One of the consistently humorous moments in my work with chronically disorganized people is when they find stuff in their homes, and they can’t figure out how it got there. Whose is it? How long has it been here? Where did it come from?
Sometimes they don’t even know what it is!
We’ve been in situations where there is an entire box full of random items to redistribute. Whose are they? Former roommates? Friends from gaming night? Gremlins? The best we can do is to put that box by the front door and try to remember to ask people to check inside the next time they come over.
This issue of infiltration by random items comes from a lack of situational awareness. It’s cute and charming and funny, but it can also be... a little dangerous?
Not noticing your surroundings can lead to all sorts of problems, from spilling coffee to tripping and falling downstairs. I had a client who couldn’t find an actual dead rat for several days! It’s worse than that. The rat was in plain view. In the living room. And the pet dogs didn’t notice it, either. I’m like, your dogs are fired. But then, my personal dog is a rat terrier, so maybe it’s unfair to compare other dogs to him in that regard.
The simplest way to grow into greater situational awareness is with a focusing exercise that I call Perimeter Check.
Simply put, Perimeter Check means walking through each room and looking around. Many people learn to do this at work, using a checklist and doing routine tasks like closing out the till, taking out the trash, or setting the security system. There are few things more common than my people using a skill at a high level on the job, and then failing to use that same skill once they get home. That’s because there is no built-in accountability, no negative consequence for not doing it. We try to see Perimeter Check as a quick, easy thing we do for ourselves and our friends and family.
Perimeter Check can be done in mere seconds. Every time you get up, whether it’s on a bus seat, leaving work for the day, or at the movies, just glance around and make sure you have all your stuff. My hubby and I are both notorious for having to go back for stuff. I made up a little rhyme to try to make this something funny, rather than annoying:
Wallet, phone, glasses, keys / I don’t like mac and cheese
In a hotel room, Perimeter Check can be done in about a minute. I’ve been conditioning my hubby to perform it with me as a redundantly duplicate act of redundancy. We both open and shut every drawer, look in the closet, and check the shower and the bathroom counter. Before we started doing this, we had something of a track record of losing things in hotels, including the earrings I wore to our wedding. It would be nice to live in a perfect world where these left behind items are returned to Lost and Found, but in practice that has virtually never happened. It’s our responsibility to look after our own belongings, and with a sixty-second Perimeter Check, we do.
Around the house, Perimeter Check depends entirely on how many rooms there are and how much stuff is in each room.
We live in a studio apartment (technically a “junior one-bedroom” but it does not have a bedroom door, or a wall, or... a dishwasher or a washer or dryer or air conditioning or... ). Optimally, a Perimeter Check should only take us a couple of minutes. Due to the nature of living in two rooms, almost every single thing we own is in open view at all times. Even the closet doesn’t have its own door, so you can stand in the bathroom and see all our clothes, luggage, sheets, towels, shoes, laundry soap, etc. Obviously we can’t have a huge amount of personal items in a 600-square-foot apartment, but there is that issue of dozens of things in multiple colors and shapes and sizes. It’s like a “find the hidden object” puzzle. Without systems in place, it could be challenging.
What are the systems?
Everything has to justify its existence in our home
One in, one or two out
A place for everything and everything in its place
Never put something big in front of or on top of something small
Clear surfaces except when in use
Paper-free whenever possible
Basically what this means is that the kitchen counter, bathroom counter, floor, couch, and desktops need to be kept clear. If something is sitting on one of these clear, flat surfaces, that means it’s an intentional signal to do something. (Mail it, replace it, repair it, bring it with you).
Perimeter Check happens as a routine a few times a day. My hubby does it every morning when he leaves for work: Feed dog, walk dog, put dog in crate, grab backpack, grab bike, lock door. After that process, the only objects left on view in those areas should be things that belong there, like the dog leash. I do almost the identical routine when I leave, and then we both reverse it when we get home. This gives us ample opportunity to notice when the dog food bag is getting low or when he needs his prescription filled at the vet. The vitally important area around the front door is constantly being checked and cleared. At bedtime, it takes just a few seconds to check the locks, turn out lights, and gauge the levels of the laundry basket, toothpaste tube, dental floss, etc. There are a thousand tiny cogs in the machinery of daily life, and it can be a lot, but doing the routine Perimeter Check is a way of keeping everything running smoothly without a lot of extra mental energy.
Our home is for us, not our stuff. A house should serve the people and animals who live there. We should be able to sit on the couch, eat at the table, cook in the kitchen, sleep on the bed, and get ready in the bathroom. If there are any mysterious objects floating around, how did they get there and why didn’t we notice them? A stray tennis ball wound up in our yard one day, and believe me, our dog noticed within hours, if not minutes. A Perimeter Check is a way of fully inhabiting our home and, even more, our mental space.
The hardest thing to do is to make decisions. Action is easy. Take action toward something that you know is important and valuable to your life, and you’ll find it satisfying and absorbing. Most likely, you’ll also find that it’s a fairly automatic process. Almost everything we need to do in life is routine once the decisions have been made. I always say that we’ll do anything if we want to and we know how. When we’re stuck, it’s either because we don’t really know what to do next, or we’re not really committed because we haven’t really decided whether we want it. Once we have all that figured out, all that’s left is turning the crank.
Turning the crank is doing a rote task over and over again.
Turning the crank is doing something relatively mindless that needs doing.
Turning the crank is executing on something with a consistent level of quality and output.
Turning the crank is production, rather than design or strategy.
The great thing about turning the crank is that it leaves the mind free to focus on other things. Something is getting done almost without your realizing it. Sometimes it feels like the work does itself.
Everyone knows the feeling of turning the crank. We just don’t always realize that that’s what we’re doing. Driving a familiar route is turning the crank. Playing an addictive game is turning the crank. Binge-watching TV is turning the crank. Eating favored snack foods is turning the crank. Ordering the same drink over and over is turning the crank. We’re absolutely fantastic at turning cranks! We just don’t always turn the cranks that can move life forward. We prefer the cranks that keep us running in place on a treadmill, exhausted, burned out, but doing something predictable that doesn’t use extra decision power.
I turn the crank on my laundry system because I accept that I will want to wear clean clothes most days for the rest of my life.
I turn the crank on my personal hygiene system because the alternative is repugnant to me.
I turn the crank on my meal system because I’ve got it going on. I know what to do to cook stuff I like to eat, that my husband likes to eat, that we can eat every day without weight gain or health problems. (Example: he has a sensitivity to limes, of all things).
I turn the crank on our mail system because it keeps the desk clear, and because it prevents predictable crises. (Example: some of my airline reward points will expire soon if I don’t use them).
About 80% of life is maintenance. This can be unutterably boring and stultifying. It can feel too unfair for words. You mean I have to fold laundry EVERY DAY??? UGHHHHHH! The stuff that makes the maintenance list is the stuff that gets worse when it’s ignored. We do the maintenance because when we abdicate and avoid it, it winds up taking longer. It’s usually also stickier, greasier, smellier, dustier, more depressing and annoying in every way if it gets put off. Future Me, you’d better appreciate this.
The point of turning the crank is to free up mental bandwidth. Automate every possible thing. Anything that can be put on a System 1 basis, where it can be done without conscious thought, frees up focus and awareness for more interesting things. The most important of these is strategy, and after that are creative output and entertainment. It’s also possible to turn the crank in an emotional or spiritual state such as gratitude, satisfaction, awe, compassion meditation, harmony with nature, ecstatic musical appreciation, or all sorts of other mindsets. Just because there’s a toilet brush in my hand / doesn’t mean that this isn’t my jam.
We tend to miss these rarefied states because we’re usually boiling with resentment, steaming with annoyance and frustration, trudging in dejection, or maybe even fuming with rage that we have to waste our precious time doing these horrible tasks. SO UNFAIR! It’s only when we accept that spending 80% of our time on boring, unfulfilling chores is the lot of humanity that we’re able to tune in to other frequencies.
I turned the crank today. I woke up and wrote, formatted, and posted an article for this blog before I had even had breakfast. That’s one of the main cranks that I turn, and I haven’t missed a business day in over three years. Then I read and reviewed a book, which I also formatted and scheduled. Turn the crank. I went to the gym, coached my clients, and caught up on email. Turn the crank. Listened to eight podcast episodes, or another way to put that would be that I changed the sheets, washed three loads of clothes, cleaned the bathroom, ran the dishwasher, vacuumed the bedroom, sorted the mail, cleaned the birdcage, and walked the dog. Turn the crank. Did two tasks for my volunteer position. Turn the crank. Wrote out my strategic plan for the next 13 weeks. That’s the crank that turns all the other cranks.
Turning the crank feels like competence. It’s a game, if you want it to be. When I was a kid, I hated washing dishes because I “had” to do it. Now I just shrug and do it, because it’s my kitchen, my home, and my rules. I hated cleaning my room, quite frankly because I didn’t know how to do it and I had stuff I had no authority to discard. Now I just shrug and do it, or more accurately, there isn’t really anything to clean.
I turn the crank because it’s a major part of how I do what I want, almost all the time. I choose. I choose to have a certain emotional state and a certain energy level. I choose to have a certain amount of mental bandwidth, which I then apply to various interesting projects, also of my choosing. It’s not acceptable to me to live in chaos and entropy, and neither is it acceptable to me to put my attention and precious mental focus on rote tasks. I let my hands do the tasks while my mind is free. It’s because I turn the crank every day that my mind is released from duty.
The more I study productivity and positive psychology, the more I think that pop culture has everything backwards. How many trillions of articles are there going to be about these topics before everyone starts to realize? Common tactics don’t work. What we need is more strategy. Then we can finally speed up, bounce right over these little speed bumps, and move on to the next thing.
The thing about “getting organized” is that it’s far too vague to mean anything. How do you know what it looks like? I know my clients don’t. They punish themselves with guilt and shame, meanwhile living out the same frantic calamities day after day. The real problem is that they just don’t know what to do. When they start to realize that their problems have simple root causes, they’re always so surprised and relieved! We start with a pain point, like “always being late” or “not being able to find stuff” or “mixed up about money.” Changing just one keystone behavior can completely eliminate all the problems it causes, thereby ending the need to “get organized.”
Those keystone habits?
Almost all household tasks take about five minutes, except for putting away laundry, which is more like 10-15 minutes per load, and cooking, which can be under thirty minutes for dinner and 5-10 for breakfast and lunch. Not a very big time investment for living in a relaxing environment and eating nice meals!
That’s a major part of “weight loss.” I put that in quotes because it’s something that athletes only think about if they’re competing in a sport with weight classes, like boxing or wrestling. Right now, in fact, I’m thinking in terms of weight GAIN because I’m actively trying to put on ten or fifteen pounds of nice solid muscle. Weight loss is a problem for average people because the Standard American Lifestyle is ineffective. It’s ineffective for financial independence, physical fitness, health, ability to stay off pharmaceutical drugs, and also minimalist housekeeping. Whenever you look around and find that 70% of people are in the same situation you’re in, it’s a cultural issue, not an issue of “motivation” or “willpower” or whatever else. Stop “losing weight” and start trying to figure out how to beat the system, the system that is failing us all.
This is how I lost weight.
2, 4, and 5 were permanent. 6 is seasonal but ramps up every year.
I haven’t had to think about “weight loss” for four years. I just put on my clothes. The fit of my favorite jeans tells me more than a scale will. I maintain a capsule wardrobe all in a single size, out of the eight sizes I’ve worn in adulthood. Regaining a lot of body fat would mean replacing my entire wardrobe, and I’m too stingy to pay for that.
When you’re “organized” and you don’t have to “lose weight,” there aren’t that many things to put on a to-do list. I used to love writing lists to clear my head when I felt overwhelmed by life. Usually they would include basic household chores. I teach my clients an exercise I call the “101 List,” in which I ask them to walk around their homes looking for tasks that need doing and trying to write down 101 separate items. It’s a great help for a chronically disorganized person who hasn’t yet set up any systems.
That’s the secret, though. Well, one of two. First secret: Build systems and put everything on autopilot so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Basic tasks should not be eating up your mental bandwidth or taking up any more time than they deserve.
Second secret: Don’t write lists; schedule reminders. Put these things on your calendar. Then ACTUALLY DO THEM at the time slot that you decided would work the best for you.
The problem with writing out to-do lists is that it’s like a pressure valve. It makes you feel accomplished, and then you can relax. (This is obviously true in the case of people who add tasks to their list just to cross them off). This is great if you do the things, and if writing out the list helps you to fall asleep more quickly that night. It’s bad if writing the list is the thing you do INSTEAD OF doing the things. The existence of multiple lists in various stages of completion will indicate if this is an issue.
What I finally learned was that most of my energy did not go toward what was important to me. I beat myself up for being disorganized, feeling guilty and ashamed, when my real problem was not understanding what to do about it. I thought I was procrastinating, when my real problems were managing my energy level and mental focus, and of course battling my chronic disorganization. The better I got at managing my schedule and my stuff, the easier it became. That’s when I started to be able to help other people, which is important, because all of us have better things to do than to spend our lives trying to Get Organized and Lose Weight.
On the biggest clutter-clearing jobs, there is one category of stuff that takes more time than everything else put together. In this category, a single item can burn up an hour of time. A single grocery sack could represent weeks of work. This category is where people tend to get lost, and that’s why I advise them to wait and save it for last. That category: The Flats.
The Flats are flat things. Original, right?
What is it about the Flats? What makes them so much harder to sort?
The Flats include:
Coupons, expired and current
Articles to read
Old to-do lists
Procrastinated social obligations
Papers representing anxiety, dread, guilt, shame, and grief
You can see how it works. An entire truckload of construction debris or yard waste can be hauled off with a single decision. The trunk of a car can be filled with old blankets and linens for the pet hospital in, oh, half an hour. A decision to free up kitchen space by donating all the plastics could be executed in half a day. Vast volumes of bulk clutter can be virtually waved away. The Flats, though, they take concentration. Concentration and focus.
What’s worse, the Flats can take emotional energy in a way and at a level that physical objects may not.
Physical clutter is often aspirational. Stuff represents imaginary versions of ourselves that we haven’t yet lived out. Maybe we never will. We pile up things like foreign language workbooks, exercise equipment, art supplies, musical instruments, and clothes with the tags still on. We acquire them because we’re enchanted by the possibilities they represent. Getting rid of aspirational items feels like killing that potential, erasing those potential future selves before they’ve had a real chance.
The Flats, though, usually represent the past rather than the future.
Photographs, artwork, school papers, journals, and other keepsakes represent our history, our legacy, our memories, and often our relationships. That’s why it can be hard to discard things like wedding invitations, even after that once-happy couple has divorced and remarried other people. We tend to feel obligated to preserve what feel like archival records.
I have a degree in history and I can tell you, you don’t have an obligation to save anything if you don’t want to. If we were required to archive every piece of official-looking paperwork for every person who ever lived, much less every lock of hair, baby tooth, tiny shoe, or piece of children’s art, there wouldn’t be enough buildings on the planet to house it all. What makes records special is their uniqueness. When everything is special, then nothing is.
I can also tell you, as a person, that it’s better to live an interesting life than to mull over old records of things that have already happened. That’s my opinion. I’d be horrified if my grade school artwork or even my college papers wound up being the most interesting manifestations of my lifetime here on earth. I’d be equally horrified if I had nothing better to do in my old age than to pore over that musty, mildewed old junk.
‘Nostalgia’ means ‘sickness.’ Sickness for home. People used to believe that one could die of it.
Not all the Flats consist of sentimental papers, though. The warnings there are to avoid getting lost in it, to know what a huge time suck it can be when memory-laden papers catch your attention. The other variety of the Flats are those that represent more of a cognitive load.
Most of my clients are chronically disorganized. They often think they are hoarders because their stuff has tended to pile up. Once they decide that it’s time to get a handle on it, though, it turns out that they don’t hoard at all. They’re quickly able to decide to get rid of absolute truckloads of stuff, and they don’t tend to be emotionally attached to much of anything. Where they get into trouble is in mentally processing their bureaucratic papers. That’s why 80% of the Flats belonging to my chronically disorganized people are junk mail and other expired stuff.
What I do when we sit down to work is to set expectations. I say, “I will never throw away any of your stuff. That’s your decision to make. The only things I’ll throw away are candy wrappers or dirty napkins, and you can check the bag before it goes out. I’m just here to sort.” Then we start going through sacks of mail. It’s easy for me, just like it’s easy for anyone to sort someone else’s stuff. No decisions! Almost everything is unopened mail. I whip through it and sort by the logos on the envelopes. Coupon circulars go in one pile, newspapers in another, magazines in another. There’s usually a distinct pile for invitations, another for photos, another for receipts, and another for business cards. While I sort, my client suddenly realizes that most of this stuff is irrelevant, redundant, or obsolete.
We once sorted TEN YEARS of old papers in two days, ending by setting up an entire filing system that fit in two drawers. One of the drawers was filled with printer paper, envelopes, and other office supplies.
The thing is, if this client with ten years’ worth of unsorted paper tried to do it alone, it could have taken months or years.
My recommendations are twofold:
If your issue with the Flats is one of mental focus, maybe see how much you can “get organized” digitally first. I don’t have a paperwork problem because we pay our bills and do our taxes electronically. We spend about two minutes sorting our mail every day. In this millennium, there’s no need to have disorganized drifts of papers.
If, on the other hand, your issue with the Flats is one of unprocessed emotion, be gentle with yourself. Recognize that if you let it, this kind of sorting job can go on for years. Maybe what you need is just to buy some acid-free archival boxes or albums and put everything away neatly. You aren’t required to read through it all. Don’t bother unless you feel it will be meaningful or constructive for you. If the Flats are one piece of a larger organizing and space clearing job, I exhort you, save them for last.
When we were newlyweds, we moved into a big house in the suburbs. It was in fact bigger than both our bachelor places put together. We had been living on our own for years at that point, and we each had our own house full of furniture and housewares, so we just brought it all. We had plenty of space, a big kitchen, plenty of couches, plenty of chairs, and two dining tables. What the heck? We decided to have an open house once a week.
What does “open house” mean?
“Open house” means that for a set window of time, our door is open. Anyone who wants to visit can stop by and stay, for a few minutes or a few hours, until we send everyone home at the end of the evening. Ours was either Tuesday or Wednesday, from 6 PM to 9 PM.
An open house means we don’t require an RSVP. Although a lot of people would text, call, email, or post on Facebook that they planned to come over, we didn’t insist on it. The point is for people to feel free to drop by on the most casual basis possible. Some people would come every week, while others would show up once every few months. The unpredictability added to the fun.
An open house also means there’s no set invite list. We encouraged our friends to bring people with them. Bring a date, bring a sibling, bring a classmate. On a few occasions, someone would show up with a carload of four or five new people who hadn’t been there before. Sometimes one of these surprise guests would become an open house regular.
At our open house, we provided food. I would make some pans of lasagna, or a huge stock pot full of soup, or we’d put out bowls of ingredients for a burrito bar. A few of the regulars would often bring a big green salad, some fresh bread, drinks, or a dessert. There was always plenty to go around, except for one memorable night when we had about double the number of guests as usual, and we ran to Safeway for some take-and-bake pizzas.
When I say ‘casual,’ I mean casual. We had no requirements for social participation. There was usually someone sitting in a corner doing homework or knitting. One guy came over to sit quietly on our couch specifically because he was trying to quit smoking weed. We never say a thing about people messing with their phones, because we can’t actually know that we’re the most urgent or important conversation. As a result, we would often find that our gathering was tagged on social media with the sweetest comments and compliments.
We had a couple of firm rules, but no more. One rule was that there would be zero discussion of post-Industrial politics. Someone once tried to start a (contemporary) political conversation, and everyone started making alarm calls and shouting out, “Danger, Will Robinson! Warning!” Another rule was that everyone had to get along. Anyone who made another guest uncomfortable would be expected to stop and apologize. We never had to send anyone home, but we were prepared to do it if necessary.
We did have some drama once, and it was quite bad, partly because it didn’t happen on the premises. A newer guest bore false witness against another guest, a bizarre story since I was there when it supposedly happened, and I got a call about it later. The instigator never came back, probably having realized that those bridges were burned. One weird incident in four years? We could handle it.
There was a certain amount of work involved in hosting as many as two dozen people in our home every week. We had a dishwasher, and we’d sometimes have to run it three times between 8 PM and 8 AM. (I had a stack of plastic plates and extra metal cutlery from Costco). But the guests would help wipe down the table and counters and put the chairs away. One trip to take the trash out, and the Roomba handled the rest. The key factor in having a regular open house is to delegate. With a large group, each person can put in about two minutes of effort and all the cleanup is done.
An open house is a good argument for minimalism. We always had motivation to finish home improvement projects, clear clutter, and do our chores. Leftovers got used up quickly. We were perpetually catching people before they drove away without their keys/glasses/purse/phone/hoodie or whatever.
We generally didn’t have to make rules about pets because everyone knew we have a dog and a parrot. It would have been chaos if even one or two people brought dogs. I had a guest come to book group with a dog once, and it couldn’t sit for five minutes without getting hyper around my bird. For people with bigger yards or a different setup, it might work, depending on the individual dogs.
There’s a lot of trust involved with having dozens of strangers cycle through your home. Your privacy! Your stuff! I happen to believe that there’s no point in stealing most physical objects, but we do have a safe and we hid its location. Obviously we would never leave cash, passports, or anything sensitive to identity theft laying around. We didn’t (and still don’t) really have anything that anyone would steal. Furniture, appliances? Our old desktop computer? I did “lend” out a few books that were never returned, and finally I realized that if I just buy ebooks, this would cease to be a temptation. As a spiritual goal I try only to give as a gift, not lend as an obligation. We gave away all sorts of things: rides, meals, tutoring, clothes, tools, craft supplies, random objects, and job references. In return, we had a never-ending supply of pet sitters and willing helpers we could hire for odd jobs.
Having an open house is an amazing experience. It always turns into a much bigger deal than it seems like it deserves. We spent so many hours laughing, playing games, telling stories, watching movies, singing, dancing, cooking, eating, hugging, and generally living that everything seemed very small and pale the day after. One day, when we’re ready to move into a bigger home, we’ll do it again. A bigger home and a bigger life, an open house, an open door, and an open heart.
Relief is the best feeling you could have right now. Am I right? If you’re like most people, you have a secret shame, something you’ve been putting off. You dread facing it. Even thinking about it makes you cringe. You’ve been procrastinating and delaying and foot-dragging, and the longer you wait, the worse it feels. Let today be the day that you free yourself from that horrible, yucky feeling. Start with a stuck list.
Let’s make a list of everything that’s bothering you. Category by category, we’ll figure out your aversive tasks and why they feel so sticky and hard to do.
An aversive task is something that makes you want to run away. You just don’t want to do it. The funny thing is, that type of odious chore is different for everyone. Some people hate making phone calls, others don’t mind. Some people hate filing, others think it’s fun. Pick a chore and someone hates it, someone doesn’t think twice about doing it, and someone else actually enjoys it. Tell yourself that the thing itself isn’t really that bad, it’s just the emotions that it brings up for you.
What is on your stuck list?
Chances are, most stuff on your list can be done in under five minutes. Isn’t that great?
Also, just thinking about it makes you a little nauseated. Wouldn’t it be better to put it all behind you? Take a deep breath and imagine your victory.
Look at your list. Categorize each item by how it gets done. Is it:
A phone call?
A physical task?
Something waiting on someone else?
A conversation you need to have face to face with someone?
Secretly a major project that you don’t know how to do?
Now write down the thoughts and feelings you have when you think about doing each of these things.
A blank space of not knowing what to do or how to do it
Now write down why you aren’t doing each item.
Don’t know how
Don’t like So-and-So
Hate doing this
Need more information
Believe it will take HOURS AND HOURS
Need to make a decision
Overwhelmed and overcommitted
Do you notice any patterns?
Overcommitting, never saying ‘no,’ feeling indecisive, or avoiding confrontations are the types of patterns that affect everything, all the time. Looking at the root emotional cause and figuring out some strategies can eventually help you to free yourself from the icky, heavy feeling of procrastination.
I tend to procrastinate business calls until I absolutely can’t avoid them because I hate talking on the phone. I always put housework and exercise first. That’s my task pattern. I’m quick to research things when I don’t know much about them, because it makes me feel curious, but I’m slow to open an email if I think it will trigger a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. The things I procrastinate the most are clothes shopping and getting my hair cut. Another person might procrastinate sorting mail or cleaning out the car, and maybe always put personal phone calls first. It all depends on what you think is fun versus what you think is dreadful, boring, annoying, or loaded with emotion.
Here’s my stuck list.
An email to my screenwriting mentor - guilt, don’t know what to do
Redesign of a product that can’t be manufactured according to current specs - frustration, don’t know what to do
Jeans shopping - annoyance, hate doing this, believe it will take hours and hours
Finding a new avian vet since apparently there isn’t one within ten miles - need more information, need to make a decision
The first two items could trigger weeks or months of demanding work. Since I don’t have a clear image of what that looks like, I feel stuck. Jeans shopping will probably take two hours. Finding a new bird vet might be impossible; I might have to take half a day to bring her to her old vet. I don’t really “feel like” doing any of these things right now, so I’ll fake myself out. I’ll pick one, which will immediately make one of the other items on the list feel less difficult in comparison. I’ll feel like I’m getting away with something.
Trick yourself, if that’ll work for you. Ask someone for help or advice, because admitting your secret shame and exposing it to daylight helps to rebuild your dignity and pride. Set a timer and race against it. Play music and keep working until the playlist is up. Set aside one weekend day as a Get Stuff Done Day.
Keep your list somewhere you can look at it. Try to complete one item every day until the list is gone. Every time you look at, think about, or handle the list, remind yourself of how amazing it will feel when all that stuff is done. Soon you’ll never have to think about it again. You can be free of the dread and frustration and guilt and shame that comes from procrastinating. You can start today. Just get started.
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
I wake up without an alarm. That’s because my upstairs neighbors are up and walking around at 6:00 AM. (Our previous upstairs neighbors were up and running the washing machine at 7:00, so is this an upgrade?).
Productivity bloggers are constantly bragging about how early they get up, and all the productive things they do at 5:30, or 5:00, or even 4:00 in the morning. Sometimes I believe them, and sometimes I don’t. I’m skeptical, because when I first wake up, I’m useless.
I’m an extreme night owl. It runs back at least three generations in my family. My most alert and productive time of day is 10 PM, and it has been since I was about thirteen years old. Waking up early is challenging for me, and having done it over a longer period of time hasn’t really made it all that much easier.
Since I set my own schedule, I can work whenever I like. Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing good work after midnight, and I’ll stay up until 2 AM. I pay for it, though. It turns out that the rest of the world doesn’t stop just because I decided to work an odd shift. No matter how tired I am, no matter how late I stay up, the rest of the world goes on doing the things it does.
TIME TO WAKE UP
I’ve tried and tried and tried to sleep later into the morning. Where I live, even when it’s quiet, it’s too hot and bright. Usually it isn’t quiet.
Birds (crows, gulls, mockingbirds, sometimes roosters)
Where we live right now, there are some Baby Boomers who like to play their stereos out the window. You can tell, partly because of their musical tastes, but mostly because they’re the last generation that feels entitled to just blare their music all the time without using headphones.
Anyway. It is what it is. The truth is that most of the world is diurnal, and for those of us whose natural rhythms are out of sync, failure to adjust is personal stress and pain.
It’s my choice to adapt myself to the world, rather than indulging in frustration that the world won’t adapt itself to me.
I’ve tried earplugs and white noise generators and eye masks and herbal teas and prescription sleeping pills and meditation and changing my diet and hot baths and a whole lot more. I once went into my doctor’s office with a huge tote bag full of all the sleep aids I had bought and shook them out onto the examination table. “Wow, you must be really frustrated!” They sent me to a psychiatrist to rule out a brain tumor. The only thing that has really worked has been to just... sigh... go to bed earlier.
It took years. The other night, I went to bed at 9:00 PM and was asleep half an hour later. Ten years ago, there’s no way I could have done that. I would have gone to bed and lain there for at least three hours, possibly five. The hardest thing about the journey to early mornings is that it takes so long. Tiny increments.
What happens is basically that your digestion system starts doing the work for you. If you wake up and eat and drink on a schedule, very quickly your body adjusts and wakes you up. Or, rather, your bladder does. If you stop eating and drinking for the day at a certain hour, you can fall asleep and stay asleep without that bladder alarm going off at inconvenient times. This is the main reason that “morning people” can wake up without an alarm. There IS an alarm, it’s just an internal one.
Eating and drinking on a schedule also regulates your sleep and appetite hormones. Any other hormonal issues should also be supported by this.
Every time I talk to someone with an insomnia or parasomnia problem, it turns out that they eat meals at different times every day. They don’t have a “lunchtime” or a “dinner time” and they often don’t eat breakfast, either. They tend to be workaholics who grab snacks whenever they get a chance. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this could contribute to erratic sleep patterns.
Natural daylight and exercise are natural to animals. Why are squirrels so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? Well, I’m pretty sure they’re born with the tails. Animals and birds that live outdoors wake up hungry, and if they want to survive, they need to start scurrying. I think about this a lot as I force my sleepy self out the door.
I take a morning fitness class at a gym that’s a little over two miles away. I walk there. I don’t do much in the morning before I go, partly because my morning routine involves NOT DOING as much as possible. If you want to “be on time,” you have to rule out almost everything except getting dressed and locking your door behind you.
What do I do?
My schedule is different each of the seven days of the week. That’s due to the class schedule at my gym and my scheduled club meetings. What changes for me is which bag I grab. On weekends and Wednesdays I take a shower first and wear regular clothes. That’s all. Keep it pared down.
I do all the activities that the “morning people” write about. I keep a journal, I meditate, I read and write for several hours a day, I talk to clients and work on my business. I’m extremely organized with my finances, my stuff, my housekeeping, my nutrition - basically everything else about my life. I just don’t do any of that stuff when I first wake up. Are you kidding me?
I work with chronically disorganized people. The reason I write about my skepticism about mornings is that I know almost all of us share this in common. We aren’t alert or cheerful or driven before the sun comes up. Most of us are chronically late because we don’t have much of an internal sense of time passing, and when we’re tired we are mentally scattered. We have to recognize that the only way for us to have a streamlined morning is to consider “wake up early” to be a monumental challenge, all on its own.
Pro tip: If you want to transition to become a “morning person,” do all of the organizing and support toward that in the afternoon or evening. Set yourself up to simply be able to wake up your body. That’s plenty to be going on with.
Perfectionism is stupid. It’s stupid! Perfectionism keeps you from getting anything done, it annoys other people, it usually leads to zero results, it keeps you from being able to relax, and, did I mention, it annoys other people? I say all this as a recovering perfectionist. (I just totally typed that as ‘perfectionism’ and then I wrote ‘taht’ and it’s all getting marked down in my book of karma to work off in the afterlife). One of the many ways I try to trick myself out of this pernicious character flaw of perfectionism is to focus on output and results: quantity, not quality. Completion, publication, finishing, being on time. Another way is to adhere to my 80/80 rule. Eighty percent right, eighty percent of the time.
Why 80/80? Personally, I think it’s easier to manage than 100/50. 100/100 is foolishly impossible. The only thing I should do to 100%, 100% of the time, is to maintain my integrity. My punctuation and spelling are not a part of that.
80% clean, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for housekeeping. I do one room every weekday, and if that room gets messed up at some point during the next six days, I’m ignoring it. I clean the bathroom on Thursdays. If there are a few specks on the mirror or a few hairs in the bathtub, they can wait until next Thursday. A few specks and a few hairs may take my bathroom down from 100% clean (Thursday afternoon) to 98% clean (Wednesday). It’s not worth my time or attention. Even if we leave town or I get sick, and the bathroom gets skipped for a week, it’s still only going to be down to 80% clean by then. Come to think of it, cleaning the bathroom once a week may mean that it’s usually cleaner than 80% clean, more often than 80% of the time. Since it only takes me 15 minutes to clean my bathroom, I don’t really care to put more thought into it.
That’s the goal of having rules, guidelines, and policies. It means we don’t have to MAKE DECISIONS. Decisions drain mental energy. Decisions draw drama. Decisions make something emotional when it could be purely rational. Always save decision-making bandwidth for the truly major stuff, like whether to relocate, rather than the minor stuff, like whether to have cake for breakfast. Because guess what? If you’re deciding, then you’re going to eat the cake for breakfast. And by “you” I mean “I.” I am going to eat the cake for breakfast.
80% nutritious, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for food. Basically it means that my regular weekday meals need to be nutritious and not include junk or treats, unless we’re on vacation. On the weekends, I’m still eating nutritious main meals, but there’s also a little room for something like popcorn, hot chocolate, or breakfast out. The reason I don’t splurge more often than that is that I know full well what my physical tolerances are. I’d eat way more junk if I could get away with it. I’m the one who has to live with the consequences when I give myself a headache or night terrors from eating too much of the wrong food at the wrong times. Well, me, and anyone within whining range of me, like when I’m curled into a ball after eating too many curly fries at the fair.
The reason I respect my physical limits and plan what I eat is that it makes my life easier. I know I have zero willpower. I know I’m always going to eat one too many cookies. I know I’m going eat the whole portion when I could have saved half, even when I hit two-thirds and tell myself I know I’m full. I know I’m going to let my weight creep up until all my waistbands get tight and I stop being able to button my pants. I know all of this about myself. That’s why I have to set policies to stop myself. It’s like I’m really two people, Past Self, who knows the bitter truth, and Present Self, who has swirly eyes over some pastry case. Present Me always wants to disregard past data. Future Self, however, has some opinions about that.
80% good enough is usually good enough. Most routine things really are not urgent or important. They only start to get that way when conditions slip. For instance, most of the time, it probably doesn’t matter what your home looks like. It becomes urgent when you’re looking for your keys or your glasses and it’s time to leave. It becomes urgent when you get a surprise inspection notice from the landlord, or a maintenance person is coming over. It becomes important when it strains relationships with other people who live with you. It becomes important when it makes your life more difficult in any way. Being late all the time, bungling your commitments, feeling miserable, all are great reasons to start to picture what eighty percent looks like.
We’re only really happy when we’re living up to our own values. Our values are standards we set for ourselves, and if there’s a mismatch between our values and our behavior, then we have only ourselves to blame. The way we treat our bodies and our personal living environments are reflective of what we value. Whatever other values we might choose, at the very least, we’re saying, “This matters to me” or “This right here does not matter to me.” If our bodies don’t matter and our personal living spaces don’t matter, then what does?
The thing about little stuff is that it adds up. There are three occasions when this becomes clear:
The really insidious small stuff is the stuff we keep stored inside drawers, cabinets, cupboards, and containers. We don’t think about it because it’s hidden from view. It’s not until we have to take it all out, one by one, that we start to realize how much we really have. Then we wrap it up to keep it from breaking during the move, and the boxes somehow start filling up awfully quickly.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been able to relocate without having to stop and find more moving boxes.
Nobody? That’s what I thought.
Avoiding the accumulation of a bunch of small stuff takes a policy decision. Every single thing we bring through the door has to earn its keep. If it’s food, we’re going to eat it in the near future. If it’s a decoration, we have to believe that it’s worth packing and hauling and dusting for the next several years. If it’s a beauty product, we have to believe we’re going to use it up before it gets clumpy or congealed or whatever.
A bottle of sunblock lasts about one summer. A jar of nail polish has a lifespan. So does a tube of lotion or a bottle of perfume. Stuff doesn’t last forever. What would be the point of buying twelve of something when eleven of them are going to expire before we use them up?
We can think of small consumables in the same way we might think of packets of french fries. Sure, fries are good, but there’s no point buying thirty orders of them. They get gross, right? Buy one and eat it while it’s hot and fresh. Then buy another one for a different meal. Almost all of our personal possessions can be regarded just like french fries. That’s true whether it’s shirts or bottles of vitamins or cases of paper towels.
The other thing about little stuff is that it adds up and starts to demand storage and furniture of its own.
A case of paper towels has to have somewhere to go. Wherever we put it, nothing else can go there. We can’t go popping wormholes into alternate universes just because something was on sale at the warehouse store.
Start accumulating fabric, and suddenly you need an extra bedroom. That extra bedroom might displace so many other things that the garage is full. A full garage then creates the desire for a storage unit. The costs involved in having a storage unit and a bigger house then displace the funds that could have been used for a vacation. Or new furniture. Or a debt-free lifestyle. Or a comfortable retirement.
Collectibles ask for their own shelves or cabinets. Books obviously ask for shelves and more shelves and more shelves. “You can never have too many books” but can you really read more than one at a time? Every book you think you’re going to re-read one day is another new book that will be displaced. Each item we keep blocks another item from coming into our lives, or at least, from having a dedicated space to sit.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized, with compulsive accumulators, with hoarders, with squalor. My people really struggle with this concept that only one item can fit in one spot at a time. The disorganized people can’t quite wrap their heads around it. The accumulators are at the store anyway, distracting themselves from their overflowing homes by spending all their free time in well-lit, well-organized shops. The hoarders don’t care, there’s no way in this lifetime that they’re letting go of anything once they’ve imprinted on it. How dare you challenge MY STUFF! Anyone who lives in squalor is simply so adjusted to the feeling of being buried in stuff and things and objects and trash and junk that they barely notice one way or the other. They don’t even smell it anymore, so how would they start to see it?
Most of us haven’t crossed those lines. I estimate that about one in five people live in a chronically disorganized state. Probably half of us have so much stuff that it’s hard to keep track of it all. More like two-thirds of us who have a garage can’t use it for anything because it’s full of stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use our garages for something like an air hockey table or a kayak? Why do we create these annoying, embarrassing, unusable spaces in our own homes? Why are we willing to pay so much to keep them that way?
Take a look around. Are your kitchen counters open and available to make cookies? Is your desk clear and ready to write in a journal or make an art project? Is your dining table welcoming and inviting for friends and a seven-layer dip? Is your bedroom a relaxing oasis of serenity, or rather a haystack of impatient laundry?
There are two ways to go about solving the problem of too much little stuff. One way is to corral it in bigger stuff: armoires or bookcases or other attractive storage furniture. Sometimes selling some of it off can raise the funds to buy upgrades of this nature. The other way of solving the problem of too much little stuff is to get rid of it. Clearing all the flat surfaces in your home is an interior design upgrade that you can actually do without spending any money! If you want your place to look more selfie-ready, it’s easier and cheaper to do it by bagging up a bunch of small items. Which is it going to be, the little stuff, or your home?
'CURATE YOUR STUFF' WORKBOOK NOW AVAILABLE!
Download on the Products tab today!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.