The last few posts outlined the high-level IFO method for organizing digital data, then explored the Identify, Filter, and Organize steps individually. With this introductory information to help you consider how your digital organization journey might look, it’s tempting to jump right in and get started. And I hope you do exactly that! However, starting is always easier than finishing. What if you’re just not that motivated?
Before you get too far in and possibly overcome by what may quickly grow into a daunting project, I want to provide a few tricks to help you fend off the desire to throw in the towel and resign yourself to living with a digital mess.
Motivation is Key
When you start any big project or task, building and maintaining motivation can be challenging. You might find it hard to cultivate enough energy to stay focused, especially if you’re working alone. The entire project considered at once can easily feel overwhelming and insurmountable, like you’re standing at the base of a giant mountain. Even with a map and a clearly marked trail, the peak looks impossibly far away.
But like the little snail made famous in a haiku by Kobayashi Issa, all you need to do is not give up:
You might have a seemingly unending collection of photos, or an inbox (or two or three!) full of messages dating back to dial-up internet days. But no matter how big the project is, you’ll eventually get to the end of it as long as you don’t give up.
Tiny Tasks, Rapid Repetition
Approaching a big job armed only with far-off or vague goals not only feels intimidating, but it also doesn’t help you get anything done. Before you start attempting to make progress, break apart the journey into manageable steps. Keep splitting big tasks into smaller ones until everything on your to-do list is 100% not scary.
At that point, of course, your to-do list itself might look scary, but that doesn’t matter. Even if you have a thousand tasks, if they’re all five minutes each, that’s only two weeks’ worth of work!
Personally, I like to break apart a project using an outline with multiple levels. Some people prefer mind maps. The method doesn’t matter, as long as it makes sense to you. Here’s an example of how I might break down a large email task into smaller ones:
- Get to Inbox Zero
- Scan spam folder for false positives to make sure no mail is missed
- Scan inbox for mailing lists I no longer want to be on and unsubscribe/delete
- Clean up one sender
- Search to find all mail from the chosen sender in the inbox
- Delete any messages from that sender that no longer need to be kept
- Move the remaining messages to the appropriate folder/archive
The top-level “Get to Inbox Zero” item is the goal, but it doesn’t provide any direction for how to achieve that goal. By breaking it down into a few simple steps, suddenly the work becomes easy and repeatable. And here, as in many digital organization tasks, quick repeatability is critical.
If you allow yourself just 10 minutes a day to work on your email, you could likely complete the quick spam check and mailing list scrub in the first few minutes, then tackle three or four senders in the remaining time. That’s all you have to do! Just do it a whole bunch of times over days, weeks, or months. Don’t worry if it takes a long time to reach 100% completion. Every time you make it through another cycle, you’re closer to the goal.
Celebrate Small Wins
One of the best things about having lots of little tasks that can be completed quickly (even the same ones intentionally done over and over) is that you get a little dopamine hit every time you get to check something off your list. This might seem silly, but it’s not; appreciating that small win and how it makes us feel helps our brain internalize that what we just did is a good thing, and we should do more of it whenever possible.
So you deleted three emails and unsubscribed from one list? That’s awesome! Fantastic! Stupendous! That’s infinitely better than having done nothing at all, and it’s just that much you won’t have to do later.
Let yourself enjoy progress in any and every form. High-five a friend, co-worker, or spouse. You deserve it–you’re doing a lot more than most.
Build Habits Intentionally
The above two points streamline the habit-forming process, but that’s only half the battle. It’s also critical to consciously repeat the behavior you want to turn into a habit (such as spending 10 minutes every day cleaning up your email). There are countless ways to do this and decades’ worth of research on the subject, but here are some simple recommendations:
- If you work best around exact schedules, pick a specific time of day and set a reminder or alarm on your phone. Just make sure it isn’t at a time when you’re likely to brush it off for practical reasons, like right at the tail end of your workday when you want to go home.
- If you work best around activity changes, pick something you already do every day and use it as a trigger for your organizational task. Perhaps you require it of yourself before you take a lunch break, or maybe every time you return from the restroom. You just washed your hands…why not take two minutes to wash your inbox as well?
- If you work best around visual reminders, use a sticky note on your desk with the task name on top and a set of tally marks for each time you complete it.
- If you work best with outside accountability, tell a friend or two what you’re trying to do and ask them to ping you about it whenever they think about it. Letting someone else know your goals provides extra motivation so you don’t look bad when they ask you how things are going.
- If a habit-focused smartphone app won’t add too much noise, search for a “habits” app on your app store and pick one that looks good to you. (I’m personally a fan of Strides, but there are many excellent choices.)
Remember, you don’t have to make a ton of progress on your data organization to be on the right track. All that matters is that you’re going in the right direction.
Do One Thing
Choose one of the recommendations above (or another method that appeals to you) and begin forming a single habit to address one specific area of your digital mess.
As always, don’t set the bar too high. The point isn’t to achieve miraculous success overnight, since this is truly impossible. Your goal is only to begin practicing the behaviors that will bring you closer to your destination.