case.
Additional information: what articles, advice, etc. do they make available, if any? Do I value this or is it just clutter and more to weed through?
Record-keeping: does the site allow me to keep information about specific recipes? Can I rank them with stars? Keep recipes that I liked? Are the recipes only available during their week or do I have access to any recipe that I've received as long as I keep my subscription active?
Other meals: do they have any resources to help with potential needs for other meals? Breakfasts, sack lunches, weekend brunches, etc.?

Issues to be evaluted during their trial period:

Quantity: how does the quantity of food mesh with our lives? Does it seem to lend itself to easily being taken to work for lunches?
Cost: what is the actual cost of the food to prepare the meal?
Variety: good variety of food? This will be a little hard to evaluate with just one week, but it's definitely worth noting even if it's an incomplete reflection.
Composition: does the food style reflect what we like?
Taste: are the meals tasty? Do we like them? Will Trajan eat them?
Side-dishes: I pull this out because I've noticed a different degree of emphasis. Do they include side dishes with each meal that are good selections to be paired with the entree? Do the side dishes help to balance the nutrition out well?
Time: how long do the meals take to prepare? Are they feasible options for preparing after work and still having dinner early enough for Trajan?
Difficulty: how arduous are the recipes? Do they require extensive, specialized kitchen gadgets?

This is a very subjective kind of decision, so I'm not going to set a rubric or anything to use to make the final decision, but I think that identifying specific areas to think about will help to ease the difficulty of the final decision.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Meal Planner Update

Found another: www.mealmixer.com

This one is more personalized in terms of what goes on your meals. It also looks like it has more nutrition information if that's important to you. It also has other meals.
This actually looks like they may have gone too far. By making it completely customizable and having all the other meals in the week, I could see this taking a substantial amount of time. One of the benefits that I'm looking for in using a meal planner is having them decide what's to eat and not having to deal with the time and stress of making those decisions.

I think the scramble giving you the option of removing and adding meals as necessary is a plus over e-mealz which doesn't offer this, but I really think that having to completely set the meal plan from beginning to end is too much for me. If I wanted to do that, I'd just use cookbooks or a free online recipe site.

Presentation Matters - Web Products

I previously had written about the layout of a site really mattering particularly when you're in the productivity-esque field. I am finding this to be absolutely true and perhaps the first concept that those preparing productivity services/sites should consider even ahead of whatever their content is.

This was brought up again because I was wanting to find a meal planner that provided the whole week's meals along with a single shopping list.

The first one I found, e-Mealz , was pretty and looked like it could possibly work. However, it didn't seem very concerned about meal preparation time and the way they tell you to modify the plan if you don't like one of the meals is to just eliminate it from the shopping list. It doesn't provide any way to drop in one of your family's favorite meals from another week or any other way to customize the meals. They are one-size-fits-all. A potential plus is that they have plans based on the sales at various grocery stores each week. However, none of the store options exist near our house, so this wasn't a boost for me. If they added Randalls, HEB, Whole Foods or Sun Horizon, I might be more interested.

I went ahead and printed out a couple sample meals and will try them, but I was not at all convinced that this site was the right one for me. It packs the whole week's menus onto one page of paper which requires them sacrificing some of the detail and help that I think I'd appreciate having as a not particularly experienced chef.

So, the site was pretty and clean and made me want to love them, but the content just wasn't what I was looking for.

I then found thescramble.com. This looks like a better fit for us as it has explicit references to all meals taking short periods of time and it includes information that tells you what recipes can be cut in half (four of the five from this week) and ideas about how to use the leftovers. As these mealplans have 4-6 servings in mind and we only have 3 people, this is a definite plus. From an initial evaluation, this site looks like it really could be the system that I'm looking for. And, you're able to add in other meals, remove meals you don't like and even include more meals than then normal 5 if you need to for a week.

However, thescramble's site makes me unhappy. It feels cluttered and messy and even overwhelming. And since you have to interact with the site to customize your plans, I'd have to keep seeing it. A definite negative.

My decision?

I decided to print out sample menus for each program and will try them both. Then I'll evaluate the options available at each site, my feelings about the site itself with my reflections on the difficulty and time requirements of the sample menus as well as how the food tastes and if one seems to fit our tastes better than the other.

I'm sure there are other sites providing similar services, and I would love to look at them as well before I make a commitment and hand over money to one company or another, so if you know of a similar company, let me know.

Monday, July 7, 2008

10 for 10 in 10

I was thinking about how much the simple concept of the "clutter rule of 10" helps to get things cleaned up and moving and I came up with an idea of a challenge to present myself. I'm frankly terrified of the idea, but since I did think of it and it is possible, I feel I can't chicken out and skip it and still remain accountable to myself.

Eliminate 10 items in 10 areas over 10 days.

I was thinking about the clutter aspect of the Clutter Diet because I've really been emphasizing the organizational component of it along with the peripheral cleaning element. Therefore, the idea is to eliminate, via trash, donation or craigslist, 10 items at a time. 10 doesn't sound like much, but I've seen how much picking up 10 items can do, so I think this can have a real influence. The 10 areas component is to force me to do this process throughout the house. And then 10 days both forces me to keep moving on the project and serves the double purpose of helping to develop this idea as a habitual behavior.

I'm not going to define the areas as absolutes, but I do have some ideas. Kitchen, dining room, living room, garage, landing, master bedroom, master bath, guest room, Trajan's room, and office.

Since I am so terrified of this, I'm declaring that tonight is the first night to prevent myself from chickening out.

Sams, Couches, Laundry and Babies

Relatively productive and quite fun weekend. Thursday I did some maintenance clean-up work, but I mainly played more guitar hero. Friday, we mainly hung out as a family and played, but we did go to Sam’s and do a major restock run. I really don’t understand how easy it is to spend serious money at Sam’s. We bought nothing over 22.99 (that was Prilosec) and still got up to $430!

Sam’s did raise some thoughts. I was able to resist buying any of the unique, random items that Sam’s seems to have a plethora of that while cheap and relatively nice, really have no needed role in our lives and will just add clutter. This got me thinking about how there are all these items that are designed and destined to be clutter. If you don’t believe me, go to your neighborhood grocery store and look at the “as seen on tv” aisle, the novelty aisle and the seasonal aisle. Scary to get that economic confirmation that we value junk.

We didn’t see any fireworks, but it really was a great 4th just to spend time with each other and not have anything on our plates.

Saturday was the day we got the most “done”. I organized, cleaned out and cleaned up the living room entirely including the couches. We have leather couches and while most of the time just dusting them, vacuuming the crevices and occasionally wiping down with a leather wipe is sufficient, it really is important to condition the leather occasionally. This should be done at least once a year, but I haven’t done this in at least three, so it was a serious job. And then I made it more serious by taking the couches completely apart rather than just conditioning them assembled. I started rubbing them down about 7:30. I quickly discovered these were the most thirsty pieces of leather I’d ever seen and as I’ve cleaned a LOT of tack, that’s an impressive statement. I therefore began a comical adventure.

I decided to quickly run out and get some additional leather conditioner, as it was obvious my eight ounces weren’t going to go far, and some saddle soap. Now, using saddle soap on leather furniture is something you want to be careful about since it’s designed for outdoor purposes and so contains some wax, but if you do know what you’re doing, it can be a valuable tool. So, I ran into our neighborhood Randalls and it turned out that while they had saddle soap, they had no leather conditioner of any type. I didn’t get anything and instead went to the HEB a little further down the road. They had leather conditioner in the cleaning products aisle. I then was able to find the shoe polish aisle after assistance from a minimum of three employees and it turned out they had no saddle soap. I bought three containers of the leather conditioner, went back to Randalls, bought the saddle soap and went home. I killed all three of these additional leather conditioners for a total of 32 ounces on a first rub-down of the couch structure and all the pillows and cushions from both the couch and the chair and a half. There was none left to rub down the structure from the chair and a half, but it was after two at that point and so I quit for the night. I went and got six more eight ounce containers the next morning and these were sufficient to finish the initial rub down and do a second round. I went to the other HEB, closer to our house but farther from the Randalls, and they not only had both the saddle soap and the leather conditioner, but they also had the thicker leather treatment. Should have gone there first!

Couches are done, but they aren’t reassembled. T-man really enjoys the pillows strewn around the room, because they are climbing challenges that are within his repertoire.

Sunday, I didn’t do much productive outside of the six hours of rubbing leather. T-man and I went to a friend’s birthday party at the Salt Lick and met his three-month old twins and had a fantastic time. Then we ran by the house to drop off food that we’d gotten for Paul and pick up swim suits and headed over to play with another set of friends. I say friends, but they are really family as they are some of the most important people in my world. I was incredibly blessed when they became a part of my life in graduate school. Trajan loved playing with them and had a great time and it was good because they’re going out of town for three weeks starting tomorrow and so I was glad we got to see them.

So, I definitely need to reassemble the pictures and get some progress pictures, but life is good!

Almost forgot! I also got nine or ten loads of laundry done including beddings, mats, and more. I'm in love with the new machines. You can do a load of laundry even with extended stain settings and have it done in two hours including drying! This is in contrast to five plus hours for a similar task in the energy efficient machines. And the size of a load is at least double! :-) :-) :-) It may be sad how happy this makes me.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Guitar Hero

Ok, so while I haven't gotten that much done in the last two days, I still think the Wii is an amazing thing. Last night, one of next-door neighbors came over to ask something while I was playing Guitar Hero. A couple minutes later his brother was over. Then they went to get their guitar so we could play multiplayer. The two of them, Paul and I then continued to play Guitar Hero for several hours.

Now, these are fun kids that we've talked with and played board games very occasionally with since we moved in, but the Wii definitely created a natural way to interact more.

It was awesome! :-)

So not happening.

Thingamababy showed up in Google Reader this morning with a link roundup that included this: http://www.guynameddave.com/100-thing-challenge.html, a guy's challenge to reduce all personal items down to 100 or alternatively a certain category of things down to a 100.

To be clear, this so is not happening with me. I am terrified of the individual categories that I own more than 100 of, much less in aggregate!

However, I do think it's an interesting idea to list everything you own within a category or even just get a written handle on approximately how many you own. Knowing what you have really helps me in eliminating clutter. And, having inventories is helpful in case of catastrophic events. I'd already decided to use http://www.delicious-monster.com/ once I get the MacBook Pro, but this makes me think about inventoring non-barcoded items.

In this vein, I'm assigning myself a question to come up with the answer to today. What categories am I not willing to have less than 100 items in? Books are the immediate answer, but I think there's more. Perhaps to help myself answer this I should think about what categories I currently have more than 100 of.

It’s official

I had previously mentioned that the reason I intentionally decided to stop doing anything to keep the house clean, organized or in order was to allow seriously needed extra time to prepare for a major professional exam and that this is the reason why I’m not upset with myself and am willing to have friends see the house and also posted pictures. Up until yesterday, I was pretty sure that I passed based on my feeling about the test, but now it’s official. The pass list came out and there was my number. So, while I do feel ownership and responsibility for the mess that exists, I definitely do not feel guilt or negative feelings about it. Might not have been the best decision in the world, but it worked out for us.

Whoohoo!!

Now, we need to come up with our plan to address the next set of professional development work. I have a series of online readings, texts, and projects that I need to complete called modules. While we do get study time at work, it is just 260 hours for this set of work and it’s estimated to require closer to a thousand hours to get through. Thus, time outside of work is definitely necessary. Plus, getting through these requirements as quickly as possible makes sense as we get significant pay raises for successful completion and Trajan will just get older and have more activities and notice the hours that I’m missing more.

We’ll look at it this weekend, but I have some initial thoughts. First, I may need to gradually increase to the rate of work on the modules that I’d like to be at. This will allow me to have more time to do the catch-up work on the house and develop routines and systems that will make maintaining it easier. Perhaps for now I’ll keep one day a week to be substantially devoted to the house, even if it means taking a vacation day, and not have a single solid day working on exams. Also, we can think about moving up the schedule at which Trajan and I start the day. He normally gets to day care around 8, but he can go as early as 6:30. If we started doing that, it would give me an hour or an hour and a half each morning to work on the material at work before I began my work day. An issue with this is it would require him to start going to bed earlier and therefore cut down on my time with him on both ends of the day. I do need to keep reminding myself that he is only getting older though.

One thing that helps is that I’ve discovered that the site for all the online work runs on my iPhone, so I can use time that might otherwise be wasted to continue progressing through the material. This is nice, because in contrast to the textbook work, I already typically have my phone with me.

Working through the Clutter Diet’s workbook on routines and systems should also help us to identify ways in which Paul can also help to prevent the complete shut down from happening. And importantly, we need to arrange for a housekeeper to begin coming weekly. Ideally it will be the one that we identified last month, but regardless, it needs to be someone.

I definitely need to think on this and come up with some ideas and continue to revise throughout the process, but I will pledge to not just take the sticking my head in the sand approach!

And once more, yippee skippee for confirmation of passing the exam from May!!


PS: self, make sure and post a weekend goals list before end of day.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I’ll keep laying out plans

I know that plans often don’t work out. I do recognize it. It’s just that setting the lists gives me guidance and helps me keep motivated as well as keeping moving.

You can guess by this preface that I didn’t do so hot at my list last night. It was a combination of two factors: schedule shifting and a bit of motivation lack. Paul was working on a project and so he got home at almost 8 instead of around 5 like usual, so I had less flexibility to get little things done in the pre-Trajan bedtime hours. Then, I had to take the loan car back to the dealership, pick up mine and discuss the install of the tow-package next week. All things combined, I really didn’t even think about getting anything done until 9:15.

The second issue was motivation. I try not to be hard on myself when I’m doing stuff willingly, but I’m not gung ho. I save giving myself grief about motivation for when I’m just flat out not doing things rather than when I’m doing them slowly or without pizzazz. And last night I didn’t have that eagerness that I have most of the time when I’m working on this.

I did accomplish things though. I sorted the mail while playing the Trajan after we got home, I got him fed, bathed and ready for bed. I completed two loads of laundry entirely. And I was very good at the rewards side of things! I played 21 songs worth of guitar hero and drank a full 750 ml of Italian Soda.

So, there are still things left on my list, but I’m ok with that. Honestly, I’ve come to realize that as long as I give at least one days worth of solid, eager work a week and I put in at least a couple “clutter rule of 10”s a day and try to do no harm, I’m good with myself.

I’m anticipating some good work over the weekend, so we’ll see if my trust in myself is justified!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tonight!

On the agenda:

  • Measure Trajan's closet
  • do at minimum one load of T-man's clothes (bonus points for additional laundry)
  • Pick up "stuff that's out" in living room entirely (drawers can be for later or done if extra energy, also think about redesigning)
  • Grab pictures of entry area w/ emphasis on solving 1. destination station and 2. location for a kennel
  • Play at least eight songs worth of Guitar Hero :-)
  • Give Trajan oatmeal/eczema bath
  • Bonus: Trajan and I can give Jack a walk together, otherwise just do Jack like normal.
  • Turn a bottle of sparkling water into an Italian Soda and drink it!

Monday Review

I really don't accomplish anything on Mondays right now between Trajan's ISR lessons and it being date night, but I sure do enjoy them. Perhaps I lack a natural sense of guilt, but the fact that I don't do anything these days towards really progressing the house just doesn't bother me in the least.

I did do a first load of laundry in the new machines and I'm a happy camper. I was washing Trajan's mound of towels from ISR (they require three a day, I sneak by with two) and I was able to fit them all in one load and even though I ran it on heavy-duty, the washer only took 1 hour and 10 minutes. This is over half an hour shorter than the old machines on quick wash!!!

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith also arrived yesterday from Amazon. We haven't tried it yet, but I am looking forward to it. It's odd, I've had a game machine of some type since college (we didn't have them growing up), but I've never been so involved and eager to interact with a machine as I am with the Wii. It makes for a great, easy reward.

For example, tonight I know I'd like to try out the new game. I'd also like to see the living room (where the Wii is located) neatened up as a minimum first step towards getting it organized. Therefore, I'll tradeoff between these two to transfer my motivation to try out the game to getting the room in order. A nice thing about Guitar Hero type games is that there are very easily identifiable "chunks" that are not to long in the form of individual songs.

So, look for info tomorrow on Guitar Hero and living room organization!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Car Organization

When I organized the car Friday, it became apparent to me that organizational maintenance will not be sufficient to keep my car in order; I really need a full organizational solution. Currently, the areas in the car useful for organization are: the front center storage console (smaller than I've ever seen in any car), the glove compartment, the back of the front two seats, an even smaller storage console in the middle seat and a storage box under the cargo area. All of these combined are about the size of the center console in my previous car.

So, I think I need to begin research into car organization products. I think that something that adds pockets to the back of the front seats might be the way to go, but I'll have to see what turns up when I research. Also, I want to research systems that reduce the amount of objects in the car such as moving jewel cases into the house and keeping only disk sleeves in the car.

I want to keep moving on the main project, so I'm not working on this now, but it is definitely something I will be addressing in the coming months.

Approximate Recreated Friday Post

Well, the post that I destroyed accidentally on Friday detailed how I had done well that afternoon. I completely emptied out and organized the car and took it to the car wash. I also addressed all the kitchen surfaces and the sink. In addition to getting vacuum bags, I also picked up more solution for the hardwood cleaner system and stopped by the post office and mailed the letters that I'd prepared that morning. While I was at it, I got a booklet of stamps to put in my cars console that I can mail things from the house in the future.

I wasted a fair bit of time trying to post like an intelligent human with pictures throughout the text, but I did acknowledge my failure at this and more on which I thought was good. Perhaps I'll mark off a night to take some blogging lessons this week.

Goals now?
  • The new laundry machines were installed this morning, so I want to get caught up on laundry.
  • Kitchen cabinets, drawers and other areas. Must decide if i think it's better to attack the whole thing at once or do them area by area until i complete them.
  • For the sake of having one large, continuous area that feels relaxing, I think i'm going to focus on the living room next. Then I'll really be on course to have the downstairs (excluding the garage) in a state very near to how I'd like it.
  • We may have friends coming this weekend, so I want to bump up organizing and decluttering the guest bath and bed areas.
  • still need to go over the household systems plan with Paul, but I think it's less urgent since I'm definitely going to be in this intense phase for a good while longer.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Do no harm...

"Do no harm" is a phrase I submit for consideration to join the fundamentals of "clutter rule of 10", "just do something", "there's no time sooner than now" and "give you future self a break".

Obviously, there's still a fair bit of clutter and mess throughout the house. I am not trying to deal with everything at once. Thus the idea of "do no harm". What I mean by this is that while I'm not attempting to improve the situation in other areas than where I am working, I am also taking conscientious action to not make it worse.

This is a tricky concept, but thinking about it in terms of dealing with all that is created on a normal daily-routine basis might help. And this view helps to justify the fact that while I'm preparing bags of things that belong in other locations as I work, I am not emptying those bags within their locations.

Now, I need to couple this with complimentary habits to "do no harm" within the areas that are in progress and I think I'll see great improvement.

Now, off to me vacation of organization (we're going out of town this weekend, so I took a vacation day to make sure I stayed on track).

So I'm not so good at this blog stuff.


Well, I couldn't get the upload into the formatting working right at all and we're about to head out of town, so I went ahead and threw everything up because I didn't want to reneg.

But, I lost my original entry to these pictures detailing all I accomplished this afternoon and how I really achieved my goals. I separated the pictures from their text. I turned one of the posts into underlined and just this minute I erased the last picture of the probably almost 20 paper bags. Eek.

My apologies. I'll hopefully get better.

Have a good weekend all!
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These first two images are general shots of the kitchen to show the improvement. Specifically, note the elimination of clutter. Though I must confess, I have only organized the pantry cabinets. All the other cabinets and drawers are in their natural, hectic order. Also, the surfaces have all been cleaned, but the floors have not been yet.

This shot is to show the organization of the pantry. We had a LOT of expired food. I also instituted order to make it easier to identify the food without allergens that Trajan can eat.

I organized both the refrigerator and the freezer. At some point, the freezer door had been slightly ajar for a day and so I had to throw out most of the freezer contents and we just don’t have that much food. Some of the current contents of the deep freeze can be moved to the freezer to be more convenient for us.

Not only did I get all the junk out of the breakfast room, but it’s thoroughly cleaned as well! That’s one of Jack’s beds (there’s one in most rooms so he always knows he has a place) in the back right corner -- he didn’t seem to care that I’d cleaned it and the area for him.

Huge improvement here at the bar. The speakers are there because I was playing an audiobook off my phone, but they have a home now. It’s also another good view of the kitchen.

This is the laundry room. The machines are out because I wanted to thoroughly scour it before the other machines get here Monday. I didn’t bother to open them, but all the cabinets were cleaned, fresh liners put done and the contents all sorted. The final organization hasn’t been done yet, because it will be different with the new machines as they have storage pedestals under them and the elfa won’t fit. This room makes me smile J .

Entrance alcove improved. Destination station hasn’t been worked out yet, but this still looks good.

Dining room was done as bonus.

And here’s all the bags of stuff that I referenced earlier. Eek. Some of these are donation bags though! And I have filled at least seven contractor bags.



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Picture Update











Well, I did pretty good with the afternoon. Achieved all my goals in the kitchen, got the car washed (even got a snowcone), got the vacuum bags and more hardwood solution and got stamps and mailed two letters that needed to be sent. So now, for the sake of disclosure and accountability, the promised pictures.





These first two images are general shots of the kitchen to show the improvement. Specifically, note the elimination of clutter. Though I must confess, I have only organized the pantry cabinets. All the other cabinets and drawers are in their natural, hectic order. Also, the surfaces have all been cleaned, but the floors have not been yet.




Midday Organization Vacation Review

I'm in the process of my organization vacation day, but I thought I'd take a break to record what has occurred as this was provided as one of my goals and also a reward for good progress.

The day got off to a bit of a slow stop. Trajan stayed home from school yesterday due to an eczema (at least that's the "likely" diagnosis) outbreak that we wanted to get under control. It looked like it was really headed the right way last night, but I wanted to take the time this morning to really check it out, give him a treatment bath, etc. And then I for some reason was compelled to go to Original Pancake House and have a Dutch Baby and read the newspaper. As I've responded well to advance-rewards since at least early elementary, I indulged this fancy. Then, there was a friend actually at the house when I got here, so it took me till after 9:30 to even be in a position to start.

While I was in a position to start, I just didn't want to. And instead of getting frustrated, angry or just going along with the momentum and quitting, I popped open a document and made some notes. They were as follows:

· Start by 10
· Change into sports bra/shorts combo
· Start with the bar including getting audio book playing as first step
· Organize full bags and take to their location, replacing with a new one
To accomplish:
· Get midspaces so it can be photoed, if extra time, dining room first, then kitchen, then living room, then bath, then stairs.
· Also, clean up the mess of the cleaning caddy
· Ensure path for new machines
· Clean out car
Rewards:
· Keep atonement audio book playing
· But include some of the organization audios at natural breaks
· Consider getting getting things done and adding that to phone
· 5-8 minute wii fit breaks allowed following an identifiable completed task/area – basically,
just needs to be something I can put specific words to

This worked to get me going. It gave me a clear structure to operate within including a time frame, gave me some ideas of specific things to do so I wasn't just puttering around and reminded me of things that would make it more pleasurable and things I could offer myself as a reward for good progress.

I did start right at 10:00, despite some iTunes difficulties that had the potential to delay me, but while I had gotten myself to the point of moving, my heart just wasn't in it. But in another startling brilliant and self-aware move, I recognized this status and dealt with it by setting an 18 minute timer and promising myself a reward break at the end of it.

During these 18 minutes, I cleaned off the new clutter that had developed in the midspaces area, prepped a couple of letters that needed to be sent and generally got all my organizing systems and tools in order. I should confess that I did look at the timer once; the time left was 2:56. After the alarm went off, I promptly took a break and went upstairs and put a different pair of socks on while planning first my immediate course of action and then what I would do for my break (check my email and google reader).

My plan was to deal with the organization within the refrigerator and then assuming that went well, the freezer and the pantry. While this deviated from the "to accomplish" list I'd made before, it definitely was within my larger goals and as it was something that sounded interesting to me, it was the right decision. Well, I flew into this project and completely organized, cleaned and refilled all three of these locations including even cleaning out the ice machine tray thing! I definitely need to make this at least a quarterly task and I really think I should do it to a minor degree weekly (just removing visibly bad things, not checking dates). Three contractor bags later, all of which I had trouble lifting and one that actually left me with some muscle soreness, and I feel quite accomplished.

Now it's 12:30 and I need to really dig into it for the second half of the day. My plan now is to empty the sink completely first. Then, I'm going to deal with the surfaces of the kitchen. However, I must promise myself that I will not attempt to deal with any of the cabinets or cleaning any of the appliances in anyway at this time. I'm not trying to underscore their importance. It's just not what is in the works for the day.

Following that, I'm going to head out into the garage and first deal with the mess that occurred from a fluke drop of a yogurt smoothie drink into the cleaning supplies area. After that, I'm off to organize and empty my car. Then, I'll take it over to the car wash and get it cleaned before we head out for the weekend. If time remains after that, I can choose between one of two options. First, I can clean the surfaces that I cleared last weekend both because some stuff has accumulated over the week and since their initial status was so bad that it really justifies an additional clean. Alternatively, I can begin the clutter sorting work within the living room.

My alternate activity that I propose for myself at any time if I find myself just not tolerating continuing what I'm doing is to go to the vacuum store and get more bags. Also, it would be nice if I would drop off dry cleaning on the way to get Trajan.

Summary: sink, kitchen surfaces, cleaning supplies area, car. Other possibilities: midspace cleaning, living room clutter. Errands: carwash, vacuum bags, dry cleaning.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Personal Assistant-type services

I got a tip from a friend which may be capable of reaping both quantity of available time in my week and removing some low-quality activities. She uses a virtual personal assistant to schedule things and deal with costumer service issues. The company she uses is asksunday.com, but there are others including getfriday.com. So, my issue with getting coordinated with my service guy to get the new cargo mat installed -- outsource it!

I need to read more and look at this, but I definitely think it's worth looking at.

Seriously -- I'm in love with just asksunday.com. But I'm jaded enough to have this leaving me asking: is there something even better? Maybe the getfriday.com version wtih a certain amount of time makes more sense.

Would it be appropriate for me to make a request of asksunday to research and prepare a list of the virtual personal assistants available?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

iGoogle organization

I'm seeking thoughts on iGoogle organizational strategies. I really think this can be a really valuable tool to efficiently keep things in order and I've made an initial attempt of my own, but I'm guessing there have to be people who've spent a lot of time figuring this out and I should try to find their work before reinventing the wheel completely.

My big problem is coming up with a good search. iGoogle organization gets information about organization as in a company or group.

Do you have a solution? Thoughts?

RSS Organization

A tip I read somewhere was you can’t try to organize going backwards. This was about magazines and newspapers I believe, but I’ve decided to apply it to google reader. So, I went into google reader, exported all of my feeds into a spreadsheet and then deleted them all.

I then went to the actual page for each one of the links, categorized it and considered whether I want to continue subscribing to it. Then, I took my much abbreviated list of feeds and imported them into google reader each into their pertinent categories.

I’ve kept the file that includes the feeds I eliminated them in case I find I’m missing something. If I don’t realize I’m missing it though, I don’t need to have it and won’t be adding it back in.

The hardest part of accepting that I can’t organize going backwards is that I marked all of the posts as read and didn’t plunge into any of the feeds despite the temptation.

I think I will also create a tag to add to feeds that I am considering removing. That way, if I’m reading a post and I really think that there’s a good possibility that I don’t need that feed, I can add a tag that indicates I’m considering removing it to help me consider this decision. That way I’m not just stuck with the black and white options of subscribe or don’t subscribe.

I’ll see how this goes over the next few days and then weeks and will plan on reviewing and revising as necessary to make this a useful tool that adds to my happiness and productivity rather than a cluttered source of stress.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brief Reflection on the Clutter Diet site itself

I followed a link from a posting in the Clutter Diet member forums to a site called www.flylady.net leading to an instant realization about part of why I was initially drawn to the Clutter Diet. All of the websites associated, the main clutterdiet.com, the blog and the member's areas are neat. A lot of information is conveyed in ways that it can be easily accessed and utilized.

Seriously, if you have a minute, go look at www.flylady.net and www.clutterdiet.com. The constrast is instant.

My guess is that the flylady site just evolved over time and that's why it has such a motley, cobbled-together appearance. I wonder if they're even aware of the message it sends.

I honestly didn't put much time into researching programs and options when I was looking for a tool to help me with the house situation. I'm in Austin and I remembered the program, looked it up, decided it looked like a good idea and went for it. Based on this first examination of another resource, it was definitely the right decision. Perhaps I'll continue doing the research I normally would have done in advance and let yall know my results and identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Clutter Diet, particularly in contrast to other related products.

Plan for tonight

Trajan has an ISR lesson and then we'll need to all have dinner and get Trajan ready for bed. Then, I think I'll go through the refrigerator, pantry and deep freeze with the aim of eliminating gross, expired and unwanted items. If this is done in a reasonable period of time, I'd like to go through the midspaces area and pick up things that have accumulated since Saturday as well as do a couple of short clutter rounds in the kitchen and the living room. If I get all this done, then I can fool around with the Wii for a while.

Also, I need to keep in mind that I want to look through the household systems and routines workbook with Paul.

Goals Refresh

So, it’s been five days since I posted my initial goals (http://clutterdietlog.blogspot.com/2008/06/progress-of-day.html), so I think it’s time to reflect, revise and review them.

First, spacescaping the laundry has had to be extended, because it won’t be completed until after we have the new machines. These are supposed to be delivered on the June 30. If this does occur, then I think a reasonable timeframe to have the place completely finished would be the end of July 5. If the machines are delayed, this may have to be revised. While there has been a time delay, I would like to balance it by enhancing the scope of this project to include not just the laundry room, but the entirety of my midspaces area. Therefore, it is my goal to have completed the decluttering, cleaning, organizing and spacescaping of the bar, breakfast room, destination alcove, entry way and all floors throughout the area by this date.

I haven’t made any progress on the goal of getting Paul to look at the Systems book, but that’s because I haven’t tried at all. Therefore, I think I should stick with the goal of having this done by 6/25 to motivate me to get to work on this.

Other goals remaining:
Identify d (and c) storage by end of June
Set up organizational caddy by July 4
Develop recycling plan by July 11
Design a laundry system by July 18 (implementation can follow)
Plan and create destination station by end of July
Set up itsdeductible and applicable picture location by August 14.

New goals:

  • Try first idea for meal planning during July. I am thinking I’m going to try Dreamdinners first. There are some other options that I’m considering, but I’m going to go ahead and try this first as I’ve heard rave reviews and the location on Mesa is under a mile from the house.
  • Get bathroom daily cleaning maintenance systems in place by mid-July. ONLY focus on the bathroom systems at this point and don’t worry about the rest of the house.
  • Do second pass at the household systems workbook including Paul’s input between the end of July and mid-August.
  • Research media library products and devise a plan by September 5. http://www.delicious-monster.com/ looks like a great option if I do end up ordering the macbook pro.
  • Not directly related to the house, but the condition of my office definitely has effects on me, so a final goal is to invest some time, research and reflection into office organization. Lorie has an audio component of her site that includes an interview with a woman named Barbara Hemphill who specializes in paper organization. Included in this work is a book about organization specifically at work. I think this might be a good place to start to meet this goal. I don’t want to rush this since it is imperative that I develop my good habits with the work at the house, but I also don’t want to neglect it as it definitely spills over into the rest of my life, so I think planning to have identified and started a course of action by August 15 is a reasonable goal. (note: I haven’t set a timeline for organizing the paper at our house. This is because I imagine this will come after the home office and as this is the true nightmare of our house, I don’t want to undermine the rest of my work by forcing addressing this room prematurely.)

So, that's it for today's goal refresh except to say that I'd like to make a goal about goals. I think a good plan would be to aim to reflect, append and annotate my goals once a week, so look for something of this nature each week. Any thoughts on whether it would be better to dictate that this needs to be done on a certain date, such as Tuesdays, or whether it should be done whenever it makes sense each week?

Who is in this space?!?

For those who are less familiar with us, a brief summary of who lives in the site of this chaos. In brief, it’s myself, my husband, our 10-month old son and our five-year-old Irish Terrier. About once a week we add a 17-year-old dear family friend who babysits Trajan on date-night and there will hopefully be a maid added to the equation within the coming weeks.

In addition to this information being useful as a context, it’s also key to keep in mind when doing spacescaping work. Note: I need to address, from my perspective, what spacescaping means. It’s a component of the Clutter Diet system as created by Lorie Marrero. I haven’t written it yet, because I wanted to complete my first full attempt at the art before recording my reflections, so look for that after the new laundry machines are installed!

Did nothing.

Well, I did absolutely nothing today. I had a conference for work all day that I actually woke up a little late for and so I had no extra time in the morning and then Trajan had his first ISR swim lesson at 6:10. Normally this would still leave plenty of time to get at least a little something done, but we came up with an awesome deal with our divine babysitter that she would babysit each Monday night in the summer, so we went out. Our first plan of seeing Get Smart failed, but we then ended up doing more than we've probably done in at least a year, eating dinner at the Boiling Pot, seeing Kung Fu Panda and then meeting up with some friends at the Drafthouse just to chat. Then we headed to the house, I took the babysitter to her house and now I'm recording my lack of progress. So, I'm going to count my writing this as sufficient evidence of continued focus and couple that with a round of 10 items in the kitchen and then head to bed.

I have scheduled to take off Friday to dedicate the day to work since we will be out of town all weekend, so I don't think I'm too far off track! (but if I'm deluding myself, someone will let me know).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Brief Note

This post is mainly to keep a commitment to myself to not let apathy or procrastination take over an otherwise admirable goal. I didn't get too much done today. Trajan had a good friend's first birthday party that we all went to and we all took a lazy afternoon nap, but I did meet my goal of doing some work by using the clutter rule of 10. I really think that is the secret to conquering my apathy. I also went grocery shopping which while it doesn't help with any of the clutter/cleaning/organizational goals is still definitely necessary. That and cooking dinner and I was pretty much done.

I need to take shots of the midspace and the fifteen some-odd bags of things sorted by location.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Roll with it.

I've always argued that moderation is the key to just about everything, but I think that's only part of it. I think a bit of flexibility is also key.

I bring this up because of my experience of this afternoon. So, I more than surpassed my goal for the day. I sorted, organized and cleaned everything within the "midspaces" area, the laundry room and the entryway. That's the positive. The negative is that I also broke the washing machine in the process. The washing machine and the dryer entered my life with Paul. They're about 6 years old and are relatively nice asko machines. They are my nemesis. At the time he purchased them, they were the most energy-efficient on the market. This translates into small and very slow. I could complete a normal load in five hours. Plus, I have an amazing skill at causing minor damage too them. Minor damage in that it takes the guy under two minutes to fix them, but damage in that they are unusable until he gets out.

So, this afternoon I broke the washing machine. Paul looked at it and then stated we should go to Home Depot and buy new ones. Now, as someone who perhaps obsessively researches, I was very unsure about this. However, my trials and tribulations with the machines were such that I agreed. So we grabbed Trajan and off we went. About forty minutes and three thousand dollars later, we were the proud owners of new Whirlpool Duet something-or-other machines. The fact that I say something-or-other shows the degree to which I didn't research anything. This decision was based solely on anecdotal accounts from friends that both the Whirlpools and the LGs were nice, but there was a real shortage of LG repair people around.

This is relevant to my continued battle against the stuff, the mess and the dirt for several reasons. First, based on my thoughts this morning on "spacescaping" the laundry room, we decided to get the storage pedestal things instead of the work surface. I think this is a better decision because it gives us valuable storage space, doesn't create an additional flat space to draw stuff like a magnet and the area is not very valuable as a workspace anyway because the cabinets above stick out in the way. It's also relevant for while everything has been gone through, the final order for the room isn't achieved yet because it will be different with the storage pedestals than with the current elfa cart.

So, while this action isn't typical for me and not something I would recommend as a standard operating procedure, I think it was the right one and one that will benefit all of us.

Clutter rule of 10

The clutter rule of 10 struck me when I first read it and I've already seen that it really is an incredibly valuable tool in my organizational arsenal. Basically, when you feel you don't have time to deal with something or you feel overwhelmed by it or you worry about obsessing with perfection, don't shoot to solve the clutter. Just deal with 10 items.

Last night, I saw this play out in practice. I didn't really feel like diving deep into anything and since I was planning on dealing with my "midspaces" and laundry room on Saturday, I wasn't feeling very motivated. So, I did the clutter rule of 10 within the living room. I actually did it multiple times: once with trash, once with T-man's toys, once with miscellaneous stuff and once with media. The effect was shocking -- the room was visible and the purpose of it could be divined. Also, I'm a firm believer now in the practice of clearing up the couches as a two-minute way to drastically improve the situation.

I'm in progress currently with the midspaces and laundry room work. I'll post on it later!

Friday, June 20, 2008

The self-imposed rule I most fear

I enacted one rule yesterday that I didn’t mention at all. That’s because I’m scared of it and so I chickened out on posting it knowing that if I didn’t post it, I’d have an easier time backing out of it. I didn’t do this deliberately and consciously, but once I recognized that I hadn’t posted it, this motivation was clear. I refuse to follow that course of behavior. The only way I can hope to be compliant with this program and my self-imposed requirements is to be absolutely honest. I recognized this in describing the current position and posting the baseline pictures, but I let this omission slip by and only now am rectifying it.

The rule: no buying any organizational products, excluding a label maker, for four weeks.

This may sound odd, but I really feel it is crucial to developing and maintaining an organizational system. I tend to use organizational products as crutches and instead of really understanding whatever space I’m trying to manage, I simply clasp on to a product to solve my woes. While this sometimes solves the issue, it often doesn’t and can even be negative in that the solution actually ADDS to the clutter. So, I’m going to deal within our current parameters first and get a grip on what we have in place and what issues we are facing before buying so much as a plastic bin for jams in the fridge.

I’m not arguing that we need no products. I think there are definitely things that would be highly beneficial to our situation: pot lid organizer, garage room storage, etc. It’s just I don’t want to run headlong into getting things. We have enough things to deal with and enough problems with just getting a handle on what is in our spaces to even be thinking about developing the idea solutions.

The exception for the labelmaker is because we don’t have one and it really is so useful in getting things sorted and organized. Also, I’m positive that we will need one as we progress and as we do not own one, this will not add to our clutter factor.

So, my apologies, chiefly to myself, for abstaining from mentioning this rule as a part of my intended process. I wish I could say that it will be the last time that I try to shirk something in this Clutter Diet process, but instead I can just pledge that I will note and rectify other similar shortcomings in this same way.