Three Critical Questions That Will Unlock Your Organizing Potential

This article first appeared on Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 3: Organizing, subscribe and buy here

Every morning hundreds of thousands of individuals repeat the same mantra:

Where the hell are my keys?

It’s the classic case of the seemingly trivial ruining the start of your day and hampering your levels of organization.

Organized people have mastery of three key pieces of information:

What: I always have the resources that I need at my disposal.

When: I am able to carry out my responsibilities in a timely way, without the need to rush.

Where: I can locate the things I need, and be where I need to be.

In the keys example, where is the point of failure. The classic refrain I left my wallet at home demonstrates you haven’t mastered the what component.

Putting your keys in a place where they can be easily retrieved does not require a degree in quantum mechanics.

The Challenge of the Disorganized

The frustrating truth about being organized is that it’s not a complicated thing to do.  Putting your keys in a place where they can easily be retrieved does not require a degree in quantum mechanics; neither does remembering to put your wallet in your pocket. So why do we find it so hard, and how do we fix it?

Life is Complicated

It’s easy to forget just how hard our brains have to work just to process stuff that we consider to be “background.”  The amount of visual, audio and olfactory data the brain has to process each second is dizzying, even though the vast majority of that data isn’t relevant to what we’re doing at that time.  In fact, the brain does take a few shortcuts in handling this onslaught of data, and much of the information that you see or hear is discarded before it gets stored.  This is why it can be difficult to recollect details of even recently observed scenes, like a traffic accident.  If that weren’t bad enough, our brains have a tendency to fill in the gaps with implied or derived information when we attempt to retrieve it, which can lead us to think we’ve seen or heard things that didn’t happen.  This is why you can set off on your morning journey convinced you’re fully prepared for the day, when in fact your brain has skipped over a key task like picking up your wallet.

Fixing Your Broken Brain

Some time ago, I found myself standing in the changing room of a sweaty gym wondering how on earth I was going to deal with the fact I hadn’t packed a complete change of clothes for work. I vowed there and then to put an end to my disorganized streak and embed some new habits to tackle what I coined The Curse of the Stupid Smart Guy.

Create Checklists

This is a big one to get right.  You might not be a “checklists person” but this can be a great aid in addressing the what aspect of the organization. I set up two basic checklists to address my daily morning routine: packing my gym bag and leaving for work.

I use Analyst for this, which is free if you stick to the basic version, and enables me to check off each item daily before resetting the list.  I can’t emphasize how much calmer the first 15 minutes of my commute have become now that I’m no longer running and re-running a mental checklist. Did I pack my shoes? Do I have my wallet?

You could implement these checklists as ad-hoc or recurring tasks in a task manager like Omnifocus, but I like the separation that comes with using a separate app.  This way I don’t have to see *things that belong in my gym bag* when I’m reviewing my todo list.

Be Still and Activate Your Resting State Network

I’m strongly convinced that much of my scatterbrained side is attributable to the fact that I’m rarely ever stationary.  My natural state is buzzing from one thing to the next, and in this state, I often find that I’ve moved onto the next thing before the current activity is finished.

My new commitment has been to find opportunities to be still and focus on being present in the moment. This method requires a high degree of concentration and self-awareness at first, as it can be more difficult than you’d think to catch yourself in a moment of distraction.

In his book Autopilot, Andrew Smart talks about the concept in Neurology of a “Resting State Network”—parts of the brain that become active only when you are at rest.  According to Andrew, this process of being idle is essential in allowing your brain to “catch up” and organize itself.  He goes on to postulate that people who do not allow themselves this idle time suffer reduced effectiveness and could even be putting their health at risk.

The idea of the brain needing time to get itself organized after a busy period resonates with me, just as I can recognize that ahhh! the moment that occurs when I take time out of my tasks to pause and reflect.  I can also believe that failure to take these moments is one of the contributing factors to the kind of absentmindedness we experience in our disorganized moments.

Improve Mindfulness

The final component of my “fix your brain” strategy involves examining carefully where your attention is at any given moment and taking steps to ensure that you’re focused on the right things, in the right way.

A quick Google search turns up the following definition of mindfulness:

A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

–Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press

I like this definition, as it broadens the scope of inquiry to include three distinct and important parts:

– Where is my focus right now?

– What am I thinking?

– What am I feeling?

Having a more mindful outlook will enable you to identify and assess those things that are impacting your ability to operate in an organized and effective way.

Paying attention to where your attention is will help you to identify when it might be necessary to pause and back up a step.

For example, you will certainly have noticed how much harder it is to get things done when you’re emotional, whether that emotion is anger, sadness or something else.  Equally, if you have allowed your focus to be taken up —even just for a second—by something other than your current task, you might want to consider the effect that loss of focus may have had on that task.  If you stopped to placate your screaming toddler whilst heading out to work, is it possible you might have been distracted enough to forget your wallet or your briefcase? Paying attention to where your attention is will help you to identify when it might be necessary to pause and back up a step.

Build Organized Habits

Recognizing that the brain can be inclined to lead us down a disorganized path, and putting steps into place to combat these negative influences are key tactics in achieving a more organized life. My final recommendation is to take some time to consider what two or three core organizational habits you could embed into your routine to make yourself more organized.  Whether it’s packing your bag for work the night before, reviewing your diary each morning or committing to a lunchtime meditation,  the list of possibilities is endless.  What’s important is that you identify an aspect of your everyday life that you perceive to be less than brilliantly organized and consider what simple act or habit you could apply in order to address it.

Identify, Document, Execute, Repeat

Once you’ve identified a couple of key new habits to try on, I recommend you use a habit-tracking app like Lift or Habit List. Writing your habit down and recording when you’re successful in executing it is essential to codifying it into your routine and forming a kind of psychological “muscle memory” for carrying out that habit. In addition, I recommend taking the time to consider the specific actions you’ll need to achieve the habit and envisioning one or more positive outcomes that will result from successfully embedding it. This is sometimes referred to as visioning.

Finally, you might want to consider putting some kind of reward mechanism in place as an added incentive.  It’s important that the reward doesn’t undermine your habit (such as rewarding a good diet week with chocolate) and should ideally be positively reinforcing (new jeans for successful weight loss for example).

If this all sounds a little basic and prescriptive, that’s because it is. But remember that we’re talking about those aspects of your routine that, despite being the smart, switched-on individual you are, continue to be a source of stress and confusion for you.

Step Up and Join the Ranks of the Organized

Take a moment to imagine the following scenario, three months from now:

You’re chatting with a work friend as you line up to pay.  As you approach the cashier, a horrified look crosses his face as he pats his pockets in furious desperation.  Red-faced, he turns to you:

“Could you lend me some money? I’ve left my wallet at home.”

You happily oblige, reflecting back on the time when you, too, struggled to keep on top of the basic challenges of your everyday routine.  Smiling, grateful, embarrassed, your friend turns to you and says:

“How do you manage to be so organized?