Life Hack: Staying Organized Round 2

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{Header image by geralt, used courtesy Pixabay, under an Creative Commons Public Domain license.}

Note: this was cross-posted to my Medium account.

In September 2013, I wrote a blog post on organizing tips for one of my classes, posted on the class blog, Project Quinn. At the end, I wrote, “This is by no means all the organizational tricks I use.”

In the four years since publishing that post, there have been some changes. My theory that everyone is organized just in different ways was severely tested by a former boss, I — thanks to mental illness — found myself becoming seriously behind myself, and online tools for keeping organized have changed.

Clean ≠ Organized

The first tip sits under the ‘self-evaluation’ idea I put forward in my last article. I continue hearing friends and family lament about their inability to stay on top of deadlines or that they are not organized. But when I sit down and question them, it just turns out that they’re stuck on the stereotype that you must have a clean desk or an empty inbox to be considered organized.

So, I reiterate: what works for one person doesn’t always work for someone else. Just because you have a ‘messy’ desk doesn’t mean you’re not organized if you know exactly where everything is on that desk.

On that same line, just because there are fancy apps now that help you track every part of a project (some of which I’ll go into later), if you work better offline, then work offline. On the other hand, don’t feel like you have to spend money on a fancy calendar system if you work better with an online spreadsheet system.

Support

The one thing most people who bemoan their lack of organization seem to either not realize or forget: getting organized (and staying that way) takes effort — just like any other habit.

And just like any other habit, it’s easier to do if you’re not alone. When you decide you need to get organized, you need to talk to your family and ask for their help in keeping you on track. This is especially for women and/or mothers, because our society is (unfortunately) still misogynistic enough to assume a woman’s time (and a mother’s time) is constantly negotiable.

Photo from Pixabay and used under a CC0 Public Domain license.

If you have an office where you do your work, close the door and make yourself stay in there for a set time. Post these ‘office hours’ outside. Let your family know that when the door is closed, they are not to interrupt except in a major emergency. If you really have a hard time staying in the office, recruit a family member to basically gatekeep your ability to leave.

If you have trouble sticking to deadlines, ask friends or family to check in with you from time to time. Ask them to hold you accountable, confirming that you are working on a certain project. Let them cheer you on as you accomplish a big task.

And, as I mentioned, mental illnesses can really mess with your desire to stay organized. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, or even OCD, be aware of how your brain can affect your ability to focus as well as your willingness to want to change your habits.

Time

Many people also don’t seem to realize that to stay organized you have to spend time doing it and work at it. Not only do you need to set aside a good hour or so for that first time you decide to restructure your system, you need to carve out time regularly (I recommend weekly) to go over your system and adapt it as needed.

Have your ‘organizing’ time be like a meeting: treat it like any other meeting that can’t be rescheduled or ignored unless absolutely necessary. I set aside at least 30 minutes every Sunday where I go over what I want to accomplish that week and figuring out when I’m going to do what.

Also, remember to make sure to set aside time for yourself and time to relax. One of the reasons so many people get overwhelmed is that they don’t allow themselves time to replenish their mental energy, which leads to burnout.

Stay Offline (or at Least Limit Your Time)

We all know how much of a time sink the internet is. If you have tasks that can be completed offline, turn off your access completely so you’re not tempted. If you have to, recruit a family member to change the Wi-Fi password and have them not tell you what the new one is until you can show you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.

Unfortunately, it’s 2017 and there’s not much work you can do completely offline. So, to make sure you don’t get sucked into time sinking holes such as TV Tropes, Wikipedia, or Tumblr, try limiting. There are apps and website plugins (like Chrome’s StayFocusd) that lets you set time limits for social media. If most of your work is spend on these sites (e.g., you are a social media manager), blocking may not be the best option. But there are also apps and website plugins (like Chrome’s Time Tracker) that will just track how much time you spend on each website.

From an arts workshop in 2013 I attended. Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton.

Getting Started

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all you have to do, or if you’re just starting out trying to organize everything, sometimes you need to set back and see the forest for the trees.

The first thing I do when I feel like I need to get a handle on everything I have to do is spend a good 20 – 30 minutes handwriting down every task I have to do, even if I already have it on a ‘to do’ list somewhere. Do this in true brainstorming fashion, just making sure you get everything down regardless of how urgent it is. Just the sheer act of putting it down gives me perspective.

Whether you add in daily or recurring tasks is up to you. I personally keep a separate list of ‘chores’ at home, and at work for my recurring tasks, it’s just down once with a note “(week of x)”, which I then update once I’ve completed the tasks.

Then, I go over the list and prioritize on a scale of 1 to 5: 1 are things that need to be done this week, 2 are items that need to be done in the next month, 3s need to be done within the next three months; 4s are due six months to a year, and then 5s are low priority that don’t have to be done for at least a year.

Then find your system for sorting these. I used to use Remember the Milk, but their exporting option was limited at best, and I worried about keeping the list updated. There are other programs out there — everything from Trello and WorkFlowy to Google Docs — but I have learned that Excel works best for me. If you’re an offline sort of person, maybe it’s flash cards or a filing system, using highlighters and colored tabs. Again, whatever works best for you.

Every week, I revisit my list, re-examining which items I should focus on. I also try to set aside time every six months or so to go over the full list.

In Conclusion

The best piece of advice in getting (and staying) organized is that you need to be flexible. Things happen: project deadlines get moved up, family members go into the hospital, your favorite organization site suddenly goes bankrupt. We’re all human, and you need to remind yourself of that from time to time. Miss a deadline? Try not to get wrapped up in guilt or anxiety and realize you can only do so much. Then, set aside some time, give yourself some time to breathe, and start again.

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