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Urgent and Important versus Easy – on tidying up my home – and on how to do libertarianism

As already mentioned here from time to time in recent weeks, I have been doing some tidying up. My place was a mess. More politely, it was suffering from severe infrastructure overload, which is that terrible condition that sets in when each new thing that comes in or gets done causes a wave of knock-on chaos out of all proportion to what ought to be its impact. To put this down, I make some space for it by moving this important item, on top of that important item, and then forget where it all is … you get the picture.

If you have never in your life suffered thus, that can only be because you have never done anything. Places where real stuff gets done frequently teeter on the edge of chaos. This is another Parkinson’s Law. I recall, in one of his books, contrasting pictures: of the Officers Mess (not a mess at all), and the Orderly Room (not orderly at all). The point being that it was in the latter place that all the work got done.

But there comes a time when consoling yourself with the thought of all those chaos-inducing accomplishments just doesn’t do it for you any more. You just have to stop – at the very least interrupt – everything else and turn back the tide, which is what I have forced myself recently to do. This has already the most serious tide resistance I have done since moving in here over two decades ago.

My problem was that although this task had become slowly more important, it had at no point become overwhemlingly urgent. So, how was I to motivate myself to get stuck into it? No externally imposed deadline loomed. No angry associates would punish me if I delayed. It was merely that if I delayed it yet longer, my life would work gradually less and less well.

If you are the sort of person who needs only to know that some task is important in order to start attacking it with enthusiasm, confident that you will conquer it, then this posting is probably not for you. If on the other hand you are like me, easily daunted and tempted hideously to postpone tasks which combine non-urgency, great importance (but only to you) and demoralising hugeness, then maybe skipping this might be an omission of significance. If the question “where do I start?” regularly recurs in your life, then read on. You might discover things of value. It is of the essence of infrastructure overload that making any sort of start at all to diminish it is very hard. Doing anything is hard. That’s why you need, somehow, to declutter the system, so that you can get other things done, besides decluttering. Yet decluttering suffers from just the same problem that accomplishing anything else also suffers from. Where to begin?

At this point, I had in mind one of the better pieces of advice I have ever read concerning this kind of dilemma, which occurs in (I am pretty sure) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.

It’s decades since I read this book, but as I recall it, someone is trying to contrive a war of Lunar independence, against Earth, and not surprisingly he is overwhelmed with all the problems that such a task confronts him with. At which point, somebody says to him: don’t start with urgent stuff, or important stuff, even though there is an abundance of both. Start with something easy. That way, you at least accomplish something. This builds your morale, and while you are doing that easy little something, you can ponder, in a slightly more relaxed way, how to make some real difference to the urgent and important stuff. I can’t remember what the easy little thing was that he then started doing, but that is what he did. And it worked. By the time he had finished it, he was mentally ready for the real battle.

I remembered this as I confronted the chaos of my small home. I need, I said, to myself, something easy, that will do some good, no harm (in the form of more crud piled on top of existing crud), and get me started.

Eventually, I contrived the answer, in the form of those boxes. I piled them up in the living room, ripped them up into bits, put the bits into bags and then the contents of the bags into the recycling bins out in the street.

But then I had another thought. I wasn’t involved in a war of independence against Earth. Nothing was screamingly urgent, or even, frankly, that important. I just wanted a cleaner and tidying home. What if, instead of merely starting with something easy, and then switching to all that important stuff, I continued with something else easy, and just did that, again and again and again. After I had easily removed all those easy boxes, what remained was still a demoralising mountain of chaos, so the same logic applied, after the latest easy thing had been done, as before.

What else could I do that was also worth doing, and also easy?

Eventually I found my next task. I tidied my desk.

This may sound like an obvious thing to do, always, and of course it is. But my desk has, for reasons far too tedious to explain even in this potentially very tedious posting, very little space on it, and it had for years existed in a permanent state of … infrastructure overload. Which demoralised me. If I couldn’t even protect my desk against this affliction, what chance did I have with my entire home? Misery me.

My desk problem was that, for reasons too tedious … (see above), my desk consisted of a small bit of open surface, but then behind that, too very shallow bits of space where, I once intended, computer keyboards would go. One of these shallow bits still works as intended, as a haven for the keyboard when desk space is needed for other things. But in front of the other one, I had to put a new computer screen in front of one of these shallow bits of territory. As I recall, the second bit of shallow space for a keyboard was only created after the first one went out of action. And then what happened is that crap, having accumulated on the desk, would then get shoved into that shallow space, through the small gap that the screen still left. And lost.

It finally occurred to me that what I needed was a shallow open cardboard box, to store all the mess of stuff on my desk in, and to act as a drawer.

One of those cardboard boxes that I was busy chucking out proved perfect for this job, itself being a box in which a keyboard had arrived. (It turns out I possess about seven different computer keyboards, but I heroically resist the temptation to digress.) Suddenly, my desk made sense, and it still does:

This was the point at which the task of conquering the crap in my home went from impossibly demoralising to maybe doable. This was the turning point. Now I could keep my desk tidy,. Therefore I could do the same for everything else.

This moment also convinced me of the value of the easy-thing-after-easy-thing strategy. Since then, I have kept the momentum going and done about four dozen more easy things, pretty much all of which, you will be relieved to learn, I am rapidly forgetting about and have not been photographing. But, it is starting to add up, almost to the point where a regular visitor might recognise an improvement.

Okay, so what? This is Samizdata, not my (presently resting while I tidy up) personal blog. Where is the Universal Message in all this.

Well, it’s surely not hard to see how this Urgent/Important/Easy dance applies to the larger project of human emancipation that we are most of us here engaged in, one way or another. The above writing about my home merely says that I am applying to my immediate personal circumstances methods that I have long believed in, and practised, for doing libertarianism.

That earlier posting I did about my photocopier, in addition to being something else about this tidying up process, was all about how that lovely machine had enabled me to turn the task of being a libertarian into a succession of easy little things, in that case easy little publications, “published” only a few easily and cheaply copied copies at a time. When it came to organising meetings, my comrades would sweat blood organising a few big meetings. I preferred to lay on lots of little ones, in my home. (The possibility of laying on some more little meetings in my home being one of the big reasons why I feel the need to be tidying it up now.)

Blogging, of course, follows just the same principle. Each blog posting is relatively and often very easy. But, it adds up.

When I started out as a libertarian, London seemed to be crawling with would-be libertarians all ranting on about what was Urgent and Important, but all the while moaning about the fact that it was all of it Impossible, without money that they did not command and which all got wasted if and when they ever did command it. Forget about all that, I said, help me do this, I said. It’s small, it’s cheap, it’s doable, and look, it’s being done. Why not write one of these? It won’t transform the world for the better, but it is a few steps in the right direction. But, these demand-everything-but-accomplish-nothing libertarians would wail, what you are doing is not good enough. Give it time, I would reply. Maybe one day, although never good enough for you, it will still be add up to something quite substantial, and meanwhile it is at least something.

A practitioner of far greater grandeur than I, of the small-and-easy-steps-in-the-right-direction-layed-end-to-end method, is Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute. See also this posting here from earlier this week. Since writing that, I have read more of Madsen’s book, and very entertaining and informative it is.

The ASI was founded on the principle of breaking down the seemingly gigantic and impossible job of curbing (and maybe even actually cutting back) the power of the state into many tiny little steps, quite a few of which proved or might prove quite easy to take. This task was always important. It is now urgent like never before. The ASI tries to make it, if not easy, then at least that little bit easier.

The ASI has of course taken very naturally to blogging, because it perfectly suits their way of thinking and of working. More recently, as recent postings here have flagged up, Madsen Pirie has started doing small videos, which, having spent much of his life rehearsing such things in his head and in pre-internet-video speechifying, he has found quite easy to do. (Alex Singleton was even kind enough to compare these videos with my photocopied Libertarian Alliance pamphlets of former times.)

It is worth adding that what Madsen Pirie says in these little videos is, in addition to being (for him) quite easy to say, also very important. I warmly recommend that you watch them. You watching them is maybe not overwhelmingly important, nor is it urgent. But it is very easy.

11 comments to Urgent and Important versus Easy – on tidying up my home – and on how to do libertarianism

  • Grant Freedom

    I once heard some sound advice for those looking to start a business. First task: clear yourself a desk. Until you can bring yourself to do that and finish it, you ain’t going nowhere.

  • RRS

    Where is the universal message in all this?

    It is that living is made up of the bits and pieces you describe; not some Saint-Simonism construct ordained by a clerisy of “others.”

    Perhaps not “universal,” but a commonality of experience.

  • Hmm

    Years ago my work brought me into repeated contact with the mad bad and downright dangerous (in the “kill-you-and-your-family-and-anyone-else-in-the-vicinity” type of way). Their ability to complicate life quickly is often a tactic they live by, so I used a similar tactic to your “pick the easy things” idea in order to keep myself safe and perhaps (hopefully) help them start to think in a different (better)way.

    From my position of not being one of them it provided me with a first hand valuable lesson in how people can have many different sides to them. Most people think of murderers etc as “not-like-me” but rather sub-human, and imagine that they themselves are above doing anything like what the “scum” do. In all of the cruel, mad, insane, bad or dangerous I have to admit that I’ve never met anyone who is not capable of intelligence, wit, fun, charm, or even grace or goodness, while at the same time being capable of downright evil.

    My “easy things” way was simple: I decided to change the words they used when describing things.

    Whenever they told me anything that involved acting in a bullying, cruel/sadistic, or criminal way, I simply repeated what they had said but in different words that weren’t so aggressive, and I did it as a question, so it sounded as if I was stupid and hadn’t heard them correctly. If they repeated what they’d said, I would slow them down and again insert different words( ideas) into what they were saying. It made for some very interesting conversations. Most of them were amazed to find that there really was more than one way to skin a cat.

    I doubt I brought change to anyone’s life in a big way but I did see first hand how attitude is dependent on words and I definitely caused some knitted foreheads and wry smiles, so hope I helped them find good ways to make some small change for the better.

    When listening to people, apart from schizophrenics, in just a few words its fairly easy to tell in which direction a persons thoughts are going. Everyone gets into habits in their thinking, these habits create a form of thinking shorthand which often ignores reality and makes crazy leaps across to completely disconnected and incongruous ideas without us noticing. Merely bringing our attention to the words we use to describe our actions gives us the opportunity to completely change the habits by which we live our lives.

    Changing “hard/difficult” to “easy” becomes much easier when you realise that how you think about something is crucial to how you are going to deal with it.

    That being said – I still reckon there’s some twisted elves in my house that creep in when I’m not looking and pile crap on my desk :p

  • That’s a fascinating bit of autobiography, Hmm. Also interesting is the way that Brian’s self-admittedly everyday thoughts about tidying his desk led to your very un-everyday thoughts about talking to scary people, but one can see the link.

  • Hmm

    Natalie, I was hoping it wouldn’t look too off topic; I’m in the process of trying to revamp/change a business and Brian’s topic touched on the old processes that I’m now taking another look at to see what I can make use of. “From the Everyday to Extreme Desk tidying”? :)

    To me the”everyday” processes we use are fascinating – I find people to be the most fascinating thing on earth. It never ceases to amaze me when I see ordinary people doing the most incredible things completely unwittingly. Yet to them the incredible things are not even worthy of notice!

    On samizdata often the talk is political, and people make the most incredible mental gymnastic leaps to make their political theories fit with their worldview and personal values without noticing how they mentally adjust to do it. I spent years watching a huge variety of people deal with what we are taught is “extreme”… I found not only that extreme is often someone else’s mundane, but in almost every instance the extreme exists in tandem with the mundane because mental leaps are made to make extreme become “mundane”. e.g. utube :p

    I just thought I’d point it up because it jumped out at me that Brian’s post was detailing the process of noticing.

  • Alisa

    Hmm: more, please?

  • Hmm

    Alisa, more what?

  • Hmm

    Ahh Alisa, I was just letting my mind throw out connections while reading others’ writing. If I let it ramble on I’d sound almost as insane as an EU finance committee :p

  • Brian, you help me to feel a lot better about how Libertarian Home is progressing.

    The latest emmission from the site is a video about ACTA but I am supposed to be doing a video about inflation (as in, I agreed with collegeages that collectively we would try to do one) but this ACTA video was so easy to do that it gained it’s own momentum and has gotten itself done ahead of the inflation video, and indeed, something much bigger again.

    The ACTA video merely applies a combination of libertarian / objectivist thinking to the EUs latest emission on Internet regulation, but I hope it will achieve a little exposure in new places, and as you say, it has been done. Some of the other strategy ideas seem daunting and aren’t getting done, perhaps I will apply your advice to those and see what happens.

    BTW, I’m sure you will also be interested to know that the reason the ACTA video was so easy to do is the high definition video camera I had in my pocket, thanks to a certain Steve Jobs. The output was significantly better even than the “proper” video camera we used to film Tim Evans (at your suggestion) at the Rose and Crown.