Are you disguised as yourself?

What a brilliant question! Though I’m not sure what it means. Having received it earlier this week, it may be some time before the answer occurs to me. In the interim, I can’t help but notice that my filing system has disguised itself as someone else’s.

Mine has never looked like this before.*

After years of avoidance, it took a mere 40 minutes to achieve this small work of art.

Not only did it take so little time, the sensation of watching chaos fall into order was all the more satisfying given the size of the mess I’d conquered. You people who rarely have a paperclip out of place will never know the JOY of taking mountains of procrastination and making it tidy. Never.

That said, you people obviously have no issue keeping your files filed and not letting new paperwork pile up … whereas obviously I do. And so as soon as I finished gathering up my stacks, sorting them into related piles, creating tabs and filing all my papers … as soon as I stepped back to take this photo, the first thing that crossed my mind was: What are the chances that I’ll keep these files as tidy as they are now?

I’ve decided that the solution to the problem is to ACCEPT MYSELF AS I AM. Well, at least partially. It was the whole “are you disguised as yourself” question that helped me reached this conclusion. If  I could become a very orderly person, I would’ve cracked it by now. It’s not a skill issue, it’s an attitude problem. (And possibly a genetic condition.)

I do not want to be controlled by the tyranny of a grey metal file box.

Plus I’ve just proved to myself that I get a lot out of bursts of creating order and this would never be possible if I demonstrated little bits of discipline every day. Having to spend 40 minutes every once in a while rather than 60 seconds filing daily means I get to look forward to solid chunks of  simple, mind-clearing, tidying pleasure which is just as stress-releasing as a session at the gym.

In his book Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity, David Allen tried hard to convince me otherwise. Step One in David’s approach is what he calls “corralling your stuff” — which is to say that according to David, there is no hope for a stress-free and productive existence unless you file. Religiously.

Old Me would feel disappointed that no matter how many times I’ve read the book, I have NEVER stuck with David’s system. Not even for a day. But New Me accepts that even if I have failed to become a shining example of stress-free productivity, there are a couple of things** that David has taught me which I would never have worked out for myself. And these have proved immensely useful.

The first lesson was this: When filing, why make life complicated? Just use your A-B-C’s.

This simple yet profound approach altered my effectiveness at work so permanently that I’ve gone on to become a knowledge manager.  If you don’t know what knowledge management is … at least where I work it’s like manning the A&E Department of a hospital. Except that the random, unknown patients are instead random, unknown questions. Questions about the universe (or in this case, the business universe). I triage and treat those questions as they come flying in the door under impossible deadlines and the only way I can do that is to wrack my brain over where the answer lies and fast.

To do this sort of a work, a knowledge manager must be a filer extra-ordinaire!

For those of you with no handicaps in the getting or keeping organised department, it’s probably beyond your imagination to think that someone might never work out the usefulness of the alphabet (never mind someone who once worked her summers in bookshops where everything is alphabetical!). But for the rest of us who remain challenged, I cannot encourage you enough to dump whatever complex labelling system you’ve got going on in favour of David’s approach. Here’s how he sums it up:

People have a tendency to want to use their files as a personal organization system, and therefore they attempt to organize them by projects or areas of focus. This magnifies geometrically the number of places something isn’t when you forget where you filed it. One simple alpha system files everything by topic, project, person, or company so it can be in only three or four places if you forget… [p. 98]

So last year’s water bill will either be under W or under B (and before I filed everything it was dumped into a folder called F for finances). For someone who has made it a lifetime’s habit to create complicated systems where simple will do, David Allen properly and permanently fixed me.

Back to current realities and what to do about the fact that I can’t see myself filing on a daily basis … I’ve decided that I’ll keep one desk drawer empty and into this I shall throw all papers financial until either I find myself in need a cathartic tidying session or the drawer fills and I can’t fit in anymore paper (at which point I’ll schedule a filing session). This seems the most reasonable compromise with respect to remaining myself, but a little bit less like the self I have been up until now.

* * *

* While I did throw out heaps of out-of-date paperwork, there’s no way this photo represents ALL of my stuff. I have a stack of blue-bound reports which are my US tax returns, these are locked away neatly. But I also believe that I have other files that I never stumbled across this week and I don’t know where they are. For example, I’m sure I have all my old pay checks somewhere … unless I binned those in a fit of clearance some time in the past. So at the moment, this photo is everything I have that I know about. I suspect I started a filing system before and at some point shall come across a stray batch of files waiting for the grey metal box.

** As I mentioned, there was a second life-changer I picked up from David, but you’ll just have to stay tuned to discover what that was. If you think David might be able to help you too, check out his website.

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