let it be a mess

Settle in; this is a long one.

I’ve been experimenting and struggling with productivity systems since I was in school. When I was much younger, I developed my own simple system that worked for years: I managed all of my school work, deadlines, and more with a simple pocket calendar and tiny flip notebook; I also kept all of my subjects organized by color, so I knew that if I had calculus homework to do, for instance, I should grab the blue notebook and the blue file folder along with my textbook. Everything got done.

But then I was an adult in the working world, and a 9-to5 office job is much different than class meetings and research papers, so I let my system go. By the time I was back to work on multiple projects again—first with multimedia installations and then with web development—my days were quickly complicated by the rise of email communications and the internet in general. I had a Day-Timer that worked for a while (roughly 1993-1995), but when I tried restarting that same system again in 1996, it fell apart rather quickly. In the late ‘90s, I tried the color-coding thing again to help juggle multiple projects, but analog systems just weren’t cutting it for me with so much digital information coming at me all the time.

I honestly don’t know what I did to keep myself organized for the roughly 15 years after that. I know I kept lists—I’ve always loved a good list—but there was no larger organizational structure that I can recall. I suppose I used email as a kind of digital to-do list, but I’ve never gotten anywhere close to inbox zero and have also relied on that space to be a living archive (which is something else I might want to change). I’m pretty sure I was using a digital calendar. I do remember giving Getting Things Done a try and being overwhelmed almost immediately; again, it was a matter of way too much stuff being thrown at me digitally and just having too much to manage in general. But far too many things ended up living in my head, which was exhausting I guess but wasn’t a real problem because I was generally sharp and have historically had an excellent memory. I managed to write and publish a couple of books in those years, and I had a decent career as a freelance journalist as well.

Brain fog from chronic illness is a hell of a thing, though, and I was slowing down anyway with age, with illness and pain, with changing life circumstances, and with other factors that I wouldn’t be able to name until much more recently. I needed a system to help me keep on top of things.

And that’s when I started using the bullet journal method, customized a bit for my specific needs. It was inspired by my school days, and the appeal of a purely analog system of pen and paper was strong. I’ve used a bullet journal (with increasing customization) since October 2014, and it’s an excellent system. But I’ve been finding, especially within the past year or so, that I’m really not using it to its full potential—and that to do that would require a good bit more energy and focus than I have available. I began to rely increasingly on digital apps and to-do lists on my computer and my phone in addition to what was on the pages of my bullet journal—because typing is easier and faster now than writing something down, and my handwriting has deteriorated (with age and with lack of use). Also, it’s a hell of a lot easier to manage digital resources in a digital space, rather than on paper.

These past months during the pandemic—and with a dramatic decrease in client work and in personal focus—gave me the opportunity to research and experiment with various productivity systems, with different apps and tools in combination, and with all sorts of organizational philosophies. All the while, I was ignoring (or trying to ignore) that my health and pain levels are a significant factor that no system can reliably accommodate; I was also ignoring my autism diagnosis from the beginning of the year, which was a big clue as to why these systems and hacks that have worked so amazingly well for others continue to not quite fit for me, at least not over the long haul. I have researched, considered, and taken deep dives into too many tools and systems and apps to even remember, and I’ve gotten so frustrated with myself for not finding what works. And this productivity frustration on top of struggling with physical limitations is not the good kind of stress.

In the meantime, I’ve continued to use the bullet journal in combination with Todoist, and I have branched out with Trello for project management—after trying Asana multiple times over the years, and after investing too much time in Notion before realizing it’s not for me right now—and have even begun to experiment with a Rocketbook as a means of regularly digitizing and archiving my bullet journal practice. Every night I’ve gone to bed with my head swimming with ideas for what strategies I’d like to try next, and every morning I’ve awakened with hopeful exhaustion: maybe this would be the day I’d strike upon that miracle productivity cure, even though I’m heavily fatigued from all the experimentation combined with this determination to just get it right already.

And then this morning in meditation it hit me:

Let it be a mess.

Not forever, but just for now. Let things be a mess. I cannot control the pandemic or the American political or social chaos. I cannot control the wildfires and the impacts of climate change. I cannot control the limiting and often debilitating symptoms of chronic illness and pain. Anxiety and frustration are perfectly normal responses to what’s happening in the world, and to what’s happening within my own body. I cannot command myself to have greater focus or energy any more than I can command the outside world’s chaos into calm order. I had to recognize that at least part of my drive for “the perfect productivity system” was an attempt to reassure myself of my own agency in a world that is literally on fire.

So I’ll let it be a mess, at least for a little while.

All of this research and experimentation may have positioned me to be something of a productivity expert (by accident), even though I still haven’t come across the perfect system for myself. I do feel like I’m getting close, but I’d like to treat this as more of a game than an existential need, and see how that goes. Of course, the best system is the one that you actually use, and I am still using the bullet journal even as I look for ways to adjust and improve my methods, to overcome the parts I don’t like. And I’ll get comfortable with things being a mess, I suppose, because life is messy and 2020 is the biggest f’ing mess of all.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral.

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