14 July 2009

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité -- and Organizing

Happy Bastille Day!

The storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution is celebrated as a sort-of French 4th of July. Because the Bastille held both ammunition and political prisoners, its storming represents liberation from the oppression of monarchy.

For me, becoming organized is also liberating. Some people think of organizing as a restrictive straight-jacket, a set of rigid rules, too much oppressive order. But I prefer to think of organization as a life jacket, a tool that supports us as we navigate our way down life’s river.

The French motto is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – liberty, equality, and brotherhood. In honor of Bastille Day, I thought I’d look at the benefits of organizing from the motto’s perspective.


I had a client once who was in charge of her psychologically-disabled sister’s estate. We worked together to organize all the paperwork associated with her sister, and were eventually able to put it all, neatly labeled and filed, in a portable file box. The day we finished, my client pranced gleefully, singing “Betty’s in a box! Betty’s in a box!” Now, when she wanted, she could hand over the responsibility for Betty* to someone else. Whoo-hoo! Freedom!

I have another client for whom we’ll be doing something similar. She currently handles all of the paperwork and finances for her 20-something-year-old son. In the course of organizing her office, one of our goals is to set up a paper-management system – again, self-contained in a portable file box – for all her son’s affairs. Her goal is to teach him how to use it and eventually turn it over to him, empowering him to make his own financial decisions and liberating her from the responsibility.

Possibly because they’ve struggled to function as a right-brain creative sort in a left-brain culture, many artists scoff at organization as being dreadfully dull. One of my readers once wrote to me: “I have always detested neat, highly organized people. They are not like me. They made me feel faulty, inadequate, guilty, and so I pronounced them without creativity, spontaneity, or passion.” The rebellious artist rejects organization as antithetical to the creative process. And yet – organization supports art. Creation is easier when the artist can find her toys – her favorite camel-hair brush, the Italian hand painted blue bead, the silver glitter. Being able to find our toys – or really, our tools – put us on an even keel with our fellow craftsmen by enabling us to practice our craft without unnecessary hindrance.

Ditto for attorneys, or teachers, or healers, or carpenters, or chefs. Having our tools readily available allows us to do our job more effectively and helps create a level playing field – equality.

Brotherhood reminds us that we’re all in this together. My last principle – I have 12 Basic Principles of Being Organized, which are the focus of my book – is to Ask for Help. I remind people that we are not alone and we shouldn’t try to do it all ourselves. If those artists, attorneys, teachers, healers, carpenters, and chefs need help organizing, I can help them. The principles are universal across professions. But I can also help people get organized so that they can bring in help. Some people – especially entrepreneurs – need help setting up basic office systems so that a secretary or bookkeeper can come in and take the administrative load off, allowing the entrepreneur to focus on growing her business. Other people need their home decluttered and organized enough to allow a housekeeper to come in and help them with the cleaning. Or they need their kids’ areas organized so that they can start teaching their children how to be organized.

Why We Organize

In my book, The Spiritual Art of Being Organized, I write about why people get organized. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Why get organized? What are the benefits to you? When I ask my clients this question, they toss back answers:
* so I can find things;
* so I can pay my bills on time;
* so I can have company over without feeling embarrassed;
* to feel happier, more peaceful and serene;
* o reduce stress;
* to save time and effort, make my life easier;
* so I can meet deadlines, improving my work performance and relationships with co-workers;
* to save money (on late fees, duplication of possessions);
* to make money;
* to improve the way my home (or office) looks and feels;
* to have more time to spend with my family and to do what I really want;
* to feel better about myself.

Artists, doctors, mothers, gardeners—I believe that each of us has gifts to offer, and a duty to offer them. Each of us brings something to the whole, to making the world a lovelier, safer, happier place. Being organized helps us share our gifts.

What, then, does it mean to be organized? For me, being organized means being able to access what we want quickly and easily. Organization does not require perfection, only that our systems are easy to use and maintain. Contrary to images of organized homes being the result of constant vigilance, organization is actually about being lazy; about making our lives easier. Rather than seeing organization as a dam that restricts our life’s river, think of it as the raft that supports us, that provides structure and a modicum of safety and control as we float (or ride rapids) downstream.

In fact, Class IV rapids are an excellent reason to become organized. Life happens. We lose our job, our health, a loved one. Or we become deeply involved in a creative project, a long and fabulous vacation, an all-consuming love affair. We have babies, move, return to school, start a business, write a book, change careers. Being organized helps us to survive, even thrive, as we ride through these transitional rapids.

In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts wrote, “If the wind were to stop for one second for us to catch hold of it, it would cease to be wind. The same is true of life. Perpetually things and events are moving and changing…. We can only understand life by keeping pace with it, by a complete affirmation and acceptance of its magic-like transformations and unending changes.” And, I would add, by being organized enough to flow with it.

So why get organized? Because, when all is said and done, being organized makes life easier.

Taking it to the Streets

Consider furthering the cause of liberty, equality, and brotherhood by reaching out to those being held prisoner by their disorganization. Do you know someone who is often running late? Losing things? Being assaulted with late fees? Complaining about being disorganized? Complaining about their spouse being disorganized? I don’t recommend ramming their gates with critical judgment – “Boy are you a mess! You should hire Claire!” – but a quiet coup de grace – mentioning that you know me and that I’ve helped hundreds of people, encouraging them to visit my web site and then call me… that would be one way you could make their lives easier and the world a better place. Together we can make the world a bit more lovely and whole.

*Not her real name

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