Tuesday, December 1, 2009


See, I have a lot of stuff, but I long ago cleared out everything I wasn't using or wearing and, in spite of that, my place, almost every room, is piled up with papers and books and a few magazines

I get brave and throw most of them out, too, every month or so -- but it's not easy because I remember being stuck in Turkey with no TV or radio and nothing to read. I'm aware that this isn't as serious as real traumas, but for someone whose list of Things I Must Always Avoid has 'Boredom' very close to the top, it's enough to have left a mark. (On that trip I did find one copy of the New York Times Book Review and read it over and over, even writing little sermons on various sentences.)

Okay, so I have a lot of stuff but none of it can be thrown out anymore. Hardly.

So organizing is the obvious choice. But that's where I run into a huge problem. It's not that I don't like to be organized, I do. I crave it. I even have a place for everything and frequently, sometimes twice a week, put all the things that aren't part of an active project into their proper place.

And I simply hate disorder. It's not indifference to chaos that stops me. I am disturbed by chaos.

The problem, in one sentence is this: only chaos will drive me to action, precisely because it is so disturbing.

If I want to remember to take a piece of paper or a book to another room, I simply throw it on the floor near the door. There's not a chance that I'll leave it there when I leave the room because having books and papers on the floor drives me crazy.

But a perfect, peaceful, beautiful, quiet orderliness will stop all my action, precisely because it's so lovely.

Instead, I sit in front of my computer and I'm surrounded like a drummer with three drum sets, by everything I could possibly need so that's it's often difficult to find room for my mouse to move its cursor (Note: I have a mouse pad the size of a large TV screen). I do this so I never have to stand up to get anything because that would break my train of thought. I sit surrounded by noisy, ugly clutter, but I have everything at hand and only stand up when I want to stand up.

(Aside, off the subject, because it popped into my head and is too good not to share with you is my favorite quote by Mae West: A shady type of guy, sitting behind his desk with a cigar in his mouth and the phone to his ear, tells her to sit down. And she answers him - please imagine the Mae West nasal voice and that cynical smile always on her lips - "Thanks. I'll sit down when I'm through standin' up.")

Okay, that smile gave me courage to continue.

I have many kinds and colors of file folders and binders and many dividers -- numerical, alphabetical and monthly - Jan, Feb, etc. I also have different colors of paper and a fine, heavy 3-hole punch, many varieties of index cards and blank books, paper clips, staplers, the works. When I decide to set up a new organizing system I never have to go to the store because I already have everything. And I really love to sort and organize my papers.

But if I put things away that are part of an active project, I might as well throw them out the window, because once things are orderly and my desktops and table tops are visible, I feel -- deeply in my mind, heart & soul -- that my job is done. Only the oddest impulse will drive me to look at anything that's safely in its folder or binder. It's all for 'later.'

For instance, I have baskets near my computer with scraps of paper in them, notes, almost always important (I coldly, without conflict, throw out notes to myself that are no longer important), things I want to remember, things I have to do, and I've put them in this basket so I'll go through them and even do them. It's a messy little basket so I'll be motivated to look at a few scraps of paper, but most of the time, because they're so nicely in one place, those notes stay in those baskets for many months.

And the papers for my next retreat are neatly stashed in a 3-ring binder, and that's okay, because I can grab it and take it with me. Well, some of it. There's always more than there was before, and the new stuff is something I'll need. (No, I really will.)

It's not my fault that there's always more new stuff. New stuff announces itself at every retreat because each retreat designs itself to fit the people who are at it. Sometimes a great exercise just doesn't fit, you can feel it, and another one you never thought of before will do the job perfectly. Me, I'm just following orders.

So, in addition to a nice binder, there's also one huge fat sloppy file drawer full of Scanner stuff. There's another huge, fat, sloppy file drawer full of WriteSpeak stuff um, plus a line of orange binders about 5 feet long on my 'work desk. (haha) I'm in the middle of a project to organize it chronologically this time but after about 12 hours of sorting on Sunday, I got tired of the project. Oh, I even have these 'tubs' which I can label and do some quick tossing of books and sheets of papers when I run out of steam for a real organizing project.

Now, why are the file drawers sloppy? Because the notes and scraps that weren't thrown away are all different sizes. That's what happens when you write down things by hand because you're far from your computer. Ideas do not always come in 8 1/2 x 11 form.

There's a third big project and it's kept in whole bookcase full of pink binders. And that's for the next book I'm writing.

One problem is that everything always comes first and everything has to be on top. Somehow, this seems essential. Not actually doable, but completely central to the entire effort of getting things done. Sometimes I use those clever time-organizing ideas I wrote about in Refuse To Choose, and sometimes I devise new systems right in the middle of the task. (If the task takes more than one day, you can change that 'sometimes' to 'invariably.' )

All I can say in my defense is that I do a lot of pretty good organizing with some things:

1) I always know where my keys are (and most other things,too)

2) I never miss a plane and almost always go to the right place

3) I'm a great suitcase packer and always have everything I need for whatever it is I'm going to do (except a hairbrush - I always forget the hairbrush)

4) There's nothing left to give away or throw away in any of my drawers or my kitchen shelves or my closets or my bookshelves.

But if you were an organized person looking at me in my environment you'd have to feel like you were watching a drunk walking on a high wire. You would be frightened. You would turn your eyes away and try to breathe slowly.

I confess all this so you'll understand a number of things. For one, how I come up with so many useful tossing and organizing systems (Check Live the Life You Love for the best tossing ones). In addition, if you are one of the organized people I want you to understand that some of us can't ever get organized or, if we do, it's only for a little while, during which we stand around not quite knowing what to do because we don't know where everything went.

I also tell you this so you will forgive your friends who are like me and find it in your heart to avoid judging and instead, honor their courage as they go through their often productive days leaving absolutely everything out like I do, right in my face, in a ghastly disorder that makes me nervous until I'm so miserable I just do it.

Yes I do have a place for everything, but I can never put it away because I'm not done yet. Ever.


  1. I love that saying... "A tidy desk is a sign of a disordered mind"... I am currently surrounded by my "filing" system on the floor... That big pile of marking that I had expected to finish by now but HAS to be finished by next Tuesday morning, and will take me about 15 hours... the energy to get up the motivation - nah...

  2. I too will probably never be organized. I learned something from my friend Sue Rasmussen that if you get rid of everything you have that no longer serves you, you won't need to organize what's left.

    That motivates me to keep letting go . . .rather than trying to create order.

  3. I'm afraid your friend Sue Rasmussen is not correct, at least in my case. I have, indeed gotten rid of everything I have that no longer serves me. She might need to read Refuse To Choose. Scanners have many irons in the fire at the same time. Maybe things would improve if we got rid of living quarters that no longer serve us, I could use a small airplane hangar with a whole bunch of big, long tables, each project all spread out on its own table and me on roller skates. Ah joy.

    There are many obstacles to such a solution, of course, but the one that's sure tol come up -- that I'd just fill up that space, too -- is not really an obstacle at all. Time fills up faster and more inflexibly than space, even if you slice it into many chunks and keep many dishes spinning at once. Only require that each table must be worked at for at least an hour at least once a week, and a limit would present itself. I bet I'd never need more than 20 tables. Well, maybe 25. :-)

  4. Yes, nature - and a clutterbug - abhors a vacuum. The only way round it I've found is to a) clear some space and then b) fill it *intentionally* with fun, relevant (to me) stuff, rather than general detritus....The place is still a bloody mess, but it's a joyous mess!

  5. That's the spirit, cormackcarr. Creating a joyous mess is a lovely goal. (big smile on my face)

  6. Thanks, Barbara. I tend to enjoy setting up organizational systems more than sticking to them. Glad to know that my tendency to leave things around so I'll remember to do them is not just being disorganized, but a system! I feel relieved to know that I'll never be organized either. Thanks.

  7. Thanks so much for that wonderful blog Barbara. I relate to it so much. I never seem to get as organised as I'd like to be or to clear out the clutter I'd like to clear (I now have about 3 or 4 books on getting organised & clearing clutter, so they're now causing clutter too!).

    I used to often say to my former husband that all my hobbies/jobs/projects include a lot of paper and his didn't (ie watching sport on tv after work or playing it). That's why I had a mess & he didn't. He insisted on piling my papers up to 'tidy' up, which then meant I didn't attend to anything in that pile for weeks or months (usually until I realised I couldn't find something important).

    I often really hate living like this, but your blog helps me to see that maybe I can embrace it as part of my scannerness. I have set up so many organising systems too, but then I forget to use them because I'm so busy with everything else. Add to that the fact I have chronic fatigue syndrome, so lack energy to tidy/organise etc, and my house is generally a big mess.

    Oh well, time to embrace the chaos I guess. As I look around this room I could count at least 10 projects/jobs & I assure you it's a very small room!

    Thanks again.

    Louise in Australia (@itsmylifedvds)

  8. Thank you so much for this! I've often wondered why I lose interest in a project the moment it's put away for later, and the idea it's considered finished really resonated with me. I'm also great at organizing things, but seemingly incapable of keeping my space tidy.

    One thing I'm trying out right now, is a set of shelves with cubbies (some small 3x6, others larger 10x10) for all my projects - that way I can still see them when I walk into my study, but they're not all mixed together or out on the floor or desk.

    Thank you for speaking so openly about this!!!