“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
The Japanese personal organiser Marie Kondo recommends thinking of one’s possessions as animate, and treating them with according respect. This Zen-inspired approach may seem like an anthropomorphic mind-game to some Westerners, but the truth is that the items around us, both physical and digital, do “cry out” in their way.
I recall long ago strolling by my desk and swearing that I could see the cover of my notebook flapping up and down like a puppet mouth as it murmured, “Robert, hey, Robert–there might be something in here you need to do!” Likewise, I couldn’t pass my cluttered closet without a muffled scolding from the sock drawer. Certain emails subject lines in my overflowing inbox had the same effect–they would issue little admonitions and reprimands in a high, squeaky voice.
Worst of all, though, in this time of my life, was when all of the voices would suddenly go quiet. I knew there were millions of things I was forgetting, and that some of them would come back to haunt me soon. In this deeply uncomfortable silence, I would flit frantically from room to room, email to email, website to website–hoping to remind myself of the most important thing I had to do that day.
Flashing forward to the era of social media, it is therefore no surprise to me that one journalist dubbed this “the Golden Age of Procrastination”, and that so much work is driven by meetings and deadlines. At the eleventh hour, or locked in a meeting room, it finally becomes clear which voice to listen to–at least temporarily. However, as you may have guessed by now, there is a better and more permanent way to quiet the competing voices down, and enjoy a more comfortable form of silence.
I finally found a way to “neutralise” those things that were calling out to me, once and for all, by “extracting” from each one the commitment it represented–that is, the thing I said I was going to do. If it was about some project, I got that onto my projects list, and crossed it out in the notebook so that I didn’t have to ever look at it again. Guess what? The voice shut up.
So, what is calling out to you–physically or digitally? How can you complete the thinking about that thing–not actually do it, but complete and capture the thinking necessary–to get your mind to let it go (for now)? Those things that are permanently useful (like reference information, tools, or re-useable supplies) or there for aesthetic reasons (decoration) will probably never say a word. For everything else, have a listen to see if it makes a peep.
Having practiced this approach for many years, I find that there is no longer the temptation to “range around” through many different repositories of information (from paper notebooks to websites) trying to remind myself of what I ought to do. So when I do spin the roulette wheel of the information age by surfing a web or social media site, I am not doing so hoping to be reminded of something critical, but just because I might hit lucky and discover something new or interesting.
Are you hearing the same silly voices over and over again? Or have they been haranguing you so long that you’ve temporarily gone deaf to them? I would contend that it is no more psychologically healthy to have the same competing voices crying out to you from your desk or inbox than it would be to hear voices in your head.
Wait, did you see that? I could swear that crumpled post-it made a face.
For more tips on minimising distraction (including self-distraction), please also see my article “Switch Smart, Stay Sane.”