It’s been almost four years since I swapped the glamour of a high-flying PR job for the permanent chaos of being a stay-at-home Mum. But back in the days when I had a “real” job, one with an actual salary and a boss who didn’t wear diapers, I used to have a guilty secret. Filing Bulimia. Meaning I had a filing/purge disorder.
I was trapped in an angst-ridden pattern of paper despair and it went like this: I’d come back from a mid-morning coffee break to find the CEO’s mail on my desk. One of my duties as his PA was to open his mail, toss the junk, respond to the stuff that didn’t need his input, and place the rest in his in-tray. This part was easy. The challenge came when he would invariably store up all this correspondence, and then routinely dump it on my desk, along with every other conceivable piece of vaguely-office-related paper, once every three months.
He’d always wait until I was away from my desk before depositing his paper mountain there. My heart would sink as soon as I saw it, and this was my first mistake. I’d let the overwhelming nature of the task get me down before I’d even begun to tackle it. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Invariably I’d already be strung out on some other pressure-filled deadline, so I’d open my mini-filing cabinet and stash the filing there, telling myself I’d tackle it as soon as my deadline was met and I had a spare moment.
Of course, as anyone who’s ever worked for an entrepreneur will know, those “spare moments” never come. There’s always a drama, a deadline, a reason why the non-urgent thing never gets done.
But then comes the dark day when a wealthy shareholder drops into the office unexpectedly, and the CEO starts ordering you around with a wild look in his eye, indicating just a little of the pressure he himself feels in the presence of such a powerful VIP. And after you’ve made coffee just the way the VIP likes it, and dashed at break-neck speed to the nearest store for those posh French biscuits that the CEO demands, he’ll then, invariably, call on you to have to hand over an extremely important piece of paper, which you know you ought to know the exact whereabouts of.
You’ll suppress the blind panic and try to appear cool and collected, as you nod knowingly as if to say “Why yes! That contract is in my impeccably neat and organized filing system, I’ll have it for you in three shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Then you’ll almost break an ankle running for the filing cabinet as fast as your legs can carry you. You’ll break out in a cold sweat at the realization that you don’t even know where the key to the filing cabinet is, and you’ll consider breaking down in tears and confessing your failings as a filer, but think better of it when you spot the CEO thundering down the hallway, gunning for you and communicating with his furious expression alone that he needs that piece of paper YESTERDAY. You’ll feign surprise at not being able to locate it, and cringe when you realize it’s in your secret pile of filing, which means you’re going to have to let the CEO see your guilty stash.
I’ll leave this story here because it’s making me feel ill just recalling it, but you get the point. Filing Bulimia afflicted me throughout my glittering PR career. I would starve myself of filing time, trying to ignore the growing pile in my personal filing cabinet. It would overspill from there, and I’d stash confidential documents inside magazines tucked away on my desk. Then suddenly one day the pressure would become all too much and I’d cave, and go on an almighty filing binge. At its worst, this saw me carting home boxes of filing on a Friday night, only to spend the weekend weeping, surrounded by important paperwork. I would spend hours of my own time sorting it out. I’d feel cleansed and purged of my filing demons, and would vow never to let the filing get so out of hand again.
And so the cycle continued.
Ironically, by the time I did eventually get round to tackling the filing, most of it would have to be trashed, having had a timeline or a schedule on it that meant it wasn’t worth keeping past a certain point.
I now realize most of my filing problem stemmed from the fact that my CEO was obsessive about paper. He wouldn’t throw anything away, but since there wasn’t a filing system known to man that could accommodate his paper-kleptomania, I ended up with a morbid fear of filing. Heck, he once even gave me a paper napkin to file, on which he’d drawn an architectural sketch during a business lunch. I couldn’t work out whether to file it under ‘s’ for sketches, ‘a’ for architecture, or ‘n’ for napkin. In fact I’ve often wondered what I did with that, and whether he ever laid eyes on it again.
The first chance I got, I offloaded the filing onto someone more junior and hopefully more organized than me. But in the process I learned this: if we could change just one thing about the way we work, we could be infinitely more productive, and happier to boot.
If this sounds trite perhaps it is, but I’m convinced it’s also true. The truth is I’m still lacking a little coordination in the organizational department. I no longer have to file multimillion dollar contracts, but I still manage to lose important detritus from my daily role on a regular basis. I can never locate the baby nail clippers when my boys’ little fingers become dangerous weapons. I have laundry bulimia in the extreme; I hide lone socks in the laundry cupboard and only tackle reuniting them with their missing partner when the boys no longer have a single matching pair in the house. I’m a procrastinator about these things; it’s a fact.
But it’s also true that when we allow these things, be they laundry landscapes or filing mountains, to become so big that we can’t see our way round them, we’ve truly lost perspective.
We can start to worry about how we’ll ever overcome them, and the pressure begins to eat into other happier aspects of our lives or jobs. No matter how good we are at our jobs, we all have areas in which we know we can improve, or important elements of our work (like filing!) which get neglected because of more urgent priorities but which can then so easily become unnecessarily overwhelming.
I’ll never forget the time I was able to lay my hands on a multimillion dollar contract within seconds of being asked for it, and I still get the same kick out of being able to locate a pair of socks or the boys’ shoes as we battle to get out of the door in time for preschool.
The solution is surprisingly simple: change one thing. Today. Be honest with yourself. Take a measured look at the part of your job or daily routine that causes you the most stress. It’s usually something fairly small or unimportant in theory, because it’s the little, non-urgent things that we overlook in favour of tackling the big priorities in life. But left too long, those overlooked elements of your day start to loom large, until they dwarf the priorities you put them off for in the first place. I think these things are true no matter what your career path or walk of life, whether you’re the CEO or the tea-lady. We all have things we put off, which, if left too long, can haunt us. I guarantee you can make one small change that will reap a big reward.
Write down what you’re going to change and stick it somewhere prominent. Be realistic. Don’t shoot for the moon. Aim small and surprise yourself.
Give yourself a reward when you’ve done it — whatever it takes to help you follow through. And when you’ve tackled this, turn your mind to what you can change tomorrow.
When I was a little kid my Dad would always coax me down from a place of childish panic with a reminder that cucumbers would be very difficult to eat if we attempted to swallow them whole. “Much better to cut it into little slices and enjoy the pieces one by one,” he said. And to this day I apply this logic in several areas of my life. I can start small, by changing one thing today.
Which is why, right now, I’m going to put yesterday’s laundry away, so it doesn’t taunt me all week when I’m looking for clean socks as we’re dashing out the door.