I was standing in line at one of those office superstores to buy a plastic file box as preparation (and motivation) for the annual ritual of cleaning up my files, and I happened to glance up at a huge poster with an incredible promise. There, within that very building, it claimed, was everything I needed to be “wildly organized”.
Like all clever advertising, the idea had its appeal, particularly for someone trying to keep a lot of balls in the air, someone who felt just the opposite—confined and out of control.
But is it possible to be “wildly organized”?
My steps toward organization are a collection of actions designed to provide a temporary platform from which I can gain a better view of where I want to go. Frantic efforts at a permanent, color-coded structure only obscure this.
“Wild” suggests freedom—abandoning office or cubicle for wide open spaces where there are no rules or boundaries, only excitement, adventure and danger.
“Organized” brings to mind the boredom of neatly labeled hanging files and desk drawers where you can find what you’re looking for without removing half the content.
How could these opposites come together?
As so often happens in a culture that promises it all, the ad was asking me to accept blindly a paradox. By coupling a sexy word (“wildly”) with a tedious task (“organized”), it hoped to get me to buy into (emphasis on buy) an image reconciling a wide blue sky and a row of dull gray file cabinets.
Yet to link these two, we need to go deeper than the superficial glibness of advertising to the order inherent in all living systems.
In Leadership and the New Science, Meg Wheatley describes the paradox of being wildly organized in her observation of the Colorado River’s journey to the sea: “Forms change, but the mission remains clear. Structures emerge, but only as temporary solutions that facilitate rather than interfere.” The river retains its wild and alive nature because of its creative ability “to adapt, to change configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” It does not rigidly rely on a “single form”, the old way of doing things, the one right answer: “Streams have more than one response to rocks.”
How could bearing witness to the aliveness, responsiveness and adaptability of the river as a living system inform cleaning out my files?
After all I’m a living system too. Yet, when it comes to getting organized I have often sought out mechanical rather than fluid solutions.
BACK TO THE OFFICE
In the days before I learned how to embrace both my successes and my dead ends, before I understood that, like the river, I would sometimes be strong and powerful and other times be reduced to a muddy trickle, going through my desk was not something I looked forward to.
My resistance was not because I didn’t like the task, but because of the disorder I inevitably found—things left undone, exciting ideas not pursued, carefully kept notes without context or meaning.
These things would activate my inner critic that labeled each new unfinished discovery as a failure. Examining the records of your professional life is risky business if you don’t allow yourself to be human.
To deal with the feelings that surfaced, I would react to the natural chaos of being a living system by developing elaborate, usually ineffective, new systems which I told myself would ensure that nothing would ever again fall between the cracks.
The project of getting organized would then take on a grand scale. I would approach it with the same zeal and obsessive attention to detail a mother of a bride has in preparing her home for her daughter’s wedding.
I’d take everything out and sit on the floor for days, surrounded by piles, and meticulously color-coordinate and re-label everything—the filing equivalent of redecorating. No item would go unscrutinized as I laboriously laid out an infrastructure for my business life that would run with machine-like precision. The problem would come when I went back to real life and found I couldn’t follow through on my elaborate plan, couldn’t sustain responding to the “rocks” that were part of the landscape of my daily work-life in the rigid ways I had assigned to myself.
As I continue to work with the Transition Model, I see its usefulness in resolving the problems inherent in retaining the wild and wonderful vitality Wheatley talks about, while at the same time getting organized.
Things to Think About
The year’s end brings out the urge to get organized in most of us. Before you plunge in, give some thought to the questions below and see if this year you can do it a little differently!
Do you periodically organize your professional space to try to gain perspective?
Are there things hanging in your files right now you don’t want to look at because you don’t want to deal with the inner critic in you?
Is being organized a coping mechanism for you?
Which part of being “wildly organized” do you most struggle with: creating order and structure, or allowing spontaneity, adventure, and creativity into your life.
Reviewing files in a quiet, conscious way is an opportunity to see where endings are needed.
Sometimes closure is accomplished simply by putting documents in the recycle bin, or making a final telephone call. Sometimes an idea finds its way to another holding place.
With every ending there is reflection, rather than judgment: where has this led me or not led me? Is it where I want to go? Is pursuing this driven by a deep knowing of the mission of my business and my life, as powerful as the river’s pull to the ocean?
By taking the step of what I now call “creative purging”, I become willing to take on a new form based on what I find in those manila folders, just as the river changes form in responses to rocks.
I am not looking for definitive answers. My steps toward organization are a collection of actions designed to provide a temporary platform from which I can gain a better view of where I want to go. Frantic efforts at a permanent, color-coded structure only obscure this.
There are things I have no idea where to file or what to do about, and that’s all right. This uncertainty marks the place where I move from the ending phase to the middle phase of Transition, the Neutral Zone, or the Wilderness.
I honor the confusion by stacking the what-do-I-do-with-this pile on the side of my desk. Like the leftover half cup of broccoli from dinner I save in the refrigerator, thinking it might end up in an omelet, the rough outline of a new program may or may not come to life, but it needs to be kept where I can see it, without any need to do anything about it, for a while.
My row of paper-clipped notes becomes a “conga-line” of creative possibilities, and my conscious utilization of the Transition Model helps me let go of old forms of relating to my work so that I can embrace more fully both the unsettling wildness and inherent order of the universe.