The Things We Need, The Spaces We Keep

by Michael Trovato

It’s often been said that “we are a product of the environment that we live in.” For some, this may spark a debate between nature vs. nurture. But, what if we thought about this a little bit differently? What if these two forces- genetics and our environment- do not necessarily have to be pitted against each other? What if instead, our surroundings and our DNA feed off of each other? What if our environment has the ability to influence how we use whatever our genes have given us to work with?

I’ve never been the most organized person in the world. My mind tends to be a chaotic place, where plans, to-do lists, and ideas all float around, colliding with each other as I navigate through my day-to-day. Some days are better than others, but the truth is, this is just how I’m programmed.

For the longest time, I operated without a written system. Almost everything I needed to do was stored in my brain, and I would rely on memory to get these things done. I may have written an occasional reminder here or there, such as the dates of exams, or papers that were due in college. For the most part, though, these things were kept in separate notebooks or binders, not in one central location (such as, oh I don’t know, a calendar).

Photo Credit: Michael Trovato

Over the years, I’ve made many attempts to get more organized. I’ve bought myself planners and desktop calendars. I’ve tried using post-its and sticky notes. I’ve caught up to the times and tried using calendar, tasks, and notes apps on my smartphone. Most of the time, I would make use of these things for a short period of time- a week, two weeks, two days- and then revert back to my old ways of memorization.

For the longest time, this bothered me, but not quite enough to really stick to something, and I could never figure out why. Lately, though, as I’ve made a big push to develop, I’ve noticed that my priorities have changed. For the first time in a long time, I’m passionate about the work that I’m doing, and my vision for the future. With this vision has come thousands, literally, thousands of ideas. Big picture ideas that lead to offshoots and extensions of those big picture ideas, making them even bigger picture ideas. And then, by default, the realization that to reach the big picture, I needed to focus on the much smaller fragments of that picture, putting the puzzle together piece by piece.

And then, I got overwhelmed.

With my mind in chaos, all I wanted was for everything to be done all at once. Of course, this was not realistic. I came to the realization that in order for me to succeed in reaching my goal, I would need to harness my thoughts and organize them in a way that works for me.

About a month ago, I decided to make yet another attempt at using a planner, but this time, I went about it a bit differently. Instead of only marking down appointments on their specific dates, I decided to go a step further. I took the ideas that were floating around in my head, and I wrote down a list of things to do for the upcoming week. I then asked myself, “which of these do I need to do, and which of these do I want to do?” In answering which things were “need to-do's” and which were “want to-do's,” I was able to put the “need to-do's” first in planning out my week.

For me, I found it most helpful to sit down and assign a day to each task for the upcoming week. Seeing these things written out visually helped me to focus less on the big picture itself, by focusing more on the smaller pieces of the puzzle that will eventually lead me to that big picture goal.

The first week, I was highly productive. I sat down on Sunday night and organized my planner for the week. I scheduled 8 different things to on Monday, and 7 things for Tuesday. Monday came, and I got everything done. I was thrilled. Then Tuesday came, with less success. The things I scheduled for Tuesday were things I had been asked to write about myself, including a 24-month vision, a list of past accomplishments, and a list of future accomplishments. These things were a bit more open-ended, and I struggled.

Photo Credit: Michael Trovato

In the meantime, I heard back about a job I had applied to, and was given an assignment to complete for that position. I also heard from another potential employer and arranged an interview for that week. With these new tasks added to my already jam-packed schedule, my anxiety about completing all of these things began to skyrocket.

By the end of the day, I was burnt out.

It was incredibly frustrating to me that after just 2 days, I had exhausted myself with my productivity. Still, there were things on my list that needed to be done, and I was the only one who could do them. So, I rearranged my schedule for the week. I re-prioritized and extended my timeline for completing some of my goals, which turned out to be a valuable lesson.

The fact of the matter is, as much as we might like to accomplish in a given period of time, things change. Unexpected things come up. Expected things fall through. It takes us 5 hours to complete something that we thought would only take us 2 hours. Whatever the case, it’s important to adjust to these changes, and believe me, I understand that this is much easier said than done.

I’m not here to tell you that you need to follow my exact method for organizing your schedule and to-do list. Each of us has our own methods and systems that work for us. Some of us haven’t found ours yet, and I include myself in that statement. I’m a work in progress, but aren’t we all?

What I am here to do, however, is share with you something that I’ve learned from experience:

Sometimes, there is a difference between what we WANT to do, and what we NEED to do. Sometimes what we need simply outweighs what we want.

Graphic By: Michael Trovato

It may be hard to acknowledge, but learning how to make this distinction has been incredibly helpful to me. And yes, it has put me in a position to make some difficult decisions. It’s hard to avoid that sometimes. But if you need something badly enough, my hope is that you’ll find a way to get it, even if it means putting aside something you want for the time being.

My mind wasn’t racing with thousands of ideas. Instead, it was frantically trying to figure out how I was going to do the 7 things I had planned to do on Tuesday that didn’t get done, and how I now also needed to add the job-related things to the rest of my week, when I was already behind. In over-scheduling myself that first week, I came to realize that while I may have wanted to complete each task on my to-do list in the time frame I originally planned, I was ignoring some things that I truly needed for my own sanity. I wanted to do A-Z. I needed to allow myself time to rest, to do decompress, and to do something for myself now and then. By pushing so hard to stick to my originally scheduled plan, I wound up ignoring certain key things.

For one, my sleep schedule was totally off. In my efforts to be productive, I crammed so much into each day’s plan for that week that I actually stressed myself out even more by not finishing all of my Tuesday items. My mind wouldn’t go to sleep, even though my body desperately needed sleep.

Second, my workspace began to grow cluttered. Now to be fair, it was already cluttered, which my fiancée can attest to. We live in a relatively small space, so it’s not hard for things to pile up if they’re not taken care of within a few days. This is exactly what happened here. Between my already backlogged stack of unfiled mail, and the groceries that filtered their way onto the dining table for lack of space in the kitchen cabinets, I was relegated to working on the coffee table- next to the couch and in front of the TV.

Perhaps you see where this is going?

Perhaps you can relate?

Distractions, distractions, distractions. And why? Because I focused so much on my work priorities that I neglected some of my other priorities, and now, they were colliding.

The spaces we live in, work in, and play in can all influence each other, especially when those spaces overlap. Currently working from home, my living space is my working space is my leisure space. Even if each of these spaces are different for you, the reality is that our surroundings can have a major effect on the way that we feel. The way we feel, in turn, plays into the work we do or don’t do, the relationships we foster or neglect, the sleep we get or don’t get, and so on (and yes, this ties back to that “Domino Effect” I had written about earlier).

My solution involved a few steps:
1) Plan out each day, but allow for flexibility;

2) Schedule time to do things for me, not just work, work, work; and

3) Organize my environment

I began to organize my environment, starting with the kitchen cabinets:

Photo Credit:

Now, there are many different ways to organize a kitchen, and I’m sure mine wasn’t the most efficient. Still, simply doing something to get a little bit more organized was a huge help in itself in several ways. For one, my living/work/leisure space was a little bit less cluttered. Plus, by checking this environmental health goal off of my to-do list, I felt a sense of accomplishment, which in turn eased my stress a bit.

Granted, the planning parts (1 and 2) are still a challenge for me- I’m working on giving myself the flexibility in a given day to switch gears if I need to. I’ve scheduled time to do things for myself, however, in “typical me” form, I’ve had a knack for putting those things aside in favor or work. Still, being aware of these things is very much a step in the right direction. Figuring out the best way to follow through on them will be another step. Actually following through on them is yet another.

So I’m a work in progress. Maybe you are too. We're all different, after all.

Wherever you’re at, do your best not to lose sight of what you need and what you want. Be honest with yourself when there’s a difference between what you want and what you need, and try your best not to ignore your needs, even if it means putting other things aside for the time being.

Last, try not to worry too much about being viewed as “selfish” for taking the time to do what you need to do for yourself. We’re all programmed differently; outside of our basic needs of food, water, shelter, we all have different needs. Ultimately, being in tune with what you need can significantly impact how you feel.

And after all, doesn’t your health depend on the way you feel?

For ideas on home organization, check out the Whatismyhealth “Environmental Health: Home Organization” board on Pinterest:

© Copyright Michael Trovato, September 15, 2016