I spent yesterday getting coached into organization by one phenomenal couple of personal productivity experts.
It was everything I'd hoped for. And nothing I expected. (Or, shall I say, feared.)
What I feared, and you can see this coming, if you've thought it through, is that I didn't clean up enough for the cleaning lady. Or balance my checkbook properly for the bookkeeper. Or any other of a number of analogies that basically boil down to Oh, god...please don't let my complete inability to do things the Right Way reveal the Hopeless Failure of a Human Being that I truly am.
I was expecting a protracted walk-through of my lame computer file structure, my equally lame physical files, my overflowing in-basket, my scores of lists and calendars and other Helpful Toolsâ„¢ creating redundancy and general chaos. Instead, we started with a surprisingly quotidian question:
"What's a typical 'Colleen' day?"
And so I spun it out for them: the getting-up and getting tea. The booting-up-of-computer and making-of-bed. That first, fantastic blast of email & Twitter goodness: all the missives and blog comments and howdy-dos from my friends, real and virtual, that have popped up between bedtime and now, thanks to auto-mailers and insomniacs and my location on the West Coast. Eggs and coffee. And then...well, then a day that could be anything. All writing or a mix of writing and talking and design. A lot of, as I told everyone I met at SXSW, farting around on the Internet. A 2.3-mile walk around the Silver Lake reservoir at some point. Consistent inconsistency, from somewhere around 7am to somewhere around 10pm, seven days a week, 350-odd days a year.
They listened and smiled and nodded. Non-judgmentally. With genuine courtesy and curiosity.
Emboldened, I mentioned the soundtrack of "shoulds" that accompanied my tasks like a non-stop iTunes playlist. I should be doing something else. I should be doing this better. I should do this now, but let me deal with it later.
After taking in the entire sweep of me and my neuroses, we got to work. Which, as it turned out, meant getting all my stuff in front of me, where I could see it in one place. And learning a few simple ways to process new stuff so that as it came in, I could put it in a place where I could find it later.
Amazingly, there was no talk of best practices or Holy Grails or Right Ways of Doing Things. There was just me, and my process, and some gentle guidance towards self-discovery of the best way to support it.
On my own, I realized I was carrying around a paper calendar because I thought I should, because I had seen someone else's paper calendar working for him. Like gangbusters. So I had tried several times to implement this paper calendar system: to map out my day to the 10-minute pod the night or the week before, and sit down each morning and follow it word for word.
It worked, a couple of times. And it felt great, having a whole day full of getting all these things done.
It also felt like a nun standing over my shoulder, guilting me into being a good girl. Or a noose around my neck, loosely tied, perhaps, and pretty...the Hermes scarf of nooses. But a noose, still.
I do not do well, you see, with being told what to do: I do well with suggestions, and the breezier, the better. I like the feeling, illusion or not, that I'm choosing my actions moment to moment.
No doubt this tendency to suspect the walls are always closing in is why marriage felt more like a straight jacket than a security blanket. I remember distinctly proposing to my then-husband that we privately and quietly divorce, but continue to maintain the outside appearance of being married. That way, we'd catch no flak from pesky outsiders, and we would have a profound and glorious shared secret: we would be choosing to stay together every single day; we would co-create our relationship as we went along.
No wonder that scheduling thing didn't work out too well. Or the marriage, for that matter.
At some point toward the end of our day together, Jason and Jodi explained the faulty reasoning behind so many well-intentioned attempts to get organized: if I perform these steps...buy this binder...sort according to this system, I will be free.
Instead, the way to look at it is more like this:
I am free.
I can employ my freedom in service of my unique goals and gifts. By getting very clear on what those goals are, whether by assiduous self-observation or third-party assessment or giving myself the space to let them bubble to the surface, or any combination. By any means that works for me.
I can also employ my freedom to unearth my natural working style. And then, again, to find the services and methods and structure to support it.
Like anything else, it takes a little more work and finesse to find your own way in the world. It's like the difference between couture and off-the-rack. Or styling things from the ground up vs. Garanimals. It takes a little work to find the unique sculpture locked in every slab of marble. But it's there. And, to paraphrase old Martha Graham in her famous confab with old Agnes de Mille, if you don't find it, you will seriously harsh on the planet's mellow.
I wish, oh, how I wish, that there was one answer in one book, and that all I had to do was find that book. Instead, the maps to your map are in the books. Look at that person's journey, and see what you can find in her struggles or his mishaps or their lightbulb moments that makes you tingly. The truth comes at us sideways, usually, and when we least expect it. Our job, I increasingly believe, is to prime ourselves for reception...and reflection...and synthesis.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with getting yourself a nice, new Moleskine notebook or a sexy MP3 recorder, if they'll make the journey sweeter. I'm down with the gadgetry.
But for me, for now, the road to enlightenment is paved with some calendars output from iCal shoved into a plain, old artist's sketchbook with a Uniball Micro shoved down the spiral.
Wave as you pass by on your way...
*For those of you who have never subjected yourself to the media matrix, "Have It Your Wayâ„¢" is the trademarked tagline of the Burger King corporation, and a cornerstone of their operations, marketing and positioning. Because, as anyone who's ever tried to order a Filet-O-Fishâ„¢ with extra® tartar© sauce and No Cheeseâ„¢ has discovered, having it your way is not the way of certain other major quick-service establishments.
Image by walker clevelands via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.
There's also a wealth of wonderful shots (for inspirational/idea-unsticking purposes) with the simple Flickr search of "moleskine" in the attribution/non-commercial/as-is section of Creative Commons licensing; one favorite is this one by Mike Rohde, which has a staggering comments section.