In the archives room at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Talk about getting things done.
It’s the time of year when I give up something, something that’s hard to give up. My exercise this year is giving up putting off projects or tasks or dreams. I’ve got a few days of light work between deadlines, so yesterday I organized a chaotic mound of family photographs and documents. This collection spilled out of a huge drawer in an antique chest. Doing the job, I also pulled out 15 boxes of photographs going back two decades. The boxes are organized by year, but they still are rather helter-skelter.
I cringe, paddling my hands through my life in this way, but the organization gurus are correct: we can’t keep all of it if we want space. Someday, our daughters would have to organize this stuff if we don’t do it now. Here are some words from Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (I find the word “tidy” a strange choice. Why did the translator pick this word, repeated hundreds of times in the book? In any case, Kondo is smart and her ideas help me.)
She writes, “Sometimes people keep a mass of photos in a big box with the intention of enjoying them someday in their old age. … I can’t count how many boxes of unsorted photographs I have seen that were left by someone who has passed away. A typical conversation with my clients goes something like this: ‘What’s in that box?’ ‘Photos. … they aren’t mine. They belonged to my grandfather.’ … We shouldn’t still be sorting photos when we reach old age. If you, too, are leaving this task for when you grow old, don’t wait. Do it now. You will enjoy the photos far more when you are old if they are already in an album than if you have to move and sort through a heavy boxful of them.”
She’s wise, but I won’t do everything she suggests. She doesn’t know me. I will not place the photos still in boxes into albums because that would take many, many hours. I’d lose myself in ordering them and thinking I should write something. I’ve decided differently. I ordered archival boxes that will consolidate my many boxes into a few boxes. Our daughters will find what they want. I will have discarded blurry or terrible shots and kept those that history will recognize.
This exercise reveals procrastination’s essence. Putting off decisions about photos or anything allows me to avoid emotions, from happy to very uncomfortable. In another sense, living for years knowing that I haven’t organized the photos–that itself gave me something. It gave me a kind of delusion that to not finish or even start a giant task means that I will someday do it perfectly. Well, I have to put that aside now that I’ve told myself I have to give up procrastination for a period of several weeks. Now I’m plowing into the work or projects I’ve dreaded for years.
I’ve realized that even the uncomfortable feelings I get looking at a photo of someone who died, or a photo of myself when I was unhappy or acting stupid, still give me something. Giving up procrastination this season demands that I give up re-experiencing discomfort, too, as I’m doing by discarding awful photos and putting the others in order. The exercise of organizing photos reinforces habits that let me move forward with bigger projects, too. Like the next book.