can a disorganized person become organized?

A reader writes:

Can an innately disorganized person become organized? I’ve read some articles that claim that disorganized people shouldn’t try to get organized because it takes up too much time and energy away from their core work. I am a naturally disorganized person but I do really want to be organized. I do a pretty good job of keeping organized electronically with files on our network drives and things like that. Also, my thoughts and approaches to projects and problems are organized and methodical. It’s just that I can never seem to get my desk organized. And I do find that getting myself organized takes me a long time. Once I get a system in place, it gradually falls apart.

What are some ways I can stay organized? And are there any “reformed” people out there who used to be like me but are now organized? If so, what did they do?

You can find my answer to this question — and answers from three other career experts as well — over at the Fast Track by Intuit QuickBase today.

{ 138 comments… read them below }

  1. Sascha

    Alison’s suggestion is the one that worked for me. OP sounds a lot like myself…I can usually keep things organized in my mind, and I keep on top of my projects and work, but my desk (and home) tend to be messy. However I know things can slip my mind, so I have a file on my computer named READ ME that I check every day. It’s in a conspicuous location, so if I forget to look at it in the morning, inevitably I will run across sometime during the day. It’s very simple – a Word doc where I jot a line or two for each task.

    I tried to use a big project tracker spreadsheet and that was too complicated for me. I get ambitious and I try to make things all-encompassing, and sometimes it just needs to be simple. The READ ME file has helped tremendously.

    As for my desk, I try to just keep the stacks as neat as possible and sort through them frequently. The nature of my work is such that I rarely have paper to deal with, so I don’t have to worry about priority things languishing on my desk.

    1. Vicki

      The most important take-away I recommend from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is to create and use a “Trusted System”.

      Sascha’s README doc is a trusted system. You can use a paper notebook, Outlook, a file on your computer. It doesn’t matter. What matters is to use it regularly, to get the jumble of tasks out of your head and into the Trusted System.

      By the way, I recommend “Getting Things Done” (the book). Don’t feel you have to implement the whole thing as a complicated system. If you’re hesitant, see my blog review: http://vlb.typepad.com/commentary/2005/06/getting_things_.html

    2. Bea W

      Don’t give me a spreadsheet. Nothing good comes out of that. :D

      My boss has us all keep a spreadsheet like this. I just update it weekly from my written notes. I made mine all nicely automatically color-coded when I set the urgency level and categorized with dates, priorities, and names of co-workers, and whatever, but it’s also mostly out of sight, out of mind. It will come in handy when we do annual reviews. I will have it all there in one place.

  2. Ann Furthermore

    Loved Alison’s advice here about the to-do list. This is what I do. It’s a pretty low-tech solution for an IT professional, but I have a small spiral notebook of things to do, and as things are done, I mark them with a highlighter. I put everything on it, from big things like system configurations, to little things like sending a response to the person who stopped me in the hall to ask a question. It really helps keep things straight.

    I do think it’s possible to change your tendencies or habits. For years I was never, ever a morning person. Ever. Well, then I started working at a company with quite a few European locations, and in order to be able to talk to or work with people there, I needed to get to the office earlier to accommodate the time difference. So I started going into work at 7 rather than 8.

    Then I had a child, plus my stepdaughter moved in with us full-time, and I discovered that if I want to exercise, I need to do it first thing in the morning, because when I get home in the evening, the focus is on fixing dinner, bath time, bed time, etc. That’s not done until at least 8:00, which is too late for working out — at least it is for me. So now I get up at 5 in the morning so I can exercise before I go to work. And I actually really like it — I get it out of the way, and starting the day that way motivates me to keep up the healthy trend….like not buying that lunchtime cookie in the cafeteria. Had anyone told me, 10 years ago, that I’d be transformed into a morning person, I would have laughed them out of the room.

    1. NBB

      Good to know there is hope for me, another non-morning person. Do you find it easy to go to bed at a reasonably early time? I struggle with getting to bed, because, all the fun stuff I seem to find to do at 10:00 pm (good book, tv shows, addicting game, new website discovery, etc.)!

      1. Ann Furthermore

        I do struggle with that, because my night owl tendencies have not been completely beaten into submission. But during the week I try to have lights out by 10:30, and then I stay up later on weekends. And the DVR is my friend…I can record stuff that comes on late, and then catch up later.

        I also do yoga a couple times a week, and have learned that very slow, deep breathing will trigger the relaxation response, which helps you fall asleep. So I do that on nights when my mind is racing, thinking about what happened that day, what I need to do the next day, and so on. It really does work.

      2. Trixie

        I’ve fluctuated between morning and night person, and consistency has always been the key for me. Getting up at the same time every day is essential. Once I settled into it, I had a hard time staying awake past the evening news.

        Sounds like you might try avoiding the computer/tv before bed to start with it and see how that goes.

    2. Trixie

      I do the notebook thing too. The beauty of any to do list is also keeping track of things for review time and adding to your resume.

    3. Bea W

      I love highlighters! I use them on my written lists too so just ata glance I can get a sense of what my priorities are that day. I feel lost without a highlighter.

      1. voluptuousfire

        +1.

        When I create my to do list, I star it and then highlight it. When it’s in progress, I place a check next to it and when it’s done I cross it off. I really need to have that visual/emotional reminder that the work is in the process of being done or is done. Otherwise I’ll forget and I’ll re-add it to my list. More than once I’ll add a task I already added 4 or 5 tasks up and have to re-write my to do list.

        With work, I’ll copy my to-do list to the Tasks section of my Outlook. Otherwise it will get too complicated for me and something will fall off my plate. I also do have a bad habit of leaving my to-do list at home. Kinda defeats the purpose of having one, no? :)

        1. Bea W

          I need to keep separate lists for work and home just for that reason. I do sometimes work from home, but because it’s a notebook I use only for work, I keep it with my work bag along with my laptop. I’ll write non-work things in my in my work notebook only if I need to get them done during working hours, like going to the post office or making a personal appointment. Everything else goes on my home list which is mostly recurring tasks I organize differently, usually by category (ex. purchases/bills, chores) and location (ex. Chocolate Teapots R Us, in the yard). I’ve tried shopping list apps, but there’s just something about a carrying a notepad and a pen that makes me feel like I’m better accomplishing my shopping mission.

  3. Ruffingit

    One central list. YES! Such a great suggestion and very helpful. You can organize it into categories and such if you want (emails/phone calls/coworker meetings/etc), but no matter what everything should go on the one list. It does help a lot not to be flipping through constant emails and post-it notes. Also, consider hiring a professional organizer who can give you some good tips based on your personality.

    1. SB

      One could say I’m generally disorganized, especially when it comes to paper stuff. Part of the problem is I have a really good memory. Someone pokes their head in and asks me to do something, I will remember it without writing it down. The bigger issue is paper. We don’t have a lot of paperwork floating around the office because most everything is done electronically. As a result, we don’t really have a lot of space to store paperwork (one file drawer per cube). Because paperwork is so rare, there really isn’t a good filing system. Other than expenses, I might only get a few items a month on paper and don’t really have a good way to categorize them. So I tend to just put everything in folders for the month that I got them, which makes digging through to find something difficult if I don’t know when it was given to me.

      1. Jessa

        Quick system maker from someone who had to track paper for 8 supervisors – grab a few month’s folders, look in them and see if you have the same type of papers in more than one month. If you do, make a separate folder for that. Then ultimately most of your stuff will have folders. After that instead of filing by month the rest, try alphabetically by topic, make a folder for instance a-f or something instead of “January.”

        Might not work, but might help.

      2. Manda

        You could try making an electronic table of contents (Word or Excel file) documenting what’s in your paper file cabinet. List each month and what papers you’ve put in each month’s folder. When you physically add or remove a paper, add or remove it from your list. Then you can scan the list, or just do a keyword search and let the computer find it for you.

      3. CeeBeeUK

        What about using something like evernote where you snap a photo with your phone? You can tag and index. You can always go digging for the hard copy if you need to but most of the time, the digital copy should do the trick.

    2. Jessa

      Also try a few different things, there are lists, calendars, computer things, things for your phone, etc. It won’t work if you can’t keep up with it, or don’t have it when you need it. You may have to try a dozen things before you work out a system that does what you need.

      Small notebooks, things for your phone, probably work well. Things you can stick in a pocket and look at when you want them. Free trials of software methods are a godsend.

      The biggest thing is don’t get discouraged if one method doesn’t work. There are also some (if you’re physically disorganised) pretty good shows on HGTv and other do it yourself stations about “how to organise your home, life, etc.”

        1. VintageLydia

          Most of what they air are house hunting shows, though. I miss actual DIY/design/organizing shows… **sigh**

  4. NBB

    It sounds like OP is doing a good job with the things that impact their peers and supervisors, so good job on that!

    I am a wee bit annoyed lately with a couple people who have about a 50% response or follow up rate with questions or tasks that get emailed to them. It’s aggravating to have to follow up more than once, and wastes everyone’s time.

    1. Bea W

      In every office I’ve worked, there has been at least one person who had to be paid a personal visit in order to get an answer to a question or other piece of whatever they owed someone. I’d email because that was the accepted practice and served as documentation of the request, but it was really just a formality. There was one guy who was likely to not have even read the email or the attachment without my physically dropping by his office.

  5. Shannon313

    There is a fun little site out there called Unfu– Your Habitat. It shows before and after photos and people talk about the various ways they changed a room or closet or workspace to be clean and organized. This site has literally caused me to take control of my vehicle (used to be embarrassing and now it’s always clean), clean a closet and organize my dishes. Who knew wasting time on he Internet could be so fruitful. Check it out!

    1. Jamie

      You beat me to it – I LOVE unf*ckyourhabitat and it’s been a huge help in keeping perfectionism at bay and dragging my whole family into my unf*cking routine.

      And I get so inspired by the before and after photos – I love those.

      It’s been ages since I have left my bed unmade. Excuses are boring. :)

      1. Trixie

        Its just so nice to come home to a made bed, and makes the bedroom more relaxing which is kind of the point. It takes like a minute or two as soon as I get up in the morning, maybe longer during the winter.

        1. Elizabeth West

          I like that site too. As far as the bed, I throw back the covers to air while I’m having coffee/reading the news online/showering, then make it up as I’m getting dressed so I can sit down on it and do my makeup. I don’t have good light to do it in the bathroom, plus I hate leaning over the sink. Hurts my back.

          The key to being organized is making sure everything is in its place and getting into a routine.

        2. TL

          Oh, I’m jealous of the one or two minutes! I’m a particularly active sleeper and it’s not unusual for me to wake up with a pillow and a sheet on the floor (for some reason, I kick off my sheet but not my blanket), the blanket(s) bunched up around my hips, and the fitted sheet coming off the mattress.

          I gave up on making my bed a long time ago, mainly because it actually takes a good 10-15 minutes to get it even halfway decent.

          1. Natalie

            IMO you don’t have to tuck everything in hospital corners to make a bed. If all you do is shake the sheet and blanket over it so it’s more or less straight, that totally counts.

            One of the first things I started doing when my ex moved out was make the bed almost every morning (he was always still sleeping when I left for work, so not an option). It’s surprising how much just neatening it does for me – when I come home and change into comfortable clothes I come into a neat room, and there’s nothing better than getting into a made bed.

            1. Jamie

              I was thinking the same thing – I can’t even imagine it taking 10-15 minutes to make my bed even changing the sheets.

              Maybe I have a less complicated bed and I don’t do hospital corners…I know my mother is in heaven shaking her head at that, but sorry mom…we both hate the tucked in sheet thing so why do it just to undo it when it doesn’t show?

              What I need is a husband who understands the proper amount of blankets on a bed is 2-3. Since he’s ridiculous I have to add blankets to my side at night and it’s annoying because they don’t lay as nicely as if they were over the whole bed.

      2. Liz in a library

        I think you guys must be where I got that site from. I love the before and afters! And whenever I need a brain break, I can stop what I’m doing and do a quick 10/5 (my abbreviated version of the 20/10).

        1. Jamie

          I got it from Rana here – and it’s been one of the best things anyone has ever given me.

          And I also do the little brain breaks…and while other people see me quietly tidying up I know I’m really unf*cking my work habitat and that makes me feel kind of subversive and edgy.

          You can tell I need excitement when my idea of edgy is cleaning my desk.

          1. Jessa

            Yes, awesome site. Totally great. Helps a lot about how to get things cleaned and it’s all real people who really did stuff, so you don’t feel like “OMG it’s an expert they’re perfect I’ll never be perfect,” and get discouraged.

      1. Jamie

        That was yours?? Love the handsoap!! I’m jealous of all the drawer space you have – our bathrooms are oddly configured so I can’t have the larger vanities like that so our cabinets have to go vertical, which I hate.

        I feel like I know a famous person!

        1. VintageLydia

          I was inspired by you to buy that soap! I thought “If Jamie can unabashedly decorate with Hello Kitty, than so can I!” Only way it would be better was if it were Sailor Moon soap. (It smells like grapefruit, btw. Too cute!)

          And now I’m embarrassed I didn’t take out the trash before taking those pictures.

  6. dilladop

    1. Make lists.
    2. Get into routines or habits for the things you need to do every day or frequently.
    3. Write up procedures if it’s something complicated that you always forget how to do.
    4. Check out whether or not you have ADHD and get some kind of help if you do.
    5. Make lists.

    1. Leslie Yep

      Super smart. The key for me is to make it kind of fool proof. So I have a to do list, and I also have a weekly checklist separated by day of all the recurring tasks I need to tackle each week (e.g. approve time sheets, send agendas for various check ins). Basically as long as I have these lists in front of me, I won’t miss anything.

  7. Jamie

    I’m personally a big fan of unf*ckyourhabitat, Adderal, and Gantt charts…but that’s just me.

    As Alison says in the article – the key is finding a system that works for you and committing to it.

    1. AnonAnony

      Concerta is part of my system now! When I read Sari Solden’s Women With ADD, it was like a light finally dawned. I own every decluttering book. I’d read them, I’d try to implement them, but nothing stuck.

      What really made me realize that something was different was when I started at my new job. I took over the office and files from someone who put great systems in place. They’re systems I would NEVER have thought of creating. Because they make sense for our work, and I can maintain them. I also have a lot of outside systems keeping me on track – weekly, monthly, quarterly checks and updates. That way nothing goes too long or gets too out of hand.

      OP, or others, even if you don’t think that ADD/ADHD is the cause, it can be worth looking at some of the techniques ADHD coaches use with clients. And if it’s really important to your continued success, bringing in an ADHD coach (or a professional organizer that’s aware of ADHD issues) can be a job saver.

      1. Jessa

        Yes, yes, yes about maintaining an existing system being easier. In fact if you’re having trouble at work, look at what your coworkers are doing, and ask them, and brazenly admit you are going to steal their systems, thank you very much. Because they are so much more organised than you are.

        1. Chinook

          As someone who has a hard time organizing herself (I lobved it when my mother would come over and organize my closet or kitchen because I could maintain it until I moved) I whole heartedly agree that you should steal other people’s ideas or even pay a professional organizer vto work withg you to set upb a system.

  8. WorkingMom

    I am a reformed “messy person!” Granted, my reform happened in college, on accident. As a kid growing up and through high school – you couldn’t see my bedroom floor, I never knew where anything was, etc. (However I was like OP is, disorganized but I was still a straight-A student, because I organized where it mattered at the time.)

    When I went to college and adjusted to living in very confined spaces, I quickly adapted to keeping my very small space clean and organized for the sake of my sanity. It happened without me realizing it was happening.

    Now, at work – I do many of the things Alison and others have suggested. I have a maker board to track big-picture projects. I use the “one” to-do list, each evening I go through and mark off what I’ve done and add new items to the list. Periodically I start fresh with a new one. It helps me leave work each evening without worrying that I forgot something, and helps me come in fresh each morning and hit the ground running. I am also a card-carrying member of the post-it program, but I try to keep those for those random tasks that pop up in meetings that are short – so I jot it down and try to get post-it tasks done same-day, then I trash ’em.

    By nature, I have always been a “piler” (made up word, yes). I do piles. At home I have piles of bills, mail, projects. Drives my husband nuts, but at work it works for me. I have a pile of existing work – each evening I clean up the pile, toss what I don’t need anymore, and stack everything up for the next day. A professional organizer may call that disorganized, but for me – it works!

    1. Elizabeth West

      You know what helps me with piles, especially since mine tend to be mail? Having the shredder right by the front door. I look at the mail as I come in, and if it’s not a keeper, BZZZZT, in it goes.

      Also, I cut down on it by canceling or discontinuing junk mail and magazines and getting paperless bills. I do miss catalogs, though….

      1. Bea W

        I love making neat piles of things…and my busy little furchild lives deconstructing and shredding neat piles of things. It’s not quite as fun as it sounds, at least not for me!

      2. Loose Seal

        catalogchoice.org is a great site to help you cut down on catalogs. I get a lot of catalogs from the previous homeowner and it’s much easier for me to go to catalog choice to stop them from coming than it is to call the company.

        1. Natalie

          There’s also Opt Out Prescreen for credit card offers and DMA Choice for direct mail marketing. They won’t eliminate everything, but they really cut it down.

    2. Lora

      YES! I am queen of the piles. I keep projects organized into files. At my last job, I had a very respectable-sized desk and I got a bunch of huge plastic bins and just dumped a project-pile into each bin. The little area where several of us sat had space for a bookshelf, so we all put our reference books and binders on a shared bookshelf. This made room for a LOT of plastic bins.

      My other thing, which I started several jobs ago, is to have a GIANT size whiteboard, as big as will fit, with a listing of all projects I have and what needs done on them, in outline format. They get line-through’ed instead of erased when they are done. I try to put the whiteboard somewhere other people can easily see it. That way when someone wants to give me ANOTHER DAMN THING TO DO, I look sadly at the whiteboard, sigh, and say, “I don’t know if I have time…” I heartily wish that my bosses would just look at my whiteboard and send me the occasional “how ya doin? need anything” email rather than one-on-one meetings. I can’t think of the 15+ projects I’m managing and their status off the top of my head.

      Microsoft Project never did a thing for me, sadly. I have some specialty software for biotech that works much better and includes automated data collection, so it self-updates when something is complete and you just have to run reports that take about 5 seconds. Wish there was a generic business version, where you would just assign tasks to people and the software would just scan their network partition once a day to see if any new stuff had been added to their project file, and auto-update.

  9. mollsbot

    Did I write this in my sleep?! I have the same problem, I just can’t seem to get organized anywhere. I’m even on medication for Adult ADD and I have trouble sticking to an organized routine.

    Coincidentally I just started a running list yesterday. Feeling a lot better about it now that I have AAM & co’s suggestions.

    Now if someone can come to my house and help me with my clothes, it would be appreciated! ;)

    1. dilladop

      If you have too many clothes, toss until you have a manageable number. It will hurt, but it’s for the best. Do the old “How long has it been since I’ve worn this? Do I REALLY need it?” routine.

      1. Zahra

        And if it hurts too much, get some Rubbermaid bins. Put away all the clothes you don’t wear that often. Get it out 6-12 months later and ask yourself if you really need this or that piece after all. And then toss or keep. At least, you’ll be less attached to the clothes by the time you get there.

        Also: no matter how cheap a shirt/pair of pants, etc. is, if you don’t wear it, it’s money down the drain. That’s why, when I go shopping, I don’t buy clothes that I am not convinced by, even if everybody tells me it suits me fine.

        1. Bea W

          The fewer choices I have, the better. I also hate having to keep my closet organized. I purge it once a year. I don’t know how people keep track of these large seasonal wardrobes. My brain can’t handle that much cloth capacity.

        2. Jen in RO

          I can’t resist a sale! My house is not getting overrun by clothes, but I do have a bunch of stuff I bought for cheap and never wear… so I do a cleanup every year/every season and donate the stuff I don’t wear anymore (I either give them to a neighbor in the village where we have a holiday home, and the neighbor distributes them to the needy people in the village, or give them to our cleaning lady who has a teen daughter). [And in case “holiday home in a village” sounds like I’m Madonna, it’s not glamorous at all – remember, I’m in Eastern Europe and the quality of life in a village can be very shitty for the people who have to live there.]

          And an extra suggestion about storing clothes – I use those vacuum bag things, the ones where you use the vacuum to suck the air out. I store my extra bed sheets, blankets and clothes in them and they take up way less space.

      2. mollsbot

        I just did that, and I didn’t get rid of enough. I have a small closet, and a terrible dresser. Really I need to get a new dresser and one of those portable closet racks for my bedroom and somehow force myself to hang up my clothes. *sigh* When I build my dream mansion I am going to have a walk-in closet like the one Mariah Carey has.

        1. Windchime

          I donated about half my clothes when I moved a couple of years ago, and I threw away stuff that wasn’t nice enough to donate. And I don’t think I’ve missed a single article of clothing; in fact, I can barely remember any items that I donated. Except for a shiney purple crushed velvet top that I bought and (not surprisingly) never, ever wore.

          This is a good thread for me, because I have tried over and over to become more organized here at work and my systems will last about a week till I’m back to my old ways.

          1. Jamie

            Paring down is very freeing. I always feel guilty about giving away things which fit and are professional but I don’t wear because I don’t like how I feel in them. You know the stuff that looks so cute on the hangar but just not so much on.

            But it doesn’t matter if everyone else likes them, if I feel fugly in something I won’t wear it so might as well give it away for someone who might like it.

            Although I’m a huge fan of purging please use if you’re also sorting things for the cleaners. I had several bags to go to Good Will and one with my daughters first communion dress which was silk and hand beaded and I was hoping she could pass on to her daughter one day, and my wedding dress. I had planned on having the cleaners pack them away for storage.

            My husband dropped all the bags off at Good Will.

            We drove to and called every single Good Will store within 100 miles (do you know they send things to different stores and they aren’t just sold where you drop off?) but those dresses were long gone.

            It was an accident and even though that bag was set apart from the others I didn’t label it so perhaps I shouldn’t still get as angry with my husband when I think about this. But if just one person out there can learn from my mistake and so their grandchildren can wear a family heirloom communion dress it will be worth the time it took for me to tell this cautionary tale.

            1. voluptuousfire

              I did that a few months back when I mistakenly gave away the wrong pair of jeans when I donated clothes. I had two pairs of jeans that were the same brand and style but were slightly different sizes and one pair had pocket flaps on the back. I got rid of the ones that didn’t have the pocket flaps (my favorite) when I meant to get rid of the pocket flap ones. Of course the jeans are discontinued. :(

            2. Manda

              This is why I hate it when things are stored in garbage bags. My mom and I were always the packrat type, whereas my dad and brother liked to throw things out indiscriminately. I’ve always been paranoid something would get thrown out by accident because they couldn’t be bothered to make sure it was in fact garbage they were throwing out.

            3. Kiribitz

              Similar cautionary tale: I had organized and wrapped the silver I inherited from my Grandmother in silver cloth and left it in a grocery bag in the kitchen until I could get a book from the library with the pictures of the different silver marks. My Dad thought it was trash and tossed it – if I hadn’t wrapped the pieces in the cloth it would have rattled. We didn’t realize until the next week when I looked for it after getting the book from the library. We thought it was in that day’s trash and met the trash truck at the dump to look through the load and everything. It was sickening to realize it was lost and still makes my stomach hurt when I think about it.

              1. Jamie

                Oooh – that made my stomach hurt reading it! That’s awful! I hope others learn from our mistakes.

        2. Gjest

          Not that I recommend this “fix” for forcing you to hang your clothes up, but I was cured of putting clothes on the floor when my old cat started peeing on any that I left on the floor. That stopped me from leaving clothes on the floor real fast.

            1. Anonymous

              I read that if you drop clothes in one spot on the floor, put a little chair in that spot and train yourself to either drape over the back of the chair or lay them in the seat.

              1. Bea W

                That worked too well. I now drape them on every seat I own, along with my jackets. I did put up a coat rack which worked well for a while, but now that I had a net gain of 4 chairs in the kitchen, that’s where the jackets have been ending up. Indoor clothing is what I drape on the seating in the living room. I thought maybe leaving it on the couch might push me to put it in the closet, but instead I just sit around it.

                Maybe the solution for me is installing more shelves and drawers, but sone stuff really needs to be hung up. The one thing worse than hanging clothes? Ironing!

                1. Manda

                  Steaming is way better. It’s much easier to get the creases out of delicate fabrics and clothes with ruching and seams all over the place. And you don’t have to worry about scorch marks.

              2. Natalie

                I used an ottoman for that, which was perfect because I only own one ottoman. The clothes stayed more or less contained on the ottoman, and they were easy to pick up and put away if I had company coming.

                I lost the ottoman in my split, and I actually miss it enough that I’m going to buy a new one solely as a clothing way station!

                1. Manda

                  I recently bought a small ottoman specifically to put clothes on. (I haven’t got around to setting it up yet. Better go make that to-do list.) I have a laundry hamper with two sides. My intention was to use one side for dirty laundry and the other for things like hoodies and jeans that could be worn again. That ended up not working for me though. I just drape clothes I can still wear over the side, and since it’s open on top, my cat took over one half. I decided it was better to buy an ottoman and a hamper with a lid. (Hopefully he won’t decide to sleep on the clothes on top of the ottoman now.) It has a removable lid too, so I can even store crap inside. =)

          1. Jen in RO

            Same as Bea – this worked for me, until the cat habits stopped… then my clothes started ending up on the floor again. (For those few months when my cat peed on *everything* that was on the floor, I was such a tidy person!)

        3. Bea W

          I got a new bedroom set a few years ago. The dresser has amazing deep drawers that slide out all nice and smooth. Now I get my laundry folded and take it right to the dresser because now it is so effortless. The 3 small drawers on the top are the perfect size for socks and lingerie. Then there are 4 double deep drawers that are just the right amount of roomy. My old dresser was the one I’d had since I was in pre-school. There wasn’t a lot of room and I had to jam stuff in. I was surprised how much difference it made in changing my willingness and ability to put my clean laundry away. Now if only I could figure out the magic formula for a closet that would do the same.

    2. JessB

      The best trick I ever heard for cleaning out your closet was to turn around all the hangers, so that they’re backwards. Then, whenever you out something away, assess if you want it back in your wardrobe first, and then put it back on a hanger facing forwards.

      You’ll soon be able to see at a glance which clothes you are wearing and which ones are just taking up space.

      When I did this, I was really surprised. Some of the clothes I thought I loved the most were still backwards- turns out they didn’t fit me quite right, or I couldn’t put them into a great outfit but I liked them on their own. Anyway, I did a big clean out and feel heaps better!

      Now I just have to decide what to do with the clothes!

  10. Gallerina

    Hmm, I would argue that tidy does not necessary equal organised. I can simultaneously have several projects on the go without screwing up a budget or missing a deadline and have a really good memory for details, but my desk looks like a bomb hit it and don’t even get me started on the drawers…

    1. Shannon313

      Totally agree that the two are not always synchronous but boy, do I feel less stressed when I have to tackle a task in a tidy area as opposed to in a giant mess.

    2. Dulcinea

      I strongly agree with this. OP doesn’t say that exactly why his or her disorganization is a problem, only that s/he wants to change it. I agree with everyone who said it is important to find a system that works for you (and I disagree with Alison about the web of post-its on your desk – if that truly accomplishes what you want it to in the most efficient time, then go for it!) , but I would put it another way – you want to look carefully at the habits you already have and see how you can build a system into them. E.G, instead of scattering post-its hap hazardly, designate one zone of your desk as “urgent” and another “semi urgent” or categorize them by task. In my experience it’s really critical that the system be easy to build into your existing practices or you will not adopt it.

      I will also say that I have madea lot of reforms in my own messy habits, both at work and at home. What happened at work is that I spent a year working for a super uptight micromanager who chastised me for things like: files on a table were not perfectly lined up and facing the same way; always insisting that I completely put away every piece of a file before getting out another one, etc. As much as I hated it I have mostly kept up with those habits since moving on to a new job and I have to admit it makes my job a lot easier because it really cuts down on losing things. But if you have neve had the problem of losing things, this might not be important for you.

      Finally, the running to do list has been very helpful since I got my new job that requires handling so many different clients. I use a spreadsheet, it was 4 columns. I like using excel for lists because of the ability to sort by different criteria

      -The first lists the names of all my open cases ( I am a lawyer),

      -The second column is “as of..” and lists the date that I updated the to-do. This is helpful in alerting me to the fact that I may have been neglecting to think about a certain file for a while if I see that the to do hasn’t been updated in a couple weeks, and I can easily see it by using this column to sort the list.

      -The third column is for to-dos and for the really urgent ones, I put “AA!” as the first part of the text . This way when I sort by this columen, the list is sortable by urgency,

      -Finally the fourth column is for the category of case that it is (I handle 3 main types) which helps me to figure out quickly what kinds of tasks/deadlines I might need to add and which cases are guaranteed to need more constant attention.

      1. Kelly L.

        This–what usually works for me is to work a system into how I already work, rather than trying to impose one that impedes my work. I learned as a kid that my dad’s idea of “neat” meant “everything squirreled away so far that you can never find anything you want without 2 hours of digging,” and I think it started me on the path to messiness because it was easier to find things if they were just…still out. So now my strategy is to have the “away” place for an item be one where I can conveniently get it when I want it, and not in a box in the back of a closet on the other side of Mount Doom or whatever.

    3. Jen in RO

      I never had problems with missed deadlines at work… I’m very messy, but I don’t work with papers at all and I just remembered most of the stuff I needed to. For details I just used a notebook or post-it notes (just a few of them). My desk does look like a bomb hit it though – and I started this job 2 weeks ago! I just like having a lot of stuff in arm’s reach (food, tissues, pens, hand cream, chewing gum, and so on) and my desk doesn’t have a drawer…

      1. Gallerina

        Exactly! My job is about 70% event planning and I find I can manage to produce flawless event, and turn up to work looking immaculate every day, but a tidy desk is just a step too far.

        I like to claim I’m taking a feminist stance against cleaning.

  11. Anoners

    There are lots of good suggestions here already. Only thing I can think of is Outlook Calendar (the disorganized persons best friend). Log everything here so you get reminders that prompt you when you need to do something (even if you think you’ll remember, LOG IT! I can’t count the times that I’ve thought I’d remember something, but totally forgot it). This has saved my bacon more than once.

    1. WorkingMom

      Ooh yes – this is a good one, a very important one! It’s so nice to have your outlook “ding” and remind you to call someone, send a report, etc.

    2. Jamie

      Love Outlook calendar and just discovered my newest organizational tool lately – Siri.

      I was slow to jump on the bandwagon – but I love to be able to schedule things to my calendar without having to pull it up and type!

      And I am so not Raj – but I do always say hello and please/thank you to Siri – and phrase my requests politely. I love that she always responds, “You are certainly very welcome.”

      And when my kids say stupid things to her she’s sarcastic for me. Siri is awesome and may possibly be my new BFF. (I will seek help)

    3. Elizabeth West

      I love the little flags and the reminders! At home, I use Vue Minder Lite (the free version) and it has pop-up reminders too. It came in really handy when I had interviews to keep track of.

      I find that when I get a paper planner I don’t use it, because I’m at the computer way more than I am looking in my purse.

      1. Jessa

        I went to Vue Minder Pro and love that I can sync it to Google and through their to my android phone, which means I don’t have to remember all the doctor appointments when at the office trying to schedule the next one – s.o. has like 9 doctors to keep track of and memory problems, so totally my job to deal with and I realised only a few weeks ago, that if I copied the calendar to the phone, OMG right in my hand I have the appointments. Seriously this took me like a year of not figuring this out before I did it.

    4. fposte

      I like the Home Routines app so much that I’ve used it as the basis to create equivalent work routines.

      I’ll differ a little bit from Alison’s big central list approach. I actually don’t like that–I have a week task list and a week time-block schedule on my laptop, but then I get more granular with daily stuff on my iPod. I do want to figure out the Tasks portion of Pocket Informant one day, but right now I’m actually using Clear to do timed daily lists; since you can leave tasks on but crossed off, they create a useful template for future days. And I’m all about the templates right now–it’s the days that I have to start from scratch that leave me wasting time in weird ways.

    5. MarieK

      Outlook is definitely my friend! My other tactic is to mark any emails that need a response as unread. This especially helpful if I read them on my blackberry and can’t respond right away. I won’t leave for the day with unread emails in my inbox.

      One big list works for me too.

      1. Bea W

        I use the flags for those emails, especially first thing in the mirning when I’m going through everything that came in overnight or over the weekend. I quickly go through messages, delete stuff I don’t need, file stuff I need to keep but don’t need to respond to, and flag the ones that require more time so I have a visual cue/reminder to go back to it.

    6. Windchime

      I have tried doing the tasks in Outlook and I find that when I am deep in thought on a different issue, I just snooze or delete tasks when they pop up and interrupt me. I think I need to take a tutorial or something.

      I also bought a book called “Getting Things Done”, but I only read a couple of chapters then lost interest. Heh.

      1. OmarF

        That was why I stopped using task reminders. They were just getting in the way. I just put the next day I want to look at a task in the due date, and sort by due date.

        1. Bea W

          Same. I only use appointment reminders where I have somewhere to be at a certain time. Task reminders drive me nutty like i’m being nagged, and they break my concentration which can send me totally off task. The one acception is I use task reminders in the morning in order to have time for my routine and get out of the house on time. I have a craptacular sense of time, and being nagged every 30 minutes for things like “Breakfast” and “Shower” is what it takes to make it work. Now when i’m away visiting my super punctual friend, she doesn’t have to start taking things away from me and practically kick me in the butt a dozen times just to get me shuffling in the general direction of the bathroom to get my shizz together.

  12. Lynn Whitehat

    LW, what problem are you trying to solve? What is going wrong as a result of your “disorganization”? Are you forgetting to do important things? Losing high-priority paperwork? Do you have food crumbs that are attracting insects? Is your boss marking you down on your review?

    You didn’t mention what is going wrong as a result of the disorganization, which is why I ask. If it’s just a feeling that “one ought to have an empty desk”, there are tons of people who do high-quality work despite never getting the desk empty. You may be one of them. If important stuff is getting buried and forgotten, that’s different, and then the suggestions about “only touch everything once” and “have a master to-do list” and so forth have a lot of merit.

    1. fposte

      Totally agreeing. I’m getting my house more organized for concrete reasons, but my extremely messy desk is at the bottom of the priority list. I can see that it might have some psychological benefit, but I don’t revel in visual organization the way some people do, and the messiness isn’t hurting me. So I don’t worry about it.

    2. JMegan

      Absolutely agree with this. If there’s an actual problem that needs to be solved, that’s important – but if it’s not impacting your work, or anyone else’s, maybe you have already found the system that works for you!

  13. ALex

    I also use Allison’s suggestion of a central to do list. I found that Wunderlist (www.6wunderkinder.com/wunderlist‎) works fabulously for this!! It lets you separate out lists but keeps them all on one page (so you can have a work to do and a family to do, or separate them by project, etc.) I keep it up all day at work and quickly type in what i have to do then i can see the list anywhere because they have an app that syncs with the website – very helpful tool!

    1. JMegan

      Another good one is Evernote (www.evernote.com) – it allows you to make all kinds of to-do lists, label and tag everything, add photos (of receipts, business cards, etc) and documents; and it synchs to all your devices to you can use it wherever you are.

      1. Windchime

        My boss used to be a huge Evernote fan and used it all the time, until our work blocked that domain both from the network and the guest wireless.

  14. Allison (not AAM!)

    My biggest problem was keeping up with my system, mainly FILING – I hate it! I’d set aside 15mins a week – schedule permitting, 11:45am on Fridays worked best because I wouldn’t allow myself to go to lunch until it was done. When my Outlook alert flashed, I’d stop what I was doing and catch up on what had gotten out of control over the past 4 days. It usually didn’t take me all 15mins, so I could then finish up anything critical before I left. Four days worth of disorganization was easier to control than a few months’ – or more – which was how I’d previously functioned!

    1. Elizabeth West

      Ugh, I hate filing so much. I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore. Except at home–my files are a mess and I hate it so much I haven’t done anything to fix it. I need to. Your setting aside a specific time idea is a good one–I think I’ll try that.

      1. Chinook

        I agree with you about hating filing. At home, all paperwork goes in a box and I file it on a slow afternoon when I want to feel like I have accomplished something.

        1. Natalie

          It’s a perfect activity to do while catching up on a TV show – it doesn’t really require your full attention, and it feels more productive than spending the afternoon watching TV. This is also how I fold laundry.

      2. Bea W

        Filing is soothing to me, but I can’t have distractions like looming deadlines hanging over my head. Sit me in a room with stacks of paper, an ample supply of Pendaflex options, and a label printer, and I’ll keep myself happily occupied for hours. Bonus points if there are binders of multiple sizes and and tabs. Extra bonus points if the binders have those clear sleeves for custom covers and spines, and there’s a color printer at my disposal!

    2. Bea W

      When I had a lot of paper filing and not a lot of time, i’d toss things into a mail bin I outfitted with a sign “(Project) Filing”. Then the last two weeks of the year, when most everything was down for the holidays, I’d file the ever living fck out of papers in that bin. 15 min once a week would have probably been a more practical plan of attack, although it would have left me pretty bored over the holidays.

      I am going to see if I can’t keep up with de-paperfying (and decrumbing) my desk by setting aside 15 min every week to deal with it. This is a great idea.

      1. Anonymous

        Don’t forget the tried-and-true option of outsourcing.

        I have someone who handles my mail and filing – now running about 30 minutes every other week after digging me out of hole I was in. It is WONDERFUL. This was my present to myself – less than my monthly cable bill but totally worth it.

        Don’t forget that we do not all have to be good at everything, and finding ways to get things done is admirable even if you aren’t the one doing them.

        I am using a Daily Money Manager, but a nearby student you trust who wants a little pocket money could probably help out with filing and organizational tasks – and upkeep – at an even lower cost.

        Freeing up your time to be spent elsewhere (or just freedom from the stress of worrying about a task you don’t enjoy doing) is a perfectly legitimate reason to pay for help.

        1. Bea W

          I’d outsource if I could. My dept lost all its support staff a year ago during restructuring. Then we got hit with a hiring freeze. We were nearly in a pen and notebook shortage crisis when I figured out how to purchase office supplies in the new purchasing system. My boss was nesrly ready to head to Staples because it was easier than figuring out how to order from the purchasing system. :/

          We just hired one AA contractor a few weeks ago and are supposed to also get 1/4 of someone else’s time. You bet I have a pile of scanning and filing backlog just waiting for someone to adopt it!

          I have been considering hiring cleaning and organizing help at home, but it’s hard to get past the feeling of invasion and the embarrassment of a less than sparkling clean organized home. I could really use the help though. How do you get past the discomfort of a stranger mucking with your personal stuff, possibly making silent judgements about you based on what they see in your home (which is a lot of fur, dust, and a freezer full of Lactaid ice cream and ravioli).

  15. Emily, admin extraordinaire

    I’ve always been super disorganized, but I’m getting better, at least at work (my current theory is that I use up all my organizing and keeping-clean energy at work so I have none left for home, which explains the current state of my bedroom!). A couple of books have helped a lot– Organizing from the Inside Out and Time Management from the Inside out, both by Julie Morganstern. She’s a reformed disorganized person herself, and her strategy is based on figuring out why you’re disorganized in the first place, so you can make meaningful changes. Super helpful!

    1. Trillian

      I second that recommendation. My sister got all the organizing genes – a teenager with a tidy bedroom! – and I was behind the door when they were handed out. Another useful take-away from Organizing from the Inside Out was to look at what is *working* and why. I remember her one example of a woman whose house was chaotic except for her impeccably organized rack of belts. Her eventual organizing system depended on having space to hang things up rather than try and put them away. I’m useless with drawers; it has to be hangers and cubbys. Mortgenstern also emphasized keeping things near the point of use, which prompted me to move all my computer manuals from the main bookshelf to beside the computer, and lo, they stopped appearing all over the house. I also realized I need colour to keep the inner monkey focused on tedious tasks like filing.

      I still wrestle with the organization of tasks, since I have always been absent-minded, and because forgetting was how I used to get out of doing what I didn’t want to do without arguments when I was growing up. Still have to sit my inner child down from time to time and remind her that we are grown now; we can say no and make it stick. Well, except when it comes to the government, alas.

      1. Bea W

        My brother got all the cleaning, cooking, and organizing genes. Totally unfair. My sister and I are pretty useless in all the domestic areas.

    2. Manda

      I’m curious how you get by as admin when you’re disorganized. I fear that I will end up as some sort of admin and then suck at my job because I can’t stay organized.

      1. Bea W

        Former admin here – I am much better at keeping other people organized than I am at keeping myself organized. Actually, if I were home all day with nothing to do but organize myself, I might be able to pull it off.

        I find work is much more focused, and there are often systems already in place which you are trained to follow. This is different than being left to your own devices to start from scratch. It’s easier when things have been set up for you and you are given a set of tools up front to do the job.

        1. Manda

          That’s a good point. Kind of like when I was in retail, I spent a good chunk of my time folding, sorting, and hanging clothes, but do you think I could keep my clothes neat and tidy at home? Hell no. When I’m working, I know I’m there to work, but at home it’s harder to stay focused on things I need to get done. Thanks.

      2. Emily, admin extraordinaire

        Well, like I said, I’m much better at work. My cubicle is probably the messiest it’s been in several months right now, but it’s only a few papers here and there and some dishes I need to clean (I’ve got a cold and have been living on herbal tea but don’t have the energy to wash my mugs, so I’ve got three dirty ones on my desk right now. :P). At work I keep to-do lists, and use my Outlook calendar, and try to do things that take less than 5 minutes right away unless I’m in the middle of something that requires a bunch of concentration, and try to do tasks that come up regularly at the same time every week (for instance, I process invoices from contractors that work on one of my projects every Friday morning at 10). I’m not perfect, but (and this is going to sound horribly arrogant) I’m really good at doing things quickly and accurately when I do get around to getting things done, so that even being slightly disorganized at work I’m still better at my job that many other people without my skills. I think there’s a lot to be said about Bea’s comment, too– work is a different animal than home. I’ve tried working from home and it just doesn’t work– I’m too easily distracted. Work has a structure and an expectation that allows me to do my job.

        At home, though, I’m a mess. I desperately need to throw away at least half of my stuff, but I have so much of it that there’s nowhere to even sort. I’m working on it. :P

        1. Manda

          Thanks. I’m the same way at home. I have so much stuff that’s it’s hard to find the space to sort through it and get rid of things. I have to do a tiny area at a time. But it’s reassuring to know that the disorder won’t necessarily follow me to work.

  16. danr

    As another person intent on keeping the universe chaotic, I also found a physical notebook to be the key to organization. I kept it on my desk all day, and it was the first thing I checked in the morning and the last thing about a half hour before leaving. I did straighten up my piles of paper on my desk, but refused to file them, since I tended to forget that I had them once they were filed. (I had a boss who filed everything and promptly forgot that he had it. So he constantly asked for more copies… but he had a very neat desk.) All tasks, no matter how trivial went in the notebook. After I did a task for that day, I paged ahead and wrote it down for the next day that it needed to be done. I also adapted this system to Outlook and let it help the memory.

    1. Dulcinea

      OOh, I want to add that I also have a running notepad that is always by my side when I work – and I sually take it with me when I go out to the copier or something. This started as a timekeeping device where I would write down stop and start times for each task/each conversation I have with someone (for billing purposes). When a new “to-do” comes in and I don’t have my spreadsheet in front of me I mark it with a triangle (greek delta, for “DO”) in the margin and periodically skim the notepad for things to add to my main list when I am able. I use traingle instead of a star because I found that I habitually “star” things that are simply important info, rather than tasks, and the triangle stands out.

  17. themmases

    I’m a messy person who’s been slowly– seemingly very slowly– getting more organized. One thing I can say is, don’t beat yourself up if a system you implement eventually gets abandoned. It’s one thing if you’re just being lazy, but often I find I stop adhering to a system because somehow it’s not an accurate model of my work; something about it doesn’t feel relevant to me. Maybe I need to file something that doesn’t fit logically in any folder I made, or my folder system is going to get out of control if used as intended. Maybe my to-do list is filling up with the high time-investment, low-payoff items I don’t want to think about more than once a week, so I stop looking at that list. That’s OK because my next system will account for that.

    I did use a two-list system in college that I really liked. Like a lot of procrastinators, I was bored a lot but also working up to deadlines a lot. So at the beginning of every week, I’d put short-term to-do lists on each day of my planner– stuff that was due the next day at the latest. In the notes section, I’d have a second list of less time sensitive stuff that I’d been wanting to do or that just had to get done at some point that week. Before going on Facebook or something else really pointless, I’d check that longer-term list and usually I’d be in the right frame of mind to work on at least one of those things.

    Today I use a combination of Outlook calendar, inbox flags, and a pomodoro timer. I find it really refreshing not to have to scroll to see my alerts or messages. The timer addresses the weakness that I was under- or over-estimating how long things would take me (usually based on how much I did or did not want to do them).

  18. ali

    I made a very conscious decision at this job that I was going to be organized. I spent the first couple of months writing everything down in a list in a physical notebook, step-by-step and crossing things off when they were completed. Eventually I didn’t need the step-by-step anymore and just kept a list of overall projects I was working on at any given time. I love the feeling of crossing something off – makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something.

    The other thing I do is take 10-15 minutes every day to clear out my email inbox and organize things into folders. It took a long time to come up with folder names that made sense so I always knew where things were, but once I had that figured out, it was genius – now, each day I have maybe a total of 10 things in my inbox. I also take this time to go over all my jobs in our online system and mark the status of them so my boss can see every day what the status of each project is – I’m working with 30-40 clients at any given time, so to me the only way to stay sane is to be able to see right away in our system where things are. Most of my coworkers do this only once a month, and my boss is always nagging them as to what the status of things are. With me, they never nag because they know they can just look and will have the most up to date status.

  19. Nichole

    I’m obsessive about organizing my office. Almost literally. I’ve discovered that anxiety is a big cause of my disorganization. I’m afraid to throw anything away, forget anything, or lose anything. Recognizing and managing my anxiety has gone a long way to implementing strategies that work. In addition to several of the solutions here (I love love love lists!), I have a “maybe-important” drawer. Anything that could be important or that I can’t bear to let go of that doesn’t have a home goes in a shallow desk drawer. Everything outside of the drawer needs a home. Every few weeks, I take a few minutes to clean out the drawer. 9 times out of 10, everything that’s actually important can be or has already been cycled to a permanent home and the rest can be tossed.

    I was going to wait for the next open thread, but since we’re talking organization: I have moved from my cube into an office with walls and a door! Yay! This also meant a much needed purge of nonessential items in my files-next step in organizing is going to be periodically looking through things that have homes but still need to be cleaned out.

    1. fposte

      That’s a really good point, Nichole. A lot of my disorganization comes from my slight hoarding tendencies, so I’m challenged both by purging the useless and making a decision about where to keep stuff in the meantime. Sometimes knowing where it’s coming from can help you figure out how to address it or know if it even needs to be addressed.

      And congratulations on the office!

  20. Anonymous

    Hello, OP/LW here. First, thank you all for the suggestions! I haven’t had any negative impacts so far of my disorganization, other than being a little self-conscious of my desk looking a bit like a tornado hit. And, on the rare occasion that I do get organized, people thinking I’m going to quit when my desk is clean.

    I am hoping to go part-time or possibly job share next year, so I want to have a system that I can work with, but one that also makes sense to other people. The suggestions above are very helpful and I will take them to heart. I like Outlook and use reminders to pop up for the one-offs like following up on questions, responding to people, etc.

    Someone mentioned ADD, and I did wonder in my 20’s (I’m in my mid-thirties now) if I had it, but fortunately I don’t. It’s also good to hear that there are “reformed” people out there.

    Thanks again!

  21. VintageLydia

    Only marginally off-topic, but relevant. For those that need to share your organized space/files/etc with people that have different organizing routines, how do you handle that? My husband and I are both fairly organized, but we have totally different methods and different ideas. I prefer dead tree calendars/note books/to do lists (writing things down helps me remember more than the lists themselves) and he prefers digital calendars with reminders. I’m sure some of y’all have tackled this issue either at home or in the workplace with colleagues you have to coordinate with, so do you have any suggestions? We tried keeping track of things individually, but we have a tendency to either forget to put each other’s items on our own calendars, or we assume they know about it already and forget to tell them to begin with.

    Any ideas?

    1. Bea W

      In work – we all use Outlook for scheduling, but how we want to track out tasks is really up to each individual. So as long as my meetings and things are on my Outlook calendar, co-workers can see my schedule and I can do what I want about the rest. The reminders are also a life saver for me.

      Not sure how to work it out at home – maybe you can use a central Google Calendar that you both update. He can have that all nicely synced with his electronic doohicky, and you can check it, update your stuff that he needs to know on the shared calendar, and jot down any important dates he has added on dead trees to your heart’s content.

      I’m like you with the need to physically write things down to help me remember them. I keep a stenobook of things I need to do. I also need calendars that I can see. Since I have to schedule in Outlook, I print my Outlook calendar to hard copy and tack it up in my cube within eyes hot. I highlight meetings that start early, so I can see which days I have to get an early start or need to rearrange my morning routine. I print a fresh one out each week, in the monthly format so I can see what’s coming up. At my previous jobs, I used to have a desk calendar which I would copy down all my meetings and things and could quickly jot down notes, but I have less desk surface in my current job.

    2. Trillian

      Could you schedule a regular meeting with each other? Sit down together with cups of coffee, glasses of wine, or whatever incentive works, and reconcile schedules. That way you both get to keep what works for you, and you keep things in sync.

  22. OmarF

    I too was thinking I needed to know what problem needed solving. If tasks or deadlines are being missed, then drastic action needs to happen. That doesn’t appear to be the case for the OP. The second reason is efficiency and being able to focus on priorities. I suspect that is still an issue, or the question wouldn’t be asked. I used to have trouble with dropping the ball. Now I still have trouble with focusing on the long term priorities, so I’m trying to structure my organization system to help with that.

    I’m trying to simplify my system. First, I try to get everything into electronic format somehow. Outlook calendar for meetings/events. Outlook tasks for personal action items sorted by due date. I put the date of the next time I need to look at the task, not the final date (that goes into the notes). I have stopped using reminders. They were just getting in the way. I scan my task list and calendar multiple times per day instead.

    For emails, I have three folders. Home is where all messages coming and going go through (I have a rule that moves all messages from the Inbox to Home so that all replies are in the same folder). Followup is where I park messages that are waiting for someone else. These get a followup date and are sorted by that date. Finally, I have an Archive folder. All emails go here when complete. I don’t delete any emails (except obvious spam), so I don’t have to make a decision whether to keep or not.

    For meetings and projects, I create a page in One Note. I drag emails related to the page into the page so everything is in one spot. If a meeting requires followup on my part, I put that back in my Outlook task list.

    This seems complicated to type out, but I find it is covering the vast majority of my work situations. If I don’t know how to handle something, I create a One Note page so it doesn’t get lost. Both Outlook and One Note have great search features which I use lots.

    The beauty of this system is I can pack my laptop and work anywhere. Everything I need is always accessible from my computer as long as I have internet and VPN access.

    1. Windchime

      I ***love*** OneNote. And I did not know that you could drag emails into OneNote, but I just may start doing that! My team at OldJob used OneNote religiously; my new team does not. I’ve tried to get them on board, but they don’t seem to get how cool it is. I do use One Note for everything.

  23. JMegan

    I also have one single to-do list, which I cross off and update regularly. As for organizing it, I’ve had good luck with the Important/ Urgent matrix (example here: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm )

    I have gotten a lot better at dealing with the important/ urgent tasks, and making time for the important/ not urgent ones, without letting the not-important ones eat up my day.

  24. Manda

    OP, I feel your pain. I’m the same way. I would love to be able to keep everything neatly organized, but entropy hates me. I always make attempts to get organized, and I have good intentions, but it always goes to hell. I’ve never been able to keep my bedroom clean. I think it’s important to have enough shelving/drawers/boxes/filing cabinets/etc. That’s what I’ve always lacked. It’s impossible to stay organized when you have more stuff than places to put it all.

  25. Bea W

    One person’s order is another person’s disorder. :) The key to staying organized is to find what works for you. Trying to organize yourself in a way that goes against your own style is a set up for failure. I wish there were an easier way to find one’s organizational style. I feel like it’s a lot of trial and error, at least it has been for me.

    I’m the same way as the LW describes – very organized electronically and in my approach to work projects, but my physical space is another story, and no matter what I do with it, things magically revert to their prior state. Here’s the thing though. I know where everything is. It’s not pretty, but if I can find everything, it’s probably not really as disorganized as I perceive. My perception is based on other someone elses’s standards telling me that tidy and clear = organized. :/

    Well, that really doesn’t work for me. I have to see everything, or it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. Returning things to their its places has to be easy, or I am less likely to do it. I finally figured that out after years of not putting clothing and shoes back where they belonged. I noticed I would take care of the easy things, like putting the socks and underwear away in a drawer, but then I would stall doing more advanced things like putting clothing on hangers or keeping shoes organized and neatly placed in rows or whatever. I have a hard time maintaining that. Actually, I can’t maintain it at all.

    The solution for me was to take a cue from the clothing that I did get put away – which was everything I could fold up into a pile and place in a drawer or on a shelf. Each type of clothing had its own drawer in the bureau – easy. The closet? everything was in one place with no visual cues as to how it should all go back in. It was a lot more mental and physical effort to put things back in some kind of order. Shoes? I gave up trying to keep them neatly lined up or on a shoe rack. Someone told me they had bought boxes, and each box held a different type of shoe. So there would be a box of pumps and a box of flats, a box of slippers, etc. This solved the problem of my shoes all ending up in a clump all over the closet floor, and my not putting them away. I bought some boxes, sorted out my shoes in a way that was logical to me, and it’s been fabulous. I can just toss my shoes in the right box, but they don’t end up all over the floor making it hard for me to find what I want.

    I haven’t perfected my desk, but I did somehow figure out long ago that I best kept certain things organized with bins and cups. I have a big pen and pencil holder. Keeping them in a tray in my desk drawer doesn’t work. Remember how my brain works – out of sight out of mind, and putting things back needs to be as simple as possible. If I use a drawer tray I can’t find my pens, and I can’t ever seem to put them back when I do take them out. Same with clips and things. I have a set of individual mesh cups in various sizes for all the things I use all the time – pens, small, medium, and large clips, tacks, etc. I also use open trays for documents and notebooks, and one of those wire file stands where I have labeled folders that hold documents I need easy access too and things I am working on and things I am currently working on . There are piles of things on my desk too.

    It doesn’t look great, especially since things have a habit of migrating positions depending on what I’m doing over time. This is what works for me though. The more I can let go of trying to organize in the way I perceive others (people, media, whatever) think is acceptable and figure out what works for me, the better I seem to maintain it.

    My biggest problem is keeping up with clearing out trash and clutter. It is very easy for me to drop things my desk after a meeting or something, and then forget about them. I have many good intentions to keep on top of tossing away things I no longer need to hang on to, but have not mastered it. The best I have been able to do sort of well is put all this stuff in one pile in a corner and purge it periodically. At least now it stays confined to the one pile.

    1. fposte

      “The solution for me was to take a cue from the clothing that I did get put away ”

      This is an excellent thought. So often behavior isn’t just about strength of will but about the systems that support it–where better to look than the system that *does* allow you to do what you want?

  26. jesicka309

    When I had a job that was very hectic, I used a day planner to organise my tasks – this worked really well for me.

    When I sat down at work every day, the first thing I’d do was whip out my day planner. I’d spend the first 15 minutes if my day reading my emails, and writing a ‘to do’ list. I’d also look at my ‘to do’ list from the day before to see if there were tasks I missed.

    Some tasks were not urgent (eg. tidy out the storage shed) and would end up on my list for weeks. But that one day when I had no more time senstive work to do, ‘tidy storage shed’ would get done. I’d add things to my list as the day went on (someone dumps a pile of papers on my desk, so I’d organise and add them to my list).

    It was the best way to plan my workload – seeing a list of my tasks helped me prioritise. Having the day planner meant that if someone asked ‘Hey jesicka309, did you send out those reports?’ I could flip back and see which day it was crossed off my list.And having the roll over of tasks meant that I never felt stressed to ‘complete’ unnecessary tasks before coming home, which was a problem for me at one stage – I was wasting time on non-essential tasks like the storage shed, so I had to stay back to do the reports, all for the sake of having an empty ‘to do’ list.

  27. BCW

    Overall I hate the way people describe what is “organized” and what isn’t. I’m very cluttered, but I can get anything I need at any time. If someone needed something from my desk when I wasn’t there, I could also tell them where it would be. But from the outside, no one would say I am organized, because I’m not neat and tidy in the traditional way. I’ve worked with some people who are considered very organized, and they forgot more things and missed more deadlines than I ever did.

    This really hits a nerve for me because when I was a teacher, my administrators spent more time criticizing how my desk looked than they spent talking about my instruction (which was good). When I confronted them about it, they made a decent point that it wasn’t as much about me as about modeling for my students, which did make some sense, but overall it was still very annoying. My personal opinion is that until I start forgetting things and not getting things done, why do you care what my system is? Just because its not one that would work for you, doesn’t make it any less effective.

    1. Jen in RO

      I have this argument with my boyfriend on a weekly basis. Just because *he* can’t find something on my desk doesn’t mean I don’t know where it is!

  28. Alex

    It can be done. I was new when I started this company, and I was forever losing track of things, missing things, etc. My desk was a nightmare- to the point where a manager came over and helped me organize it. Eventually, I put a few systems in place that work for me. Some of the ones that are not vital, like you I gradually lose track of, but we are on a quarterly system and at the beginning of the quarter I go through and redo them to see where I am. My desk is still the messiest at the office, but I consistently get feedback from my clients that I am one of the most on-top-of-things people they have ever worked with 0.0

  29. Diane

    I’ve come back to this thread a few times today (because it’s cool / because I’m procrastinating). Right after the first visit, I cleaned my desk–as in moved everything off and washed it. Woo hoo! Next visit, I looked up pomodoro timers and realized I already do that with housework, but I call it blitzing, and I have a buddy 300 miles away (we call and check in every 25 minutes with accomplishments and next steps).

    I have no useful tips. I get organized whenever I move (home or office, doesn’t matter), then my meticulous organizational systems slowly devolve. I think it’s time to move again.

  30. Jen in RO

    My problem is that my idea of organization is very time-consuming – basically I’d like everything to be in its neat little drawer and each drawer would be divided in lots of small compartments. (If my house could look like an Ikea store, I would be happy.) But, even when I can find the actual boxes/drawers/organizers, actually putting all the things in the right place takes too much time… so (my reasoning goes) if it won’t be perfect, why bother? Everything can just lie in this pile here.

    My second problem is that I want everything to be in reach, which basically means that I’d like to move my entire house to be within 2 meters of my desk… (I dream of one of those little refrigerators, that would mean I’d only have to get up to pee… yes, I am very lazy.)

    I’m working on the desk thing, though – I plan on ordering a custom shelf where I will be able to store my nail polish, makeup and jewelry, in compartmentalized boxes, off the desk and out of the cat’s claws. (If you have any tips and tricks about storing girl stuff like that, please let me know!)

    1. Bea W

      I struggle with letting go of the perfectionism which blocks me from doing things like this. If I think I can’t get it perfect, I will leave it all in a pile. When I can manage to convince myself that it doesn’t have to look perfect, it’s easier. I like little draws and bins for storing that stuff. The great thing about draws is that it hides the fact that your stuff inside isn’t all perfectly and neatly ordered and arranged just so. So it’s good enough for me if all the nail polish is in a little drawer by itself without being all neatly arranged by color and perfectly placed in rows like in a salon.

  31. ThursdaysGeek

    I’m way late on this one, but for work organization, I have a journal, but it’s not paper, it’s just a notepad file (a new one for each month). In it, I keep track of my time, what project I’m working on, and any issues I want to note. That way, at the end of the day, I can easily figure how where I spent my time (for my time card), and at the end of the week, I can go back and write up a status email for my boss. Months later, I may have a situation and I remember solving it before, and I can search the files and find out how I solved it last time.

    In addition, for each project, I use Outlook’s sticky notes. I move the notes depending on their status, and assign colors to organize them as well. Each day, I open the notes I’m going to work on that day, and it has a list of tasks I need to do. As I finish one, I cut it from the sticky note and paste it in my journal.

    Between my sticky notes (need to do); my journal (what I’ve done); and my weekly status (summary of both), I can keep track very well of all work.

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