I always do some organising in the new year. Recently in particular, I was reviewing the current state of my thesis and making a detailed plan for everything that needs to be done before I finish.
In doing this, I’ve been recalling some of the principles I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. I wrote a while ago about the relationship of organisation to anxiety, and how I collected things into my ‘inbox’, processed them, and did some file organisation.
This time last year, I really felt like the ‘admin’ in my life was in need of a huge overhaul. I think I have a reputation for being organised, but you must believe me that I am just coming out of a phase of what feels like huge chaos. Commitments, communication, and all manner of tasks always slipped by my immediate notice, I constantly had last-minute scrambles for deadlines, and a lot of things just slipped by undone.
Therefore, the last year has been a good time to overhaul my system, and adjust my way of thinking about how to manage the admin of daily life. In fact I think I had a few misconceptions about what it meant to be an organised person, and have changed my thinking in a couple of ways.
First of all, I was afraid of writing everything down, but in fact seeing what needs to be done is liberating. One principle of Getting Things Done is that no task should be left without some physical reminder, be it a list, a calendar entry, or some kind of trigger like a post-it note. Although I agree with this in principle, I think anxiety and stress cause a resistance to this activity, and a perception that having everything out in the open is so scary that it’s better to ignore what needs to be done instead of writing it all down. If your list of starred items in email is already 15 items long and some emails have been there two weeks already, resistance to adding yet another starred item increases, and it’s easier to say, ‘I’ll remember to do that’ and just let it slip into the receding flow of inbox items, uncategorised, unflagged…you welcome the state of blissful semiconsciousness that partial ignorance brings…. At least that way you don’t have to be reminded constantly of what you haven’t done (i.e. of your impending failure).
I can say from experience now, though, that often the thing that has saved me from meltdown is sitting down with a sheet of paper and simply listing everything that needs to be done but which exists nowhere but in my head. Equally important is including everything ‘unofficial’. It feels kind of wrong at first, including things like ‘find a good enchilada recipe’ and ‘reorganise cleaning supplies’ with ‘apply for new passport’ – they’re vastly different activities, of differing importance/necessity and time required, etc. What’s been most vital for me to recognise is that the only factor required to put them on the list is the one they all share: they are all in my head.
Equally, with very important tasks, like finishing my thesis, having a thorough system which tells me each and every task I need to complete actually relieves much of my anxiety. Looking at those lists daily actually makes me feel better. Which brings me to my next point.
Being successfully organised and productive depends less on the physical system itself than on the habits with which I manage it. I love organisational tools – folders, notebooks, calendars, tabs – oh my! I’m intrigued by digital systems in theory, though I never find them to be very satisfying to use except in limited situations. However, I think I have often struggled to find a good system for myself because I mistakenly thought that it was the physical setup (or digital setup) that would make it work or fail. If I felt my work wasn’t organised or if I didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on or a sense of being in control of it, I assumed that I hadn’t figured out the right physical system: I hadn’t got the right categories in my tabbed binder, or the right size of notebook, or found the right calendar layout.
I was somewhat surprised, but relieved, to find that Allen not only doesn’t recommend a specific physical organisation system, but tends to favour those which are simple and often non-digital. His emphasis is on the practices you apply to the system: forming good routines and habits in how you use it, making good decisions with it.
As I said, I’m in the final stages of my thesis, and in the new year I decided to take stock of the project and make a comprehensive set of lists for completing everything. In the past, I would have agonised over what system to use for managing this. Index cards? An Excel spreadsheet? A notebook? A loose-leaf binder? A set of file folders? The answer commonly given to this conundrum is ‘Whatever works best for you.’ Yes, of course – but surely I can’t be alone in thinking, sometimes, that nothing works well for me? I’ve tried all the systems above at some point, for managing some type of task, and all have failed me. So I thought.
This time around, though, I finally figured out that probably any of those systems would work, as long as I updated it faithfully, consulted it regularly, and ensured that it was always a complete record of the project. The fact that it isn’t colour-coded doesn’t matter, nor does it matter that my crossed-off items share a page with my still-to-do items and create visual clutter. I used an old notebook which had been used for my Old Norse class long ago, removed the Old Norse notes, and added tab dividers with post-it notes. But I think it could have been any notebook, or a set of papers in a folder, or a stack of index cards in a box, or a spreadsheet. It works, and believe me, it relieves my mind of so much anxiety, because I consult it at least three times a week and add anything that needs to be done, as well as crossing off what I’ve completed, down to the smallest task – ‘Fix formatting of footnote 34 on page 17’. It’s the regular consultation and updating that makes it work.
In summary: the first importance isn’t the system that is organised per se, rather it is I, the person, who organises. The good news about that, in my view, is that if things feel out of control it isn’t because I haven’t found the perfect file setup or type of notebook or calendar. It’s simply that I need to adjust the way I use them.