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Finishing Strong Part 3: How doing CAT work helps with the next project
CAT stands for Clean-up, Archive, and Trash
Last time, I talked about the importance of taking a pause between projects and the important between-project work that needs doing: from just getting rest, to catching up with people, to enjoying parts of your life you’ve put aside to get this work over the finish line.
One of those things we often neglect, but which is important to our ability to succeed on the next project, is what I call CAT work, which stands for Clean Up, Archive, and Trash.
[The below is an excerpt from my book, Start Finishing.]
The process of getting projects done is messy. Through the process, we hoard, scatter, cram, stack, lose, break, and wear out physical, mental, and digital stuff all over the place. Even when we create or maintain habits and routines that help us clean up as we go, there still tends to be a level of detritus and mess that routine sweeps miss.
After you complete a project is the perfect time for CAT (clean up, archive, and trash) work.
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You’ll be doing this work across at least three different areas — environmental, digital, and social — but you may also need to do some CAT work in other dimensions of your life. You may also be able to clean up and trash stuff, and then archive if you’re able to make quick decisions; or skip the cleanup if your routines have done a decent job of keeping things relatively organized.
Let’s walk through this step by step, assuming you need to do some cleanup before making decisions about what to trash and what to archive.
Depending on how messy you’ve been and how much was missed during any routines you have, this could be a quick process that moves on to archive or trash, but the main point of this phase is to make sense of what’s around you.
Use the list below to scan the three major areas of your life:
Environmental. Your work environment may be your office, your kitchen table, your workshop, or wherever else you’ve been making stuff. Depending on what you’ve created, you may need to do some cleanup and maintenance on the tools you’ve used. Included in this cleanup and maintenance phase is restocking or replacing items that were expended throughout the process.
Digital. Now’s a good time to make sense of all the links, working files, stuff dropped on your desktop, and notes and tasks you made for yourself. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to make sense of the digital mess you’ve made six months from now, so if you don’t do it now, it’s going to hang around and clutter up your systems and brain until you’ve had enough and have to clean it out. I recommend backing up your device before cleaning it out, so even if you mistakenly archive or trash something, you can still get to it later.
Social. It may be strange to put your social life as a dimension for cleanup, but it’s useful to consider what needs to happen with the people around you. You may have put off a conversation while you were in the red zone and now it’s time to pick it up. You may have been less-than-your-best self when you were interrupted, or committed to a follow-up or made a promise that you need to see through. You likely have a long list of thank-yous to say, as well, and don’t want to get into the awkward zone where it feels too late to say it, but it also feels weird to not say it. (I’m not going to detail the archive and trash steps for the social dimension, but you may need some space (archive) or a breakup (trash) that’s beyond the scope of this book.)
Once you clean up and can make sense of your creative mess, you can make good decisions about what’s worth keeping and what’s not. In this step we’re going beyond just keeping stuff; we’re going to organize things to make them easy to find when we need them in the future. No more running around the house trying to find a book or having to look at seven versions of a file to figure out which one is the most recent.
Here’s how to work through what needs to be archived:
Environmental. Archiving stuff in your environment can be as simple as putting it back where it’s supposed to be, but it may also include reorganizing your environment or storing some stuff that’s not being used. If you’ve printed out a lot of stuff, you may need to scan it or put it in labeled folders so you can retrieve it more easily later.
Digital. In a similar vein, the archive step here centers on organizing your digital stuff so that it’s out of the way and easier to retrieve later. A chief difference is our natural tendency to keep a lot of duplicate files or slightly different versions. It seems like a good idea at the time but later creates more work as we try to figure out which file is the right one, or we have to check every item in a search. Even if you want to keep all the different versions, naming the final file “FINAL” makes it easier to spot in the future. A little bit of archiving now goes a long way later.
Since you’ve done a clean-up or archived everything else that matters, you can get rid of what doesn’t. “Trashing” could mean recycling, donating, or throwing something away. The main point is that it’s something you no longer need, so there’s no point in hanging on to it, and the sooner it’s gone, the better. The longer you hold on to it, the harder it’s going to be to get rid of in the future.
Here’s how to work through what needs to be trashed:
Environmental. Physical stuff is harder to get rid of but generally easier to reacquire if you need it. The obvious exceptions to this are unique items such as heirlooms, high-end equipment, and so on, but those items typically aren’t the ones that are going to get in the way of the next project.
Digital. Since you have a backup of the mess, deleting files is much easier. If you make a mistake, you can always retrieve it from your backup. Unless you produce or edit audio, video, or high-resolution images, it’s unlikely that you’ll take up enough space to be an issue.
I’m very aware that CAT work may sound slightly more appealing than dental work — it’s a frog that many of us, myself included, would rather not do.
But, like all frogs, it’s not a matter of if you’ll need to do some clean-up CAT work but how bad it will be when you have to do it.
Not doing it during your project transition time means that you’ll inevitably have to do it at the most inconvenient time during another project.
The printer will run out of toner right before you need to print off something to show to someone else. Or someone will ask for a file while you’re on a trip and you’ll have to spend an afternoon trying to find the right file. Or you’ll spill coffee on the stack in the corner of your desk or kitchen table right as you’re headed for your commute or off to an important meeting and thus have to choose between saving the stack or being late (again).
So, since you’re intentionally between projects (right?), still close enough to the project for your mess to be intelligible, and needing some low-energy work to do, there’s no better time to do the CAT work that’s going to make your future work that much easier to do. I’ll take it one step further: CAT work is actually part of the project and thus a part of fully finishing it.