3 Lessons in Organization

Organizations seek organized people.  I used to think I was organized. I made to-do lists, after all. But when I couldn’t find those lists…

So, I’m not very organized. It took me the entire span of college and several failed jobs to realize that. But once you recognize your organizational flaw, there are good habits you can cultivate to turn the tables in your favor. Here are some lessons learned from my first professional ‘office’ experience that I think are useful:

Lesson 1:

Write everything down.

Everything. Don’t trust yourself to remember. I used to think I had a great memory, based mostly on the fact that I memorized more multiplication tables than anyone else in my 4th grade class. I now see my flawed self-evaluation: not only was that more than 10 years ago, back then I didn’t have to remember much more than multiplication tables and the way back home. Life is no longer so straightforward. Each day brings forth a new set of tasks and changing facets.

At the start of your day, write absolutely everything you need to do, including the most mundane. It’s not enough to ‘make a mental note’; the note will magically disappear. In law, nothing exists unless it’s written down and the same applies here. I’ve dropped the ball several times with my co-workers and loved ones, and it hurts your reputation. Even with my Mom, I can’t count the number of times I’ve forgotten to call her back (all-important). Make a concrete note. Write everything down.

Lesson 2:


You can write everything down but if it’s scribbled in a million different places, you’ll spend more time sorting through the scraps than actually getting things done.

This has been my biggest problem. My approach is often ‘grab what’s nearest and start writing when something comes to mind’. My to-do lists are scribbled on random scraps of paper, post-its, my hand, and on occasion, the planner I’m supposed to use. Digitally, I adopted way too many tools to ‘help’ me: Evernote, Google Docs, Do.com, Wunderlist, the list goes on…

I don’t recommend one tool over the other, but I would recommend one. Anyone. It doesn’t matter what, just pick something and run with it. If you hear of a newer, cooler, neater platform, don’t try it. You’ll end up having too many digital platforms to sign in to , which means more log-ins and passwords to keep track of and more mental energy wasted trying to find all the random bits of your life.

Personally, I prefer the old-school method: writing lists out by hand. It commits things to memory and it’s less time staring at a screen (something we could all use more of). But, everyone has different styles, so do what’s easiest for you.

Centralizing = Simplifying

Lesson 3:

It’s about perception.

When all else fails, at least pretend to be organized. Contrary to popular belief, appearing scattered or super busy does not increase people’s faith in your productivity. (Wait, what…me?)

Create an external and internal structure. If you can’t keep all of your personal to-do lists in one place, at least make one for the tasks directly relevant to your co-workers…and share it. Make it look pretty with bullets and compact lists:

  • urgent (top priority – things that will get done immediately)
  • important (second priority – things that will get done soon)
  • ongoing (third priority – things that will get done in the future)

Place deadlines on the urgent task items, so people know when to expect something from you. This keeps you accountable. If you don’t get something done by a listed deadline, everyone knows. This is also helpful for transparency; now your team doesn’t have to question whether you’re doing work or dawdling on Facebook (and even if you are, at least they know what you theoretically should be doing).

Lastly, this is important because sometimes the most you can do is calm people’s nerves. When things are all over the place, it gives people reason to believe you’re disorganized and unaware of what’s going on. Even if that’s not the case (I know plenty of people who are highly efficient without all of these organizational systems), having some sort of external-facing superficial organization shows you know what needs to be done, and puts people at ease.  Yes, appeasement, may in fact, be the most important value-add at the end of the day.


Organization is key in the workplace, but also life. Once these habits are cultivated, space is made for the real meat and potatoes. You spend less time searching for things and more time getting things done.  There’s no better feeling than that.

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