Hope, Experience, and Efficient File Management

It’s that time once again when hope joins battle with experience: the start of a new academic year. This year, I tell myself (as I have told myself every year since time out of mind), I shall be organized like never before. There will be no more coffee-fuelled all-nighters to prepare lessons; no more hours lost tracking down an old lecture to find it filed in my Music folder; no more staring blankly at my diary unable to decipher the name of the student I am supposed to be meeting; no more panic on an unmoving train because I have left a margin of error of less than a minute to arrive at a meeting. I will be a lean, keen teaching machine, gliding through preparation and lessons with elegance and efficiency, with plenty of time to write and research productively. I may even make some money at last.

If hope is outpointing experience by Christmas then I will be doing well.

First I need to find my desk. That involves hacking a path through piles of books and magazines to the area of my room where I last remember seeing said desk, and then excavating through the papers, unopened bills, junk mail, long-forgotten invoices, receipts, post-its, pens, pencils, paper clips, elastic bands and sundry miscellaneous items to what I believe will be the desk itself. Treasures, in the form of untouched Rizla packets, are likely to be found during this archaeological dig. All of this reminds me of how once, when I had an actual office in an actual academic department, I would advise students on the merits of efficient organization, advice delivered across a scenic landscape of mountainous chaos on my desk.

Then I need to sort out my computer desktop. Unlike my physical desk, upon which no organization at all can be detected, my computer desktop suffers from a worse state of affairs: a half-hearted semblance of organization. Clearly at some point (probably the start of the last academic year) I devoted a solid half hour of attention to this task before being distracted by a book that needed to be read, never to return. There are folders, inside many of which are further folders and files that logically belong there. Keeping them company are many other folders and files whose rationale for being there would surpass the wisdom of God. Different versions of my CV crop up incongruously in various locations as if it is a self-replicating, mutating virus.

Finally, emails… but that will surely, as always, be a task too far. (Ah, experience strikes an early blow against hope…)

I’ve come to realize that when it comes to organization I should either have none at all or a complete, fully worked out and implemented system. The virtue of the former (my preferred approach for many years) is that I became adept at storing relevant and important information in my head. It did not matter that a letter containing the time and date of an appointment was hopelessly buried beneath any one of several piles of papers, nor that I did not write down appointments in a diary, for I had already committed this information to memory. This non-system almost never failed. Problems arose when, having been foolishly seduced by the time-management and efficiency gurus, I introduced some formal systems of organization. Because I was never organized enough in the first place to introduce organization in the proper way (the fatal flaw afflicting these systems among the irredeemably disorganized), I ended up with a hideous hybrid, a jerry-rigged mishmash of systems and memory. So, some appointments ended up in my diary, and some were committed to memory—others ended up both in my diary and my memory, while others (the majority) ended up in neither.

The trick is to get beyond the overwhelming feeling that bureaucratic systems and organization suck the life out of existence, and to overcome an intuitive resistance to the idea that hope can only be realized by efficient organization. Are dreams really built on time management and effective filing systems?

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