Hello, Life Experiment #3 (plus an update).

laser cut cubes

In this Year of Experiments, the past month was about Creating Order, and in fact, some order has been created, though–as The Organizer warned me there might be, lots remains to be done.

Here’s what my basement looked like then.

The Organizer takes stock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what it looks like now:

As they say in 12-step programs, it’s about progress not perfection.

That being said, here is what I’ve found: Order is calming. Order is freeing. Order is something I want. Order is also, as one friend noted, always a work-in-progress. It’s a habit, not a goal.

As it happens, the same is also true of the act of forging human connections–the focus of Life Experiment #1, where I connected (or re-connected) with 30 people over the course of January. Much more to be said about that, but for now, just to note that this practice also underscored for me the importance of habit.

So here’s the bottom line: where I started envisioning this Year of Experiments as consecutive, I’m increasingly starting to see it as cumulative.  Spending some time–in this case, a month–consciously focusing on a quality that enriches my life is sort of like planting a seed.

And now for Life Experiment #3, which is about seeing more (and seeing differently) and framing (and re-framing).  Or to put it in concrete terms, during this month, I’ll be taking at least one photograph each day.

There are a bunch of reasons I settled on this particular Life Experiment.

For one thing, I got a new camera a few months back, and I’ve yet to really use it. For another–and this is a big one–I’ve just started co-teaching a photo and writing workshop for foster kids and am awed by what I’m reading and seeing. I won’t say much more about that–their stories are theirs–but this is another way to connect with what they’re doing.

I also know from past experience that using a camera opens up the world in new and unexpected ways. Years ago, I spent some summer weeks at the Maine Photographic Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops), and I recall a pervasive sense of heightened awareness. Thought it occurs to me that this may not be saying much–I am someone whose boyfriend once shaved his mustache for her as a birthday gift (It was not my favorite look) and I failed to notice. That is until he told me that the mysterious gift he’d been hinting at for hours was “right under your nose–or rather under my nose.”

So clearly, I can use some practice with this seeing thing. As always, you’re welcome to join me. I hope that you will.

5 things I learned when The Organizer paid a visit

The Organizer takes stock

My friend Heidi is a professional organizer, and when she heard that this month’s Life Experiment is all about Creating Order, she offered to get me started.

I jumped at the opportunity.

She arrived promptly at 8:15 am, full of reassurances. “I don’t make judgments,” she said, more than once. “It’s about you and how you live.  My work is very personal, and everything is confidential.”

I’d done little to prepare for the visit; Heidi wanted to see what things looked like when I hadn’t made a special effort. Before we got to work, I took her on a quick top-to-bottom tour—from my clothes- and book-strewn bedroom to my chaotic basement, a potter’s field for old electronics, work files, and memorabilia.

Over the next two hours, we made substantial inroads, far more than I would have thought possible for such a short session. We started out by going through piles on my dining room table, where I’d gathered some of my most challenging small organization projects.

For example: What do you do with that collection of random screws, nails, and other mysterious hardware items?

Answer: Your throw it out.

Now this might not be the case for someone who is handy and does lots of home improvement projects, but as soon as Heidi told me I could pitch this stuff, I felt instant relief.

And, as she explained it, that’s a big part of what a professional organizer does: Gives you permission to toss stuff that you can’t seem to toss on your own.  (Or, as she diplomatically put it, surveying my living room: “It’s my job to get you to think about things, so this sort of situation doesn’t ensue.”)

That being said, Heidi certainly didn’t pressure me; she mainly just asked questions.

“Why do you need the instructions to your blender?” she inquired.

I skimmed through the little booklet. “Look! There are recipes! I’m going to put this with my recipe books.”

She gave me a long look. “Really?” she said. Really?

After that she let it go, except for one final observation. “I’ll bet you never go to that blender thing to make a recipe out of it. (Chances are she’s entirely right, but for now, I’m still keeping it.)

This isn’t the first time I’ve made an effort to be more organized (over the years, as I recounted in Salon, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on storage), and some of Heidi’s tips—such as the adage to “put like with like”—were already familiar to me.

But other truths came as either novel insights or much-needed reminders. For the record, here they are:

1. No one wants your old cassette tapes.

No one. Absolutely no one.  After a rejection from Goodwill, I’d been planning to move on. Heidi told me not to bother.

2. You don’t have to be like your parents

“I’m sort of like my mother,” I explained, as I dithered over whether to discard some melted-down candle remnants.

Heidi’s matter-of-fact response: “You don’t have to be.”

3.  Just because something was once pretty doesn’t mean it still is.

“I loved this,” I said wistfully, gazing at my one-time favorite Vera Bradley tote bag, now torn and stained.

I wondered if I should keep it—until Heidi’s voice broke in. “You can’t donate that,” she said practically. “You have to throw it away.”

A scummy candle holder with a floral pattern elicited a similar response.

Me: “It’s sort of pretty.”

Heidi: “Not so much anymore.”

Bonus tip:  If something has sentimental value but no current use, think of taking a digital photo and discarding the object itself.

4.  Projects take less time than you think they will . . .

“It’s going to take me hours just to go through that,” I said gesturing to a pile of boxes on the stairway landing as we emerged from the basement.

Heidi stopped me right there. “Why?” she said.

“Oh, you know,” I said vaguely. “Lots of random things in various places, have to go through it all.”

“Well, let’s just see,” said Heidi.

And you know what? Most of those boxes were empty, except for packing materials. After five or 10 minutes, only a small stack of papers and binders remained to be sorted.

5.  Unless they take more

As she gathered up her things, preparing to leave, Heidi said: “You know you have a lot of work to do, right?”

The words brought me back to earth. I’d felt like we’d accomplished so much! And yet, this was just a beginning.

“How long do you think the whole house will take?”

“Well, it depends on how much time you spend but, maybe  . . . a month or so?”

Happily, one month is exactly the length of my Creating Order Life Experiment. Three days down, 27 to go. Yes, I’m just getting started.

Special offer: Heidi—whose full name is Heidi Robinson—is offering a two-hour organizing session for $50—that’s 50% off her usual rate—to the first five Northampton-area Plan B Nation readers to contact her. You can reach her by phone at 413-219-7433 or email her at heidilisa43@yahoo.com.

Life Experiment #2: Creating Order

“Order is everything,” my friend Melissa once remarked, more than two decades ago.

When an offhand comment sticks in your mind, there’s likely a very good reason why, and in this case, that reason is readily apparent everywhere I look.

I am living in chaos.

It is a fertile, vibrant chaos, to be sure—fascinating books, scribbled notes, Christmas decorations, piles of colorful clothes, fliers for events I’d like to attend, bowls of local apples and onions, recipes I’d like to make. At times, I view the mess as akin to compost—materials that make my days both richer and more nourishing.

But mostly it’s a way better metaphor than it is a way of life. It’s frustrating, and it’s time-consuming, and sometimes it’s even expensive. (This morning, I searched for some books about organization that I’d picked up years ago. Tellingly, I couldn’t find them.)

Which is why February’s Life Experiment will be about Creating Order.

As some of you may recall, I’ve dubbed 2012 my Year of Experiments. Each month, I’m embarking on a new set of activities around a particular theme. At the end of each month, I’ll give some thought to how my life has shifted and share the results.

In particular, I’m interested in how activities that are apparently unrelated affect and inform each other. Here, I think of the old saying “Trust in God and clean house.” (Not to be confused with another old saying: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”) How will bringing order to my living space change my life in other ways? Stay tuned for the answer.

Or better yet, join me! Make February your month of creating order—or pick a Life Experiment of your own and watch to see how things change.

As a reminder, here are my suggested guidelines for Life Experiments. (I described these in more detail in a previous post.):

1.  Select process goals, not outcome goals

2. Select activities that are directly related to your larger goals

3. Pick activities that are satisfying (and even fun) in themselves.

And now, here it is, my personal Life Experiment #2: Every day I will take one or more specific and quantifiable actions aimed at creating order at home. (Examples: I will take 10 articles of clothing to Goodwill. I will spend an hour sorting through office papers.)

I’ll keep myself accountable by tracking the actions I take each day. (In case you’re wondering, an update on January’s Life Experiment is shortly forthcoming.)

 ♦

Order, organization, neatness—these are not qualities that come naturally to me. I will never be that person who, as happiness maven Gretchen Rubin once did, explains my compatibility with a mate in terms of a shared affinity for order, (“He’ll  say ‘Let’s take 20 minutes and tidy up,’” Rubin told the New York Times, in describing her husband.)

I do, however, think that I can do better.  Maybe a lot better.  I plan to give it a shot.

2012: My year of experiments

The Chemistry Of Inversion

In Working Identity—one of my all-time favorite books about career transitions—author Herminia Ibarra urges us to approach our lives as a series of experiments.

Instead of researching, planning, and executing our next moves, we need to live into them, says the Yale-educated professor of organizational behavior, who conducted an extensive study of successful mid-career changers.

As she succinctly sums it up, “We learn who we are—in practice, not in theory—by testing reality, not by looking inside. We discover the true possibilities by doing—trying out new activities, reaching out to new groups, finding new role models, and reworking our story as we tell it to those around us.”

This is advice I’ve taken to heart in my own journey through Plan B Nation, and I often return to Ibarra’s book when I’m feeling lost or confused.

Among Ibarra’s suggestions is to try new things and see what happens:  “Only by testing do we learn what is really appealing and feasible—and in the process, create our own opportunities,” she writes.

More specifically, she proposes “crafting experiments”—getting started on one or two new activities while making sure you have a sound way to evaluate results.

This year, I’ll be adopting Ibarra’s approach with a slight twist. Rather than focusing just on my career, I’ll be experimenting more broadly. I’m interested in my life as a whole, not just in paying work (critical though that is).

Here’s what I’ll be doing: Each month, I’ll embark on a new experiment—a concrete set of activities tied to a particular time frame. At the end of the month, I’ll reflect on how my life has shifted as a result of taking these actions.

One of the things that most intrigues me about this approach is the idea that experiments often take us in unexpected directions.  We may not get what we thought we would, but we may get something better. Or if not better, different. Or at least interesting.

All of my experiments will reflect three criteria:

1.  The activities are process goals, not outcome goals: In other words—things that I can accomplish on my own, without the world’s cooperation. (Example: Writing a book is a process goal. Selling a book to a major publisher for eight million dollars is an outcome goal. Make sense?)

2.  The activities are not directly related to my primary goals: This one is a bit murkier, but basically I’m curious about how taking actions apparently unrelated to life’s big challenges may paradoxically help us surmount them. Is this true? We. Shall. See.

3.  The activities are satisfying (and even fun) in themselves: Life coach Tara Sophia Mohr, who writes the Wise Living Blog, urges us to “create goals that feel like huge gorgeous presents to ourselves,” having found that they are “not only more fun but also more effective.” This sounds almost too good to be true, but Ms. Mohr, who is equipped with a Stanford M.B.A., makes a pretty strong case here, and I’m going to give it a try.

And now, here it is: 2012 Life Experiment #1: Over the next month, my plan is to connect (or re-connect) with 30 people—and then observe what follows.

I’m a pretty social person, so it’s not altogether unlikely that I’d be doing this anyway without giving it much thought. But that’s exactly the point. Over the next month, I plan to be mindful of such connections—savoring the pleasure they bring, curious about where they’re leading. Because, when all is said and done, the spirit in which we go about things tends to be at least as important as the things themselves (as I wrote last night in my final post of 2011).

As always, you’re welcome to join me—or to share your own life experiments (or pretty much anything else). In the meantime, have a great day—and a great start to 2012.