Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holiday Time: The Cookie Matrix (The Time Element)

Last time, I wrote about getting physically organized for holiday cookie-baking: inventorying and enumerating ingredients, determining averages to figure in to distrubition, etc. Making all these plans helps save a lot of time. However, I reached a point where I was still finding myself baking cookies late into the night, when I really needed to be sleeping!

Having two kids and working a full time job, all on top of a normally busy holiday schedule, makes for a severe time crunch! I really felt I could be managing my baking time more efficiently.

I found that some cookies (like Peanut Butter) could be whipped up in no time, where some (Lemon Crisps) took forever, due to the rolling out & cutting with cutters. And some cookies required that the dough be pre-chilled, whereas some did not. I also knew that some days (Saturdays) I had more time than others (Thursdays, when my daughter has Girl Scouts).
So, how did I reconcile these two pieces of the puzzle?

First, I broke down the baking process into the following steps: mixing, shaping (whether it be rolling out & cutting or just dropping the dough), baking, decorating (like frosting once cool), and packaging. (I didn't count cooling time, since the cookies had cooled by the time I packed them up.) I also noted which doughs required chilling (which I counted as an overnight process).
Next, I started measuring--per cookie type--the amount of time it took to do each step. (And yes, this was a bit more time-consuming in the short-run.) I did this for about 2-3 years so I'd get a good average without wasting so much time in the measuring.

Next, I calculated the average time of the post dough-chilling steps for each cookie type. (Again, I wouldn't count the mixing for these cookies, since the dough had to chill overnight.)

Finally, I'd look at my schedule and fit in what kind of cookie to bake on what day, including times where I had to mix up dough for the next day's batch. Now that I have decent average times, I only need to repeat this particular step each year, since my schedule changes yearly.
I have to say, once I started doing this, my stress level has dropped immensely, and I'm actually able to get some sleep & enjoy the season more!

So there you have it: The Cookie Matrix. I'm sure my readers are thinking that I'm as nutty as my Cherry Delights, but rest assured, I'm one happy nut!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Holiday Time: The Cookie Matrix (The Physical Element)

You may wonder why I’ve dubbed this blog “The Efficient Matrix.” Yes, it’s obviously about efficiency. But why “Matrix?” It all started with my cookie matrix…

1987 was the first Christmas I was on my own and I wanted to revive my mom's tradition of cookie baking! She would bake a ton of different kinds of cookies & give them away as gifts. So I obtained some of her recipes, picked up some cookie ingredients & went at it!

It wasn't long before I had to hit the supermarket again...and again...and again. It occurred to me that this was not the most efficient way to go about baking such a large amount of cookies, especially with limited time. So I went into...


Problem: going to the store too often to get cookie ingredients.
Solution: need to buy all the ingredients I'll need in one trip (two, at most)
Strategy: identify how many cookies I'll need to bake, how much of what the ingredients are, how much I already have & how much I'll need to buy
Ultimate Solution: chart it out!

I had some graph paper, so I laid out my needs as such:
1 - Along the X-axis (on top), the kind of cookie being baked
2 - Along the Y-axis (on the side), units of each ingredient (i.e., cups of flour, tsps salt, # eggs)
3 - Along the right of the graph, I totaled up the ingredients, subtracted my inventory & determined the total needed (eventually using conversions like, X cups of flour per pound). This would turn into my shopping list.

(Note that these were the days before Microsoft Excel; I have tried the Matrix in Excel, but there's something gratifying about putting it on paper!)


I wanted to make sure that I had enough of each type of cookie so that there would be sufficient variety in each batch. I determined how many folks were getting a large tin, and how many a small tin. Then I figured out (based on a rough estimate) how many of each type of cookie per each type of batch. Multiply that times the number of each type of batch, and I'd know how many cookies I'd need, or if I'd have to adjust the number per batch.

Part of making sure I'd have enough or if I'd have to adjust was tracking the average per batch. As the cookies were cooling, I'd count them up & write down the total. The total would be used in the next year's planning as part of my average number of cookies per batch. Sometimes my yields would vary dramatically, so having an average kind of gives me a target and a baseline for planning.

Whew! Sounds like a lot of work, right? Actually, it's just a lot of planning. Once the plans are laid, I'm able to bake cookies like a machine!

Next up: The Time Element!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Efficiency vs. Control

"If you can't get something done, you've got to do it yourself!"

How many times have we said that, or found ourselves living by that adage? "I can just get it done faster if I do it myself," we say.

Some folks might say that I'm a control freak...Okay,sometimes I am a control freak! I like to be able to control my outcomes; if I do X, Y will happen. If I get someone else to do X, who knows what will happen!

Sometimes, however, control can be counter-productive. If we feel that we must have total control over a project or a process, one of two things can happen:
- we end up doing it all ourselves, leaving little time to do anything else, or
- we end up micro-managing others, thereby driving them crazy! Not to mention hurting the working relationship.

Can you see where over-controlling can be counterproductive? So how do we rein in our control and become more efficient?

There are a few ways to do this. One is to to train others to do the job. (The nice thing for us control freaks is: we have control on how the training will be administered!) One piece of mommy advice I once read was: show them how to do it, do it with them, then let them do it on their own. Yes, this takes time at first, but in the long run, think of how much time is saved once it's off your hands!

Another way is to lower expectations to a reasonable level. Remember, there is a big difference between perfection and "good enough". Does the job really need to be perfect? Most of the time, "good enough" will satisfy the world (exception: perhaps not surgery--please get that right!).

One final way is to realize whether or not you truly have control over what it is you're worrying about. There are some things that we have no control and perhaps not even an influence over. (Remember the Serenity Prayer?) In these cases, we are wasting time and energy. How efficient is that?

I just want to iterate that I'm not advocating abdicating control altogether. We just need to examine what we should control, what we can't control and what we can let go of control.

So, am I preaching to the choir? Or do I have fellow control freaks out there? What do you do to "let it go"?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Second Brain

When I was a little girl and asked my mom various questions, she’s always reply with, “Look it up in the encyclopedia!” But those encyclopedias were getting old and out-of-date. There was just no way to answer my questions completely and with the most timely information.

Well, this past Christmas my husband bought me an iPhone. I’ve always marveled at them, but could never justify getting one for myself, since I was pretty content with my normal cell phone.

But now that I’m in the iPhone world, I couldn’t imagine myself without it! No, I haven’t played any games on it nor have I listened to any music through its iPod app. What I’ve found, however, is that it has become my second brain: a storehouse for all sorts of information!

Directions to a place? The Maps App.

What does that word mean? The Dictionary App.

Different translations of a Bible verse? The Bible App.

Who was in that movie? The IMDB App.

Current scores & bracket standings in the NCAA Basketball Tournament? The NCAA March Madness App.

What’s on TV tonight? The TV Guide App.

Want to learn more on a particular topic? Listen to a podcast!

The best part is, all these particular apps are free! There are plenty of other free & pay apps that help you get organized better (such as various to-do lists), but I haven’t been moved to try them…yet!

The closest thing to a drawback is that I continually need to sync my iPhone with my computer and download updates. But I can deal with that.

If you have any sort of smart phone, you have a powerful tool literally at your fingertips. Oh, yeah, and you can make phone calls with them too!

Does anyone else have some indispensable apps?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Optimize Me

You’ve heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns: there comes a point where your return becomes more disproportionate to your investment. This doesn’t just apply to money, but to our time and our organizational efforts as well.

To those who know me personally, this may come as a shock: yes, you can be too organized. When you are spending more time and effort to keep something organized than on the thing being organized, you are experiencing the Law of Diminishing Returns. So do we just stop organizing altogether? That’s going to the other extreme, I think.

Personally, my goal always has been to be as organized as I can. But trying to be a perfectionist was self-defeating. When I became a mom, trying to keep a perfectly clean house had great potential for taking my time away from my kids and myself! My new way of thinking had to be, “What is optimal?” In other words, what strikes the best balance between X (keeping the house clean) and Y (having enough free time)? Sometimes the balance between X and Y has to be reviewed daily!

Even at work I face choices of perfection vs. optimization. Should I fiddle with these margins anymore? Or are they close enough? How much time does the task I’m facing really require? How far am I going beyond what is required of me?

One mindset that has helped me optimize is assessing needs/requirements vs. wants. The baby with the wet diaper needs to be changed, whereas the toddler with the book wants to be read to. Change the diaper, then read the book, no matter how much the little guy whines—he will live! The application at work is required to go out by Federal Express tonight; the long-term project you’re working on (though it needs to be done eventually) can wait until tomorrow. Yes, there will be times where there are conflicting needs that are all happening at once, but for the most part, this is a good go-to plan.

The moral of the story: strike the balance—optimize! Get what you need to get done, add in what you can to do it well, but don’t let those things take away from everything else you have to do.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Reset Button

Oh, it's been so long since I've posted here, and I apologize to anyone who was looking forward to how to get organized for the holidays. It seems that I was so busy following my pre-set infrastructure, on top of Christmas, on top of a reorganization at work, that there was no time for anything else!

So now that we're in the new year, it's time for me to hit the "reset" button; to clear out the old & if needed, put in something new.

What things need to be eliminated? For me, it's about 4 magazine gift subscriptions, taking computer surveys for cash, and emotional baggage! Sometimes we hold onto things we think we need, but then we find they are cluttering up our lives.

So I'll be doing that, then returning with a better focus!

Friday, November 26, 2010

When It’s Time to “Let It Go”

One of the goals of being organized is to have some sort of control in your life. I feel that when things are in order, all is right with the world. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Ah!

I’m learning (especially after becoming a mom) that not everything can be organized, and not everything can be controlled. Sometimes just the thought of that brings on visions of chaos! You can’t truly control your kids’ behavior (we’ll come back to this!); you sure can’t control the weather; you can’t stop or slow the passage of time; you can’t “make” other people like you; you can’t sterilize the world.

What you can do, however, is manage these things, but only to an extent. You can punish/reward your child’s behavior; you can prepare for bad weather; you can make the most of the time you do have and not overschedule yourself; you can treat others the way you wish to be treated; you still can’t sterilize the world, but you can be reasonably responsible for your little part of it.

Even after managing your world, be aware that your affect on the outcome can only go so far. When it comes to influencing others, they have the final say on how they will act. When it comes to preparation, there are always exceptional circumstances that you just can’t anticipate. When it comes to cleanliness, there are only 24 hours in a day, and you have other things going on in your life. This is the time when you just have to say “let it go.”

I remember when my aunt was dying, and I was responsible for making long-distance decisions for her care. It was frustrating not being there and having a “hands-on” view of everything, even though I called every day to get the information I needed to make an informed decision. I felt that I had to fight for her life. There came a point, however, when one of the doctors told me that she was at the point where only comfort should be given. “You’ve done everything you could,” the doctor told me. That was exactly what I needed to hear to give me peace about my final decision to release my aunt to hospice care. And it turned out to be the right decision, as her best friend visited my aunt the night before she died, and the friend told me that my aunt looked relaxed, comfortable and at peace.

On a less traumatic note, there have been times where I’m going through the house thinking, “This needs to be cleaned,” or “that needs to be swept” and I’ve stopped myself, saying, “It can wait another day,” or “I can delegate that to the kids.” I just release the worry for the time being.

The whole point of letting something go is to reduce your worry to a healthy level, though it may not eliminate it. For example, you will always worry about your wayward child, but you will stop beating yourself up over it. In some cases, the less important things will not cause the worry that they once did.

What this all adds up to is not control of the external, but control of the internal: your approach and your attitude. I have to say, it’s no one-shot deal. It’s a work in progress!