05 December 2014

I want to empty my life and then refill it again. Why? Because it is similar to the stuff I do when I am cleaning up and organizing my possessions. Say, for example, I am cleaning up a closet. I will remove everything, and then put everything back in order. This way I am certain to go through everything and address it. It is a simple algorithm but is very effective. Organizing my items serves not only hygienic or inventory purposes, but also helps to clear my mind by knowing what is where.

There will be a few types of things in the closet. First, there would be items that I use often and which need to be readily accessible, these would be organized for quick access. Then, there are tools that I only need on rare occasions but when need them, I remember them, and they prove very useful and they save me from a lot of trouble. These items need to be organized in a way that I can easily find them when I am searching for them. Having a container, like a tool box, helps with finding tools. In order to find a given tool, I only need to be able to know in which toolbox it is. So I will group the rarely useful tools in toolboxes and containers.

Next, as I am going through the items in the closet, I will discover some old and forgotten items. Some of them will have sentimental value, and I will decide to keep them just for the memory, as they might be irreplaceable. Other items would be obviously for throw away and I will put them aside to be discarded. The pile of items to be discarded would grow to a nice size over time, which would give me a very tangible progress indicator. It also feels really good to look at the the set of thing that are going to trash or donation and to think “Yeah, no more of this crap!”

Finally, in the closet, there will be some items that I needed recently but didn’t use because I didn’t remember where they were. At first, it might seem tricky to decide what to do with them. Maybe I will need them again in the near future, therefore I should keep them around and organize them in toolboxes. But the more likely case is that even if I need them again, I wouldn’t remember to use them. Last time I needed them, I didn’t use them, and instead I found another way to solve, or to ignore the problem. The problem wasn’t so grave that it prompted me to remember that I have these items. So after a second thought, the correct solution is always to get rid of them. They go to the discard pile. They wouldn’t be useful in the future, simply because I wouldn’t be using them. Going through this logic requires effort, but once I’ve the decision for one forgotten item, it is easier to extend to others, and to make my discard pile bigger.

If I could use the same techniques to organize my life things would be easier, right?

But organizing life is so much more complex than organizing a closet. Or is it? Looking at a closet, it is quite easy to say whether it is organized or messy, whether it is full or empty, whether it has nice stuff or rubbish inside. A closet has constant, unchangeable amount of volume - you can only put so many things in there. All closets are comparable. Whereas different people live different lives. Some people are dealing with so many different things in their life that it seems like they have infinite capacity for action. Well… whether they have infinite capacity or not, all of them, and all the rest of us have the same amount of time per day, twenty four hours.

We can instantly tell how filled somebody’s life is based on how much empty time they have, where empty time is defined by the time they can afford to do whatever they want, even do nothing. It is a pretty crude and lousy metaphor, but it is useful, at least for me, when thinking about how filled my own life is. In my opinion, there is a correlation between emptier life and a more flexible life. The higher proportion of the time one is free, higher opportunity they have for trying different things. And for procrastinating…

Going back to the closet metaphor, not all space in the closet is equal as well. The space closer to the door provides quickest access to items put there, and the space further back often requires that we move aside the front-facing items aside before we can access the stuff in the back. Unless we sacrifice a bunch of the prime front space and leave it empty, in order to make access to the back easier. Space, which is close to the floor of the closet allows for items to be placed directly there. If nothing can be placed on top of these items, then the space above is wasted. Thus, a lot of closets might seem pretty full but they actually have plenty of free volume that can be used if one can figure out how to make use of vertical space.

Back to life-time as a metaphor for closet-volume, we can note that all time is equal. Time during which we are well rested, nourished, strong and focused is prime. During this time we can perform our best and enjoy life maximally. Both in personal as well as in professional aspect. Whether we will actually do perform is a different matter that depends on environment and motivation, but nonetheless we are at the maximum of our abilities. Unfortunately, we are not rested, nourished and focused all the time. We need to sleep, eat, exercise and relax in order to get the best out of our bodies and minds. We have to spend time to do so. While in a closet, prime space is the most easily accessible, in life, prime time is harder to access. Prime time is further deep in the closet of our life and in order to reach it, we need to dedicate other time that is easier to access. We have to make time for sleep, food, exercise and rest in order to have time to do fun things or to be productive.

When we are productive, and dedicate certain amount of time, we can transform our time into artifacts, experiences and possessions. We can replace our current life closet with a different, future one that has other items in it. Or one with the items rearranged. This is what happens when we make decisions and put our time towards a certain goal, cause or entertainment. We actively manage and organize our lives.

Evaluating whether a someone else’s life is organized or messy seem actually quite easy, based on our observations of them, but it actually is very error prone. People who look messy, might be following a system that is obvious only to them, and people who seem perfectly in control may actually get into a lot of trouble when things get derailed a little bit. Even a homeless person might have a very organized life, and a big company CEO might have messiness in their life. Nevertheless, we can define messiness and organizedness in the abstract, saying that a life is organized if all of it can be described compactly and messy if it cannot.

Whether a life is filled with nice stuff or rubbish is very subjective. It comes down to personal choice and taste. Or lack thereof.

I prefer doing certain things in my time. Other people prefer other things. This can only be evaluated by the person living the life’s liver, and the quality of the contents is arguably more important than whether the life is organized and than how full or empty the life is. Prisoners have very orderly life, but I doubt they enjoy it.

Imagine the life of one of the great historic figures that you admire, a ruler, a writer, a philosopher, an activist, etc. In order to do something worthy of your admiration, they must have done something admirable during their life. Whether it is Nelson Mandela who fought apartheid, and then found power to reconcile with his oppressors, or Alexander or Caesar who conquered and united vast areas, or Jesus or Buddha who created religions that affected billions of people, the admired person had something really good in their life. If you think of their life as their own closet, each of them had a diamond in it. A diamond is an item that other people would envy and admire, but the owner of the diamond my get very little usefulness off it. Maria Currie is revered for her work on radiation, but it ultimately costed her her life. Users who create diamonds really value them, but might not always enjoy them.

Diamonds require a certain degree of luck, but striving for them and putting the effort in is an achievable goal. We aren’t guaranteed to succeed in making something amazing and eternal, a dent in the universe, and a model to be followed. But we can sure give our best effort to make the most of our lives. I want to organize my life because if I do, I will be able to put more effort in. If we don’t put the effort, we have no chance of finding a diamond.

One short post per week, discussing actionable mental models. Join a community of readers, who receive these posts over email.