Introducing the Messy Desk Journal: No foolish consistency

Updated: Apr 23

A bit of Emerson

(if you are tempted to quit reading at the mere mention of Emerson, skip to Today's Practical Tip.)

In Self-reliance, Emerson writes, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Emerson wasn't writing about exercising every day or journaling every night. Rather, his point is that each person should live a life true to their core self. For Emerson, conformity to outside norms "scatters your force. It loses your time." Genius resides in individualism.

For years, I sought a perfect system that I can consistently maintain to keep my life in order--in time, housekeeping, and thought-- but my core self is really not consistent in that way. My brain interrupts with great ideas while I'm doing mundane tasks like washing dishes. I get bored doing the same thing every day. I love learning new things, but I tend to be a dilettante--I know a bit about a lot, but only a very few things deeply.

My literal messy desk is part of my natural non-conformity. I spent years beating myself up for not being a tidy person. It seems to be almost a moral imperative for those who must have a clean desk, an empty sink, a Zero Inbox. That's cool. For them. It just isn't my path.

And yet, to live a life, there are mundane activities that must be done. Even Thoreau had his mother doing his laundry while he was writing Walden. Thoreau didn't write about the laundry because it wasn't part of the point he was making. Still, laundry has to be done, even when we are Thinking Big Thoughts.

The productivity and organizing systems that I write about in the Messy Desk blog are designed for those of us who would rather be living at Walden than doing laundry at home. Sure, the Tidies can use these strategies to streamline their lives, too, but creatives and Messies will find their home here, I hope.


I've written about my own journey of learning in Beyond All-or-Nothing: A different perspective. As I was re-reading Emerson today, the following passage seemed to fit my zigzag learning:

"Fear never but you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions, so they be honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight when seen at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks....See the line from a sufficient distance and it straightens itself to the average tendency."

I have been reflecting and writing a lot about my life lately, looking for that straight line that emerges with perspective. It would be easy to say "Librarian" is the key theme, as that has been my work and my self-identity for well over 30 years now. But underneath that title is a love of learning, of writing, and, yes, of organization.

Again, my organization is not Dewey Decimal tidy, but I am a queen of messy stuff, time, and task management, and reflective learning. That's what I am sharing here at Messy Desk and in my writing on Medium. In the process, I am building a coherent package that other Messies might be able to adapt to their own core needs. My plan is to put together a book or two, articulating the concepts that have been coming together for me. [Pro tip: when you have an ambitious goal, put it out there so that you are accountable to your word.]

Today's practical tip:

"Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them." - David Allen

The idea is to make Messy Desk Systems a modular approach, following the Messy Desk Rules, addressing issues of organization, time, and task management, with a core of learning, reflection, and experimentation. You don't know what suits you best until you try it and fail a few (or a few dozen) times.

That's where Emerson's points about consistency meet the nuts-and-bolts of life. Every year, I have tried a different system for keeping track of commitments. I enjoy playing with planners and productivity software, but like a lot of things, I get bored with my current planner and distracted by new and shiny ideas. Still, I have learned from each system, and have identified core values for time/task/life journaling that are now elements of the Messy Desk System.

Get the ideas, tasks, and discoveries out of your head and record them somewhere. Planning junkies who know GTD will recognize this as coming straight from David Allen, encapsulated in his trademarked phrase, "Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them." Particularly when you have a squirrel brain like mine, ideas zing past and are completely forgotten if they are not recorded somehow.

Be able to record those ideas at all times, EASILY. I use a combination of notebooks (one work, one home) and apps. What you use will depend on how and where you are and how consistent you are with having your record with you. As you already know if you've been reading this blog, I am remarkably inconsistent and not very tidy. That means that tiny scraps of paper, post-its, computer task lists, Google Documents, email, texts, spreadsheets, task management software, and even my shower walls may catch a Big Idea when it hits me. For efficiency's sake, it really helps to have a central collection point.

For the Tidy among us, a planner book with all those pre-printed and pre-dated pages may work just fine, but the Messy Planner is much more flexible. I have heard many Messies complain that they buy a dated planner, use it for a month or two, and then waste the rest of the year. Or they are intimidated and don't want to mess up the pretty pages in the pretty book.

My current solution is a disk-bound planner (more on that later) but a cheap 3-ring binder or any plain paper notebook will work. You just have to use it, as consistently as you need to. I have been experimenting with Bullet Journal methods of recording information for a while because they fit well with Messy rules. (side note: the creator of Bullet Journal has ADHD, so that might be why the system works well for non-linear thinkers) The blank notebook isn't wasted if you stop journaling for a day or a month. It's always there waiting, and you can pick up those scraps of paper you have written ideas on and tape them into the notebook.

Migrate Important Bits This is a Bullet Journal concept, adapted to Messy ways. If you are a good bullet journaler, you will write everything down in that one notebook, the first time. If you are an incorrigible Messy, you will need to write your shower wall ideas in your notebook or you will lose them in the next bathroom cleaning. You also need to put every single time-based commitment into your calendar. That's a migration. So is taping the post-it note, or rewriting the idea you wrote on the napkin in a restaurant. It is obviously much more efficient to write it down in your journal or calendar in the first place, but when life happens, you now have a backup plan.

The importance of a calendar with notifications. Before I start prioritizing tasks, I look at my calendar. A lot of the time management advice I read is written for the entrepreneur or self-employed person and it sounds like they have fewer meetings and scheduled appointments than the people I know in real life. Meetings and work shifts confine my self-defined time. The electronic calendar is the one absolutely consistent part of my time management life. Since my first Palm Pilot knock-off in the 90's, I have had an alarm going off 10-15 minutes (depending on travel time) before a meeting. Before that, I had a giant wall calendar with appointments in red ink (and deadlines in purple). These days, an electronic calendar with alarms to remind you when you need to be somewhere is vital for a Messy mind that gets distracted or hyper-focused.

Use a timer to help you focus. This one I use at home, not at work, but a lot of people swear by the pomodoro or similar timer method. I like using this to make me stick to a single task that I really hate a lot--like dishwashing, or cleaning out a closet. I can make it into a game to get done as much as possible in a 15-minute period, for example.

Review what you've written down. Often. How often have you written down a shopping list, left it at home, spent a hundred dollars at the grocery, and still come home without milk? Yeah, that's what a day is like when you don't glance at your task list now and then. More than that, when you review what you have written, you may spark additional ideas, be able to weed down a task list to essentials, or really reflect on life.

Take time to reflect. My Messy Journal isn't just about planning the future, it is about reflecting on the past. To that end, I not only write down events of a day, I use the journal as a bit of a smashbook, gluing in receipts, photos, and memorabilia I can look back on. I also keep a list of journal prompts in the back of my journal, waiting for days when I feel particularly reflective and want to explore. For me, writing is the best way to do that exploration. But words aren't required. You can draw, doodle, craft, or just daydream your reflections and be equally productive. You might want to have something to remind you of any conclusions you come to, so a note or drawing is a nice thing to have at the end of a reflective session.

Get your copy of The Messy Planner now!

Are you interested in a personalized time and stuff management makeover? Email marie.jones@messydeskconsulting and mention "Emerson". You'll receive a free consultation and a chance to win Marie's help with creating and implementing your plan (A $1000+ value).

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