Here is the guidance I give my clients when they complain of confusion and disorganization in their lives.
Bad Memory or Disorganized?
One of the biggest sources of stress in modern life is called by the name ‘disorganization.’ When a person says “I’m disorganized,” I have observed that it usually means one of two things. First, disorganization can manifest as failing to meet commitments, either to oneself or to others. Disorganization can also masquerade as ‘bad memory.’ People come home and realize they’ve failed to pick up their dry cleaning or the necessary groceries for dinner. While real memory disorders no doubt exist, and memory loss due to aging is one of the givens of the human condition, forgetting is often caused by poor memory management rather than poor memory.
Stuff in Our Heads
I have made no secret of the fact that I’m a partisan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) (or GTD for short). Allen’s system is elegant and effective. However, it takes time and energy to fully implement the organizational system that GTD (as well as most other organizational strategies) prescribes. The irony is that when people are beset with problems and swamped by disorganization, time and energy are two things in short supply. What I will describe is not intended to be a full solution but instead a ‘jump start’ that can spring people quickly out of chaos and into a feeling of awareness and control that buys them the time and space to make the next move.
Allen and I agree that disorganization is at least partially a psychological phenomenon. The most basic mental dysfunction related to disorganization is keeping ‘stuff’ in our heads that doesn’t need to be there. ‘Stuff’ can be roughly defined as anything that does not contribute to the task right in front of you in the current moment — ideas, appointments, to-do items, any information really.
Many people are surprised to learn that, despite having a fairly static weekly schedule, I frequently don’t know who I’m seeing later on in the day — until I look at my calendar. The identity of the client I’m seeing next hour is ‘stuff’ until that hour gets here. By pushing that ‘stuff’ out of my head, into my calendar, I can be more fully present with the client in my office now.
Two Places to Put Your Stuff
If stuff in the head is the enemy, then where can we banish this foe? There are lots of complicated answers, such as the endless lines of paper-based planning tools at your local office supply store. Meanwhile there are just as many, if not more, online tools. However for the purpose of kick-starting personal organization in one session, I think you need only two very simple tools: a list and a calendar. One third of organizing is putting as much stuff into one of these two places as possible. We’ll get to the other two thirds shortly.
Lists are something I think almost everyone is familiar with. Many people find lists frustrating or unrewarding because they’ve used them and yet failed to get organized in the past. I’ll explain why lists fail and how to work around these failures, but for now, know that the list is the place to put everything that doesn’t have a particular association with a date or time. Items to buy at the grocery belong on a list; a doctor’s appointment doesn’t. As you may have guessed, stuff that has a date and time association belongs on the other half of your organizational toolkit, the calendar.
How many lists should you have? Many people find it useful to have different lists for different purposes. The downside to this is that you end up with a lot of lists to manage. For the purposes of this organizational kick-start, I suggest having one list for absolutely everything that doesn’t belong on a calendar. Nothing is preventing you from adding more specialized lists later.
Everything that doesn’t belong on a list belongs somewhere on your calendar. Like lists, calendars are mundane and people fail to reach a comfortable level of organization with calendars. However, these failures are based on common mistakes you can easily avoid.
Three Essential Habits
If organization were a sentence, the calendar and the list would be the ‘nouns’. Anyone who’s ever bought a day planner with high hopes of ‘becoming organized’ knows that carrying it around won’t get the job done. There are three ‘verbs’ needed to round out the organizational sentence. For the grammatically-minded, these are all verbs of the ‘present continuous’ tense: they must be practiced repeatedly and frequently. The job is never over. It is these three habits that transform two old and tired tools — the calendar and the list — into a working organizational machine.
Keeping Tools Available (Always)
The trouble with stuff is that it can show up anytime: at night, on the weekends, in meetings, in the shower, or in the car. ‘Stuff showing up’ is more commonly described as ‘making an appointment,’ ‘having an idea,’ or ‘realizing I need to do something.’ The tools can’t work if they’re not in your hands. The organizational rookie mistake is to say “I’ll write that down in a minute.” It invites failure in two ways. First, how many times have we all said we’d do something “in a minute” and then promptly forgotten to do it? Second, even if we do remember to write it down, it stays in our head as stuff until we do. That’s why keeping the tools near at hand is the first absolutely necessary habit of organization.
Even if your calendar and list are in your hands 24-7, they’re still useless until you develop two habits. The first is to recognize stuff when it comes up. For the uninitiated, it’s easy to have stuff right at the front of your mind and not recognize it as such. Almost any thought could be stuff: a worry, an idea, a daydream, a memory. The acid test is this: is this thought something I need to think in order to do what I’m doing right now, and only right now? Anything else is probably stuff that needs capturing.
If you’re starting to capture stuff in your head for the first time, or you’ve let the habit go for a while, stuff may be piled high. It can make sense to do what David Allen calls a “mind sweep” which means to survey your thoughts for stuff. Surveying your home or office is another way to trigger the discovery of stuff. A common experience of people doing the “mind sweep” is how much mental freedom they feel now that they’re not carrying all that stuff in their heads.
People who succeed at capturing their stuff because they keep their tools at hand and have a good eye for the stuff in their heads can still be disorganized without the habit of regular review. I’m not the only one who has missed an appointment because I didn’t look at my calendar until it was too late. The fact is that even if you capture stuff, stuff will not leave your head until you trust yourself at a gut level to review and act on what you’ve captured.
Remembering to review your calendar and your list can be hard, but to make it easier, pick a part of your daily routine that’s fairly constant and dependable, and add your review to that routine. So you might do your review right after you brush your teeth in the morning, or after dinner in the evening. The key is to use what you already do in your life to ‘anchor’ this new behavior into your day.
The Fruits of Your Labors
Good organization is something you can feel. Some people describe it as a weight being lifted off them. Others get a sense of spaciousness in their own mind. When your tools and your habits are good enough (not perfect, not even great, but simply good enough) you’ll start to feel the benefits. What I’ve described here is far from complete or comprehensive. Other authors have already done that. Think of this simple two-tool, three-habit process as a preview or an appetizer to the visceral benefits of organizing your mind and your life.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by