Dispelling the Myth of Permanent Organization

This article first appeared on Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 3: Organizing, subscribe and buy here

No matter which productivity methodology you follow, or whether you don’t follow one at all, at some point you will need to organize the stuff you have in order to do something with them. You’ll probably tell yourself that you will do this organizing phase only once, believing that after you create the organized structure all you’ll need to do is come back and organize any new stuff into the boxes and structure you previously created. You believe that your structure, whether it be boxes, folders, contexts or more, are permanent. Many people share this belief; small wonder then that so many find that their systems fail and they end up back at square one.

Enjoy it while it lasts

When reading about organization, one of the things that has always got my attention is this concept that you will be able to organize something and it will stay organized. I don’t know if it is because I have kids, dogs, and work, but in my house and home office if everything is organized, clean and in its place, I’d better savor that image because in a matter of seconds you can bet it’s going to be quite the opposite!

Many books, blogs, and articles talk about taking three or four days to organize everything in your life. You send the kids away, dogs to the kennel, order take out and by Sunday night you have achieved a huge change. In most cases, by Monday early afternoon you find yourself in the same old mess. Although my example is about the physical organization, when we get to the organization of our paper, productivity systems, emails and more it gets even worse, but with fewer external factors for us to blame it on.

We wrongly believe that the act of organization is something permanent when the reality is that it’s hard to think of anything less permanent. Oxford dictionaries define permanent as:

Lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely.

When we organize our systems, tasks or projects, we tend to invest a considerable amount of time, expecting that we will find a perfect recipe that will keep us organized forever. The problem is that organization is not permanent; in my years of helping people with time management, I have always been surprised by how afraid people are to create, modify and delete contexts in their task manager. They are in some way hoping to define a fixed number of boxes that allows them to put everything in its place in a permanent way. They create a context and call it @Home, expecting all home-related tasks to fit inside. In my experience, things that don’t fit appear really quickly. When that happens, instead of reorganizing the little piece that it isn’t working, they either reinvent the whole system or simply ignore it.

We look at our projects, try to organize them into the same boxes we have been using for years and wonder: why it is failing?

The Only Constant Thing is Change

As technology evolves, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep everything corralled in a single list, to organize your stuff once and forget about it. Technology is changing too fast; in many cases without us even having time to notice it. The iPad came to the market in 2010 and it was not considered possible to use the device as a serious machine; It was a play/consumption device. When Michael Sliwinski and I wrote #iPadOnly in 2013, we were far from the only people using iPads our main machines; some people even had them as their only machine.

When we look at our projects, try to organize them into the same boxes we have been using for years and wonder: why it is failing? we default to spending a weekend reorganizing the house, the office, the system and wonder why by Tuesday morning it’s a mess again. We wonder because we are convinced that the organizing we did should be permanent, should stay permanent. But when you organize everything and then download a new application, that messes with your organization – perhaps without you even noticing it. When you organize everything and then bring a new project, a new piece of furniture, a new project, a new input… everything changes and all that organization becomes obsolete. In that moment it’s easy to become frustrated because all that things you worked so hard to organize are now a mess. It’s natural to tell yourself: if I wasted all that organizing effort, perhaps I’m incapable of being organized, so maybe I should just quit.

In the last four weeks, as my world has turned around and spun sideways, my organization has done the same. Some of the things that had been working for years stopped working. Things that I thought were fine weren’t fine anymore. In the tumult, my system and life showed me once more the impermanent nature of the act of organization.

Embrace the chaos

I recently had a conversation with a good friend that I interviewed for an old podcast I used to be part of; by chance he was listening to that old episode recently and was in awe how much his system had changed, evolved, and how much his organization methods had evolved to meet new and ever-changing demands – without him really being conscious or aware of it.

We need to understand that our organization or tasks, papers, information will change and evolve constantly, faster than we are able to see or understand. At the same time, we need to learn to see how these changes affect our systems and how we can be more flexible to accomplish our goals, adapting to the impermanence of the organization of those tasks, emails, papers, and schedules, not forcing ourselves to try and keep them in the same four boxes

The demands of our lives are like waves, evolving, changing and breaking against that illusion of permanency; Understanding the temporary nature of things frees us to adapt and make ourselves more flexible, more adaptable. We create new boxes, folders, and contexts and destroy old ones. We embrace the speed of change, we embrace flexibility and we thrive in the chaos of this impermanent, tumultuous world.