At least once a week, if not once a day, I look around at my life and notice the chaos:
Papers and journals are stacked up on my desk, or in shopping bags or backpacks that I carry with me around the house or outside, from one work station to another.
My digital tools are overflowing with ideas, notes, and half-written essays.
Scraps of paper and Post-It notes line the desk, the wall, the window.
Sometimes I look around and feel a little like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz after the flying monkeys attacked. Parts of my brain are everywhere.
Too many ideas. Too many thoughts. And my attempts to capture it all to get it out of my head often prove futile.
Some days, I simply can’t keep up.
As a result, I feel like I’m not in control.
As I look at all of this, as the overwhelm starts to rise up within me. I think:
I need a better system.
This thought is a lie.
Our Cultural Paradigm
The context in which all of this is occurring is a culture where obsessive organization is glorified.
Whether its the latest journaling method and digital knowledge management tool for your cognitive “stuff”, storage containers from The Container Store, or meticulous Instagram fees with color-aligned grids, we live in a culture where people who present as organized are saluted and rewarded.
The rest of us often harbor feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and shame for not “having your shit together.”
I’ve noticed that these shame attacks often precede the feelings of “I need a better system” and the related belief that a better system is the ultimate panacea.
I know it’s not.
A Better System is Not the Solution
In fact, when I can slow down long enough step back from that negative spiral and question my assumptions, I inevitably realize that I don’t need a better system.
What I need, in that moment, is to let go of trying to control, let go of ideas, and practice my muscle of self-trust.
I can remember — in the depths of my body — that true knowledge and wisdom is embodied.
Organization is an Attempt to Control
Here’s something I’m learning — be forewarned that this is considered revolutionary in “personal knowledge management” culture:
Not every idea needs to be captured.
Not every thought needs to be written down for analysis.
Not every note needs to be tagged and organized.
In fact, I’ve noticed that my impulse to organize and categorize arises when I feel most out of control.
Organization can be a coping mechanism — a way to try to create control when we feel like we don’t have any control.
To be sure, it feels good to know where things are.
When we know where things are, we may feel like we are in control. Until we remember that control is an illusion. We never truly know what’s coming. There’s only so much we can plan for any event.
There’s a difference between knowing where your passport is, .for example, and knowing where your ideas are stored.
It’s helpful — and good practice — to know where your passport is. Or your keys. Or other important things.
But ideas and notes?
I’m not sold on that.
Ideas come all the time. What is the consequence of forgetting one?
When I trust that more will come, I get less anxious about what I might forget.
Life doesn’t suddenly become more predictable or controllable when you’ve cataloged and tagged every idea, note, and input.
The best system for navigating an uncertain world is building a deep well of self-trust that you’ll be able to navigate it, and that ideas will come when you need them.