The Mess Is The Masterpiece

Source: Bernard Pras via


“I organize, therefore I am” but, … there is just no way to stay ahead of the mess.  Having just consolidated two offices with five thousand books into one office plus overflow into a 14 foot wall in the living room, I’ve been submerged for a month.  Purpose of this article is articulate some of the lessons learned in this personal “mother of all GTD re-organizations.” 

Lessons Learned: 

  1. Move first, organize after 
  2. Don’t over-think
  3. Get help from people three decades younger than you
  4. Remember problems are opportunities
  5. Let go of fear (that you will hate the office you end up with) 
  6. Organize in layers 
  7. These lessons apply in other domains

1. Move first, organize after  

It will happen whether you want it to or not.  When you move, you will reach the point where you need to get the atoms part over with, regardless of the consequences to your perfect GTD system.  Do not stress about this.  Just get the initial move over, and stack the boxes 2x higher than you think you need to in order to get everything in to the new place. 

Whenever I move my books I live for about an hour in a fantasy of how I will keep the books on the same book shelves before and after the move.  And further, keep the book shelves in the same order.  My library is 100% stored in stackable 3 tier collapsable book shelves.  I number the book shelves as 1 Lower, 1 Upper, 2 Lower, 2 Upper, etc.  And my theory is that I can mark these book case numbers on the boxes used to move the books, but it never works out.  My fantasy dies before the 3rd box of books is packed. 

I’ve decided to be good with this.  

Having disorganized books is a great opportunity to review your library (see 4 Problems are opportunities).  This time re-organizing, I’m pulling out all the books I’ve purchased but “not gotten to” and putting them into a single book case.  Concentrating these books has led to a reduction in stress.  “To read” organized in one place, is an organized project. Organized projects are always less stress than dis-organized projects.    

2. Don’t over-think


I am an over-thinker.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH by  Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.  Whenever you move, uncertainty is fanning the flames of over-thinking, over-forecasting, fearing-disasters, and over-working.  Uncertainty is just uncertainty, a temporary experience that will dissipate as you land and start bringing order to the chaos.  When you think you *might* be over-thinking, you ARE over-thinking.  Lately I’m using a trick to cut down on over-thinking: ask yourself what your friends would tell you to-worry-about or to-do.  Having just read DECISIVE by Heath and Heath I learned that thinking “outside-in” this way produces better results than thinking “inside-out” i.e., over-thinking.  

3. Get help from people three decades younger than you

They are altruistic enough to be happy to work for pizza.  They don’t make your father’s noise, when they pick up large boxes of books.  They seemingly never tire.  It is impossible for mere manual labor to discourage them.  Don’t be too proud, find their favorite pizza place and place your order. 

4. Remember problems are opportunities 

When I’m moving, the entire moving process I’m worried about how the organization at the end is going to turn out to be a disaster.  *Note* this has never been my experience when moving, but it is a constant gnawing fear while moving.  This time same as always.  However, being organized after the move, I’m loving my latest GTD organization more than previous iterations.  

5. Let go of fear (that you will hate the office you end up with) 

This is a big lesson learned for me. Of course it makes sense, when consolidating two offices into one, you have a bigger library of capabilities to draw on.  And when you move to a new space, there is always something better than the old space.  For example, my old space had poured concrete walls, very tough to hang things on. The new space is sheet rock which is easy to hang pictures and memorabilia.  

The “Where am I going to put all these books?” problem I feared while moving out, became the “Wow these books look great in the living room!” opportunity while moving in.  I was planning on putting the books in boxes in the garage, but my (angel) wife turned out to like them in her living room.  Wheew, dodged a bullet there. 

But, that is the point.  When you move and reorganize, you are always dodging bullets, you can always upgrade, you can always depend on your own (and your angel spouse’s) resourcefulness.  The longer I do GTD, the better I become at making a mess into a masterpiece.  

6. Organize in sequence-layers 

Source: Flickr

Over the years I’ve had many grand designs for optimizing book organization:

  • favorite books within arms reach (visually overwhelming)
  • topical sections (econ, biographies, evolutionary ecology, statistics, etc.) OK, but not that helpful finding books
  • books related to a project in separate piles on the floor 

and many other organizations.  I think this time I’m going to not worry about an “optimal” book organization.  I’m going to let the books organize themselves over time.  Layer 1 was getting the books out of boxes and on to shelves.  Layer 2 was to “balance” out the books on shelves so that they are not packed so tightly as to be difficult to remove.  Layer 3 was to pull out those “aha!” books I’ve purchased because they flipped my “might be pivotal” mental switch.  Layer 4 will be to organize the “aha!” books into clusters of related books.  And … I don’t know what Layer 5 will be … yet.  

Looking back at my walk with GTD, I’ve been organizing in layers the entire time.  David Allen gives us a defined system to implement, and we dutifully make a try … fall short … and if we succeed in having a few aspects of David’s system stick, we move forward tinkering with experiments.  Every once in a while these experiments pay off big (my ginormous conference table desk for example) but most experiments are localize, small, and very focused.  For me, a small focused experiment was to get 100% of the clutter off my desk, out of where my eyes fall when I’m working.  

Over the 3.5 years I’ve been dong GTD the experiments have aggregated to a pastiche of techniques that work.  I’ve had failures (like going 100% into electronic GTD with Omni Focus which was too overwhelming) as well, and I’ve responded to them for the most part with 3×5 card kludges.  

7. These lessons apply in other domains 

“The mess is the masterpiece” occurred to me as I was talking down an overwhelmed entrepreneur a couple weeks ago.  The first problem is no sales, the second problem is gearing up for sales once they start coming, the third problem is living with how you gear up.  Entrepreneurs live in rolling messes, always struggling to keep up, and get results.  The artist Bernard Pras should be the Patron Saint of entrepreneurs.  His pieces like Einstein above, make masterpieces out of messes, just like successful entrepreneurs. 

And, just like people doing GTD.  GTDers not being wealth for the most part, have to make due with the messy pieces of organizing infrastructure that we have, and gradually over time we discover we can evolve the mess into a masterpiece that increases our productivity more than 2x.  And, let us not forget the reduction in stress from knowing our projects are planned out to next actions.  


Living through the cycle of organized to disorganized and back can be very stressful.  But, it does not have to be.  Much of the stress comes from over-personalizing change.  From interpreting change as punishment for lack of perfection.  But change is mostly temporary uncertainties piling up.  Looking back at moving changes, I can’t understand why I was so bent out of shape at the time of the moves.  This post is about lessons I’ve learned from my latest post-GTD move, and how I will attempt to preempt stress during future moves.  

bill meade 

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