Organizing most things is generally fun, relatively easy and comes with the benefit of a big visual payoff -- think cleaning off desks, arranging closets and making kitchen counters sparkle. But occasionally, we must all face organizational tasks that are painful. There is not much fun in organizing your really important information just in case of an emergency or going through the possessions of a loved one who has just died.
The longer you put these more difficult tasks off, the more likely you are to either be putting yourself at risk, or carrying some degree of misery and stress unnecessarily.
On July 5, 2010, my mom, my stepbrother and his wife were killed when the small plane my mother was piloting crashed after a landing gone awry. It's been more than two years now, and yet those words still seem unreal.
About a month after the accident, my despondent (and beloved) stepfather asked my siblings and me to help him clear her things from the house. He found the constant reminders of her too much to bear. So, still reeling from the losses, my brother, sister and I began the bittersweet task of dealing with the detritus of Mom's life.
As we waded through her things, the smallest things would bring me to my knees, like the three Disney books she had clearly purchased for my oldest son's fourth birthday, which fell just four days after the plane crash. At first, I refused to claim them, unable or unwilling to accept that she would no longer be present to celebrate those kinds of special days with us.
In the end, I took four large boxes of her things and two massive bags of her clothes home with me. Once home, I promptly stashed them in our basement guest room, the room we lovingly call "The Waiting Place," and closed the door. Every time we had a guest or I played with the boys in the playroom, the closed door to our Waiting Place taunted me. The longer I avoided it, the more intensely I felt the weight of what I knew I should be doing. And the more I felt the weight of the "should," the worse I felt about myself.
Finally, about two weeks ago, I faced what I had been putting off for 24 months. By the time I had finished, I felt wonderful: flooded with happy memories, grateful for having a wonderful, inspiring mom, excited to hang some of her pictures -- and proud of myself for finally ridding the Waiting Place of the jumble of her things.
Six Secrets for Organizing Difficult Things
As both of us reflected on our experiences in tackling difficult organizational tasks, we noticed that getting unstuck took the following strategies.
1. Set a Timer for 15 Minutes and Just Start Already! Our brains are not always the most reliable gauges when it comes to predicting how long a task will take or how painful it will be. If you're feeling stuck, grab an egg timer, set it for at least 15 minutes and force yourself to focus relentlessly on the job at hand. It is likely that you will make significant progress and won't want to stop when the bell rings.
2. Use an If-Then Statement to Get Yourself to Follow Through. Studies by clinical psychologists have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success.
3. Carve Out Quiet Time to Make Progress: If you have small children, a cellphone, a computer or a home phone, you are at risk of being interrupted just as you start to tackle your project. Get a baby sitter if you need one, and turn off all communication alerts so that you can work uninterrupted.
4. Ask for Help: Sometimes just having someone there with you while you take on a task makes all the difference. If you're scared to tackle something, maybe all you need to do is call up a best friend, ask your spouse or reach out to an expert.
5. Anticipate Moments of Joy. Even if the job itself has nothing inherently exciting or happy about it, you will still experience moments of joy when you realize you are making progress and will, eventually, complete the project.
6. Focus on the Benefits. There is a saying that you get what you focus on. When you're putting something off, you do so because you are paying more attention to the pain of getting the job done than on the good that will come from crossing it off your list. Break your old pattern of focus by grabbing a pen and paper and writing down all of the things you will gain by following through.