It wasn’t until I nearly missed my flight home for Thanksgiving that I realized something important, something deep in my character. “You call yourself organized,” I lectured myself, looking at my textbook-sized day planner, “and you almost missed your flight.” My desire to feel “organized” often leads me to do things that actually CAUSE the problems that make me feel DISorganized. I was missing something fundamental and obvious, something that other people seemed to do effortlessly. This is when I had my bright idea.
The very next day, I pulled out my return tickets and my calendar, and I told myself a story.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much as the format. “You’re going to [DO THIS] because [OF THIS REASON] and then [THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN].”
I walked myself backward, step by step, through my upcoming Monday morning. Vivid in my mind was the major ramification of being late: MISSING MY FLIGHT! Pain! Sorrow! Long lines! Wasted money! I needed to estimate the time each segment of my trip would take: to the gate from security, through security from drop-off, to drop-off from my parents’ house. How long would it take me to get ready?
Hang on, this is relevant to tasks as well as event planning. Do you see why yet? Because you shouldn’t be doing tasks unless they are useful to you in some way. If something is useful for you to do for yourself, then you’ll want to do it by a specific time. If it isn’t time-bound, then you’ll want to do it in relation to some result that matters to you. This is why we work backward. We want the intended result to happen and we want to do the things that lead to that result. Often, when we start with an “organized” “to-do list,” we wind up doing things efficiently that have nothing to do with our intended results.
That’s why I was able to feel so “organized” even as I arrived at the airport forty minutes late and nearly missed my flight.
My careful one-bag packing, checking the weather report, coordinating my clothes and footwear, selecting books to read, menu-planning with four other people, doing laundry, clearing my desk, and cleaning house were all great things to do. They all tragically missed the real point, which was to GET ON THE PLANE ON TIME.
I caught my flight (read: made my cherished goal) by accident, unfairly and undeservedly. This was a negative result because it had the potential to teach incorrect lessons and reinforce destructive behaviors. Namely: being a derpy derp.
A flaw is a flaw everywhere. My tendency to space out and ignore important details, losing track of the main point, is a flaw in everything I do. That’s why this matters. It hurts me, myself. It also usually ripples out and annoys other people, damaging their trust and staining my reputation. Ultimately, though, why would I annoy my own self? Why would I keep doing things to myself that I hate?
This, then, is the bedrock, the foundation of the problem. Being “disorganized” means perpetually annoying myself. “Getting organized” means doing the relentless root cause analysis and taking the corrective action. Find the flaw and shake it until all its withered little poison fruits shake loose.
When I look at a clock time, say: 10:10, it means nothing to me. It’s just a series of numbers and punctuation marks. I can’t possibly care less. I’ve tried both analog and digital clocks with the same effects. I don’t work well in the time dimension. Those symbols are not real to me.
When I arrange it as a story problem, suddenly it clicks into place. “Once upon a time there was a charming young derpy derp who got to the airport late and missed her flight. Because it was a busy holiday weekend, she was not able to get another seat until Saturday. She missed Thanksgiving dinner. It was her only chance all year to see her nephew, and by the time she arrived, he had already gone home. Instead of the nine-person dinner party she’d anticipated for months, her favorite people in all the world, only three were still free to get together. And all the pie was gone.”
Now, when I do my planning, I see the face of my sweet nephew, surrounded by my family, arranged at the table one by one. This is my motivation. My reason for spending an extra ten minutes making my schedule is a human reason. I want to be with someone who is important to me, and I don’t want to let him down. Or any of the others. Or let myself down.
This is how to turn an ordinary to-do list into a story problem. Who will be affected by my inaction or procrastination? Who will be disappointed if I don’t follow through? Who will have to cover for me, even with everything else that’s going on in their life right now? Conversely, how will they feel if I pull through? How will everyone react if I do everything I said I would do, on time or early?
My next-level planning revolves around a more familiar face, derpy though it is, and that face is my own. What expression will I have when I realize that, despite my planning, I’m still so late that I won’t get any breakfast? That I’ll have to wait four hours to have anything to eat? SAD FACE! I estimate how long it will take me to order food and plug that into my story.
That’s the personal level of the story problem. How will I myself feel if I screw this up? What will I miss out on if I skate through with only the vaguest of intentions and no specifics? How embarrassed will I be if I put in a significant amount of effort on something, only to blow it at the last minute because I forgot a major detail?
I wrote a story to myself and put it in my reminders. First, I set an alarm with the label: “Order a Lyft by 8:00 or you won’t get any breakfast!” Bone-chilling. Then, I set an alert for my reminder story. It went like this: “This morning you’re going to go to PDX and get breakfast. You’ll land in Sacramento and have about an hour to get a burrito. Then you’ll fly to LAX and head home.” Following were two more sentences about what I had to do after I got home, reminding me of some preparations I could take during my flight and while I hung around at the airport.
It worked! I ordered the Lyft on time, I got to the airport on time, I had quite a nice breakfast, and three hours later I also had quite a nice lunch. I didn’t have to sprint, not even once. Not only that, I helped two different people by noticing something they had dropped and picking it up for them. My attention was where it needed to be.
There’s a productivity technique called “interstitial journaling.” It involves pausing between tasks and meetings to write notes about what you are thinking, what decisions you need to make, and why you are doing what you are doing. Something like “I need to eat dinner early tonight if I want to make it to class on time” or “I’m going to get a nagging email if I don’t submit this report by Tuesday.” This is similar to the narrative to-do list that I’m describing. If clock times and schedules don’t work well for you, as they don’t for me, then maybe this will help. If to-do lists never seem to get you anywhere, again, maybe this will work better for you.
“Once upon a time there was a faithful reader who saw a great blog post. A big lightbulb went on. Suddenly it was so obvious that a bunch of things on that musty, dusty old to-do list could just be removed and never thought of again! Suddenly it was so clear and simple: what to do next and why.”
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.