Podcast 130: The danger of all or nothing thinking

This is Podcast 130 and it’s about the danger of all or nothing thinking. This kind of thinking can get you energized about an organizing project or even ongoing maintenance when you’re on the “all” side of the equation, but it has obvious drawbacks when you end up on the “nothing” side.

Once a client hired me to help her refine her filing system. She showed me four drawers of beautifully color-coordinated folders, with tabs perfectly offset from each other in an unbroken staggered pattern. They were carefully labeled in a cute font. It was total Martha Stewart organizing fabulousness. However, most of the folders were empty. On top of the file cabinet was a tall, unruly stack of paper that needed filing. She’d put off filing for fear of destroying the symmetry and beauty of this filing system.

This podcast isn’t about filing systems, but since I brought it up, let me just say that color coordinating is fun, but makes your system harder to maintain. If you want to add some color or pattern, go ahead and use those pretty folders wherever you want; don’t try to confine them to particular categories.

As for staggering your tabbed folders, forget about that too. If you want your system to be flexible, it needs to be able to accept new folders in between existing ones and that wrecks the pattern. Either stick with all left tab folders, or forget about tab location and just use the next folder in the box. If one folder gets hidden behind another because it has very little in it, here’s a quick fix: take it out, turn it inside out, and use it with the tab on the opposite side. Seriously, the less time you spend on how your files look, the more time you’ll have actually to file.

Back to all or nothing. Have you ever bought an exercise package that has a plan for each day and online check ins with a group? Maybe just 20 minutes a day, but something you have to find time for, and something that’s incremental so you need to stay on track with it? This is an all or nothing situation.

If you miss one day, you’re behind the rest of the folks, plus you’re not getting the exercise benefits. You get back on track the next day, but then you fall off again, due to issues at work or illness or losing your purse; something. When you get off the official program, the onus is all on you to keep track of where you are. That tempts you simply to give up; this is the nothing scenario.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t attempt such a program. It’ll work best if you have control over your schedule and maybe hire a coach to keep you accountable. Setting challenging goals is very worthwhile.

If this kind of thing hasn’t worked for you in the past, though, try scaling down from all or nothing programs. Try just appreciating whatever progress you make. That means some exercise is better than no exercise. Some filing is better than no filing.

I often recommend spending 15 minutes a day tidying up so you can keep your home or office in decent enough shape to live or work comfortable and effectively. Do I do the 15 minutes every single day? No, I don’t. I don’t let things get out of hand though. Sunday night, after a crazy busy weekend, I look around and realize I need to put in some time getting my place back in order so I’m not distracted and annoyed by it come Monday morning. Then I just do it. Usually with music. And probably a cocktail.

What am I suggesting here? This approach, the in-between all or nothing approach, is based on knowing what my baseline is. In the above example, it’s knowing what a tidy apartment means to me, what it looks like and how I get there. Most of us have a sense of our exercise baseline too. If we go for 4-5 days without any exercise, we feel like slugs. We know that a brisk walk around the neighborhood for 20 minutes will help.

Your baseline is the comfortable zone where things are under control but loose enough to accommodate the surprises of everyday life. This is where you want to be. It’s the sweet spot! Things aren’t perfect but they work.

Any of you with kids at home know this is all you can expect. I’ve often worked with fairly new moms who are freaking out about how little time and energy they now have to take care of their previous systems. By necessity, they get used to doing things less perfectly. One of my clients started checking her email in the bathroom because it was the only time she could get three minutes away from her two small kids.

What you can do right now: think of something you’re not doing because you haven’t been able to commit 100% to it. There are situations that require that, but many don’t. Ask yourself if you’d benefit more from doing something. It could be 71% or 45% or 13%, but it’s better than doing nothing at all.