Monday, May 21, 2012

Step Eight: Write Things Down

I love lists, calendars, and notebooks. My fiance might accuse me of being obsessed with them, but I like to think that I am just well-organized. I consider my network of paper and computer files a way to outsource basic tasks so I can free up brain-power to work on more difficult problems (like how to get Ghirardelli to package their delicious chocolate squares in biodegradable cellophane, rather than the plastic-based packaging they use now. I'm not ready to give up my daily chocolate square). By writing things down, I don't have to devote mental energy to remembering them, I simply make checking my notes a regular part of my day.

If writing isn't your thing you can always draw stuff.
This is all well and good from an organizational and productivity standpoint, but it also significantly helps me in my zero-waste lifestyle. By keeping an updated calendar it's easier for me to take the bus or walk places, rather than have to drive there in a rush when I realize I'm half an hour late. Knowing what I'm going to do on any given day allows me to prepare with the necessary tote bags, take-out containers, or biodegradable poop bags (for the dogs, fyi). Keeping track of errands I need to run lets me do them all at once and save on gas, rather than one at a time. Most importantly, writing things down helps me keep undesired junk and garbage out of my house; I have a list of what items I need to get, gifts I know people will like, and business websites to check out. That eliminates unnecessary purchases, saves me time in stores, and lets me refuse flyers and freebies while maintaining confidence that I'll remember to follow up on products or services I like.

Of course, living in the marvelous time that we do, one needn't carry any paper at all; most of this information can be contained on a single smartphone kept in a pocket. For those of us on the poorer end of the spectrum, or for those who maintain their suspicions about Skynet, a single notebook makes an affordable, handy alternative. I used to carry over half a dozen notebooks everywhere with me to keep track of my finances, ideas, to-do lists, calendar, knitting patterns, journaling, and school-work. But recently, with the addition of a kindle and completion of school I've been able to slim my notebooks down to one Moleskine, which I make tabbed sections in for finances, ideas, and calendar items. I journal through the rest of the book, keep fleeting, impermanent notes on post-its that I've stuck inside the cover, and keep track of my to-do lists on separate index cards which are held in the back pocket. This sounds complicated, but in practice it's become quite easy and works well for me, as I now need to carry only one notebook, leaving more room in my bag for other things, and helping to correct my spinal oddities.
It's very satisfying to see stuff get done.

Though I'm convinced my system is the best, I acknowledge that this likely isn't the case. Many people feel more comfortable carrying a planner, maintaining their finances online, using a single sheet of paper for to-do lists, or keeping reminders of things on the  front of their refrigerator. Some people find lists distracting and would rather just do things as they come up. Many families find that a large communal calendar with a section for notes keeps everyone coordinated.

No matter what system you find works best for you, I'd definitely recommend at least writing down appointments you have to keep, and things you need to do. Think of your brain's frontal cortex as a small table; you can do infinite activities on this table, but your innovation and flexibility decrease dramatically when clutter fills up the table. If you're trying to remember to call your Aunt Minnie while you're working on a report for your boss, it's like having a picture of your aunt and a large telephone on the table while you're using a typewriter, reading through previous reports, looking at a picture of your possibly angry boss, and going through stacks of charts, graphs, and other information you need to write the report in the first place.

As much as we like to think we can multitask, we really can only do one thing well at a time (possibly two, if one is a physical activity and the other is mental, but that's about the limit). By making a note outside of your brain to call Aunt Minnie, you free space on your tabletop to focus on what you're doing, which also allows you do it well.  Unfortunately, mental notes don't help in this situation, because it's like putting the telephone and picture of your aunt on your lap--sure, it's not in your real work-space, but it's still cluttering up your unconscious mind and hindering your ability to work at your best.
Nothing says you can't be colorful.

By writing down appointments to keep and tasks to do, you'll better be able to evaluate your needs and plan your day. Additionally, it's easier to see the nonphysical waste in your life when you write it down. I didn't enjoy watering my lawn, so I got rid of the lawn, freeing up my time for more enjoyable pursuits, like tending to the food garden I used the space for instead. Likewise, I found that keeping up with my family is important to me, and so I gave up some television time in order to write everybody once a month. Lastly, my time isn't eaten up with the nagging feeling that I've forgotten something at the grocery store or missed a doctor's appointment. When I outsource things to my notebook, I know where to look to make sure everything gets done, instead of wondering about it and dawdling while I try to think.

Arguably, using paper to write things down may be wasteful, but most types of paper are recyclable, and the rest is usually biodegradable (I compost my post-it notes), and I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives. By writing things down I free up precious space in my brain, have a centralized location to check what I need to do for the day, and allow myself  to stay on track by jotting notes about to-do items that float through my head and then return to the primary task. I promise you, establishing the habit of writing things down, in whatever form you choose, will help you significantly to have a happy, remarkable, waste-free life.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

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