Counselling Resource

Psychology, Philosophy & Real Life

Gordon Shippey

The Humility to Organize

Of all the obstacles to getting our homes, our offices and ultimately our lives in order, I find a particular kind of pride the most common roadblock. But a shift in attitude may be just the trick for motivating change.

Photo by blmurch - //flic.kr/p/3RPJqi
Photo by blmurch - http://flic.kr/p/3RPJqi

Most of us know we’re suffering because of lack of organization. Yet few of us change. Why not? Surely there are many reasons we let mail pile up, forget to pay bills, and lose needed receipts in piles of papers. But of all the possible reasons for disorganization, I find that an over-estimation of our abilities underlies many disorganization problems. More bluntly, we’re too proud to admit that we need to organize. Some part of us believes we’re smart enough to cope well with a mess, even if it is one we made ourselves.

As I sat down to catalog all the ways we misunderstand our own minds and how they function in disorganized settings, I found most of my points could be boiled down into a single sentence. When taken together, they form a motto describing the nature of our minds and the consequent value of good organization.

I Forget

Psychologists understand memory better than almost any other part of the psyche. Sadly, most people do not achieve even a pale shadow of this level of understanding. Most psychologists understand memory as having three distinct types. For our discussion, we’ll focus on short-term and long-term memory. If you’re exposed to information such as a phone number or street address, you can probably remember it for at least 20 or 30 seconds without much effort or rehearsal.

The mistake to make at this point is that you’ve “got it” and you’ll remember it from this point forward. Chances are, you are wrong. What you have is a short term memory, which will evaporate in 20 or 30 seconds. What you think you have is a long-term memory, which could last a lifetime, but only if you spend time to rehearse it thoroughly, several times over.

The answer to a memory that doesn’t automatically tell you when it “has” something is an external memory that does. Whether you write it, record it, or photograph it, you know without a doubt that you have it. The first stanza of the organizing motto is:

  • I forget (fast and often),
    So I capture my thoughts before I forget.

I Get Tired

Fatigue is a psychological reality, yet one we are loathe to acknowledge. Perhaps this is a particularly American attitude, but there is a pride in working longer, working harder, and thus often working tired. For all but the most mindless work, this usually leads to worse results, not better. When we are tired, we make mistakes — potentially very costly ones — that we’ll need to fix later.

Fatigue is also insidious. Being tired decreases our ability to respond accurately, and this includes our ability to notice how tired we are and how badly we are performing. In session, it’s blindingly obvious (to me) the mistakes clients make in their lives when they’re already dead on their feet. But they don’t see it until I point it out to them.

I’ve even had clients suggest to me that they can “get better” at sleep deprivation. I’ve never seen any research to suggest this, and I’m of the opinion that their skills aren’t improving. Instead, I believe their ability to self-monitor is degrading the longer their exhaustion persists.

Many people who wouldn’t dream of skipping scheduled service on their cars think nothing of neglecting their own care. It’s a shame that human beings didn’t come with service guides that specified how many hours sleep and recreation we need every day. Maybe seeing it in print would convince us. The second stanza of the motto is:

  • I get tired,
    So I build rest and recovery into my schedule as an inviolate commitment.

Nothing Can Go Wrong

One of my personal software development heroes, Steve McConnell, literally wrote the book on Software Estimation [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. In my years of experience with building computer programs, I’ve almost never seen a reasonable estimate for any software project. Inevitably, teams underestimate the time and personnel needed to complete a project. This happens for a number of reasons. First and foremost, programmers overestimate how fast they can do their work. Often a proud developer would look down his nose at a programming project and say “I could code that in half an hour,” only to struggle with some unexpected obstacle for hours or days.

The best remedy I know for chronic underestimation is a heaping dose of humility about how long tasks take. Smart workers will keep track of how long work actually takes rather than what their intuition tells them. Better yet, they build in a margin of safety to account for unforseen difficulties. Thus, the third stanza of the motto reads:

  • I know I often overestimate my abilities and underestimate difficulties in my work,
    So I estimate using historical data
    So I estimate with a safety margin

Where Did I Leave That Book?

The real cost of clutter is not aesthetic (though clutter is ugly to most of us). The real loss is in time and attention. Clutter slows us down, allows important insights to vanish from short term memory and frustrates us before we even reach the actual work we wish to perform. Yet we persist in the belief that we really “know where everything is” in this mess. Perhaps some do, but I believe they are the vast minority.

Sherlock Holmes, one of the most arrogant characters in literature, still knew the value of simplifying and organizing his own “inner space.” When confronted on his lack of knowledge of culture and the arts (in A Study in Scarlet), he replied:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

If the king of all detectives knows and applies the value of simplicity, then who are we to argue the point? The organizing motto reads:

  • I know I am easily distracted,
    So I simplify my environment to conserve attention.

All Together Now

So in the spirit of organizing, and collecting what we need into one place to make it more useful, I present the completed organizing motto:

  • I forget (fast and often),
    So I capture my thoughts before I forget.
  • I get tired,
    So I build rest and recovery into my schedule as an inviolate commitment.
  • I know I often overestimate my abilities and underestimate difficulties in my work,
    So I estimate using historical data
    So I estimate with a safety margin
  • I know I am easily distracted,
    So I simplify my environment to conserve attention.

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