An article recently appeared in the Guardian newspaper which discussed the growth of productivity and the desire by many people to get themselves better organised so they can get more work done. After a long, and interesting article, the conclusion was that being more productive and organised didn’t solve any problems at all, rather in created more problems.
Of course I beg to differ with the premise of the article. Getting better organised and allowing yourself to be more productive with your time is not about doing more work, it is about being able to choose the things you want to do in the moment without worrying about stuff you think you should be doing. Being better organised allows you that freedom. The freedom to choose what you want to do by knowing what it is you are not doing. The converse of that position is not having any idea about what it is you should be doing, and enduring the constant, nagging feeling you are forgetting something important which leads you to feel stressed, uncomfortable and busy. Not a feeling I particularly enjoy.
The article cites an article written by Sarah Stewart in the New York Post where she describes the stress of keeping up with a system like Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and how systems like these put you in a position where you become obsessed with keeping inboxes empty and how by responding to email in a timely manner results in you receiving more email. I think Sarah Stewart misses an important part of being organised. Keeping inboxes cleared and maintaining a well-managed email system is not something one thinks about too much during the day. Once you have developed the habit of maintaining an organised system there really is no pain at all. Processing email and other inboxes is just something you do naturally. You go in to a kind of zone where you ask simple questions like “what is it?” and “do I need to do something with it?”. None of this is stressful.
I do think writers who lambast being organised after they have spent a few days trying to be organised, are not really taking it very seriously. It seems they have an agenda, one where they have already decided that being organised and productive is not good for you. Of course, if you have over 3,000 emails sitting in your inbox, to get that under control is going to cause quite a lot of pain. But the joy and freedom you experience having processed it, and developed the habits associated with good productivity systems, is well worth the short-term pain. Getting yourself organised and productive is not something you do once and then stop. It is about changing a bad habit and developing a good habit.
The world we live in today sees us experiencing an ever increasing amount of information. This comes at us from all sorts of different places. News comes to us through our news feeds in Facebook, Twitter or the newspaper of our choice. Advertising is now everywhere on screens that are flashing and moving. Busses, taxis and trains all have advertising on their sides. Our employers are emailing, texting and messaging us at all times of day. There is no escape. Having a system in place that allows you time out to process all these inputs of information is necessary. Without it we run the risk of our lives being ruined by a complete lack of focus on what is important, where we are reacting to the latest and loudest no matter how important it is.
Sarah Stewart believes Inbox Zero is “bull shit”. In her article she claims the time spent on keeping an inbox at zero involves a proportionately unnecessary amount time and stress. It is clear to me she does not understand the point. The point of Inbox Zero is not about time spent maintaining your email inbox at zero. The point is that by learning to make a decision quickly about what an email is and what you need to do with it, you spend less time on email and more time on stuff that is important. In my experience, people who have an out of control inbox end up missing important information, cause delays to projects because they are not responding in a timely manner and experience unnecessary high levels of stress because of the constant little voice telling them they are missing something. To me that is not a way to live your life.
As the world around us changes, as more information is thrown at us, we need to develop personal systems that can manage all that data for us and free us up to get on with things we want to do. If we don’t, our lives will be lost in a sea of information we neither know is important or not. That’s certainly something I do not want. I love knowing what is coming up, what I need to do and by when. I like knowing where information that is important to me is and how I can retrieve that information when I need it without wasting time trying to remember where I put it. It means I am rarely stressed, it means I can play with my little dog when I want to (and rather more importantly when he wants me to). It means I can exercise when I want to, go out with my friends when I want to and to be able to do all that without any feeling I am missing something because I know what it is I am not doing and I know playing with my little dog is more important at that moment in time.
Being organised means I am in complete control of my life. I decide what I work on and when. I know what needs to be done and I can make an informed decision on what needs to be done right now. I know where relevant information is so I can retrieve it when I need it. Surely that is a better way than to be worrying about things you can’t remember and deadlines that suddenly appear out of nowhere. And the best thing of all, getting to that place takes very little time to maintain and gives me so much more time and freedom.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century