2. The Heart of the Matter: An Exercise

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Previously, I defined organizing as “Arranging Your Possessions to Support What Is Important to You Now.” Therefore, your first step in organizing must be to be very clear about what is important to you now.

When people are on their death beds, they never say “I wish I’d spent more time at the office” or “I wish I had bought more electronic gadgets.” It just doesn’t happen.

Instead, people in the final moments of their lives tend to be very clear about what is really important. Studies and interviews indicate that people universally feel contented or regretful about two main areas of their lives. The first is their relationships with others. The second is the contributions they have made, the way they shared their own unique gifts, and, in so doing, made the world better place.

But please don’t wait until the end of your life to get in touch with what really matters. We don’t need a major life transition to do this. We can reach the same clarity through foresight and reflection as we can from hindsight. It’s never too early to consider what is truly important. Let’s start right now. I invite you to take a pen and paper and participate in this simple exercise that will help you consider what is truly important in your life.

You’re going to look at these four areas of your life: professional, social, health, and leisure. For each area, you’ll list two or three things that are important with respect to that part of life. Each item can be an activity, a goal, some way that you want to grow, a state you’d like to achieve, or anything else you deem important. You can do this exercise anywhere, although it helps to be somewhere away from your stuff, like an uncluttered room, a café, or out in nature.

Let’s start with the professional or work area of your life. Write down two or three things that are important to you with respect to your professional life. Is there anything you would like to do in order to advance your career? Would you like to be better at or change some aspect of your job? Are you satisfied financially? Have you made any plans for retirement?

As an example, the three things most important to me in my professional life are, first, to produce more podcasts and make them available via iTunes. Second, to update my website, and third, to continue increasing my knowledge and experience in the field of organizing.

When you’re finished with the professional area of your life write down two or three things important to you for each of the three other areas I mentioned. Continue with your social life, including family, community, and relationships. Are there any relatives you would like to be on better terms with? Would you like to be in a relationship or start a family?

Next, what is important to you with respect to your health? Exercise, eating well, perhaps?

And finally, it’s important for us all to have leisure time, vacations, hobbies, and downtime. Do you enjoy being out in nature? What causes do you feel passionate about? What activities revive you?

You may have thought of something that’s important to you in a different category. If so, feel free to write it down as well. The categories I suggested are arbitrary. I just chose them to represent a cross-section of different aspects of life.

It may provide even more clarity to ask yourself the following questions:
What makes me happy? What brings joy into my life?
Am I living a life true to myself? Am I following my heart?
What gives me purpose? What gives my life meaning? What makes me want to get up in the morning?
Am I being the person I want to be in the world?
Is my life focused on things that matter?

Now let’s come back to the list you made of things that are important to you. First, notice what physical objects you need to do each of them. For example, if one of your most important activities is bicycling, you would probably need a bike, a helmet, a tire pump maybe, and other biking equipment. If “socializing with friends and family” is on that list, you may not need any material possessions in order to enjoy that activity. Knowing what stuff is necessary to support what’s important in your life is often illuminating, and it’s also very beneficial to the process of organizing.

Now, since you can view all the items on the list with one glance, it’s easy to look at them all and make comparisons between them. Go over this list and pick out some items (about a third of them) that are more important than the others. Put a plus sign next to these items. If you’re having trouble deciding, go with your first impulse. You can always come back and alter your choices later. Now identify some items (again, about a third) that are less important and put a minus sign next to them.

Now perhaps you’re thinking that they’re all important. That’s true. Just the fact that an item is on this list at all means that it is important. But look at the relative importance of each item with respect to the others. If you only had time to do a few of these, which would they be? Which ones would you start with?

So you’ve split your list into three categories of items, some that are more important, some that are less important, and some that are in the middle. The skill that you have practiced in doing so, prioritizing, is an important skill not only in organizing, but in life in general. We live in an age where there is more information produced every day than anyone could process in an entire year. Many of us are asked to do fifty hours of work in a forty-hour work week. We often have opportunities to participate in more activities that we could ever actually do, and some of us have more stuff than we can get any benefit from. The ability to check in with myself at any moment and determine which of several possibilities is most important to me is an essential skill in living a life that matters.

Hold onto this list because I’ll be referring to it in the future. And this list is not set in stone. Feel free to modify it if you ever find that it no longer accurately reflects your priorities.

Now perhaps you’re thinking that I haven’t really talked about organizing yet. On the contrary. In my opinion, being clear about what’s important in your life really is the essence of organizing. How else can you arrange your possessions to empower yourself to have a better life? I wouldn’t want you to spend a minute of your time doing any task that doesn’t make your life better, that doesn’t take you closer to where you want to go, that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. But don’t worry, we’ll get to organizing methodology soon enough.

But before we do, there’s one more thing you need to know about. I call it “The Seductiveness of Stuff,” and it’s the topic of my next post. Until then, may your life be focused on what is important.

One Response to “2. The Heart of the Matter: An Exercise”

  1. albroth says:

    My +’s are strong. Difficult to make -’s. My list is rather short. Several preferences are intertwined, eg living to 100 and healthful eating +exercise.

    I added another category, viz., Clutter reduction, so I can manage my time for writilng, and prevent falling over the stuff.

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