Goals are easier to achieve when they are simplified and streamlined. A goal like “learn to cook” is actually a very broad, complicated proposition, while “learn to sauté an onion” is relatively simple. “Learn to chop an onion” is sometimes the best starting place. This is an example of the concept of going back to first principles. Starting from zero, what are the fundamentals of this practice? What is the foundation that a novice would be taught?
Let’s take the goal of “getting organized.” This was a tough one for me when I first started. I knew whatever was “wrong” with me required getting organized. I was constantly running for buses and then missing them. I sometimes lost track of bills and paid them late. I never knew what to have for dinner. If someone kept an exhibit of all the personal objects I lost, it would fill half a room with gloves, hats, scarves, day planners, pens, wallets, umbrellas, and (alas) a couple of library books. They’ll be waiting for me in Purgatory, I’m sure. If I sat down and wrote a list of all the specific examples of disorganization in my life, it would have to include all the times I locked myself out of my car; the time I had to climb through my kitchen window twice in the same day, not realizing I’d also left a burner on high for hours; the time I threw my keys in the Dumpster; the time I dropped my keys down an elevator shaft while my phone was locked in my car; the time I left my cell phone on a Greyhound bus; the time I spilled pickle juice in the car; and hundreds or thousands more. What should have been routine parts of the day for “normal” people somehow turned into epic disasters for me. A huge amount of my time and attention would be drained away by these bizarre complications. I needed to understand why.
I read dozens of books on organization and time management. I finally learned about the concept of ADHD. Later, I learned about the concept of chronic disorganization. Later still, I realized that the root of my problem was probably my parasomnia disorder. I was just tired and spaced out all the time. None of this information really did much to alleviate my disorganization problems, though.
What helped was the concept of modeling. What did successful people do? What did “organized” people do differently? It felt very much like naturally organized people were born that way, that it was some key component of their personalities. In reality, it turns out that organized people follow a common set of behaviors. They do things the way that works. There is no need for them to try anything else, because they aren’t caught in a web of confusion and complication like I was. They follow a schedule; they eat meals and go to bed at routine times; they carry a standard set of useful daily items; they use maps and shopping lists and calendars and clocks; they look around when they get up to leave; they have a place for everything; they pause to focus their thoughts between activities; they do one thing at a time; they plan ahead. They don’t waste time calling Lost and Found or waiting for the late bus or apologizing or making excuses, because their routines don’t generate problems. They don’t drive around town eating pickles. (I think that’s just me). They have internalized the first principles of organization.
The simple habit of looking around before leaving has changed my life. I know where my keys are. I’ve learned to do a quick perimeter check when I prepare to leave for a trip or check out of a hotel room. I’ve taught myself to form a mental picture when I do this, so that if I can’t find something, I can be sure that at least it wasn’t left behind. My keys turn out to have slipped off their clip into the bottom of my bag, which is a huge improvement over all the other places they’ve been. I should probably autoclave them.
Perpetual problems always seem intractable and complicated. We have the same argument with the same person over and over again. We lose track of the same items. We develop an unshakable reputation for lateness. Yet there always seems to be a distinct, unrelated reason why it happened this time. That’s what happens. When something is done in the standard, effective way, it generally always turns out with standard, effective results. Only a true disaster interrupts that process. There are, unfortunately, an infinite variety of non-standard, ineffective ways to screw something up. Why was I on time to work? Because I scheduled a time cushion that allowed for almost every disruption. Why was I late to work? Because: I spilled pickle juice in my car; I couldn’t find my [whatever]; I overslept; there was traffic; I had to stop for breakfast because my fridge was empty; the dog ate my homework; etc. Routines seem deathly boring to those of us who aren’t already following them. Chaos and entropy are usually non-boring in the bad way, though.
It turns out that there is an easy way to do anything, and there are also complicated ways to attempt the same thing. The complicated ways either fail to work at all, get close but not quite, or fracture into additional complications. It’s easy to maintain a certain fitness level, it’s even easier to gain weight, and it’s three times harder to attempt to lose weight. It’s easy to clean a tidy house, easier to make a mess, and 2.5 times harder to try to clean it up afterward. It’s easy to follow a schedule, easier to delay, and who knows how much harder to catch up and make amends for being late.
Weight loss probably wins the prize for most complications and most disagreement about how to define first principles. The main reason for this is that we desperately want to believe non-fat people have genetic gifts; that weight gain comes from the sky and not from our eating habits. I’m a formerly obese person from a non-athletic, non-thin family (trying hard for the right euphemisms here), and I learned the first principles of fitness the hard way. The hard way is not a straight route. It’s more like getting lost in the wilderness, in the dark, in a hailstorm, and having to backtrack and drive in circles up multiple unmarked dirt roads. I learned that the first principles are: eat consistent, predictable amounts of healthy food every day; be aware of my body; follow sensible limits of portion control and volume/frequency of junk food consumption; eat for fuel and not for mood management or social pressure. Fit people weigh in and take their measurements regularly. Fit people eat until they are satiated, not until they feel nauseated or get a headache or empty the package. Fit people stop at one plate. Fit people eat more vegetables than sugar. Fit people don’t waste time defending their habits, arguing about how to lose weight, or trying to debunk decades of clinical research. They don’t have any weight to lose, and thus don’t spend a single second being preoccupied with it. Now my only problem is when I meet people who didn’t know me when I was fat, who then cuss me out and make vicious fit-shaming remarks. They assume I have unfair advantages (or a mental illness), rather than knowledge I could teach.
That’s one of the obstacles to uncovering first principles. We like to shame people who are doing things the effective way. Organized people are boring, unimaginative, anal-retentive, and obsessive-compulsive. (Suddenly we’re psychiatrists and we have the credentials to diagnose others). Thin people are anorexic, self-loathing, shallow, and narcissistic. Financially solvent people are penny-pinching misers and party poopers. Punctual people are judgmental and critical. We can’t bear the weight of the shame we feel when we fail to meet our own standards, so we try to offload at least some of it onto other people. As usual, we frame our problems in moral terms, rather than evaluating whether it is effective/ineffective or working/not working. Do we like the results we are getting, or do we not like the results we are getting?
There are a few things we usually have to do before we can start finding out about first principles and testing them out. We have to stop blaming ourselves for laziness or lack of willpower, and reframe our problems in terms of lack of know-how. We have to short-circuit any tendency we might have to feel envy or resentment toward those who are succeeding where we are not, so we can look to them as repositories of knowledge. Why is your lasagna so much better than mine? (You *****). Oh, because you use twice as much sauce, not because you think you’re so perfect. Every person we meet knows at least one thing we don’t know. It’s possible to see this as an exciting opportunity for adventure, rather than a depressing trap of social comparison.
First principles are the main component of what I call Doing the Obvious. Two years ago, I decided to Do the Obvious in every area, and to double down on that when I felt resistance. I’m a Questioner, and that’s a two-edged sword: I’ll do something if it’s clear to me why it’s a good idea, but it’s also excruciating for me to do something just because I’m “supposed to.” I changed my mind. I decided to start with the fundamental assumption that if something was an obvious piece of group-think, there was probably a reason for it. I would undertake these Obvious behaviors in good faith and test them in my lab. The result was a total revolution in every part of my life. I emerged a highly productive marathon runner who sleeps 8-9 hours a night and shows up on time for things. Now, I’m in a place where my ego is no longer caught up in doing things “my way,” because first principles are clearly much easier. My identity has shifted so that I think of myself as someone who is smart enough to Do the Obvious. All the energy that was being washed down the drain of inefficiency and constant crises is now available for me to relax and make art.
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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.