Saturday, October 17, 2020

Why it sucks to be disorganised (Make Lists Not Fists opening chapter)

I am not a naturally organised person. If you had told my twenty-year-old self that I would one day write a book on how to organise yourself better, I would have found the idea utterly laughable. I was famously disorganised in my twenties. I never used a diary, hardly ever made to-do lists. I didn’t even make shopping lists. My system for keeping track of what needed doing was this: if an important deadline is coming up, someone - through some stroke of insanely good luck - will tell me about it. I will then remember that there is a deadline by sheer willpower, work on the relevant project until the deadline arrives, and pray to the Gods of academic success that what I’ve done is enough to earn a decent grade. My system, then, was pretty much all brainpower. I tried to remember what to do without writing anything down, and I applied this method to everything in my life - from getting groceries to doing the laundry to arranging holidays. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, now tells our daughter tales of how disorganised and chaotic I was, and some of these stories have become the stuff of family legend. There is the tale of how I went away on a trip and gave my wife the wrong day of when I would be back. I came back two days later than when I said I would, which meant that my wife, in those pre-smartphone days, had become convinced I was dead. And there is the tale of how I would handle washing my clothes: I’d put them in the washing machine, turn it on, and then forget about the fact that I had to take them out again. This meant that the next person who used the washing machine (which was communal) found it full of clothes. Usually their solution to that problem was to put them on top of the machine for me to pick up. As their owner never returned to claim them, however, they lay in a crumpled heap for days. By the time I remembered where they were the clothes were nowhere near any kind of state which would allow me to wear them, which meant they needed to go straight back into the machine to be washed again. 

Favourite of all the tales is the one about how I once wanted to leave for a lecture without trousers on. This one is only partly true, as far as I’m concerned, as I’m under the impression that I would have noticed that I had put shoes on but no trousers by  the time I left the door. It also tells you more about the fact that I was sleepy that morning and not so much about the fact that I was disorganised (although that is still very likely to be true - I probably arrived at the lecture only to discover that I had left my notepad and pen at home).

There are many, many more stories like the ones above, although these haven’t entered the family system of mythic lore. My bed, which was old, collapsed one night, and I slept in it for months without fixing it or attempting to buy a new one. When I had to go to a student ball I needed a tuxedo, but I only remembered that this required effort on my part at the very last moment - which meant I had to go in a tux which was several sizes to big. I’d show up late for work, or not at all. On the second date with my wife (who, despite the fact that we were only on the second date, I was utterly and madly in love with) I showed up an hour and a half late. Not because I wanted to. It just happened.

Looking back, I find several things remarkable about all of this. One: that I still got my academic work done, usually on time, and even managed to get decent grades for what I did. How on earth did that happen? How did I pass any exams at all? Yet somehow, miraculously, I still managed to make it all work: I got decent grades, went on to do a PhD at a high-ranking British University, and then became a lecturer at a small liberal arts college in the Netherlands (University College Roosevelt, where I still teach). That string of successes, though, is thoroughly at odds with how poor I was at planning. I see my own students and crash and burn if they work in a way which resembles my own habits as a student. They usually don’t make it into their second year, or, if they do, they discover that they radically need to alter their methods. I never ever changed my ways when I was a student. No one told me I should, and it never occurred to me that I could. And that’s the second thing that seems strange to me when I think about my college days: it never, ever occurred to me to change my ways. For the most part I was perfectly happy with my system that wasn’t a system at all. Working like that gave me a sense of freedom, a sense of not being boxed in by rules and lists and deadlines. I took great pride in the fact that, for a single semester, I got away with not doing any academic work at all. None. I didn’t go to a single lecture. I got up, had coffee with friends who lived in the same building, and then saw what the day brought me. It was very much a ‘Winny the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood’ lifestyle, and looking back, I count myself lucky to have been one of the last students in Dutch history who was still able to get away with living like that. At the same time, I don’t want to romanticise those memories either. I see now, with great clarity, what I didn’t see at the time: that despite all the glorious freedom my lifestyle afforded me it also came at a huge cost. I was free, yes, but I was also constantly stressed. Not full-on panic, although there was some of that as well. We’re talking low-level background anxiety, caused by the constant feeling that there was probably something I’d forgotten about which was in need of urgent action. I never, ever felt truly at ease. I never felt like I’d done enough. That’s the downside of having an organisational system which isn’t a system at all: deep down inside you know that your way of working isn’t bulletproof. This means you live in constant fear, knowing full well that when things get too hectic you will be blown away like a leaf in a storm. When you live your life the way I did, you know on some unconscious level that you’re like the little piggy who built his house out of straw. Sooner or later the big bad wolf is going to come calling, and without appropriate defences in place, your allotted fate will be to become wolf dinner.

One way or another the wolf always finds you. Deep down inside we know this.

In my case the wolf came in the shape of a job. I never wanted one. I was a free spirit, remember? I tried to make that freedom last as long as I could, in that time-tested way employed by all all academically-talented free spirits: I enrolled in a PhD program. I was a little bit more organised when I did my PhD, but not a lot. I used a diary at that point, but I certainly didn’t make to-do lists, and I still very much tried to just remember what needed doing. When the PhD came to an end, I was lucky enough to get a teaching job straight away, at the institution where I still work today. What I discovered was this: this job was intense on a level that I was not ready for. Within two semesters I was a nervous wreck. Things got so bad that my options became very, very clear to me: either I was going to straighten myself out and get organised, or I would have to quit and find honourable employment elsewhere. As I have zero talent for anything but writing and thinking, only the first option was anywhere near desirable. And so I straightened myself out. I did what I all academics do when faced with a difficult problem: I did research. I read tons of books about how to organise yourself, an area of life that I had never, ever given thought to, and which had always struck me as utterly boring and bound to lead to unwanted restrictions and constraints. I began to experiment with some of the ideas I encountered in the literature, throwing out the ideas and practices I didn’t like and keeping the ones that I did. Much to my surprise I found the process hugely enjoyable, and after about a year of trial and error I had a system that I’ve pretty much stuck to ever since. I began teaching it to some of my students, first on an ad-hoc basis, then in the form of official workshops. After a couple of years one of my students told me that I was known amongst some of the students as ‘the planning guru’.

All of this proves, without any modicum of doubt, the verity of John Lennon’s famous statement: life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. It also proves, I think, that we often become teachers in life lessons that we desperately needed to learn ourselves first. Because I know from first-hand experience how high the price of being disorganised is I’ve become somewhat of an evangelist for applying a systematic method of self-organisation in your life. I’m constantly telling friends, family, and above all, my students, to get organised. If you ask me for life advice I won’t send you to yoga or meditation classes, and I won’t advise you to read Plato or Marcus Aurelius either: I’ll advise you to get organised. I teach religious studies, and one of the courses I teach focusses on Hinduism and Buddhism. In the classes on Buddhism I always make a point of telling my students that in my view, had the Buddha lived today, he’d be advising people to make to-do lists. He wouldn’t have taught the eightfold path but the ninefold path. After step eight, right meditation, would come step nine, right self-organisation. It’s a joke, of course, but like all good jokes (and let’s assume for the sake of argument that this is a good one) it has an element of truth at the heart of it. If you want to be less stressed, have more peace of mind, and be more generous with your time and energy towards others, you have to get organised. I believe that with all my heart.

In the Buddha’s day and age, however, life was simple. You probably didn’t need to make regular to-do lists, especially not if you were a monk. Times, however, have changed. Life is becoming more and more complicated and busy as the years go by, to the point where I notice a huge difference between my own student days and that of present students. If you’re a college student right now, chances are that you will not survive your college days the way I did. Maybe you survived high school like that. But college? These days that is a different ballgame entirely. If you want to do well at college, you need a system for getting organised. This book will teach you the best system I know. It’s simple, minimalistic, and can be learned in a day or two. If you apply it on a daily basis, however, the results truly can be life-changing. They have been for me. I hope they will be for you too. 

This blog post is the opening chapter of my time management book for college students Make Lists Not Fists: A Student Survival Guide to Stress-Free Productivity.

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