Thursday, February 4, 2010

An Organized Mind is a Dangerous Think

"An organized desk is the sign of a sick mind." Remember that chestnut? I , too, laughed away my organizational skills (or lack thereof) for years. But over time it became apparent that I needed to get a handle on my desk, car, sewing room, etc.

So I read all the self-help books and tried all the systems. I tried color coding files, which actually helped, for a while. I used blue for projects/assignments, red for critical deadlines, and green for administrative tasks like expense reports and time sheets. After a while, though, I'd be too busy to get up and find or order the right colors, and then I was back to plain manila folders, scattered everywhere.

I tried setting up a tickler file system, which I now realize was too complicated. I tried keeping "to-do" lists, which also helped for a while. Except I kept forgetting to put things on the list, or I'd put things down like "Make a to-do list" or "Eat lunch." I kept trying to include things I would do or had already done so that I could mark something as completed.

Each time I tried a new system and then abandoned it, I felt like a failure and became more sensitive about my disorganization. Then one day I was talking with a colleague about personal areas for improvement and I mentioned being disorganized. She was shocked and said, " But you're the most organized person I know." What???

I laughed nervously as she explained. "You always have whatever I need, your work is timely, you proofread and edit carefully. So what if your desk has a lot of paper on it? The papers are necessary for your job. You never lose anything, and I can find things when you're not here."

And she was right. I was so used to seeing myself as disorganized that I didn't notice that all my failed efforts at organization had actually paid some dividends. Sure, I gave up on using other people's systems. Just because the systems worked for someone else didn't mean they'd work for me. But each time I tried something new, I adjusted and improved.

I think I'm better organized now, but I really have to work at it. About once a week I try to catch up on filing, so it doesn't completely get away from me. I've carefully organized my electronic files in folders that make sense to me. I am getting rid of the stuff that accumulates over the years. I mean, do I really need to save the name badges from the conferences I've attended? No, I don't.

And now I'm a proponent of organizing things in baskets or bins. A new trick this year for holiday decorations: instead of gathering all the bells in one box, all the garland in another and all the candles in yet another, I packed the decorations for the mantle in one box, layered a holiday towel over top, then packed the decorations for the piano in the next layer. Then - get this - I labeled the box. I'm so excited!

Career counselors tell us we need to be aware of both our strengths and our weaknesses (or developmental opportunities, as I think of them). Among my strengths: an ability and desire to see all sides of an issue before making decisions, strong written and oral communication skills, and a creative mind. Among my developmental opportunities, continuing to improve my organizational skills, take more thorough project notes, and wanting to give people the benefit of the doubt for too long (or is that a strength?). All in all, I like to think these balance out on the positive.

What are your developmental opportunities? Do you wish you could build stronger relationships with colleagues? Be a better proofreader? A better employee or employer? A better partner? Can you do one thing differently that will help you improve? What will you do differently today? And now I'm going to clean out the laundry room cupboard and organize the contents in plastic baskets. With labels.