Get Random

We spend a lot of time at Lifehack talking about getting organized – making up lists, labeling files, simplifying your workspace, and so on. Everything in its place, and a place for everything, right?

There’s nothing wrong with this view of organization, so long as you’re getting more work done than the time you’re spending on staying organized. But a lot of times, our brains don’t work quite so neatly. For that matter, our lives don’t work quite so neatly. As it happens, we live in worlds that are as much defined by randomness and chaos as by neatness and order.

This isn’t a “left-brain/right-brain thing. It’s about how we engage with the world. Because the world isn’t always as neat and orderly as the systems we create to interact with it, we can fall “out of sync” at times. We feel this all the time – overwhelmed, creatively blocked, or just plain stuck. At those times it’s a good idea to inject a little randomness into our otherwise predictable system.

Randomness isn’t just a way to “break out of the ordinary” – it is the ordinary! And as much as we try to control things, we need that little seed of randomness now and again to close the gap between our attempts to organize our lives and the mixed-up world that is our lives. It’s what we’re designed for – humans didn’t evolve in a GTD world, we involved in a messy and chaotic world, and we’re pretty well adapted to it.

Bring on the Crazy

Here are a handful of ways to add a dash of randomness to your life. Try them all or just one or two, and see if you aren’t quite surprised at the results.

The Noguchi Filing System: Designed by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, the Noguchi filing system relies on the vagaries of use habits, rather than the alphabet, to sort your files. The idea is simple: instead of filing material in traditional folders and drawers, you put every document (or bundle of related documents) into a 9×12 (or larger) envelope, label it, and file it upright on a shelf. New folders go on the left-hand end of the shelf, and every file you remove goes back not where it came from, but again, on the left-hand end of the shelf. As you use the system, the left side will fill up with material you use the most often, while material you useless often will move to the right. Every so often, you can box up the right half of the shelf and archive it, or shift them into long-term reference sections by subject (Noguchi color codes his reference files, and moves them to their own shelves to be ordered by use once again).

Though it seems crazy, in testing Noguchi says that access time is almost always faster in shelves sorted by the Noguchi system. That’s because material you’re most likely to need is going to be material you’re most likely to have used recently, and that material is all on the left. The rarely-used files to the right might take longer to find, but since you rarely need to find them, on average you’ll save time – not to mention the time you save by not filing in any particular order in the first place.

Bananaslug Fever: Searching on Google is pretty straight-forward – if you know what you’re looking for. But it’s easy to get stumped, trying search after search around a topic and coming up with a bunch of not-so-inspiring pages. Enter Bananaslug. The brain-child of my fellow UCSC alum (Go Fightin’ Bananaslugs!) Steve Nelson, Bananaslug works like Google – in fact, it is a front-end to Google – but adds a random keyword from one of a dozen or so categories to your search, creating some interesting – and maybe even inspiring – results.

For example, a search for project planning on Google turns up the usual assortment of Wikipedia and blog pages, plus a book or two. Useful, if you’re looking for basic info, but what if you already know all that, and you want to learn something new? When I enter “project planning in Bananaslug and ask for a random keyword from the category “great ideas” (it chose “reasoning”), I’m introduced to whole fields of project planning I didn’t even know about: quantitative reasoning, semi-quantitative reasoning, geometric-based reasoning, temporal knowledge representation, and so on. I could get the same results from Google, except I’d never, ever have known to add “reasoning” to my search terms.

Change something: Ever try to change a habit. Man is that hard. Experts say if you keep it up for 21 days (or 30, or 28, or 45, or…) it becomes a habit, but that’s clearly BS – the time it takes for something to become a habit varies by the habit itself, the personality of the person trying to instill it, the motivation, and so on. Some things never become habits, and some habits are born in a minute.

A lot of psychologists, coaches, and other counselors don’t advice their clients to adopt new habits, because habit-creation is rarely under conscious control. Instead, they advise their clients to just change one little thing, anything – move your computer, talk to someone new, try something that’s off your regular routine. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing every day, either – the idea is to create enough chaos that your regular habits become indistinguishable from the new non-habits. Try one new thing every day, and see what happens.

Brainstorm: Stuck for an idea? Try “blue”. Or “propeller”. How about “traction ankle”? Throwing a random word or idea or phrase into the mix and forcing yourself to seriously consider it, no matter how far off-topic it might seem, can create a cascade of associations that finally circle back to something useful. For example, according to Eric Abrahamson in A Perfect Mess, the word “blue” was the key that led an advertising firm to develop a safety-focused campaign to reach out to the previously-untapped market of female auto insurance buyers. How? Who knows, and who cares? The important thing is that it works.

Unschedule: Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have a schedule. If you want to see him, you call his secretary, and if he’s available right now, you come on over. If not, try again later. How crazy is that?

Of course, your life is a lot more complicated than his, I’m sure – he only has a state to run and movies to make. For you, maybe instead of a “non-schedule” you could try an “Unschedule. Popularized by Neil Fiore in his book The Now Habit, in an Unschedule you schedule only the things you want to do. In the gaps in between, you work on projects, writing them into your schedule after you’ve worked a solid half-hour on a single project. At the end of the day or week, you can see how many hours of productive time you’ve racked up – surprisingly, it’s often much  greater than people manage with a much more orderly, less random schedule. (You can see an example of an Unschedule at Fiore’s site.)

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Weird

Like anything, randomness is best in moderation. Try adding a dash to your otherwise orderly day-to-day and see what happens. One thing about randomness, it’s flexible – that little bit of weirdness might be just helpful today, but one day, when the going gets really weird, you’ll be ready to go with it. You may even go pro*!

(*With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)

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