There’s a common, natural tendency many of us have to think of a thing as more important if our attention is focused on it. This can both help and hurt us. The helpful thing is that this can offer an easy way to get started on a task, because the more we think about something, the more likely we are to do actually do it.
Where this instinct hurts us, though, is in situations where we don’t organize a piece of information because we’re worried about losing track of it.
The problem is that to keep on top of a variety of incoming information, we need to handle all of it, pretty much without exception, using the same system. For instance, if we’re using a Getting Things Done approach to organization and an important letter comes in, Getting Things Done tells us to process it immediately or put it in our inbox. But we may hold back, thinking “No, I have to be sure to remember to do this! I’d better prop it up in front of my computer instead.”
Or if using a clean inbox approach, we might get a long e-mail from a friend who’s been out of touch for some time and think “Oh, I’d better not file that in my Reply/Act box, because I don’t want to forget to write back as soon as I can.”
Unfortunately, continuing to do this leads to pieces of paper lying around all over the place or e-mails stacking up in the inbox, each one of which distracts us from our organizational system and is hard to keep track of on its own. It’s too easy to not trust an organizational system and to try to make exceptions for whatever’s right in front of our eyes. When we do this, the organizational system rapidly collapses, because organizational systems that aren’t used to handle pretty much everything aren’t much use.
If a task or message can be handled right away, though, the situation is a bit different: responding to something immediately may bypass priorities (for instance, you might spend a lot of time on the reply to that friend when it’s more pressing to follow up on a medical issue), but something will get done. The most serious problems come when something that can’t be dealt with right away is held out for special handling.
The essence of an organizational system, or at least of the kind of organizational systems I can recommend as being truly effective, is using it for everything and faithfully reviewing everything in your system often enough that you never lose track of anything that goes in. It requires a leap of faith as well as a change of habit–and so it’s no wonder that it takes some effort to make the transition from organized to disorganized. But when that transition happens, our efforts are richly rewarded not just by improving our productivity, but also by transforming scattered, anxious feelings into a measure of confidence and serenity.
Photo by nickwheeleroz