Today we speak with author Nettie Owens, who shares how she reached the “aha moment” that fundamentally changed her career, launching her journey to help others find focus and fight chronic disorganization.
Thank you so much for joining our interview series! Before we get started, we would love to “get to know you” a bit better. What is your ‘backstory’, and how did you get started?
I began my company in 2004; I had just moved to Maryland from California with my husband, leaving a position as Assistant Director of Database Services for a child and family services agency. I hadn’t really intended to go off and start a business. My husband had already begun a consulting business on the side as a computer scientist, and I was helping him manage that. We were planning to start a family soon, and I thought, naively, that having my own business would be easier and more flexible than being employed for someone else. I had not yet seen the meme that says, “I will work 80 hrs a week just so that I don’t have to work 40 hours a week.” The point of that meme is that we, entrepreneurs, would rather work our butts off for ourselves than go back to a 40-hour work week for someone else.
Originally, I built a professional organizing agency based out of Harford County, Maryland. Organizing, as a profession, was still in its infancy, and there were very few models to follow; there was no certification program available, and most people in organizing were doing it as a side gig. The TV shows Mission Organization, Clean House, and Clean Sweep were just coming on air. There was no Marie Kondo or Hoarders. My company started small, just me, and within a year, I had brought on another organizer. I had a business plan, having studied Entrepreneurship & Management at Johns Hopkins University along with Computer Science but, I had no idea that my business would eventually specialize in Chronic Disorganization and then go on to train dozens of organizers to work with Chronic Disorganization and Hoarding or be the largest company in the area serving this specialized population.
Eventually, I created the Take Control System for getting and staying organized and wrote the book to accompany this system along with a planner, The 60 Minute Weekly Planning Guide, to help you organize for the week ahead.
Can you share an interesting story or anecdote that happened to you, and which you think helped direct your career?
The “Aha Moment” was more of a series of nudges into the direction my company is now going. In 2017, I had begun to shift from serving individuals and small businesses with organizing challenges to corporations. I had several requests from companies to work with them on improving organization, systems, and productivity. In the summer of 2017, I awoke at 2:30 am with a clear map in my mind of what allows businesses to be successful. I was already moving forward on a research project to confirm my early morning mental ‘download’ when my big ‘Ah-ha’ hit.
It was November 2017. I was up and getting ready for a 7:30 am BNI – networking meeting. My best ideas seem to come when I am in the shower, and this was one of those days. It was a series of thoughts that culminated in an idea to provide high-touch accountability to business owners to help them reach their biggest goals. The people that I work with had often worked with coaches in the past that would assign tasks and then ‘check-in’ in a month. The coach would see the tasks were not done or that the person had rushed the night before to try and re-create a month’s worth of work in just a few hours. I knew I could help here as I had already been working with homeowners to break down big projects, do work that was boring or difficult with consistency, and create better outcomes. I just shifted to work with business owners instead and applied that knowledge of chronic disorganization into the business world where motivation, drive, and focus are expected to naturally exist.
In a way, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Is there a person who helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It’s always been my family. My dad specifically has been my go-to person to talk to about business and management. He was acting director of the FDA prior to retiring and supported me on how to be a leader for myself and my customers. I feel so blessed that my family has always been my biggest support. My sisters and my mom have all worked with me or for me in some capacity. My husband helped me design my first website. My sister-in-law gifted me my original company logo. My brother-in-law held the original server for the company website. I have always had a sounding board within my family that has helped me start and grow my business.
Excellent. Let’s now move on to the core of our interview. For many of us, the pandemic fundamentally altered the way we work. Most notably, many teams have started working remotely, which is very different from the more traditional office environment. In your experience, has this shift negatively impacted people living with ADD/ADHD?
For many years, while working in residential organizing, I would describe the difference between the work week and the weekend to my clients with knowing nods. The work week brought structure and routine, consistency and normalcy. For those with ADD/ADHD, this structure provided a container to do work and the weekends were a mixed bag of expectations and frustration. I think for some, the structure of the office environment is juxtaposed to the free form nature of remote work. There is a need in remote work to create your own structure, schedule, deadlines, focus, and environment. For many with ADD/ADHD, creating and then consistently operating in this environment is a struggle.
Without clear boundaries provided by a physical space, work bleeds into all areas of the home and every minute of the day.
On the other hand, what are some significant benefits of remote work for neurodiverse professionals?
While the office structure can be good for some, it has its own challenges: noisy coworkers, open-plan spaces, smells and other sensory inputs that can make focus a challenge. Being about to craft their own environment specifically to their own needs can be an opportunity to create a workspace that fits them.
In addition, activities that may be perceived by coworkers as bothersome in a traditional office space, are no big deal to implement in a remote office: walking and moving more in the office, standing desks, wearing clothing that is comfortable, taking frequent breaks, even working at unusual hours, or working out and then showering in the middle of the day.
Lastly, disruptions can be controlled and managed.
As some organizations make the move toward making these changes permanent, what are some recommendations that you would make for ADD/ADHD professionals, particularly those in positions of responsibility?
What works for one person, works for one person. I think that open dialogue is important. Ask people what they need, and turn that question to yourself as well. Do you need a defined space and time structure? Can you create it yourself? If not, who or what can support you in creating these bounds. Are you supporting yourself but not your team? Are you being flexible and adaptable? What policies can you put in place that universally support well-being?
Drilling down a bit, a common question among ADD/ADHD individuals is finding the ideal daily routine that provides productive focus without neglecting incoming responsibilities as they arrive. What do you think is a good baseline to start planning a good day at work, and at home?
1. Don’t get stuck trying to recreate someone else’s perfect system. You’ll see, hear, and read about what works or has worked from others. Consider these ideas ‘inspiration’ and allow yourself to choose from the buffet of options. Often, we get stuck on trying to implement a system that works for someone else. Instead, make a list of the times that you felt in ‘flow’, that you felt productive, that you felt like you were managing your tasks well. What worked about those times? Use this as a starting point to craft a system that will work for you now.
2. Include fidgets and not just tactile ones – For me, the word fidget brings to mind constant motion, bouncing feet, and playing with the staples or paperclips holding your report together. For those with ADHD, you may need the extra sensory input to keep your brain focused. Think about all the ways you sense the world around you, and consider infusing more input in one area and less in another. For example, listening to music (auditory) can be a fidget. So can chewing gum (taste, touch), lighting a candle (smell), standing desk (motion), soft couch (tactile), sitting with a coworker (energy, social). Each of these ‘fidgets’ engages your brain in a secondary way while you focus on the task at hand. Working in a sterile, noiseless environment may work for some people, but for others, like us, having additional inputs keeps the brain dialed in while working.
3. Change your environment for the task at hand. Your space is a big cue for your brain to know what kind of work needs to be done. Designate specific spaces in your home or office for different tasks. You might do reading in a cozy armchair by a window and prepare reports in your office while sitting with a candle lit. Moving from space to space gives you a physical and mental transition that helps you put a specific endpoint from one task so that it does not flow into the next.
We are big believers in the power of prioritization. With what frequency do you think someone should review their day-to-day priorities? And what are some good tips for deciding what is your next task, when you can choose among literally hundreds of options?
I am a firm believer in tossing your to-do list in the trash. Shocking, I know, especially coming from an avid ‘to-do’ list maker. However, this is what I mean. So often our to-do lists become cluttered with the same tasks that we are procrastinating on, avoiding, or shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Our focus and energy changes and we need to update our lists but instead, we keep trying to ‘check off’ old tasks that are no longer relevant. Or worse, we focus on what is written on our to-do lists, because the tasks are familiar and comfortable, rather than doing the work that will really move our lives and businesses forward.
Here is my remedy, and it is what I teach in the Momentum Accountability Program (TM), you begin with your destination in mind. Every day should begin with a short, 2-minute, visualization of where you are going today or over the next 30 days. Get into the feeling of having accomplished what you are setting out to do. See the work done and you are living in the results. Personally, I start with a phrase like, “Wow! The last 30 days were awesome! I am celebrating that I have…” and continue the sentence. Imagine it done. Speak and feel as if all you are working on has already happened.
From here, you ask yourself the question, “What needs to happen TODAY for that vision to become a reality?” OR “What can I do today to make that vision my NOW reality?” This question is supremely clarifying. You have moved outside the mental traps and the time traps that keep you stuck because your brain now believes it’s possible to do what you are ‘pretending’ to do. Now, it is just a matter of what you will do, not how you will do it. In addition, the steps you do take will be more impactful as they all create the reality you have already imagined.
Start your to-do list here. If you need a place to capture all that is swirling around in your brain, use a tool like Evernote, but for the important stuff, like your ‘to-do’ list, keep just 1-4 items on an index card in front of you as you work. You can supercharge your efforts by also having a physical, visual or auditory representation of your vision. And don’t worry, this process isn’t all woo-woo and spiritual. The work you do to visualize and create your list actually forms new neural pathways in your brain, which then leads to greater connections in your mind, allowing you to create and synthesize information more readily. In other terms, you can solve your problems and get results faster.
On a more personal note, how do you get yourself in the zone for productive work? Any tricks, techniques, or aids that you can share, especially given your background as an author?
Everything I have shared is from the research I have done, my education as a professional organizer in chronic disorganization, and my application of that research and education to my own work and that of my clients. But here are a few more tricks that I find especially useful:
1 – Walking and thinking. I need big physical spaces and movement when I am trying to sort things out. So, going for a walk, especially in nature, solves that need. I use an app called Otter to capture thoughts (I just speak them out loud and record as I go).
2 – Move one on one meetings off of Zoom and back onto the phone. (see number 1)
3 – The Momentum Planner, this is the tool I have created to help me focus and move my goals forward every day.
4 – I do deep thinking on Saturday and Sunday mornings when I know there will not be any surprises, no one else is awake, and I have no concern of an imminent meeting and few inputs like dings from social media.
At a systemic level, I am interested in any learnings from working on your latest book. What are some things successful organizations do to help employees with ADD/ADHD thrive at work, and contribute at the top of their capacity? What are some DOs and DON’Ts that you can share?
Great question. While interviewing business owners, CEOs and experts for What Businesses Need To Know Right Now, I found there were a few ideas that permeated most of the interviews. These ideas are practices that are good for folks with ADD/ADHD that are also good for the general population. I think of these in the same way you would think of Universal Design. (What is Universal Design?).
- Communication – Within months of the pandemic taking hold on the world, the Black Lives Matter movement progressed and conversations about diversity and inclusion popped up everywhere. Diversity is not just about experience based on skin color but it encompasses all the different ways that people experience the world, move their bodies, think, believe, etc. Communicate, ask questions, accept feedback, being curious, and having a dialogue is a big way that successful organizations help ADD/ADHD employees thrive.
- Flexibility – The businesses owners I interviewed talked about a need to be flexible and letting go of the idea that the way things have always been done is the way that they need to be done in the future. With the pandemic, it has been impossible to hold on to those old ways, but I am concerned that people may have nostalgia for what was before the quarantine. It’s ok to use different ways to measure success now and into the future.
- Adaptability – It may seem like adaptability is the same as flexibility, but I see them as different and equally important. Flexibility, to me, is the willingness to look at things differently, to not be rigid in your thinking. Adaptability is the ability to change when doing so is needed for growth. And a big part of what the experts shared was that the businesses that will survive and thrive in this time are those that are adaptable. So, how are you adapting your company and your work to what is needed now or what your employees need?
- Relationships – All the thinking and talking that comes from those above three items is good, but the foundation is truly building strong relationships. In the end, when businesses truly care about their people and build strong relationships, then the communication, flexibility, and adaptability flow. We can do this by truly seeing the people that we work with as people and understanding that we are on this journey together.
What are some specific tools or techniques that you recommend in order to stay organized and productive? Can you give a concrete example of how to integrate them?
Video and screen capture. I often use video/screen capture to relay tasks to my team and to communicate clearly without needing to step into another meeting. It can be easier and faster to record myself while doing and talking through a task than to track and explain the same thing via email. My team will do the same for me.
My favorite tool that I have recommended for the entirety of my business years is a timer. It’s an oldie but goody, and everyone has some form of it they can use. One of my favorites is the Time Timer, as it allows you to visually see how much time has passed.
Getting a bit more serious now. I read about lots of people who went through their young years thinking they were incapable of great work, only to learn as adults about their ADD/ADHD. This finding is often liberating, and it enables them to understand how their mind works, and how to best deal with it. What are some red flags for someone who has not been diagnosed, but who suspects they suffer ADD/ADHD?
The ’red flags’ that I share here could be a sign of ADD/ADHD, but they could also have other roots such as Anxiety, Depression, lack of sleep, poor hydration, menopause, traumatic brain injury or even COVID, among other things. If you are experiencing any difficulty in persisting towards your goals, focus, completion of work, time awareness, difficulty falling asleep, restlessness, holding two thoughts in your mind, sensory overwhelm, then go to your primary care physician and share what is happening. This is not an exhaustive list nor am I a doctor to be able to diagnose any specific challenge, but there are self-assessments that can help you identify whether it is time to go in to the doctor.
For someone who ticks some of these boxes, what next steps would you recommend? Read more, or talk to someone? When is it a good time to seek professional help?
In any time when you feel you are not operating at your best, you feel that ‘something is not right’ it is the right time to reach out for help. Start with your primary care physician so that they can rule out any other causes and provide a referral for an assessment with a specialist if needed.
Ok, we’re winding down now. Something I like to ask everyone: Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson” quote? How has it been relevant to you in your life?
“Never quit after a bad day.” Nastia Liukin, Olympic gymnast. Just because you have one bad moment or a full day does not mean you should quit.
Finally, my favorite part of the interview, the rapid-fire session! Short questions with one-line responses:
- In the recent past, what book has impacted you the most?
“Raising Human Beings” by Dr. Ross Greene.
- Coffee or tea?
- What was your childhood dream job?
- What public figure do you admire?
- What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t make yourself smaller to allow others to feel more comfortable.
- What is something most people don’t know about you?
I love working on big projects while flying (it’s been hard to do so during the pandemic.) I feel focused, and I can get into deep work, as long as I have power on my computer!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
First, text FREEDOM to 411321 to receive my short guide, “How to Succeed In Business: the Proven Path to Success for High Achievers.” It outlines the 9 principles you need to succeed and to do so in your own way. I am also on LinkedIn, Instagram, and at my websites NettieOwens.com and SappariGroup.com.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. We wish you continued success.
About the interviewer: Pablo Diaz-Gutierrez is the founder and CTO of Appfluence, an award-winning software company that focuses on helping busy professionals make the most of their limited time, better organizing emails, projects and meetings. Priority Matrix has been recommended by ADD/ADHD experts as a useful tool to help manage time, tasks and life priorities. Appfluence is producing this interview series to highlight the tools and techniques that top experts find most effective. If you would like to suggest a new topic or interviewee, please reach out to us.