Getting organized, a letter to my girlfriend

March 26, 2012

My dear,

I think I haven’t explained what you’re trying to accomplish well. You’ve been reading the books and watching the videos, and no one has told you what all this machinery is for. It’s a way for your future self to promise something to your current self.

Whenever something occurs to you, you can do one of three things:

  1. You can do something about it immediately.
  2. You can let it sit in your head and worry about it.
  3. You can receive a promise that you believe from your future self that it will get taken care of.

All this machinery, all this work, is purely so you can replace (2) with (3) for everything in your life. That’s it.

What makes you believe a promise someone as made you? Here’s another list of three things:

  1. It’s in their interest to keep the promise.
  2. If they can’t keep their promise, they will talk to you about it so you can make other arrangements.
  3. In the past they have kept their promises.

This is what you need from your future self. (1) should be easy. It’s you on both ends. I’ll talk about (2) for the rest of this text, but I need to get (3) out of the way. (3) is what most often goes wrong. You can only arrive at (3) from experience. It’s the basic problem of any organizational system. It doesn’t matter what tools it’s in, or what fancy name it has, or even if it works or not. You cannot trust it until you have worked in it long enough for the ancient, subconscious part of your brain to believe that it will work. Before that, all you can hope for is a theoretical understanding of why it will work and enough immediate value to get through the trust building period. That is a period of months or years, not days or weeks.

Now back to (2). How do you make promises to yourself so that they will get done or you will be notified? A written record somewhere is a start. Put a note on your refrigerator, or whatever other surface you look at on a regular basis. It will catch your attention later and you will deal with it later.

Now try that with a hundred promises. You start running out of space, and any individual promise won’t attract your attention, just the wall of promises. You won’t believe those promises anymore unless you regularly go through each one individually, look at it, and do it or remake the promise that it will get done later.

That’s it: reviewing your big list of promises on a regular basis. Everything else is details.

However, the details are important. A promise to keep a dentist appointment must be handled on a specific day, so you would have to review the whole mass of promises every day to reliably keep that promise to yourself. If you have a bunch of meetings, you would have to review it many times a day. It will eat all your time.

Worse, you probably won’t have your refrigerator with you when you’re at the grocery store, so you can’t review any promises about buying dog food or milk. You need a more articulated system to hold the promises.

Corral the promises that have specific times associated with them off to the side and sort them. There’s a calendar. Put the promises about buying dog food or milk at the store on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet. There’s a grocery list. Some of the promises you can immediately do (“Throw that plant off balcony”) and others aren’t so straightforward (“See the Pont-de-Gard and die”). Separate the two kinds, and then when you’re figuring out what to do next you can review just the doable ones. The others, well, you may as well make some small promise to yourself that will get your closer to those big promise, and you might as well make those small promises immediately doable and put it in the other category.

It goes on like this. It’s all detail, there to make the sheer bulk of it all manageable. It’s important detail, but it’s detail. If you’re a monk with an utterly fixed schedule and only a few responsibilities, you would probably do just fine with notes on a refrigerator.

It’s easy to get lost in the details, to try to get it perfect. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The goal isn’t to be organized. It’s to be able to keep promises to yourself over the long term. Start, and make a promise to yourself: “Improve my system.” Scribble any annoyances of your system there. They’re promises, too. Fix it all a little bit at a time.

I recommend implementing on a combination of plain paper or plain text files at first. The goal is to keep promises to yourself long enough to have some trust in your system. Until you keep promises, you won’t get anywhere. You don’t need pretty tools, or expensive tools, or just the right pen. You just need to be able to get all your promises to yourself in one place and review them. Are your stacks of paper getting unmanageable? Get some file folders and binders and paperclips and solve the worst annoyances. Is there something annoying about your text files? Try organizing them a little differently or switch to a more powerful text editor. They’re just text files. Switching is trivial. Sharing text files is easy. Put them in a shared folder in Dropbox or Sparkleshare and you’re done.

Choose a basic convention for how you format your text files. Tweak it over time as you find annoyances. Maybe you start with todo items listed as

- Do this
- And do this

and you delete a line when you do the item. Perhaps you want to review them later, or you need to see what you already accomplished on a list. Try

- [ ] Do this
- [ ] And do this

and when you finish something, put an X between the brackets. A lot of text editors will let you set up coloring so that any line starting with “- [X]” will be light and those beginning with “- [ ]” will be black. Maybe you have too many files to comfortably navigate in your current text editor. Mess with your tools until it’s comfortable. Don’t try to make it perfect, just try to fix any nuisances that are slowing you down. A long line of little changes leads to a system so smooth that you won’t remember it’s there.

Sometimes you can’t use text files. Your job uses a Microsoft Outlook calendar, and you want to share your calendar with me. The constraints have just forced something more complicated than a text file, so take that one piece and make it work. Leave the rest as simple as possible, in a format that depends on no special piece of software, no particular operating system or computer.

Did you enjoy that? Try one of my books:
Nonfiction Fiction
Into the Sciences Monologue: A Comedy of Telepathy