Organizing Information


Organized Living in a Disorganized World


We are bombarded with so many factors that perpetuate disorganization. Computers, fax machines, cellular phones, and on-line services enable us to do more - and require us to do more. The speed of the microchip doubles every 18 months, with no end in sight. There is also a greater sense of urgency due to rising expectations. If I can e-mail you a question in 20 seconds, why can't you return my e-mail just as quickly?

However, it's not as bleak as it may seem. In fact, I can help you learn how to use organizing skills to survive - and even thrive. You will streamline every aspect of your personal and professional life by simply applying these skills. If you have been reluctant to get organized, perhaps you have been misled about what it means. Let me clear up any misunderstandings!

Organization is not neatness. You know that old adage "A place for everything and everything in its place." It is half right. In my experience, the stress comes - not from the clutter - but from wanting to clean up the clutter, and not knowing where to put it. A place for everything is crucial. Everything in its place depends on your needs and your personal style.

Organization is not efficiency. Efficiency is the mechanics of a task, such as "What is the fastest way to get from here to there?" If you look at your "to do" list one item at a time, you can do each item on it. The problem arises when you are trying to attack them all in at once.

Organization is not a destination - it is a journey. Frequently people become frustrated because they organize some aspect of their lives and then suddenly it's all disorganized again. Organizing is an on-going process. As our lives change, so do our organizing needs.

Organization is not a moral issue; in spite of what your mother may have told you. It is a skill. Some people are born with it, and some aren't. But anyone can learn it, if they are motivated and have the right teacher.

So what is organization? Ask these three questions. Does it work? Do you like it?" And, if what you do affects others, "Does it work for others?"

If you have trouble getting organized, you're not alone. In USA Today, a poll of 3000 people cited that next to losing weight, getting organized was their highest priority. However, we continue to make excuses. If you don't have time, could it be because you waste it unnecessarily because you aren't organized? If you don't know how, have you ever taken a course on getting organized? If you don't want to, is it because you need to try another approach?

It's time to break down the barriers that are preventing you from getting organized.

Here are some ideas to get started:

1) Decide what really matters

Identifying some things that are really important to you can serve as a great motivator to get organized. Many businesses have mission statements posted on their walls. Try writing a personal mission statement.

Take a pad and pencil and find a quiet place. List 10 things you love to do. (If eating and sleeping are two of them, write 12!) I tried this exercise, and I was shocked and saddened to discover how difficult it was to even think of 10 things I loved to do. Most of them were simple, non monetary things, like "take a walk in the woods," or "have dinner with my daughter." And most of them - to my dismay -- I had just been "too busy" to do. Ask yourself a hard question such as, "If I only had 6 months to live, what would I be doing?" If you're not doing it right now, why not?

2) Eliminate the unnecessary in your life

My favorite chapter in Taming the Paper Tiger is "The Art of Wastebasketry." Research shows that 80% of what we keep we never use. But we are afraid to let go, afraid we might need it again. I have never met anyone who said their problem is too little stuff. Stuff is our security blanket. Yet, all the stuff in the world will not fill a hole in the heart. An old adage from a textbook in the 1600's said, "Have nothing in your home which you do not know to be useful or think to be beautiful", and I'd like to add, "or love".

The issue of letting go also prevails in our offices. A major step toward better organization in the work place is a File Clean-Out Day. I orchestrated such a day for a major association in Washington, DC several years ago. One gentleman in the office was horrified at the thought of getting rid of boxes of papers they had accumulated over the past 15 years. On my follow-up visit several weeks later, that same gentleman walked up to me, "I knew it," he said, "we threw out those old records, and sure enough someone called me up and asked me if we had them!" "And what happened?" I asked. He paused, and a slow grin appeared on his face. "Absolutely nothing," he replied, "absolutely nothing!"

When you are trying to decide whether to keep something, ask yourself: "What's the worst possible thing that would happen if I didn't have this?" If you can live with the results, get rid of it!

3) Try something different

I believe it was an old Burma Shave sign that read "Choose your rut carefully. You'll be in it for the next 30 miles." Some of us have been fighting disorganization for 30 years. Even when you do get out, it's so easy to slip back in again! It's easier to continue doing the same old thing than it is to change - even when you want to change. But if you keep doing what you've always been doing, you'll keep getting what you've always been getting.

4) Ask for help when you need it

We often do ourselves a terrible disservice by assuming that everything is competitive instead of cooperative. Recently in my own home, I rushed around frantically to take out all the trash before the garbage collectors came. I assumed my husband could see my frustration and would assist me. Finally, as I was walking back in the door, he looked up and asked, "Do you need some help?" "Not now," I answered curtly. He replied, "Why didn't you ask?" (I reminded myself this is the same man who can trip over three pairs of shoes and not notice they're there!) It is not a sign of weakness to ask; it is a sign of ignorance not to.

5) Eliminate perfectionism and procrastination

I have always been the great procrastinator. Then I had the opportunity to work with an art therapist. I had put off creating art, feeling as though I could not express myself the way I truly wanted. One day the art therapist said "Today I want you to draw an ugly picture." I thought a minute, and then felt relief. Anyone can draw an ugly picture - even I can do that. I started to draw and for a moment it looked pretty, and I started to panic, "maybe I can't even do that right". Suddenly, I realized that what I had always called "creative procrastination" was really fear. Fear that I wouldn't be perfect. If I procrastinate long enough, my fear of not getting it done would become greater than my fear of failing, thus I would have no choice but to do it.

6) Choose the right tools

My father used to say to me, "Half of any job is having the right tool." Probably 8 times out of 10, a major stumbling block to organization is not having the right tool.

Consider what happens when you don't have the right tools at the office. In my experience, most offices have miserable filing systems. How can I tell? It's easy - just walk up and down the halls and glance at peoples work space. If they are filled with paper, I can guarantee that the filing system isn't working.

One of the biggest mistakes in disorganized households is not having a "home office" - a place (you like!) to manage the business of life.

7) If a system isn't working, don't try to fix it - start over

Photographs? Filing System? (No, this isn't a mistake - just something to think about!)

8) Manage your "to do" list instead of letting it manage you

In my early days as a professional organizing consultant, I was convinced that if I just got organized enough I'd be able to get everything on that list done. Now I comfort myself with a comment made by a colleague: "A creative mind always has more ideas than the physical body is able to carry out. The only people who finish their 'to do' list are dead." When you leave work at the end of the day, identify the three most important "to do's" for the next day - and do them!

9) Clutter is Postponed Decisions

I learned this from clothes closets! How many items you do find in your closet because you haven't decided whether you'll ever wear them again -- "Maybe someday I'll lose 10 pounds!"

Have you ever walked into your office one morning and said, "Okay. Today I'm going to clean up this mess?" You pick up one piece of paper, then another, and another - and before you know it, the pile on the left is now on the right. There are three choices with any piece of paper: File, Act, or Toss!

10) Forgive yourself when you miss the mark and move on

Human behavior is not like computer software. It cannot be installed. It has to be nurtured.

I'm continually amazed at how much we can learn from children. On a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago I was sitting next to a six-year-old boy who was traveling alone. He was trying his best to entertain himself and was really behaving very well, but frequently he would ask me, "How much longer is it going to be?" After what seemed like the 100th time, I replied, "Only 30 more minutes. It will just take patience." He looked up at me innocently with his big brown eyes and asked, "How long is patience?"

You've already made the first step to a more organized life by reading this article. But be patient with yourself - and with others, when it comes to getting organized. Like a puzzle, take one piece at a time. Organized living in a disorganized world may only be a few more pieces to the puzzle. And then before you know it, you can see the whole picture more clearly.

Barbara Hemphill is the author of Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever. The mission of Hemphill Productivity Institute is to help individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment so they can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives. We do this by organizing space, information, and time. We can be reached at 800-427-0237 or at www.ProductiveEnvironment.com


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