Being organized is not for everyone. Nor is it the same for everyone. One system does not work for everyone. So, let’s talk about the decision to be organized.
Step 1. So you want to be organized. The first thing you have to do is examine yourself and decide what being organized means for you. For example, I worked for a boss whose desk never had a piece of paper showing when he went home. He had a spreadsheet program to check each paycheck to ensure it was correct.
But that is not me. I worked for too many years amidst the chaos. I would periodically take everything off my desk, place it in a box and then place the container under my desk. If no one asked me for anything in the box, it was eventually all thrown away. As I look back on this period in my life, I now understand how inefficient it was.
Step 2. If you want to be organized, you have to extend your brain functions and divide them between your physical brain (thinking and problem solving) and an extension of your brain (either paper or computer) where you keep all the lists of what must be done.
Now that we get so much information from so many sources each day, it is impossible for 99% of people to keep it all in their physical brains. Whether you keep lists on paper, on your phone, or your computer is just a technique. But you have to recognize that we can’t keep everything in our physical minds in this day and age.
Step 3. If you agree with what I have laid out so far, Let’s talk about what you are responsible for and what you have to do. Most of us have areas of focus in our life (work, family, children, education, health, and so on). Then each of these areas may have projects that begin and end with tasks associated with them.
So in this step, we will take some paper, go through our desk, our calendar, scraps of paper on our desk, list every task and project that we are involved in, and put an identifying letter to tie each to an area of focus. Don’t leave anything out. Empty everything from your physical mind onto paper.
Step 4. Define how you are going to use your external brain. It can be as simple as using different colored Post-it notes stuck on a big board, or it can be on a computer. Before you jump ahead, start with one area of your life and get it organized and daily and weekly reviews to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
Plan your day, and then keep track of all the things that you hadn’t planned to do that day. Unplanned interruptions happen to all of us so don’t panic. So now we have two lists for each day the tasks I planned to do and all of the ones I really did.
Step 4. Take time to review and reflect on a daily, weekly, and more extended basis to review what worked and didn’t. See how you could make slight changes to your system to make it work better for you. I recognize that if your boss at work comes in and says we need to do this task right now, your plan for the day just changed.
The purpose of this review time is to understand the flow of the work you are doing. What disrupts your plans, and how you can change your system to make it work better for you. The purpose I’d not to cause you stress when something didn’t get done but to recognize how we can learn from it. Because we all only have a fixed amount of time per day to get things done.
Step 5. Now that you know what is happening in your workflow, you can consider putting it on your computer and automating as much of the flow as possible.
Here are the four critical elements of your extended computer brain.
- A task list application such as Todoist
- Calendar such as Google calendar.
- A note-taking system to store notes to your future self and keep reference material for your projects, such as Evernote.
- Cloud storage so you can access the information from any of your devices.
When you get more advanced, you may want to change some of these elements for other more complex applications.
Step 6. Once each of these systems is set up and is working the way you want, you can make changes periodically to fit your needs. Being organized does not happen overnight. It is about identifying how your life interacts with all of your areas of life and then slowly tweaking your systems to reflect your reality. It is a journey, not a destination. Always be open to simplifying your processes and making it easier to get everything done.
Step 7. Look at other systems to see if they have anything they do that would be useful for you to try. I have a friend, a single mom with several children, who have developed a very complex color-coded structure for life (work, personal, business, etc.) because she has a very complex life that requires a lot of organization, so nothing gets forgotten. I am in a phase when my life is much simpler with few projects and mostly simple tasks, so my system is becoming simpler.
But, being organized will help you handle your life with more calmness and less stress.