Happy Tidy Tuesday, and welcome to the first week of Mindset Month!

Why are we talking about mindsets? Is this some weird mystical thing where you can wish away your data mess or just “think the right thing hard enough,” and suddenly your whole digital life organizes itself?

Of course not. Read on to find out! And, as always, visit the Tidy ’24 Calendar to review what we’ve covered so far.

Mindset Week 1: You Can’t Do Everything

I’ve had enough conversations with people and watched them struggle repeatedly with specific challenges to see that it’s worth making sure your expectations are aligned with your actions and reality. This month, we’ll examine what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what we hope to get out of it, and how to approach digital organization more effectively.

I don’t expect anything to be shocking, radical, or even new to you, but we all need to hear these things sometimes, even if only to remind ourselves about our goals and limitations.

This week’s main idea is that you can’t do everything.

Now, this is obvious—a “truism.” Clearly, we can’t do everything. But let me narrow it down within the context of digital organization. Most of us are trying to do only a few generalized tasks, like organizing what we already have in a way that feels both clean and useful or learning how to manage the constant flow of new information: emails, photos, documents, articles, videos, blog posts, you name it. It’s incredibly tempting to focus on finding or developing the perfect system that gives us the power to achieve these goals: organize everything we have and efficiently consume everything regularly coming in.

But especially if we consider ourselves to be endlessly curious or perpetual learners, there is no system that will let us consume, process, and organize everything we’d like to. There’s not just enough time for it. If we compensate by trying harder, even with good tools and habits and systems in place, one or both of two things happen: either we crowd out other essential responsibilities to make room for extra information management, or we feel disappointed (or even guilty) about failing to accomplish what we hoped.

This week is about changing your approach to this problem. Accepting that you can’t do everything doesn’t mean giving up on your goals or “settling” for a version of yourself that’s somehow less than what you think you should achieve. Instead, it gives you the opportunity to let things go on purpose, rather than of feeling defeated or guilty about them.

Example 1: Suffocating Research

This week’s principle applies in many areas. For example—and I suspect all of us are guilty of this to some degree—the tendency to collect articles, videos, books, magazines, podcasts, newsletters, and so on to read later. Now, gathering more than you have time to work through is fine, but only as long as you can let go just as easilyThat’s the mindset shift. Let yourself bookmark things, toss them into your read-later app, add them to your Watch Later list on YouTube, or sit in your inbox for a little while. But don’t let those things pile up for too long because they lose their relevance and become nothing more than psychological weight, just eating at you because you haven’t done what you wanted with them.

Don’t treat collections of all the stuff you want to read, watch, or listen to like a giant bucket that you fill until it overflows. Instead, treat it like a queue that can only hold a certain number of items. Once you fill it up, it’s full. If you want to add something new, something old has to go.

(Readwise Reader, the read-later app I’ve mentioned many times, makes this super easy by letting you sort items by when you saved them. This way, you can quickly find and delete old things you haven’t read.)

Example 2: Overly Ambitious To-Do Lists

For another example, if you put ten things on your to-do list for today but only get through two, you’ll likely feel constant pressure about the other eight and very little sense of accomplishment when you stop working. What you didn’t get done will dominate your thought process and likely give you no peace and no chance to relax at the end of the day. You’ll shove everything that remains to tomorrow’s list, plus whatever new things need to get done, and then go through the same process tomorrow.

Instead, if you put only two things on your to-do list for today, even if you do the same work as in the other case, you’ll feel very different about it. That’s the mindset shift. And if you still have time after those two things, you can always do more.

“Now, Jeff,” you say, “isn’t that just lowering the bar, patting yourself on the back for doing less than you should?” Fair question, but I’d say no, at least not generally, because what you’re doing helps dramatically in two ways:

  1. Without changing how much is actually getting done, you’re eliminating stress. That’s huge.
  2. Having only two things to get done makes it significantly easier to focus. Pick one thing, and do it. Then do the other thing.

I know deeply, personally, from experience and observation, how much harder it is to stay focused when facing a dozen tasks that you could work on.

Example 3: Indiscriminate Organization

Here’s one more example of how “you can’t do everything” applies to data organization. A lot of you (and myself) have tons of photos going back decades—ten thousand, a hundred thousand, or more. Like you, I yearn for a perfectly sorted, cataloged collection of all that media. But I don’t have an expectation of achieving that soon, or even a real desire to, for three reasons:

  • First, the practical reason: I don’t have any mechanism to completely sort, filter, and catalog hundreds of thousands of pictures quickly. I know how; it’s just tedious.
  • Second, the personal reason: if I spend enough time sorting my photos to make a significant dent, I can’t spend that time on anything or anyone else.
  • Third, the consequential reason: although I like the idea of having a perfectly organized photo set, exactly what good will that do? Is it worth a ton of time to achieve something that feels good but has little practical benefit? To me, right now, no.

I’d rather spend time with my family or on more fulfilling projects. That’s the mindset shift. I can’t do everything, so I choose to do the things I really value, and I choose not to do everything else, and I don’t feel guilty about that.

This doesn’t mean I give up on the photo organization project. It just means I don’t prioritize it most of the time, and I don’t feel bad that it isn’t getting done yet. I can find another way to ease into it later or wait for inspiration to strike and my schedule to open up.

Action Steps

This week, there’s only one action step:

  • Find something you can choose not to do. This could be an item on your to-do list that’s been neglected for six months, archiving (or even deleting) all the unread emails older than 30 days, or closing the eight dozen browser tabs you’ve kept open for weeks.

Remember, don’t think of this as giving up. You can’t do everything; that’s a limitation of curious and responsible humans. You’re simply shifting your mindset so YOU decide when something isn’t worth doing rather than letting circumstances and guilt decide for you.

Enjoy that feeling of letting go! If you have any questions about this week’s task or anything related to digital organization, comment below or contact me to let me know.

Happy data-taming!

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