You Can’t Do It All*

*But you can do some of it.

Clusters of dust drift across my floor like tumbleweed as I write this. Cheeze-it crumbs dapple my keyboard and a pile of dead electronics awaits a Staples recycling run. In such moments, it helps to laser-focus my gaze on the words I’m typing. Isn’t that why they blindered horses on busy urban thoroughfares back in the day—so they could navigate whatever the distractions? I’m on a mission here.

I google total number of books on how to get organized. I google this several ways, expecting to get a number like 29,836, but all I find are other people’s lists of the best how-to tomes. Lifehack touts “35 Books on Productivity and Organizational Skills for an Effective Life,” aggregated by a Carmen Sakurai who bills herself as a “Mental Declutter, Stress Management & Burnout Prevention Coach.” Try fitting that into the little space provided for “occupation” on your 1040 tax form.

Matthew Kwong

Scrolling through the list, I find “life-changing”, “surprisingly simple”, “stress-free” methods for decluttering my home, achieving financial success, turning trials to triumphs, increasing my state of flow, and mastering work-life balance. All, apparently, achievable in less time than I spend not doing them now.

I laugh out loud when I get to #22: One Year to an Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good  (Regina Leeds). Now, I’m sure Ms. Leeds is a fine person and has a place for everything/everything in its place, but in my experience for good, like forever, is a promise best made very sparingly and only after much soul-searching.

On the next site I jump to—“15 Best Organization Books (including minimalism, and decluttering books)”—one of the recommended tomes promises Organize yourself in 24 hours! Gee, Ms. Leeds gave me an entire year.   

Jeremy Beadle

More interesting, though somewhat alarming, is the ad at the bottom of the post for something called the Blinkist app. I give you its sales spiel verbatim:

Blinkist summarized over 2,000 of the bestselling books and put them into condensed 7 to 15 minute reads (or “blinks”).  The idea here is to give you the key insights and important lessons — without wasting your time on pointless information.

Blinkist book summaries are perfect for anyone who wants to maximize those random moments when you have to kill time. Like when you want to kill time before an appointment or you’re standing on a long line at Starbucks.

You can use Blinkist to complete a book daily, learn the valuable lessons, and avoid the fluff that often pad longer books.

Perhaps being a writer, I’m a tad biased, but what do they mean by “wasting your time on pointless information”? In the reference to ‘fluff’ to be avoided, are we talking the research, the interviews, the historical grounding, the sifting of facts and opinions that the author spent years aggregating? Are books something we “do” in random moments when we want to kill time??! What next? War and Peace as flash fiction?


Sorry, I got sidetracked there, something the completely-organized person would never do. But I like getting sidetracked every now and then, or even frequently. Sidetracks are where all the interesting stuff happens, where new ideas reveal themselves, where we evolve. Charles Darwin happened on his theory of evolution precisely because he let himself get sidetracked while investigating the geology of the Galápagos.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here about the quality of time spent rather than the quantity of stuff done in it.

Rules For a Fulfilled Life: Who Makes Them?

There are lots of ways to live your life. You can reside in a yurt on a mountaintop and raise goats. You can be a nomadic traveler and work your way around the globe with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for people. You can teach yoga in the middle of New York City or tutor kids to improve their literacy skills in Appalachia. In any of these, you can live out of a suitcase, choose your clothing from the piles scattered about the floor, select outfits from your clutter-free, color-coded walk-in closet with built-in storage. You can have a dirt floor, walk softly among the dustballs, or Swiffer away every speck of grime. In any of these scenarios, you may find your life fulfilling, or not so.  

This mantra of the highly-organized life as the one true path to fulfillment is predicated on several assumptions: 1) our home is a showplace above all else; 2) anything worth doing is worth doing as quickly/efficiently as (in)humanly possible; 3) organizing every aspect of our lives leads inevitably to peace of mind and worldly success.

The highly-organized life also has a LOT of rules. Group like with like. One-in-one-out. Keep your to-do list current. Label everything. But overarching these is the mother of all rules: A highly-organized person is one who gets everything done, and done to perfection. In life-organization land, dusting is no less important than writing Pride and Prejudice, or reading it for that matter. No less valuable than taking your child to the park for an afternoon of kite-flying. If the end goal is to arrange your life so that you can accomplish everything, then nothing has any particular significance. Slotting in 2.5 hours weekly for “quality time with children” on your Google Calendar becomes one more item to tick (though in my experience, children aren’t much into organization and tend to be very “unslottable”).

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say right now: You cannot do it all, no matter how many time-management books you read, or motivational tapes and Ted Talks your earbuds soak up. More to the point: Why should you even try? Who made “doing it all” the sine qua non of modern life?

Weirdly enough, I think one of the early cheerleaders for hyper-organization was women’s magazines. Although the beginning of the 20th century witnessed a craze for time and motion studies, spearheaded by industrial engineer Frederick W. Taylor, the mania for organization in every facet of life only went viral after World War II—when it became a priority to get those Rosie-the-Riveters out of the workplace and back to the hearth. But the little lady needed something to do there. She could only listen to (and later, watch) so many soap operas a day before she reached for the mega bottle of Valium (and many housewives did). Solution? Get her hooked on the wonders of organization.

In a Machiavellian way, it’s a brilliant distraction because the totally-organized life is an endless process, its own raison d’ être. Group little Johnny’s socks by color and sort them into compartmentalized containers. Roll and store your magazines in a decorative wine rack. Arrange the spice cabinet alphabetically. Arrange your days by task: Dusting and vacuuming on Mondays, laundry and mending on Tuesdays, give the bathroom a good scrub on Wednesdays (don’t overlook the grit between the floor tiles!). Thursdays … Over and over, week in and week out, down through the months, the years.

Please pass the Valium. And maybe the Prozac.

Though today’s time-crazed working women (and men) no longer have the hours to devote to house and yard chores in a hands-on way, getting organized is still a prime focus. In fact, it’s bigger than ever, as the explosion of how-to books I cited earlier shows. For one thing, we all have much more STUFF to be organized. And a full calendar of activities for every member of the family. Spin-cycling classes, gymnastics, summer camps, pottery workshops.

Who Profits From The Organized You?

You’ll notice in all this frenzy, that there’s a lot of product. That’s because marketing folks, and the companies they shill for, have big money to gain from helping you get organized. Shelving, bins, car-trunk organizers, magnetic meal-planning pads, even a woven elastic organizer because, as the plug says, “without it, all your things will just swim around loosely in your bag.” In fact, offers “100 Home Organization Products You Need in 2019” (More Valium, please!) with this come-on: CHANNEL YOUR INNER MARIE KONDO WITH THESE GENIUS HOME-ORGANIZATION PRODUCTS. Streamline the chaos, once and for all! We may be in the midst of a tidying renaissance [the ad copy runs]. Thanks to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show, cleaning the house and keeping it decluttered has undergone the ultimate rebranding, from a long-neglected chore to an Insta-worthy bragging right!

Please, spare us from thousands of images of color-coded, stacked, folded, bin-slotted stuff.

Profiting, too, are the almost limitless services that promise to deliver total-and-perfect organization right to your doorstep: Meal kit delivery services like Home Chef and Blue Apron, pick-up and drop-off dry cleaning and laundry services like Washio, dog walking and grooming services, house cleaning services, lawn-and garden care services, grocery and pharmaceutical delivery services. With any luck, and a whole lotta $$$, you may never have to waste a moment on household drudge chores again. You may not even need to leave your home.       

But if you do venture outside the house, say, to earn a living, have no fear. Corporate America has got this organization-efficiency thing nailed. CEOs everywhere are highly attuned to what time and motion experts a hundred years ago could only dream: Employee-monitoring software systems, productivity charts, employee competitions, and in-house motivational seminars. Now everyone can churn it out 24/7 at warp speed (while the CEOs tee off at Pine Valley or Cypress Point).

Stop This Merry-Go-Round, I Wanna Get Off

My radical assertion: Being organized ≠ being productive.

Would we have The Starry Night if Van Gogh had been concerned with streamlining his clutter? Would we have Remembrance of Things Past if Proust had been watching the clock, focused solely on the number of words he was generating per minute rather than their quality? I feel pretty certain Beethoven never troubled himself about under-bed storage or shelf doublers.   

Forget charts, pocket organizers, calendar apps. At every moment in life, you can do one of two things: Something that is important to you or something that’s not. And gazing at the stars is a legitimate activity.

If you often get to the end of the day with the feeling that you actually “missed” the day in all the scurry, try this:

Jot down the names of 4-5 people you love. Do you get to spend enough time—or even some time—with these people (and I’m not talking a joint trip to the supermarket where you race up and down separate aisles to get the shopping done in record time)?

Now, do the same for 4-5 things you really enjoy doing. When was the last time you did them, or are they always on the list of stuff you promise yourself you’ll do when everything else gets organized?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in priorities to know what’s important to you.

So, let the dust clouds roll (unless dusting is on your really-love-doing list, in which case we may be talking extensive therapy needs). Let those blue jeans and tee shirts jumble happily together, draped over a chair or nestled on the floor. Rip that damn meal planner from the wall and cook up something you actually feel like eating now. Go write War & Peace, the unabridged version, complete with all the “fluff.”    

There are many ways to live life. One of them is right for you.

10 thoughts on “You Can’t Do It All*

  1. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post!
    You hooked me from the start … even though I was thinking, I haven’t got time to read this and I need to be less distracted, and what did that article say the other day about how I should better organise my time? I enjoyed the read, really enjoyed it – I always think about how I want to read more – aren’t I just doing what I love?
    The article stole my guilt and wrapped me up in a warm embrace of do what you love and to hell with all those productivity prods that fill my social feed and endless emails alluding to an assumption that I am ineffective.

    Thank you – a brilliant post which I am using as an affirmation for my day – in fact an affirmation for my life 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Neil. I look at the dust. I think “Gee, that really needs dusting,” and then I go write or read or do something fun with Ed. That dust’s not going anywhere.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Sidetracks are where all the interesting stuff happens”–’nuff said. Absolutely brilliant post, chock-full (maybe even “cluttered”) with wit and intelligence. Forget the dust and disorganization: just never stop writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember Phyllis Diller’s advice: I don’t waste time cleaning my house. If anyone rings the bell, I mess my hair up, get a wild look in my eye, and rush to the front door screaming “Who could have DONE this to me?!”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You blog really is my favorite one, Amy! Where else can I be entertained, educated, focused, and challenged in the same relatively-short read? I love your writing style and your perspective. This post is timely and relevant to every one of us. It really is a conundrum in our society. How can I be mindful of the moment and get everything done? I need help to find the perfect balance–perhaps the topic for one of your next posts? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Would we have The Starry Night if Van Gogh had been concerned with streamlining his clutter?” That statement alone had me jumping for joy.
    Einstein ‘s desk was always a mess. But it didn’t prevent him from scientifically going where no one else had gone. And certainly Beethoven creating “ode to joy” in his head when his hearing had all but faded, didn’t give a fig if his room was clean or dirty. His mind was too busy creating a musical masterpiece.

    I’ve never been organized. I’ve tried …but the moment I get a creative thought and run with it, neatness and organization goes out the window. It just isn’t my learning style.

    My students would tell my substitutes “Whatever you do, DO NOT TOUCH the piles of papers on her desk. She has her own system. “
    We each work best In our own way. I’m always going to be jumping out of the box. It’s who I am. Some children do their best studying on a bed, or listening to music while others need a rigid desk and total silence. To each her/his own.
    Nope. We can’t do it all. And why the heck would we want to anyway? It only took me 70 years to figure that out! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The great thing, Lesley, is that you did–figure it out–and what a freedom, eh? I love the bit about your students warning sub teachers not to touch your piles of paper–she has her own system. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! Yes! The one time a sub cleaned my desk I couldn’t find my plans, students’ essays, final exams etc and they had to do everything over in order for me to get my grades in on time. The kids got that I knew exactly where things were. But some substitute came in and messed with my piles which where all set to be recorded into my grade book. After that they warned substitutes and I had a note on the board with a magnet to be used saying Don’t clean the teacher’s desk! And I thought my piles were very organized. Lol

        Liked by 1 person

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