In the Real World: Agree On How to Organize Things

I love my honey, I really do. He’s a fabulous organizer; without him, our home would look considerably messier than it does. (He and I disagree: his “mess” is my “comfortable.” Right there we have a problem: we lack a shared vocabulary. More on that in another post.) When he’s bored, he’ll re-organize the garage, the bookcases, the closets and the kitchen. He’s a dream that way.  Mostly I appreciate his considerable efforts to bring order to our lives. He doesn’t organize things like I do—he’s an engineer, for one thing. He takes any mess personally. But one man’s entropy is another woman’s pile, or stash, or clothes closet. Or kitchen.

Don’t Touch My Toolbox

ToolboxWe’ve already had the “don’t touch my toolbox” conversation.  I could find things in my toolbox, but he couldn’t. We agreed that was his domain, so he took it over. I don’t mind; toolboxes aren’t all that big and his system is obvious if counter-intuitive to me. He applied the same rigorous logic to the junk drawer in the kitchen. It is now organized to within an inch of its life and has been renamed the “utility drawer.” I get reprimanded if I slip and call it the “junk drawer.”  I can’t find anything in it but he’s usually around to ask, so I live with it. Then he oh-so-helpfully organized another of my toolboxes, the drawer of cooking utensils under the range top.  I was making pancakes one morning, happily ignorant that the organizational elf had paid a visit when I wasn’t looking. Time to flip the pancakes. The spatula was not where it should be. Now mind you, I have several specialized spatulas: one for pancakes and hamburgers, one for fish, one for eggs. Different shapes and sizes, slotted or not, each specific to its purpose. I’d have settled for any spatula at that point—the pancakes were starting to burn. Couldn’t find any of them. Shouted for the engineer, who was reorganizing his closet again. Somewhat offended, he showed me his new system. This, he proclaimed, would make my life easier. He opened another drawer entirely. Et violá! There were my missing spatulas—and everything else I hadn’t thought to look for—organized by material (wood, plastic/silicon, metal), color and size.

No, Really. Don’t Touch My Toolbox

He ate burnt pancakes for breakfast and we had our second “don’t touch my toolbox” conversation. I tried to explain wood/plastic/metal + color is not how I look for tools. I failed. (it wasn’t logical. Thank you, Mr. Spock.) I got his attention when I said he’d be eating a lot more burned meals if he messed with my tools. I thought we’d gotten that resolved until I decided to make a stew that called for fennel. I could have sworn I had fennel, but I didn’t see it in the spice drawer. I bought a bottle and opened the spice drawer to put it away. That’s when I noticed things looked suspicious: bottles, boxes, and cans were organized by material (glass, metal, plastic), color and size. The organizational elf had struck again. As I reorganized, I realized we had four bottles of fennel, three of cinnamon, no salt (turns out that was stashed in another cabinet across the kitchen), no cumin (a staple in my kitchen), and a bottle of mace I thought I’d thrown out years ago.

The Point Is…

Build a common vocabulary.

  • Get stakeholders involved. Understand their perspective. Cook in their kitchen—understand why the spatulas are where they are and the spices organized the way they are. And know that every stakeholder, like every cook, is different.
  • Clarify vocabulary. Get definitions. These will often conflict. My microplane is my honey’s rasp; my French rolling pin is his wooden peg. Have you ever asked Sales, Marketing, Operations, Customer Service, Accounting, and HR to define a customer? It’s an interesting conversation.
  • Document what you learn. Build a dictionary if you need to. Agree to disagree. Note differences and conflicts. Publish/share it across your project.

Meanwhile, I’m looking for more recipes to use up the fennel and cinnamon.

The Writer’s ToolKit

Like any maker, every writer needs a good toolkit. Professional writers, like carpenters or iron workers, have a basic set of reliable tools they use every day. I’m sharing some of my favorites with you here. Most of them are free or have a perfectly usable freemium model, with one exception.

Sticky Notes

That exception is my favorite all-purpose tool, the sticky note. I love these things. They’re great for capturing ideas, getting organized, making notes in books, jotting down an important bit of information (like a password…just kidding), and tracking progress on a kanban board. Their uses are endless. You can color code or not, depending on what you’re doing. They’re inexpensive and don’t require special training to use.

For some ideas on the many ways to use sticky notes, see this post by my colleague Shawn Greene.


Hands-down,  Evernote is my favorite note taking, idea capturing, judgement-free writing app. It’s available across platforms; there are versions for Mac OS X, IOS, Windows and Android. Content syncs seamlessly in the cloud so you can start something on your smart phone and flesh it out on your laptop or tablet. It has a few more features than a simple note-taking tool but it’s a whole lot easier to use than Microsoft Word. The free version is robust enough for most folks, though you may prefer to buy a subscription if you want to share your work with a team. I use it to rough out content outlines, store document templates, and even develop drafts of my work.

To polish my work, I rely on two grammar checking tools: Hemingway and Grammarly. Both have wonderful free versions.


Hemingway App

The Hemingway app isn’t for everyone. It’s all about terse, concise writing, a la Earnest Hemingway. If that’s not your style, you may not want to bother with it. I like it when I’m trying to tighten up my writing and add more punch. Hemingway works in two modes: Write lets you compose on a blank screen. Edit mode checks spelling, sentence structure and word usage, among other things. It will give you a reading level score, which can be very useful when you’re targeting a specific audience. You can purchase a version of Hemingway that works offline and lets you save your work. I spent the money–it’s inexpensive and I do a lot of writing in coffee shops with unreliable internet access.


You may find Grammarly more useful than Hemingway. The free version is pretty powerful. It includes a browser plug-in that can check your spelling and grammar in text boxes on websites. It’s a handy feature when you’re filling out a form and don’t want to sound like an idiot. The grammar check is basic but useful: it catches inconsistent voice (singular vs. plural), punctuation and other simple problems. The subscription version does a more sophisticated analysis. I have not tried that version yet, but I may be letting my professional pride get in the way.


Don’t Forget Toolkit Basics

Finally, don’t forget the writer’s oldest friends and toolkit basics, a dictionary and a thesaurusOnline versions are free and convenient–though there’s something to be said for leafing through a print dictionary. 

Leader of the Pack: Lessons in Life and Leadership from my Dogs

I’ve read what seems like a bazillion books on how to be a leader.

I bet you have, too.

Most of them are awful, a few are OK, but none has rung my chimes. Yet I’ve been consistently told I’m a good leader. So where did I pick up these skills?

Other than the trite, “treat people the way you’d like to be treated,” the only idea I can come up with is a life lived with dogs. Seriously.

A Life With Dogs

I grew up in a big house in the country. My parents had a soft spot for any dog that needed a home, and the word got out. Back then, we were the crazy people who lived up on the hill with all the dogs, not a family engaged in rescuing strays. The dogs were an integral part of the family: protectors, varmint-removers, a great alarm system, snugglers on a cold night. 

Definitely NOT a leader

Let me clarify: I’m not talking about two or three cute little moppets. I mean a pack of 12-15 large Dalmatians. You know, those big white dogs with black spots that Disney made a few movies about. They run about 60-75 pounds, and they can be formidable protectors. They need a lot of exercise and make great companions for country kids looking for adventure.

When I was very little, our alpha female took a strawberry ice cream cone away from me.

I cried about it to my father but got no sympathy. He told me I needed to be the alpha. So the lessons started. The alpha female was deaf, and all commands had to be issued using both words and hand signals. 

Pretty soon I was giving commands to these large dogs–and they were obeying. 

Getting Feedback–Whether You Want It or Not

Decades later, I flew home for my mother’s memorial service. In the interim, I’d built businesses, led teams, learned to be a good project manager and, eventually, a leader.

After the service, a tiny, elderly woman approached me with great determination. Peering up at me, she shook a finger in my face and claimed everyone in town thought my mother was crazy. And that it was creepy to see a little girl have a pack of dogs do exactly what she wanted without having to say anything.

Lessons for a Leader

What did I take away from this experience?

  1. People remember leaders–even when they’re little kids in charge of a bunch of big dogs.
  2. You can learn a lot from dogs.

Stay tuned for more in this series, Leader of the Pack.