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Organizing from the Outside In: The Impact of our Environment

Take a moment to think about your favorite place to shop. Engage your senses and take note of the details. What does it look like? How are the items organized? What is the lighting like? How does it sound? Is there music playing? People talking? Is it warm or cool? Does the store have a certain smell? Perhaps you’re one of the many who prefers to do all of your shopping online. Think about why that might be. When and why is online shopping its most pleasant and productive? The same kinds of questions apply: Where are you when you shop? What does the room look like? How is the website organized? How does it sound?

Call me old-fashioned, but I still love the experience of shopping in a store. In fact, my favorite places to shop are thrift stores. I don’t mind sorting through piles of things I don’t need to discover a treasure or two. But if the store is too loud or too hot, if the items are arranged too haphazardly or it smells too strongly of heavy perfume, my experience shifts drastically. Suddenly I can’t remember if I’m looking for something I actually need or have just come in to browse. My mood shifts, I’m easily irritated and quickly feel overwhelmed. More often than not, I’ll walk out the door feeling somewhat miserable without making it to the second rack.

Think back to your last unpleasant shopping experience. How did it differ from your favorite store or stores? If I had to guess, I would imagine it was disorganized, loud, the temperature was off, and you probably struggled to find what you needed. How did you react? How did you feel?

As we move through the world we are constantly negotiating the impact of external forces on how we think, feel and act. Often we don’t realize just how much the environment affects our ability to organize our thoughts and feelings, our internal balance. When we find a favorite place to shop, or the perfect corner to get some work done, there are certain qualities that add to that “rightness.” There is predictable organization, our senses are engaged but not overwhelmed and we feel at ease.

External organization can provide huge support in our efforts to bring ourselves, our children or our students into balance. We can manipulate our physical environment, our schedules, even the way we carry ourselves to inspire greater balance. When our space is freed from clutter, with everything in its own place, pleasant lighting and neutral scents, that organization influences our how our brain is able to process and make sense of information. We can even use environmental hacks to support that organization. We know that when we have rhythmic music, a metronome, or even a soft heartbeat playing in the background our breathing shifts. Rhythmic music can be a huge aid with motor planning as well- the steady beat helps our brain to organize how our body moves. We can use certain smells to help us stay alert, and even as memory aids. (I use pure essential oils personally, but when working with children, the scent from freshly sliced fruit is a wonderful tool, and I don’t have to worry about how someone might react to the oils).

When adjusting a schedule to influence balance, we strive for consistent and predictable, and often utilize visual cues for additional support. Ideally your schedule will follow the same general flow day in and day out, will allow time for active and sedentary activities, and include plenty of opportunities to fill you up and build brain/body connections. If you’re not already sold on the power of consistent routines consider the following:

Envision a typical morning for yourself. What do you do before you leave for/begin work? I would bet that you do the same thing, in the same order just about every day. For me it’s turn on the coffee, yoga, grooming/get dressed, fix coffee/food, walk out the door. It doesn’t matter what day it is, that’s what I do and how I do it. Some days I go for a walk before I get to work. Some days I wash my hair. But no matter what else is on the schedule, I do things in that order. Sound familiar?

Now think of a day when you’ve overslept. You’ve got 5 minutes to get yourself out the door. How do those days feel? How long does that feeling last? Even as adults, we craft routines to help us prepare for the day and be our best selves.

If your schedule feels off, or you’ve noticed your routines at home or school need work, remember that meaningful, logical and consistent are key words in crafting routines. As adults we often gloss over the minute steps required to get something done. One of the most powerful ways we can build a meaningful, organizing routine is to begin by task analyzing exactly what needs to be done to get from A to B, whether A is dinner and B is sleeping soundly at a reasonable hour, or A is arriving in the classroom or the office and B is ready to work. Once we’ve broken down the steps we can create systems to get them done.

I love the start of the school year and I’m excited to bring more of this external organization to my own life. Over the summer I worked really hard to fine tune my morning routine, and I have to say I feel really proud of where I’m at (6 months ago a daily yoga practice AND being ready to go by 7am seemed impossible!). Now my focus is on my space and routines when I work from home.

As it is, I end up plopping down wherever I land and diving headfirst into whatever “fire” pops up first. That may mean sitting on the couch where my husband is also working from home, or falling down an email rabbit hole even though an unrelated deadline looms. Not an ideal system. So this month, my goal is to craft an inviting, organized, dedicated work-space, and a consistent routine for time spent working from home. My resources are limited… I’ll be carving space into an existing living area (I’m looking at you dining room) on a budget of nothing (or almost nothing, I’ve already mentioned my love affair with thrift stores). I will be task-analyzing my routines, making the most out of my bullet journal, and most importantly, once I find a system, I’ll stick to it for at least 3 weeks before making a judgment call.

Change is hard. Even when our current routines don’t serve us, it’s really difficult to stick with something new. We love to say it takes 21 days to create a habit, unfortunately that’s not quite true (check out this article on science backed habit formation) But I have found that if I do something consistently for three weeks, I’ve given myself enough time to really see how the changes are impacting the day to day and my overall sense of balance.

Perhaps you’d like to consider an area in your own life that feels off kilter. How can you tweak the environment or schedule to inspire more balance? Decide for yourself how long you’re willing to try the new ways, and stick to it! Write it on the calendar, X off each day and reflect as you go. For those of you tweaking routines with children, know that if you’re trying to “correct” a behavior or situation, things may get worse before getting better, we call this an extinction burst (“You’re on to me, I’m going to pull out all the stops to try and sabotage the new plan because it’s working!”)

Don’t forget to check out the Member Only area for additional organization resources!

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