The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. -Richard Feynman
We all have organization ideas. Where to put stuff, how to organize different parts of our lives, what apps to use. These are the ideas I discovered when I spent a month trying to become the most organized person I could.
It all started with a marathon. From Peak by Anders Ericsson:
In 1908 Johnny Hayes won the Olympic marathon in what newspapers at the time described as “the greatest race of the century.” Hayes’s winning time, which set a world record for the marathon, was 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 18 seconds. Today, barely more than a century later, the world record for a marathon is 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 57 seconds—nearly 30 percent faster than Hayes’s record time—and if you’re an eighteen-to thirty-four-year-old male, you aren’t even allowed to enter the Boston Marathon unless you’ve run another marathon in less than 3 hours, 5 minutes. In short, Hayes’s world-record time in 1908 would qualify him for today’s Boston Marathon (which has about thirty thousand runners) but with not a lot to spare.
We take the continuous improvement of athletic performance as a given these days. Olympic records get broken as soon as they are set it seems.
What about our own performance? Are we getting better every year?
Needle in a Haystack
A few months ago I received a letter from the IRS informing me that I owed thousands in unpaid taxes.
Anyone who has received such a letter knows the immediate anxiety and fear this type of letter creates.
I called my tax guy and he told me to gather some documents and he would draft a letter to them explain their oversight.
Days went by and I couldn’t find the pay stubs or other financial document he needed.
One day you think you have all your affairs in order and the next you are scrambling turning your house upside down looking for two pieces of paper. Two pieces!
Chris Bailey writes in The Year of Productivity:
According to the most recent American Time Use Survey, the average employed person aged twenty-five to fifty-four with kids spends: • 8.7 hours a day working • 7.7 hours a day sleeping • 1.1 hours a day on household chores • 1.0 hours a day eating and drinking • 1.3 hours a day caring for others • 1.7 hours a day on “Other” • 2.5 hours a day on leisure activities
If anyone surveyed me that week I would have told them I spend hours looking through all my clutter and 24 hours a day worried I was going to get hit with a huge IRS fine.
What that time use survey doesn’t show is how much of that time are we feeling disorganized? How much time is wasted looking for lost keys, jumping through folders on our computers looking for lost files or ransacking our homes looking for tax papers.
Luckily I eventually found the documents I needed in a random folder that had nothing to do with pay stubs, taxes or financial documents.
I knew then I had to get organized. Not just the documents (and physical stuff) in my life, but everything, including the digital mess I was living in online and in my computer.
The Path to Organization
I had to organize everything from the cardboard boxes in my garage to my Dropbox account.
I turned again to The Year of Productivity:
During the 1960s and 1970s, the University of California at Irvine was one of a group of universities that decided to build their campuses without any paths. (I went to school in Canada, but I love this story.) Students and faculty simply walked in the grass around the campus buildings as they pleased, without following a walkway that was already paved for them. A year or so later, once the school could see where the grass was worn around the buildings, they paved over those paths instead. The sidewalks at UC Irvine don’t simply connect the buildings to one another in a predetermined way—they’re mapped to where people naturally want to walk. Landscape architects call these paths “desire paths.”
I had some good habits. I payed my bills on time, I had folders set up (real and digital) to organize my stuff, heck, I used Evernote like a fiend.
What the IRS episode taught me though was there can be a vast difference between having stuff filed and having stuff organized.
You can have all the organization ideas you want, but if your system doesn’t help you when you need it to, what is the point?
I love to read nonfiction and when I read about the “desire paths” I had an idea.
The Month-Long Organization Experiment
I had some good traits, but what if I spent a month sharpening them. What if I took everything I knew or could learn in a month, and built a bulletproof organization system? Could I follow my own desire paths to rebuild my organization practices from the ground up?
How would it feel to never fear another IRS letter again?
You might be thinking sure, getting more organized would be easy for someone who went through what you did. Not for me though. I’m as disorganized as they come. I’ve tried in the past and nothing ever stuck.
You might think, some people are just good at getting and staying organized and I am definitely not one of those people.
Well let me in on a little secret.
Getting organized isn’t hard. Staying organized is. And after my month long experiment, I figured out the secret to both.
We Can All be Experts
Anders Ericsson is the foremost expert on experts. He is the man behind the famous concept of “deliberate practice.”
Ericsson writes in Peak about the basketball player Ray Allen:
And, indeed, as MacMullan noted, if you talk to Allen’s high school basketball coach you will find that Allen’s jump shot was not noticeably better than his teammates’ jump shots back then; in fact, it was poor. But Allen took control, and over time, with hard work and dedication, he transformed his jump shot into one so graceful and natural that people assumed he was born with it. He took advantage of his gift—his real gift.
During his playing days Allen was regarded as the best 3-point shooter in the NBA. Ericsson adds that Allen gets visibly upset when people call him a “natural.” When people think he was born with the gift to shoot a basketball they are shortchanging all the practice, hard work and hours of effort he put into getting better.
Ericsson also added that Allen is not an outlier. What his research has uncovered is that we can all become experts if we put in the effort like Ray Allen did:
But since the 1990s brain researchers have come to realize that the brain—even the adult brain—is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined, and this gives us a tremendous amount of control over what our brains are able to do. In particular, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in various ways. New connections are made between neurons, while existing connections can be strengthened or weakened, and in some parts of the brain it is even possible for new neurons to grow.
But the clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.
The greatest takeaway I had after my month of organization was that getting organized is a skill. Skills can be learned and skills can be improved upon.
Like the marathon times we discussed earlier and Ray Allen’s jump shot, if you looked at the “desire path” of each, you would see trends.
If you take the trends in your own life and build upon them you could eventually find yourself on a whole new level in terms of organization.
That is what this series is about and I know it can help you get to where you want to go.