Tuesday, March 07, 2023

My new projected system

Sometimes I think I should literally make “projects” my middle name, but that would be literally silly. Nevertheless, these days I’m all about big and small projects, but the truth is that all those projects are sidelines for my one true project: Creating a new me. It’s been hard, frustrating, disappointing, and often fraught work, but every once in awhile I catch a glimpse of a way forward. The challenge can be adopting it.

Back in December, I published “The order of things”, a post that was about the background behind some of what I’d been up to (and blogged about) in the weeks before that post: I was slowly decluttering the living space of my house. In a postscript at the end of that post, I said that the project “evolved organically, and without any planning”, and because of that, I came up with a workable way forward by accident.

My work on projects since then has continued to be “what I can, when I can”, and, overall, it’s continued to work well. In a way, it’s based on something I learned as a child: Breaking up big (and probably unpleasant) jobs into small, easy to complete tasks makes me more likely to finish the big job. I realised that if my job was, say, “tidy my bedroom”, that was an intimidating thing, but if I started with “clean off the top of my dresser”, and then moved on to the next task, I could get the whole job done through a series of small tasks. I eventually realised that putting those tasks on a list meant I could also check them off, which gave me a sense of accomplishment.

Ah, lists! It always seems to come back to “to do lists” and the like, and for good reason: They once worked for me. Back in 2015, I talked about a paper-based organisation system I designed for myself when I was an activist in the early 1990s, something that worked astonishingly well in those pre-smartphone, pre-Internet days when few had a computer. But, that was then, and nothing I’ve tried in all the years since has worked, whether paper-based or electronic.

And this is when December’s accidental method changed everything.

I’d been successful in accomplishing a job I really did hate—decluttering the living area—because I went WAY back to tried-and-true methods that never failed me (breaking big jobs into small tasks). I realised it worked because because it was right for ME, and that meant if I designed an all-new paper-based system for myself and my current needs, I might be able to expand this circle of success. At the very least, it was worth a try.

So, over the past few months I’ve been working on a new system, using the concepts that worked well 30 years ago, but making it one that fits my current needs. I think it’ll help, and, in fact, I’m more optimistic about it than any other thing I’ve tried, and that’s mainly because I designed it for myself. This, by the way, is the system I mentioned briefly in my post yesterday about my dryer.

Here’s my system and how it evolved:

I should say first that I have a long, long history of devising nicknames for stuff. Sometimes they appealed to my sense of humour, sometimes it might have been a bit judgey, but they always ended up being easy to remember (this is actually how all Leo’s toys got names, too).

Originally, I was gong to use two binders and a clipboard, but this evolved over time to one ring-binder. Yes, given the very memory problems the system is designed to help, I may misplace that one binder and all its parts, rather than, say, “losing” one binder. However, the binder I’d be most likely to “lose” would be the one I used the least, so adding stuff I’d access frequently would make it more likely I’d keep track of that one binder, especially because I’d have less to remember overall.

The name for this One Ring-binder To Rule Them All: Mission Control. It’s a nod to the USA’s space programme that I grew up with, as well an apt description of its purpose. There are currently four distinct sections within that one binder.

What’s Up?

This section began simply and evolved. Its name is inspired by the 4 Non Blondes song of the same name, which repeats the refrain, “What’s going on?” (the song’s not called that, the story goes, because of Marin Gaye’s song with that name). I liked the more cryptic “What’s up?” as a title for this section.

This was originally going to be just a single sheet on a clipboard, and called “The Waiting Room”. I meant it to work in place of a “to do list”, but just as a list of things I need to do “at some point”. Since I don’t have daily tasks with deadlines, let alone a long list of weekly or monthly tasks, this made the most sense to me. I usually just have stuff I need to do, and forgetting those things has often caused me trouble or, worse, money. I hoped that the list would lock down those things I need to do so I don’t forget about them, but if something was urgent, then I’d do as I do now and use apps on my devices (mainly Reminders or Calendar) to send me prompts to act. The list is for all the many things that aren’t urgent, and that I keep forgetting about. I realised early on, though, that this was the weakest link in the system.

And so, even though I haven’t had much success with “to do lists” for a very, very, very long time, I decided to try yet again. I couldn’t use the “to do lists” from my 30 year old system because it was wrong for me in 2023 (it had three columns: Letters, Phone Calls, and Miscellaneous, and virtually everything I’d need to record now is miscellaneous). So, I decided to try a system I used unsuccessfully at two or three times since 2016. The sheets themselves make sense to me, and I’m hoping being part of this system will make me actually use them. This is a devloping topic I’ll talk about again after I try it out for awhile. Meanwhile, the sheet “The Waiting Room” will continue as a place to write down what I need to do “at some point”, and the “to do lists” following that sheet will be for things I do need to prioritise.

Somewhere Safe

Originally a binder of its own, this next part is a log all the things I find and want to be able to find again. There have been several times I’ve found something and put it “somewhere safe, so I can find it again,” and then had absolutely no idea where that “somewhere safe” was (those failures gave me a title, through…). A specific sheet (in the left of the photo up top) goes behind alphabetic dividers (in the right of the photo). When I find something, I’ll log it on the sheet in the section that makes sense (like, “S” for “staples”) and where it is. Then, the theory goes, when I need something, I’ll check the book to find out where I put it.

The idea isn’t new: For each of the last three house moves, I made what I called “The Manifest” to list the contents of boxes we packed so we could find something we needed, especially before the boxes were unpacked. An online shop had a New Year sale with the dividers quite cheap, and, fortunately, I ordered some immediately (I’d have forgotten if I hadn’t). This is where this whole project began—after having forgotten to start it many, many times.

Activity Monitor

This section begins with a list of all my projects, written down as I remember them, and each line is numbered 1 to 31. I don’t (or, I hope I don’t…) have 31 projects, but that same New Year sale had other binder dividers no doubt intended to sort things for a month. Each numbered tab will have a specific sheet for each project that’ll list materials needed, and steps completed. The idea is that this will let me keep track of my projects, and the list of projects will help me to stop completely forgetting about any projects or their needed supplies (which happens again and again). The name is a playful way to avoid using the word “project”, while also keeping track of my active projects (it’s also the name of an App for the MacOS that allows users to monitor what’s using the CPU and various system resources, and is something I’ve used many times).

Ideation Station

The final section is also lifted directly from my decades-old system. It takes its name from what I called “Ideation Sheets”, a blank piece of paper with a single skinny rectangular box at the top where I write the thing I want to brainstorm about. I devised this method decades ago, and called them Ideation Sheets as a mockingly overly-fancy and pseudo-intellectual way to describe them (and this section is called “Ideation Station” just because I thought it sounded nice, though it also made me think of a space station, which is appropriate for use in a binder called “Mission Control”.

They work kind of like an outline for an essay or speech: The user writes down a topic sentence and then sub-points pointing back to that topic sentence. I’d been taught to do that in high school and again at university and I loathed it because I felt it was far too restricting and didn’t allow for my loose and free-flowing writing method (I found editing far easier than writing chained with the tight constraints of rigid outlines, but, that’s just me).

The way I used these in real life is that I’d write whatever I was trying to figure out in the box at the top of the sheet in order to help focus my thinking. It might be about trying to figure out whether I should do something or not, or to consider all the variables related to something I was planning. Sometimes it was a traditional outline, other times, words or phrases written with arrows to show connections. Or, it could be something else entirely. The real point was that I deliberately kept it completely open so that I could use it for whatever, and however, I wanted.

I’ve been doing versions of that on scrap paper ever since I abandoned the system from decades ago. In fact, Nigel and I used a version of it every single time we even merely considered moving somewhere, as well as evaluating properties when we were actively looking. It served us very, very well.

• • • • •

There’s a common theme running through my new system: Finding a way to not forget stuff all the time. I’m trying way too hard to keep way too much in my head, but at my age my brain just isn’t as elastic or as good at that as it used to be. If this paper-based system can help me keep track of all this stuff I desperately try to remember, then I don’t have to actually remember it anymore (and whether I do or not becomes irrelevant), and that, in turn, reduces stress and anxiety.

Another common theme is that I deliberately made it light-hearted. The “Somewhere Safe” name is obviously mocking myself, and “The Waiting Room” is kind of a dark-humoured attempt to say what this list really is, namely, the place where things I need to do wait (because, by definition, they’re not urgent). All the other names are from similarly playful thinking.

The next aspect all of this is my “what I can, when I can” method. I’ve learned how important it is to focus on one big job at a time, and not attempt everything everywhere, all at once, so to speak.

I have particular ideas about where my next decluttering focus will be, and as the weather cools I’m going to re-start the garage project. The whole point of the decluttering is that reducing physical clutter will reduce mental and emotional clutter, too (which may well help my memory, too). In a way, I designed this “Mission Control” system to help me declutter my head. While I’m optimistic it’ll help, I’ll report back later on, regardless of whether it does or not.

This all started because “what I can, when I can” works for me. That much will endure.


Roger Owen Green said...

SYSTEMS! One day, I'll do that. Maybe.

Arthur Schenck said...

There are a lot of pre-made systems out there, but none of them really fit my needs, so I had to come up with my own. Even so, it's not for everyone.