Let’s say you’re scrolling your Instagram feed, and an ad for a fabulous-looking brand of shoes made from beautiful, butter-soft Italian leather pops up. You impulsively click and purchase, they arrive, and you discover they are actually made of cheap, already-starting-to-peel plastic. You’re going to be rightfully disappointed and put off, yes? You might even resist ever purchasing something in this way ever again. How could this happen? Aren’t there laws about these kinds of things? Well yes, yes there are.

Ahem (assumes serious demeanor)…From the Federal Trade Commission website, in the section entitled “Truth in Advertising”:

“When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”

Gee, Sara, what an enticing opening you have going here. No, I’m not preaching the importance of fact-checking that ad from your favorite organizing supply store (although you know I always wonder about the connection between buying tons of plastic bins and creating actual life order). Having confidence, clarity, and perhaps a dose of healthy skepticism that what you purchase matches what you are led to expect is part of the process.

But I’ve been noticing lately that sometimes we tell ourselves some whoppers about our organizing and productivity adventures. We might need a dose of truth in organizing to get back to the clarity and confidence needed to create our systems and ease the overwhelm. The stories we make up can totally go either direction – from minimizing the effect of over-scheduling:

     “Sure, Steve, it’s not a big deal to handle the office party – all I have to do is make a few calls, create a Costco list, stop on my way into work on Friday morning, and voila!! – celebratory break room bliss achieved! Easy-peasy.”

To maximizing the effort of clearing out a pantry:

     “Oh my GOSH, I’ll have to pull EVERYTHING OUT, and then it’ll take me HOURS AND HOURS to go through all of the cans and boxes, and then I’ll have to wipe everything down…maybe even vacuum, and I won’t be able to GET IT ALL BACK PERFECTLY because there’s SO MUCH, and there’s NO GOOD LIGHT IN THERE, and it feels SO hard, so why even start?” (excuse the all caps, I couldn’t help channeling a little Owen Meany* there).

These kinds of stories are examples of cognitive distortions – habitual errors in thinking – which researchers believe may have evolved as a method of coping with difficult life events, a way to manage and adapt to stress. But they can cloud the clarity needed to make informed decisions, misleading the teller of the story into something they weren’t bargaining for – causing them to “buy into” a narrative that doesn’t match reality.

What’s actually true about the situation or challenge you face? What can you verify, and how could you go about some fact-checking? If you had perused a few online reviews of those pleather shoes, you just might have saved yourself some money and trouble. So if you caught yourself for a moment or two before agreeing to that party, took a look at the bigger picture, and did a little backward and forwards analysis, what would you discover? You might eventually come to something like:

     “…Okay, I guess when I stop to think about it, to get that party pulled off I’d have to of course start with my list, like I said. But then I’d need to leave super early on Friday morning. That means I would have to get the kids out to the bus stop instead of driving them in, which means I have to get their lunches ready the night before. And, oh shoot, I forgot Costco won’t even be open until 10 am, so that whole plan is not going to work anyway…maybe there’s more to contend with here than I realized. I’ve misled myself into thinking this would be no big deal, but it’s actually going to eat up a fair amount of my brain and my day.”

And thus, if I were to create my own set of rules around this kind of thing, I might propose:

“When we hear ourselves talk, whether it’s in our heads, to our family, friends, a professional, or anywhere else, organizing principles suggest that talk must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by verifiable evidence.”

Easier said than done, I know. But worth considering for your next life order challenge.


*Owen Meany, for the uninitiated, is the main character of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which, if you haven’t read I highly recommend you take along to the beach this summer. It’s the only novel that has ever caused me to both laugh (hard) out loud, and sob (also hard) uncontrollably.