Lifehacks: The State of Readiness

An old story has it that when an IBM manager saw a light indicating two states, working and idle, he had the label “idle” changed to “ready”…because “our machines are never idle.”

Wednesday, September 4, 2013, 2:31 PM (minus 5 or 6 hours?)National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park

Most of my life I, too, have switched between these two extremes; I’m either fully engaged or not. As one boss described me, I’m on or off…there is no middle ground. One effect of this trait is that my desk, my virtual desktop, or any room that I’m working on a project is left in disarray. When I’m focused, I will work slightly past the point of sheer exhaustion, then drop everything and fall asleep.

I was talking to a colleague about the concept of orderliness and how chaos seems to be winning the battle in my life. We are both old enough to be cognizant of how our physical environment affects our mental state. Despite decades of rationalization on how a messy desk is a sign of a creative mind, for us two, this has not been the case in practice.

My own experience tells me I’m lying to myself. One of my most productive work environments was when I was on contract and assigned a desk where I was not allowed to leave anything overnight. Each morning I’d come in, lay out my pen case, my notebook, my headphones and power up the computer while I went to get a cup of coffee. Each evening, I’d put everything away, erasing all signs that I had ever been there. Coming into work and facing that clean desk every day was one of the best experiences I’d ever had. There was nothing to distract me. Nothing hanging over me from the previous day. From the moment I sat down, I was ready to work.

Coming into work and facing that clean desk every day was one of the best experiences I’d ever had. There was nothing to distract me. Nothing hanging over me from the previous day. From the moment I sat down, I was ready to work.

So as I was griping about the unending battle against disorderliness in my own life, my colleague countered with a lifehack he’d read which sounded so much like one of those “one weird trick” articles that he was almost embarrassed to mention it. As I have been to you.

But I’ve tried it for a couple of months now and I’ve found it effective. Also, I’m curious if it will work for anyone else. I’ll call the concept “room readiness” for lack of a better term. The idea is that when you leave a room, you glance around to see if anything is out of place and then you put it away. Right then. The goal is to leave every room in a state of readiness. That way, when you walk back into it, you can get right to work rather than be distracted by some other thing.

When I first heard this, I thought it was impossible…ridiculous and unachievable. My workspace still looks like a college dorm room and more than one sweetheart has condemned me as the biggest slob they’ve ever met. However, I like experiments, so I was willing to give it a try.

And it worked for me. By taking that one extra minute to straighten up my desk or take the coffee cup into the kitchen or put the books back on the shelf, I save myself five or ten minutes the next time I walk back into the room, trying to figure out where I left off and get myself started again.

The most difficult part of the challenge has been applying the lesson to my virtual desktop. I’m one of those people who has scores of windows and tabs open. (And, yes, Post-It Notes stuck on my monitor and everywhere else.) When I follow through, I’m rewarded the next day…so I will keep at it and see if I can change the bad habits of years.

Apparently the guy was right: there’s a big difference between idleness and readiness.

GPlus Discussion

Meirav M. Sep 4, 2016

Interesting! I tend to leave my desk very cluttered – but there’s a huge comfort for me in having some level of clutter around me, and a clean desk doesn’t inspire me. If there’s not enough clutter I feel a strong discomfort – it’s not my space if it’s too clean and tidy.

And here’s the bit that jumped at me in what you said – towards the end, you talk about how this new routine you’ve been trying saves you time when you come back to your desk. I guess if it does that then yes, it makes perfect sense to do it when you’re leaving your desk. It’s just that for me, the clutter on my desk doesn’t stop me from getting started when I come back to it. I always leave enough room in the middle, and the other things on there don’t distract me – they’re just part of the background.

M Sinclair Stevens Sep 4, 2016

+Meirav M. I felt the same as you for years. My clutter was comfortable. It still is. However, it isn’t very helpful. Clutter is physically an obstruction. Almost every project began with my having to clean off my desk…I would procrastinate by “getting ready” to work. After I did that I didn’t have the energy or focus to actually got down to work. I wore myself out before I started.

Clutter is a distraction. I’ll think of something I want to write down and can’t find my journal. Or my pen. And when I go looking for them, something else catches my eye and my attention wanders. When I do yard work, it’s even worse. My yard is littered with tools I’ve dropped when I run in to get something I need and then get distracted by something else that needs doing.

As a person who requires closure (a J-type, if you will), I’m also afraid that if I put something away that I won’t get it out again. Once it’s filed away then I’m done with it. I tell myself I leave things out because they’re still “in process”.

This is how I worked for decades because it made sense to me…and it was comfortable. But it meant I rarely finished anything (unless someone else was imposing a deadline on me).

Now I’m really enjoying the sense of achievement I feel from taking that one extra minute, making a little more effort in a final push to actually finish something.

I hope I don’t sound too evangelical. Everyone works differently. I’m as surprised as anyone because this technique seems so counterintuitive to my own habits and yet has made such a difference in my life. Every time I enter a room, it’s a pleasure…that same restful feeling I have when I first walk into a clean hotel room. I feel free to do whatever…rather than the sinking sense of obligation that I ought to tidy up.

Meirav M. Sep 4, 2016

No worries, I understand you’re not trying to say this would work for everyone – that’s kind of why I felt free to talk about why it wouldn’t work well for me. It really sounds, from all you’re saying, like you’ve found a way of making your life a lot better – you’re very clearly enjoying it, I can almost hear your beaming smile (if the concept of hearing smiles makes sense) and that’s wonderful!

For me, clutter isn’t (usually) a distraction, and the way I’ve got my clutter organised (though I’m using the term “organised” very loosely here, as probably only INFPs do…) it doesn’t get in the way in practical terms – I always have (just) enough space on my desk to be able to use it, I always have a pen at hand, and a notebook – the things that are really crucial to me never get buried under the paper piles.