Getting down to the wire — sort of….

Time to admit that setting deadlines based on numerical targets doesn’t really work for me…

(Shredded documents, #2571 – 2640 range, February 2016; recycled)

It’s getting down to the wire now in terms of meeting my goal of getting rid of 3,000 things by 2/25. I’ll be gone on the 23rd-25th, so I really only have less than a week to get rid of 360 more things. Complicating matters is the fact that I have gotten rid of most if not all of the easy stuff; another complication is that this is the busiest time of the year for me work-wise. How am I going to do this?

One distinct possibility, of course, is that I won’t; it will become simply another deadline that slips. But despite the obstacles, I’ve felt motivated to try.

I’ve made a lot of progress in the past week or so, focusing mainly on office stuff, which explains all the bags of shredded documents (#2,571 – 2,640 range; see pic above). More on that later on in this post.

Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely that I will meet this deadline now, which has caused me to realize a more important thing about myself: that setting deadlines based on numerical targets doesn’t really work for me. I set them; I try to follow them; but I never meet them when it comes to my 1000 things projects. I’ve missed all three of my major deadlines, and I’ve pretty much missed every intermediate deadline I’ve set for myself as well. Why does this happen? Why don’t they work? What would work better instead?

One reason setting deadlines based on numerical targets hasn’t worked for me is that numerical targets are really not that motivating, even for someone like me who’s been using this counting approach in the first place. Numerical target deadlines are too abstract; ultimately, they conflict with some of my more important values such as thoughtfulness.  It’s more important for me to get rid of 1000 things as thoughtfully as I can than it is to get rid of them by a certain date. The date itself is arbitrary; the meaning of the things is not.

So, for example, at the beginning of last week, I set a goal of getting rid of 45 things in one day (because that would get me to an even number, 2,600), by cleaning up the piles of papers in my office, going through my folders, and getting things more organized. I got rid of three things. What went wrong? Clearly I don’t care about the number 2,600. So my stated goal and my target led me astray.

What do I really care about? I care most about being able to find things in my office when I need to; I’d like to know where every item is, or at least know where to look to find it quickly. It bothers me when I find a folder or document and don’t really know where to put it, or when I think it belongs somewhere, but I don’t remember where. I would like to have things more organized than that; I would like to be able to find and file important papers and documents and folders quickly, but even after all the culling I’ve done in my office, I’m still not there yet. So that’s a more motivating goal than getting rid of 45 things.  That’s a goal that can last beyond counting.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up counting yet; counting is still good for me, because it gives me a sense of the vast volume of stuff I’ve accumulated that has kept me from being where I want to be. But I think it’s a goal that eventually I can outgrow: there will be little or no need to count once everything I own has identifiable purpose or value. Conversely, one of the reasons that counting 1,000 things (or whatever the target number is) is helpful is that it provides a structure for getting to the point of knowing where or not something I own has purpose or value. And it is still motivating for me as a measure of progress — just not as a target.

In this regard, another recent insight that I’m finally putting to good use is the difference between an aspiration and a goal.  I’ve aspired for some time — years really — to have my office be a place where I know where every item is, or at least know where to look to find it quickly. But, I recently realized, it has always remained an aspiration because I hadn’t really resolved to do what I needed to do: go through every file cabinet drawer, stack, and pile and systematically cull everything out that I could, and do a little organizing in the process. I’d been doing it selectively, but not comprehensively; in particular, I’d been skipping over the difficult places.

So, my new goal is this: to have my office be the first place in my home where I can say that everything I own or have there has identifiable purpose or value.  Call it the proof of concept area if you will. I think this goal will help me move forward more effectively than a deadline based on a numerical target. It might also help me move forward in other rooms of the house. I can see myself working through this process spatially; since my home office is in an upper corner of my house, I can imagine myself moving spatially from room to room, next my bedroom and then the bathroom and then the music/exercise room and onward, sweeping through the entire second floor and then down to the first. Well, it’s fun to think about anyway. In practice I might find myself choosing the next easiest place next. And there are still a few stubborn nests to contend with in my office: the electronic stuff, the books, and especially the mementos. So I’m starting with the papers, and I’ve made a lot of progress — hence all the bags of shredded documents — and there really is an end in sight: three and a half more file cabinet drawers, three file holder racks, and three piles, and that’s it for the documents. It’s certainly a far cry from where I started.  So reaching that goal is more important to me than reaching my 3,000 target by my previously set and admittedly arbitrary deadline.

The question still remains: by when? Although setting deadlines based on numerical targets hasn’t worked for me, maybe setting deadlines based on a desired goal will work better. So I think that will be my new target for February 23rd: finish the process of going through my papers. For me, that would be a very inspiring goal to reach…


Accuracy vs. Inspiration: The magic of moving to action

dartboard accuracy 216    teardrop Munro Mizuno
(photo sources: see below)

From accuracy to inspiration: the magic of moving to action…

As I noted in my review of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I am not at all impressed with the KonMari method. In fact, I think it’s a bit stupid, and it would never work for me. Take my clothes (please — Purple Heart, Vietnam Vets, Goodwill — and thank you!) for instance: if I truly and faithfully applied the KonMari method to my clothes, picking up each item and only keeping the ones that brought me joy, I would have no socks to wear. Because socks have never brought me joy. Some slight satisfaction, maybe now and then. But not joy. And let’s not even talk about underwear…

Perhaps, you might say, I am being too uncharitable. Perhaps you think I need to be a more joyous person, or that at least I should entertain a more expansive meaning of the word “joy.” While there may be some room for improvement for me in this area, philosophically I must disagree. I am perfectly fine with liking some of my clothes. I am even fine with the notion that some of my clothes might bring me joy now and then. But not my entire wardrobe. I wear clothes for other reasons besides joy: function, warmth, adherence to social norms. I value these other values, and I don’t believe that my entire life needs to be infused with joy, nor that everything I value or wear has to be labeled as joyous. Satisfied, content, grateful, obliviously taken for granted — these all work well enough for me.

So I reject the notion of a totally joyous wardrobe because, in case you hadn’t gathered already, I’m a bit of a stickler for accuracy. For me, it’s not just naive or woo-woo or disingenuous to espouse a tidy, joyous clothes closet; it’s also sloppy, misleading, and inaccurate. I take pride in being able to describe my relationship with my things with a broader and more nuanced palette and to capture that relationship with greater fidelity. To be honest, I think I’ve got a better approach on how to relate to my things than anything the KonMari or someone else’s method will give me. I think I’m more right.

Which brings me back to that room for improvement thing.

Recently I’ve seen several friends on Facebook talking about buying the Magic of Tidying Up book and using it to get them started on their own decluttering or tidying projects. And my first reaction was, why aren’t they buying my book instead? Well, my book’s not out there yet for one thing. So I sent them some of my blog posts, and they said thanks and seemed to appreciate what I sent. And then they went back to talking about the Magic of Tidying Up book.

This bothered me a little bit. What’s going on here? But this also reminded me of my experience with my first book on online education. Lots of my peers raved about it; I felt and still feel that it’s a valuable, accurate depiction of the present and future of online education. But its impact on the world of education at large, as far as I can tell, has been negligible. It may be accurate, but something was missing.

So I decided that maybe I was, in fact, being a bit too uncharitable, and I decided to listen.  When someone mentioned the Magic of Tidying Up book, I asked them what they liked about it. A pattern started emerging: the book was inspiring; the book inspired them to action, to do something about their stuff. That’s the magic of The Magic of Tidying Up as far as I can tell: it helps some people put into action their desire to change their situation. It’s more about the hook than the book. It doesn’t really matter all that much how accurate the method is; it matters how inspiring it is, and few people are inspired by accuracy. On the other hand, while inspiration alone may not produce over three million copies sold, it certainly can help get you there..

My room for improvement, then, is this: getting better at inspiring people. Even though my initial inspiration for writing about my 1000 things projects was seeing people’s reactions when I told them about it — discovering that the 1000 things project is an appealing hook — on some level I’ve lost that focus. I’ve reverted to my usual tendencies of focusing on being accurate — on describing what happened accurately, on providing tips which will be helpful because of their accuracy, etc.  I still believe that accuracy is important, but I also need to focus more on the inspiration part. I don’t really understand what makes The Magic of Tidying Up inspiring, and I’m even less sure how to be inspiring myself. But I will make inspiration more figural in my writings on the topic, doing my best to figure out what that means as I go along. (Suggestions are always welcome!). I’m starting with some artwork that I consider inspirational, just as a reminder of where to put my focus…

photo sources:
[2] Mineo Mizuno, “Teardrop, Multi-Color on White #3” (2010), Crocker Art Museum; photo by John Sener