Archive for April, 2010

15. Taking the Risk: Habits and Choices in Organizing

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

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Decisions you make about organizing have results in your environment. Your present state of organization, whatever it may be, is the result of thousands of decisions you’ve made over time. If the environment around you is not what you want it to be, I invite you to look at how you’re making decisions.

Sometimes decisions are made out of habit or tradition. A habit is an automatic response to a situation. It’s a response that is similar to what you have done in the past. If you are acting out of habit, you are probably not considering all the possibilities available to you right now.

As an example, there’s the story of the woman who, every time she was going to cook a ham, would cut the end off the ham before she put it in the oven. Someone asked her why she did that, and she replied that she didn’t know. Her mother had always done it like that. Then they asked her mother why she did it that way and the mother said that she didn’t know either. Her mother had always done it like that. When they asked the grandmother why she did this, she replied “I don’t do it anymore, but at one time I had a small oven, and I had to cut the end off the ham so it would fit in my oven.” The problem with making decisions out of habit is that certain behavior may persist beyond the point where it is useful.

This is not to say that all habits are bad. For example, I have a habit to brush my teeth every night before I go to bed. In this case, this habitual behavior works for me because it’s beneficial for me to always behave in that way. If I were to decide every night before going to bed, “do I want to brush my teeth now?” I might sometimes choose otherwise. I might say, “I am really tired. I don’t feel like it. I can brush my teeth in the morning.” I know it’s better for me to always brush my teeth at night, so I like having this habit because it spares me from having to make a decision each time. It spares me from the possibility that I might make a decision that doesn’t work as well for me. Sometimes habits serve us well, and other times they don’t.

You will make lots of decisions while organizing. You will make decisions about whether to keep something or let it go. You will make decisions about how to categorize stuff. You’ll make decisions about where to store stuff, and you will make decisions about whether or not to put something away.

Organizing decisions, like any other decisions, can become habitual. For example, in my household we get a regular supply of glass bottles, because we buy different types of drinks that come in those bottles. We use these bottles over and over again to store drinks and to take water with us whenever we’re traveling. We formed a habit of keeping every glass bottle that we empty. The problem is, we had continued to get a steady supply of new glass bottles with new products we purchase. The habit of keeping all the glass bottles worked OK up to a point, but eventually, we ended up having more glass bottles than we would ever be able to use, and these bottles took up a lot of space.

Eventually, an action can become so habitual that it’s no longer really a choice. It becomes automatic and unconscious. We stop being aware of other possibilities. This works well as long as that habit yields good results, but if it doesn’t, we then went to empower ourselves by reintroducing an element of choice to the decision-making process. Here’s how to do that:

1. First, notice when a habitual behavior is no longer serving its intended purpose or for some other reason creates a result that you’re not happy with. If there are parts of your environment that you don’t like, that’s a clue that the way you’re making decisions is no longer working for you. In fact, it’s often possible to start with something you don’t like in your environment and trace it back to specific decisions that created that result.
2. Then, the next time you’re making that decision, slow down, take a deep breath, and then take a moment to consider other possibilities, other alternatives to the habitual response.
3. Third, evaluate those different alternatives, and choose which one you believe will work best for you at that time.
4. Finally, notice the results, in terms of how you feel about that choice and the environment that results from it.

Note that you may continue to make the same choice as you did when it was a habit, but now you’ve done so consciously rather than habitually.

Something as simple as introducing an element of choice to what once was habitual behavior will open up the realm of possibility and empower you to act more consciously. And what’s the worst thing that could happen? If you find that the new choice you’ve made doesn’t work for you, you can always go back to the way you used to do it. In fact, you can make a different choice at any moment. Stan Dale, founder of the Human Awareness Institute, said, “Every second, you get a second chance.” A very obscure poet once wrote, “Every moment is a choice point, a chance to break free, we are always at the line between what is and what will be.”

Habitual behavior is comfortable. It feels safe because it’s familiar. Breaking habits is a change, and there’s always some discomfort and fear associated with any change. You are taking a risk. Let’s acknowledge that. You’re taking a risk to make a change.

Are you willing to take some risks? Are you willing to feel the fear and do it anyway? If not, that’s OK. You can always do it later, if you choose to, or never at all, if you don’t feel the need to. If you are willing to take risks, I invite you to acknowledge yourself and give yourself credit for that willingness.

There’s a balance between safety and risk. We don’t want to over-risk, and stretch so far that we regret it. On the other hand, we don’t want to stay so safe that we never change, and therefore stay stuck in behaviors that no longer work for us. It’s been said that a ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.

To illustrate all of this, I’d like to come back to the example of the glass bottles. One day I noticed something in my environment. I said, “Hey! There’s no room for another bottle where we normally put them.” I then noticed that the entire cabinet was completely full of about forty-five empty glass bottles! And it’s not like there were a bunch of different sizes and shapes. They were all identical.

It wasn’t too hard to see that this collection resulted from our habit of always saving bottles. We always automatically saved them without considering how many we need or how many we already had. So what are some other choices we could make? We could give bottles to someone else or put them in the recycle bin. After a quick discussion, we decided to keep fifteen bottles and recycle the rest. This assured us that we’d still have the bottles we need, and it also freed up a lot of space we can now use for other stuff.

We were willing to take the risk to try a different behavior. In this case, there is minimal risk, because we get more of these bottles on a regular basis. So if we ever feel like we don’t have enough, we can always decide to keep more at that time.

My intention in this post is not to say that you should make decisions in a particular way, but instead I hope to bring more awareness to the decision-making process.