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.

Stuck on New Year’s resolutions? Try this instead

Up Above!

I’ve always loved the idea of New Year’s resolutions—the clean slate, the fresh start, the optimistic resolve—but for all my ever-so-good intentions, I never quite seem to keep them.

So this year, I’m trying something new. Instead of establishing a list of goals and struggling (and failing) to reach them, I’ve decided to think in terms of possibilities.

Inspired by an essay in Wise Bread, I took 20 minutes out of Christmas morning to scribble down 100 things that I want to do—things that, at some level, seem to be calling to me. Nothing was too big. Nothing was too small. As more thoughts came to mind later in the day, I added them to the list.

By the time I was finished, I had some 85 items ranging from going to Thailand to taking a photography class to buying a KitchenAid mixer.  To someone else, this compilation might appear a weirdly random assortment. To me, it makes total sense. Reading it makes me happy.

Let me be clear, this is not a to-do list—it would take me years, if not decades, to accomplish everything I wrote down, and besides, that isn’t the point. What I was after was something more intangible, a framework for thinking about what matters to me and how I spend my time.

Looking over my list, I was instantly struck by how the things that call me come in clusters. Travel is a big one—no surprise—but so is organization, or rather the idea of creating a more ordered home and with it a more ordered life. Creative work, time in nature, and cooking with friends are other recurrent themes.

I was heartened to see that my big changes of recent years—most notably my move to western Massachusetts from the Boston area—have made it far easier for me to spend time in ways that feel meaningful. It was good to feel that I’ve been heading in the right direction.

And as interesting as what I wrote down was what I left out. Many (though not all) of the things on my list are inexpensive or free. Big-city glamor is in notably short supply. Making waffles, playing mini-golf, cross-country skiing. Stringing white lights around my living room windows. Re-learning how to knit. Corralling kids to make a gingerbread house and holiday cookies next year.

Thinking in terms of possibilities seems especially appropriate for Plan B Nation, where we need to be open-minded and strategic if we’re to move forward.

Rather than choosing a single concrete goal—say, getting a job at X organization–we’re well advised to think more broadly. What is the essence of what we want? (Meaningful work, an income adequate to support us in other life goals, interesting colleagues.)  What are some alternate paths to these same ends?

I imagine consulting this list many times in the year ahead, especially whenever I’m feeling at a loss or stuck. Twelve months from now, I’ll definitely be curious to see how many of the items from the list made it into my life. But again, that isn’t really the point. These aren’t goals so much as potential paths: They are stepping stones, not the destination.