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Captains Curious: Become an Explorer of Your World!


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Are your habits serving you? Or are they cluttering up your life?

People get into habits because they streamline the tasks of life. That’s the good thing about them: If you are reinventing the wheel 75 times a day, you’re not going to get a lot done.

The bad thing about habits is that we take them for granted. That is, the tasks they’re streamlining have been taken for granted. If you have a fabulous system for automating the path of a client’s address onto a mailing label, but your mailings are now all electronic, it’s pointless. If you’re in the habit of holding a progress meeting every Tuesday morning, but everyone’s being updated via email and just repeats their email content at the meeting, well, you get my drift.

It takes effort to examine things you do regularly. Most of us are way too busy to do that. And, hey, isn’t that why we created this regular meeting, so we don’t have to plan it every week? Yes, of course, and it initially served its purpose well.

Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

Things change, though. Systems become outdated, values are realigned, goals are rewritten. It’s worth taking the time to evaluate the habitual and automatic and make sure those things are still valuable. In fact, it’s wildly useful to ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” about pretty much anything you do. (I definitely don’t mean to imply that everything you do must be directly productive. “Because people really love it” is a perfectly valid answer.)

Ask, and ask often.

Don’t just copy what someone does without stopping to find out why

More insidious are habits that are handed down. Years ago, I read a letter to Ann Landers about Grandma’s pot roast. The writer had always prepared it as her mother shown her, by cutting off the ends and placing them in the pan next to the rest of the roast. Her mom learned it that way by watching her own mother. She didn’t think twice about it; this was the way it was done.

One evening, a dinner guest was curious and asked why she did it that way. The writer said that her grandmother always had, so there must have been a reason. A good reason. But now she too was curious. A phone call to Grandma revealed the answer: Because my pan was too short!

Notice that each woman learned solely by observing. Grandma never actually said “cut off the ends,” which might have provoked questions. So there’s another trap; copying what someone does without stopping to find out why.

Be curious and inquisitive

If you aren’t curious and inquisitive about why things are the way they are, it’s very easy to clutter up your life with habits that make more work for yourself, waste time and do things that don’t pay off. Just because your predecessor had a certain way of setting up email groups doesn’t mean it still should be done that way. Turn curiosity around so that it’s not about lacking knowledge (being a dummy), it’s about investigating the possibility of doing something in a better way.

Keep asking “Why?” until you get to the real reason:

Q: Why does this email group exist?

A: Because all three departments need to know what’s happening.

Q: Why do they need to know?

A: Because they all work together on the annual report.

Q: So why do they need to know all this other stuff during the rest of the year?

A: Because they, um, used to produce monthly reports, too. We stopped that in November.

Aha!

Confession

It’s easier for me to be curious with my clients than to do it with myself. When it’s me and my habits I’m curious about, I have to strive to be kind and open so I can just observe. It can be hard to stay in that objective frame of mind when there’s a problem to be fixed. I can go down a trail of “How did I let that happen?” and “Don’t I know better by now?”

It’s normal to take it personally when you figure out you’re doing something wrong. That’s why the series of questions is helpful. If I can identify why what I’m doing made sense at one time, I can be much less judgmental about still doing it. The process gets focused back on discovery instead of blame and guilt and being a dummy.

Use your curiosity!

I’m not saying the questions won’t bring up resistance and fear; they may. But those questions provide a path to keep moving forward so you can get to the answer. Using them in a dialogue with someone else is also quite helpful.

Be an explorer and use your curiosity to discover, learn and improve your world!


Claire Tompkins is a Professional Organizer and Coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs and helps people to unclutter their lives and gain more time, money, space, calm, and clarity at http://cluttercoachblog.com.

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Would you like to submit a guest post on the subject of Curiosity? Send an email to susan {at} susanTblake {dot} com with the subject line: Captains Curious.

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9 Responses to Captains Curious: Become an Explorer of Your World!

  1. Ryah Albatros March 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    You know, I’d never really considered looking at the things I do every day and checking that they still work. I thought your examples were amusing, they seem so logical, until you really question them.

  2. Claire Tompkins March 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Thanks, Ryah. It’s also amusing that people will complain that others are obstinately stuck in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” They don’t notice they’re doing it themselves!

  3. Square-Peg Karen April 2, 2011 at 9:25 am #

    Love the “Why?” question! I used to get in so much trouble, as a child, because I was always asking WHY?

    It’s so good to see this kind of reflective post (and exercise) – especially coming from a woman who helps us work with the external stuff. This tells me that you, Claire, would help with the underlying reasons for clutter/disorganization – not just what’s outside (which I’m guessing is kinda like an iceberg).

    Thanks for this – I’m going to spend some time today doing what I did as a kid — asking Why?

  4. Claire Tompkins April 2, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Karen, “why?” is my favorite question! When I was a kid, my dad gave me a book called “Can Elephants Swim?” that answered many (but not all) of the wacky questions I had. Another book I had was called “The Answer Book.” I’ve always been a questioning gal.

    I love getting to the underlying reasons for having stuff. Not only does it help people release things they don’t need, but it brings clarity and juicy intentionality to what people want to keep.

  5. SilverMagpies April 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    What a great way to illustrate your point! How illuminating that the reason why was not for anything other than a set of circumstances that no longer applied. Such a great way to point out that “because it’s always been done this way” is not always the best reason, let alone the best way to accomplish anything.

  6. Claire Tompkins April 4, 2011 at 10:28 am #

    Right, Nancy! That’s why making a habit of being curious about why we do what we do is so helpful. Some of those habits are still very useful and others, not so much.

  7. Susan T. Blake April 27, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    Claire, thanks so much for a wonderful post! I just reread it, and while I have a lot of favorite parts, the one that really stands out is in the last section:

    “I’m not saying the questions won’t bring up resistance and fear; they may. But those questions provide a path to keep moving forward so you can get to the answer.”

    That is so true, and if we are willing to be even a little uncomfortable we can discover so much!

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