Touch It Once

I hate clutter and mess. I hate losing things, or missing appointments, or forgetting about things, or misplacing things. I have this vision of my perfect life, where every counter is clean, every drawer organized, every to-do list finished at the end of the day, and every email inbox a pristine white canvas, just waiting for the next message to arrive, and I arrive to all of my appointments five minutes early, perfectly prepared. I meditate on clean counters like some people do on crashing ocean waves, or babbling brooks. My fantasy is hundreds of linear miles of uncluttered countertop, a clean desk, inbox zero and all my clothes folded like Marie Kondo just spent a weekend at my house.

My reality is constant, brutal trench warfare on stacks of mail and school papers and library books and whatever piles of crap my kid discards in a constant, endless stream in every direction. She’s like a firehose of clutter. And glitter. Sometimes glittery clutter. Keeping my house in order is an unending battle against an enemy as committed to her cause (never ever cleaning anything up, ever ever) as I am to mine (throwing away absolutely everything as quickly as possible, especially slime.)

And the office isn’t much better. People drop things on my desk throughout the day, some of which I have to action and some of which is just stuff they were carrying when they came into my office and then decided they didn’t want anymore. And there are times when I’ve piled stuff on my desk myself, dropping off the agenda and notes from one meeting as I breeze through on my way to the next, or setting paperwork that needs to be filled out to the side, to deal with later.

So how do I make any progress toward my zen in a world where papers and toys and hair ties seem to reproduce the minute I look away, and I fear being buried in drifts of permission slips and school menus like some lonely spinster on “Hoarders?” If you know me at all, the answer is pretty simple – I take action.

A few years ago, I read Getting Things Done by David Allen. If I’m being honest, at this point I don’t remember much of the book, and I probably need to go back and re-read it, but the one thing that has stuck out for me since then is Allen’s philosophy that if you can action something in two minutes, you should just do it, not set it aside for later. He also believes in touching something only once, and either doing it, delegating it, or discarding it.

So often, we look at the same emails in our inbox over and over because actioning them (either responding or forwarding on to the person who SHOULD respond) seems like a pain. There are fiddly administrative tasks like setting a time for a training or signing a document and scanning it back to someone that drive me bonkers, and I’ll sometimes put those emails off for days, even though it would take me less than two minutes to just DO the thing and be able to delete the email.

I’m even worse about papers that need to be filled out. I HATE permission slips and medical release forms and whatever else comes home from school with Catherine. (It’s something I’ve come to accept about myself – I have low follow-through on my Kolbe test, something I can discuss with anyone who’d like to understand me better.) I’ll let a form go until the absolute last minute instead of just filling it out as soon as I see it.

But, ironically, this postponement of action stresses me out. Seeing the stacks of paperwork and the list of emails that require minor action makes me feel like I’m not living up to my ethos of reducing clutter in my life. I’m letting things pile up that shouldn’t, and therefore, I’m not being true to myself. So when I see this happening, I recommit to the program of touching things once. When I check my email, I immediately action the little stuff – forwarding, responding, printing and signing and scanning – and then move on with a clear mind. If people bring me something to sign – whether it’s a card or a contract – I do it immediately and hand it back, so it’s not taking up physical and mental space for me anymore. When Catherine comes home from school, I open her folder, ooh and ahh at her test scores before throwing ALL the non-essential papers away, and immediately fill out and put back in the folder the permission slips, sign-up sheets, reading logs and discipline reports that have to go back. Touch it once. Action it immediately.

Of course, there are emails and papers and interactions that require more time and thought. I’ll let an email that is going to require research and thought and consideration sit in my inbox for a little while, until I can set aside some time to fully apply myself to it. Actioning things immediately does not mean half-assing them. It means giving priority to the big stuff while taking care of the little stuff the first time it shows up, instead of allowing it to circle back on you again and again like a horse on a carousel.

When I’m in this mode, my days are happier and easier. I’m not dealing with residual stress from the pile of unfinished tasks on my desk and I don’t wake up in the morning in a panic, wondering if I’ve signed Catherine’s reading log from the night before. I feel more in control of my world, because I AM more in control of my world. Instead of letting the piles of stuff manage me, I’m managing them.

Now, if I could just find someone who could train my seven-year-old on this stuff, then I’d be truly set.

Go Back