I have an idea for how to diagnose hidden problem areas in my life, but I haven’t been able to truly validate it yet. When routines change or life gets unexpectedly busy, things begin to fall out. When the going gets tough, stuff starts to beak.

For instance, I am usually very disciplined about keeping my email inbox empty. I use a no-think filing system and track emails with tasks in my to-do list. There is no reason an email should ever sit in my inbox, and yet, when I get busy, my inbox grows. Soon I have full inbox and a creeping dread about potential time-bombs lurking in my email, unnoticed and unread.

Another good example is the general tidiness of my home. I have worked hard to rid myself of extraneous possessions, and after making real progress, I have a place for everything, and everything is in its place. I love to be able to bask in the glow of an uncluttered living space, and yet whenever I get busy, stuff begins to accumulate on my kitchen table and in the corners of my closet. Soon I am unable to bask in the glow of anything, and I can no longer find my car keys.

So what does this mean? I think it means that mostly functional systems are completely broken. What good is a system that doesn’t work when life gets busy? There is too much friction in my email process. I just don’t know where it is. I have too much stuff. I just don’t know what to throw out. These are not easy things to fix. The benefit is knowing where I ought to spend my next good bit of high-quality work. Another, perhaps more subtle benefit of this is that when things begin to fall out, I know pressure is building.

If this pressure is because suddenly I am more busy, then this is not useful. I know when I’m busy. Sometimes, however, the pressure is building because I am having trouble working. It may be that I need to track down the reason for my procrastination, or maybe I am so intent on avoiding boredom that I am no longer able to focus. In all cases, these known signs of trouble can put me on the lookout for problems brewing in other areas of my life.

In theory, If I were ever able to fix all my friction areas, I wouldn’t have any indications of other danger. If everything is running smoothly, nothing falls out. This will never happen. I’m always going to be a basket case in some way. At least I can make this work for me.