Last week I stayed at my friend’s place in Seattle — a sort of writing retreat to work on my novel. I made huge progress on the book, took long walks in some of the area old-growth forests, ate fantastic food, and relaxed — a good week.
My friend, in addition to being a gracious host (he might even qualify as a patron of the arts — we’ll see how my book turns out), is one of the neatest people I know. Not neat as in neato, but neat as in meticulously clean. His house is spotless. Granted, I arrived minutes after the housekeeper had cleaned the place, but it’s obvious he’s organized and keeps his house in order.
This is something I aspire to. Coming home, I immediately started cleaning our place — after you’ve been away you see your own abode (and its grime) with fresh eyes. With a toddler in the house, cleaning feels like running up the down escalator — as I’m scrubbing the countertops she’s scattering playing cards on the floor; as I’m picking up the playing cards she’s leaving a trail of cheese crumbs in another room. Still, at the moment, the house looks and feels pretty clean.
All this got me thinking about stuff, and how we process stuff in our lives. The idea in particular I was thinking about — I think it’s from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done — is that it’s almost always a BAD idea to put or leave something on your desk or workspace as a reminder that you need to do something about it.
Unless you have a freakishly low number of things that you need to do in your life (that makes me think of Doris Lessing’s creepy story “To Room Nineteen”) then using the “put it there so I remember” method will lead to nothing except a messy desk. In the more severe cases, this method can lead to a kind of personal geology; strata of object/to-do-item matrices teetering in unstable stacks. After the initial layer becomes visually obscured, the “reminder” function ceases to operate and the entire layer devolves into undifferentiated junk.
What is the alternative? My wife, frustrated with her own less-than-orderly workspace, happened to ask me that very question this morning. (As an aside, I’ve been trying to get her to read the David Allen book for about seven years. Periodically she’ll accept the book and place it on her desk, where it will sit, unread, until buried by other papers and items.)
Since I’d been thinking about the subject for the last couple days, I had an answer ready: don’t use stuff as a reminder; instead put the thing (whatever it is) away, and put whatever action is required on your to-do list. Kia immediately understood and implemented the idea, and within half an hour her desk was transformed into a postmodern minimalist’s masturbation fantasy. Okay, not quite, but it looked clean and organized, with only one pile of papers. The rare book she needed to return went to the bookshelf. Her passport (which needs renewing) went to the drawer. And so on.
Most of the time I accumulate things to do faster than I can do them. This imbalance is reconciled by the fact that some things never get done. I’m fine with this reality — there will always be more possible actions than actual actions in life. If it’s not going to get done, I’d rather have the doomed to-do item be represented as a line of text in my calendar software than a piece of crap on my desk. The extra typing is well worth it.
In some cases, putting the object away (like returning a book to your bookshelf) may not even reduce the chance that you see it and remember to do something with it. This comes back to the zero percent chance that the visual reminder trigger will work if you put anything on top if it.