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A Practice of One’s Own

Pam Pepper

It’s January again — a new year, a clean slate, a fresh start. Should I add more cliches, or do you get the picture? Each year at this time, I find myself overcome by an almost manic urge to get organized. I know this happens to a lot of people in the spring, when the weather changes, or in the fall, when school starts. For me, it’s in January. This year has been no different.

I’m going to make a confession — I have had a life-long battle with organizational issues. (Also with a chronic addiction to chocolate and an unfortunate habit of reading novels until 2:00 a.m., but that’s a little off the point.) And it’s a rather odd sort of battle, I think. I have never, in my adult life, been a person who forgets, misses or loses things. I’m not one of those lawyers who says I didn’t come to the meeting because I just forgot about it, or I lost the case file and never found it again. (Candidly, I have lost approximately 50 pair of sunglasses in my life, but that’s an aberration.) I know where things are, I know when things are, I know what needs to be done. My organizational problem doesn’t have any impact on my ability to do my job or live my life.

What it does impact is my peace of mind and tranquility. The problem I have is the state of chaos in which I keep all the above-referenced information. I have always been, as long as I can remember, a pack rat sort of organizer. Both in my home office and my office in downtown Milwaukee, I have stacks of files and papers on virtually every horizontal surface. I have boxes, in-baskets, vertical files, and envelopes. If someone who doesn’t know me were to walk into my office, they would suspect either that I was in the process of moving out or that several file cabinets had spontaneously combusted.

I know why I live in this chaos. I can sum it up in one word — impatience. I learned this about myself from watching my husband. My husband is my organizational opposite. Maybe it has to do with his being an architect instead of a lawyer or something, I don’t know. But both his home and office desks are always clear and neat.

He has neatly-labeled hanging file folders filled with chronologically-organized files. He owns, and uses, a label maker. And so I’ve watched him over the years, trying to figure out what magic he has that I just don’t. And I’ve learned that what he has is patience.

When my husband receives a letter, he opens it and reads it. Then he takes the time to respond to it, act on it or file it. When I receive a letter, I open it and read it.

Then I put it aside in a stack of opened correspondence to "deal with later." When a document comes in that needs filing, my husband files it. When I receive a document that needs filing, I set it aside in a "needs to be filed" stack until I have time to file it. When, at the end of the evening, we clear off the coffee table downstairs and gather our respective collections of papers, magazines, notes from day care, stray socks and other things that need to be taken upstairs to our offices, my husband goes into his office and puts each item where it belongs. I take my stack and hurriedly dump it on the desk in my office on the way to doing eight other things.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m content to leave this problem as is. I was content with it for a long time. I was content with it, in fact, until I had been a sole practitioner for about two years. Before that time, I rested comfortably in the knowledge that in spite of the chaos, I knew where everything was and stayed on top of it without effort. I was even good-natured about the inevitable jokes colleagues would make when they walked into my office — "I left that memo on your desk, not that you would notice," or "how’re things in the Black Hole of Calcutta?" But once my solo practice got going, I began to be less content with this system. Add in having a child, and it suddenly rose to the level of a real concern.

That’s when the organizing mania hit me. I have tried, let me tell you. I’ve bought books on organizing. I know all about the TRAF system (Toss, Refer, Act or File) — some professional organizers call it the RAFT system. I have a 12/31 tickler file, one at home and one at the office. I own a PDA with a Palm OS, and a DayMinder paper calendar. There’s nothing in the world that will part me with my money quicker than a product that advertises that it will help me get organized or make me more productive. I even had a friend and colleague come into my office and help me take it apart and re-organize it to try to make it more organization-friendly.

Some of these efforts bear fruit. Others are temporary fixes. Still others are abysmal failures. (I never even finished reading two of the organizing books I purchased.) I still try every day. Some days I’m more successful than others. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t ever be my husband. I probably won’t ever have a completely clean desk for more than a week or so at a time, or file everything the minute it comes in for more than a day or so. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I am trying.

I figure that being addicted to organizing tools is better than being addicted to some other things — probably better than being addicted to chocolate, but, even for me, not as much fun.

After her clerkship on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Pam Pepper served as a federal prosecutor in Chicago and Milwaukee. Since 1997, she has had a private criminal defense practice, working in federal courts in Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee and in state courts around southeastern Wisconsin.

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