Nothing is Linear! (On the Fallacy of Time Management)

Nothing is linear by Sally Wiener GrottaHave you ever tried to organize just one part of a closet?

  • Step 1: Remove everything from a single shelf
  • Step 2: Pile it all together onto the bed
  • Step 3: Organize the stuff into logical piles all over the bedroom, putting like with like: scarves with scarves, purses with purses, etc.
  • Step 4: Go through each pile. Try on clothes to make sure they still fit, look good, are in style, etc. Make liberal use of trash cans.
  • Step 5: Create another pile for things to give away (or several piles, if you have different people or organizations who should get the stuff.)
  • Step 6: Put it all away, neatly and fully organized.

Sounds so logical, so linear. Simply go from Step 1 to Step 6, and achieve your goal for the day. But it doesn’t quite work out that way.

First, you have to make the bed, and clear other spaces in the room to hold the piles. That means going through all those papers on the bureau that you really need to file, though some are letters. In particular one letter should have been responded to last week. It won’t take that long, why was I putting it off? So, you head downstairs to your office to organize the papers in your hands, and write one or two letters or emails. Of course, some emails have come in that you really should answer. (And Facebook beckons.)

A couple of hours later, you return to the bedroom, and you realize that if you plan to put any of your soon-to-be-organized stuff on the floor (because you really don’t have enough above-the-ground surfaces for your planned intelligent piles), you really should sweep it, to get rid of the dog hairs that magically appear even when you just cleaned the room.

Okay. Finally, you’re ready to take everything off that shelf and put it onto the bed. You even start to get stuff separated into neatly organized piles all around he room, until… oops, there’s that business card I had been looking for! It was in a purse I haven’t used since the awards dinner two months ago. So, down to the office again, to tape the card to the computer monitor, so you can deal with it later. But you’re disciplined this time, and go right back up to the bedroom, not even glancing at whatever is on the screen.

Back to work on the growing mounds of stuff. I forgot all about that scarf; it would be perfect for the suit I want to wear to that meeting next week. Or would it? Time to try on the suit with the scarf, to make sure it lends just the right professional air you will need. Looks good, but what shoes and purse should I wear with it?

Yet, despite all the sidetracking, you finally manage to organize all your intelligent piles. But how will you keep it all organized when it goes back onto the shelf? It was piles that got you in trouble in the first place. Once you turn out the light and close the closet door, things seem to migrate from one pile to the next, or worse, lazily sprawl across several once-upon-a-time neatly stacked piles. You’ve got to tame those unruly piles. See-through plastic boxes would be perfect, especially if you label each one. Okay, a trip to the store to get the boxes, and they are magically the right size… except for that one oversized sweater that won’t fit anywhere. Luckily, you have a zipped plastic bag somewhere… the one that the new blanket came in. Now, where was it?

Several wasted hours (or days?) later, you’re ready to put everything away. But where? Though you’ve eliminated a bunch of stuff (donations and trash), everything that once fit onto that single shelf has expanded in size and unmanageability, like vacuum-packed Styrofoam peanuts.

Of course, you know what’s next. You need to make more space in the closet. That means tackling the next shelf and the next… well, the entire closet… before you can put anything away.

Like that closet, nothing in life follows a straightforward step-by-step blueprint. At least, nothing in my life. I start each day with a clear idea of what I need to get done over the next 12-14 hours. I slot tasks from my ToDo list into an Outlook calendar, leaving slop time between each, and reminding myself to stop periodically to eat, exercise, get outside. Anything that doesn’t fit into that nicely organized time grid gets pushed aside in my ToDo list to another specific day (tomorrow, next Tuesday, three weeks from today, and so forth).

However, seldom does any day go as I planned, as I am sidetracked by things that have to be done before things can get done. No wonder visitors to my studio often hear me mumbling under my breath (or crying out loud in frustration), “Nothing is linear! Nothing is linear!”

How do you handle all the sidetracks in your life? Or do you have a secret weapon for organizing your days that keeps you on top of everything? If so, please, please, tell me what it is.

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