Declutter! Focus! Do one-thing-at-a-time! Plan! Schedule!
There are thousands of books and articles teaching us how to be organized. I’ve read them. I understand them. I don’t follow them.
I rarely keep a things-to-do list except when I’m overwhelmed or feel lethargic. I’m a fly-by-the-seat of my pants kinda person. My process is divergent, I am a piler not a filer, not logical and I used to think there was something wrong with me.
AND NOW I’m vindicated! Read this excerpt* (emphasis is mine):
“Sometimes, we place too much faith in the idea that if something looks well-organized, then we’ve got our lives under control.”
“It’s all too easy to fall into this trap. Many of us feel embarrassed about our cluttered desks, for example, assuming that they are an externalization of our internal chaos. Yet emptying your desk may, ironically, clutter your mind more than ever. All those tasks—read that book, reply to that letter, pay that bill—still exist. But lacking physical reminders that you trust, you may be forced to rely on your subconscious to remind you of all these incomplete tasks. Your subconscious will do a pretty good job of that: it will remind you every few minutes. An empty desk can mean an anxious mind.“
“Nor are empty-deskers necessarily better organized in their work lives. In 2001, Steve Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg, then researchers at AT&T Labs, studied the behavior (pdf) of “filers”, who scrupulously file away their paperwork, and “pilers” who let it accumulate on their desk and any other convenient horizontal surface.”
“. . . the researchers discovered that the “filers” accumulated bloated archives full of useless chaff. Whittaker has a term for this: “premature filing.” That’s what happens when we take a new document and promptly file it in a fit of tidy-mindedness before we really understand what it means, how it fits into our ongoing commitments, and whether we need to keep it at all. The result: duplicate folders, folders within folders, folders holding just a single document, and filing cabinets that serve as highly-structured trash cans.”
“Meanwhile, the “pilers” flourished. They were much more likely to throw paperwork away—after all, it was in plain sight on their desks—and when they did file something, they were more likely to understand it. Paradoxically, the messy workers had lean, practical and well-used archives. Their organizational system was messy, but it worked.”
“It’s possible to over-structure your life in other ways, too. As the psychologist Marc Wittman told Quartz in August, a partly or wholly unplanned holiday tends to feel longer and fuller than a holiday in which every decision has been made in advance. Critical decisions have to be made in the moment, which means you pay more attention to what’s happening and have richer memories after the fact. But to carry out Wittman’s advice, of course, means letting go and taking a risk. Switching off autopilot always carries an element of danger. That’s why it works.”
“One fascinating study conducted in the early 1980s examined the well-worn question of how structured one should make a calendar. Some people think that if you want to get something done, you should block out a time to do it on the calendar. Others think that the calendar should be reserved only for fixed appointments, and that everything else should be a movable feast”
“The study, run by the psychologists, Daniel Kirschenbaum, Laura Humphrey and Sheldon Malett explored this question, asked undergraduates to participate in a study-skills course. Some were advised to set out monthly goals and study activities; others were told to plan activities and goals in much more detail, day by day.”
“The researchers, assuming daily plans would work better than months were wrong: “The daily plans were catastrophically demotivating, while the monthly plans worked very nicely. The effect was still in evidence a year later. The likely explanation is that the daily plans simply became derailed by unexpected events. A rigid structure is inherently fragile. Better for both your peace of mind and your productivity to improvise a little more often.”
I believe our brains are hard-wired to be logical or creatively divergent. What works for one person, one situation, will not work for another. If I could learn to stop berating myself when piles and projects surround me you can stop berating yourself for being overly organized.
*Source: Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (Riverbed) by Tim Harford, Financial Times columnist.