I was gratified this morning to read this article in the New York Times by Sara Rimer: An orderly office? That’s personal. The article reports on Lisa Whited, an interior designer who specializes in adapting work spaces to the needs, habits, and goals of their users. She’s not your typical “get rid of the clutter now!” organizer. Instead of boilerplate suggestions for getting organized, Whited begins her jobs by interviewing clients to determine their specific work habits and styles.
What particularly caught my attention was that after interviewing her client (the author of the article), Whited surmised that she was the kind of person who needed to see things in front of her or else she forgot she had them, so putting things away in a filing cabinet might not be an effective organizational strategy. Reading those words, I wanted to reach into the paper (well, into the laptop–I read the Times online now) and wrap my arms around Whited and thank her for validating my life.
Out of Sight Out of Mind
See, I’m an out of sight out of mind kind of guy. Just today I came to work without my wallet (it was “put away” in a drawer), and twice last week I came to work without my phone (it was charging in another room.) I pretty much have to organize my morning so that anything that requires my attention (phone, wallet, pants. Well, maybe not pants, I’ve effectively habitualized that one) needs to be visible to me when I’m leaving the house.
Likewise, with work. My whole organizational strategy is about keeping important things in my field of vision. If I’m not looking at it, it may as well not exist. (Note to friends and family: Apologies for being out of touch but I forgot that you existed.)
Since there’s only so much that I can keep on my desk, it’s generally not possible or practical to have too many physical reminders (notes, papers, etc.) in my field of vision. That’s why I rely heavily – VERY heavily – on text message and email reminders which I liberally set for myself using Google Calendar. (Note to Google Calendar: I’m not saying I’d leave my wife for you, but I admit we have something very special.)
Everyone I’ve ever worked with has learned that I will not see a message unless it’s placed on my chair seat. I’ve learned that if I need to do something first thing in the morning, I leave a note on my keyboard where I can’t miss it. Before text message reminders came into my life I relied heavily on taping notes to the doorknob at home (“remember to go to meeting in Trenton this morning!”)
While paper reminders in my field of vision can help, they also have their downside. One piece of paper can be accidentally placed over another piece of paper. Or it can blow away. Or it can have coffee spilled on it. For these reasons, I’ve actually arranged my work life to be as free from paper as possible. There’s probably the equivalent of 20 reams of paper sitting on my desk right now, most of it in colored folders. 98% of it has been generated by someone else and given to me at a meeting or conference. If it’s something I think I may ever want to reference again, I’ve trained myself to scan it into PDF so I have an electronic copy. One great benefit of putting everything into electronic format is that, thanks to Google Desktop Search, I can find anything I ever “touched” on my computer — email, website, pdf, etc. — immediately, and sometimes quicker!
Don’t Judge My Piles!
While these piles on my desk may look like a mess to the outside observer, I like having them visible because they remind me to look through them now and then and pull out little tidbits. A note jotted in the margin a of a Powerpoint handout from a conference presentation or a handout from a workshop I’ve given (and completely forgotten about) can trigger new insights and connections, or give me a new perspective on a problem I’m dealing with. I like the serendipity of it. It’s both relaxing to me and stimulating.
Perhaps one reason most “get organized” books fail to help people like me is that they’re written by people who are not at all like me—they’re written by people who equate neatness with organization, and assume that a neat orderly environment is an a priori good and an end unto itself. I think the authors of these books are people who feel stressed out when they see a lot of stuff, so by gum they’re not only gonna put away their stuff, they’re gonna make sure MY stuff is put away too!
But they fail to appreciate that many people (like me) are NOT like them—we don’t function best when everything is “put away”, nor are we particularly stressed by clutter. In fact, I’m generally oblivious to clutter. I don’t even see the piles of paper on my desk.
Organization Is Not an End Unto Itself
This is what I want to tell the neatniks, declutterers, straighteners, and put-awayers of the world: Organization is a tool. It is a means to an end but it is NOT an end unto itself. The end is effectiveness. Happiness. Comfort. Flow. And I need lots of stuff around to achieve those states. So thanks for trying to help, but my brain isn’t wired like yours. So if I need help getting organized I’ll call Lisa Whited because she understands. It’s personal.
Links added April 2:
March 26, 2009 at 10:59 am Peter Bromberg
When I was promoted to Program Coordinator for MPOW back in August 2006 my job changed in many ways, and one of them was the volume of voice mail I received grew exponentially almost overnight. I have never been a fan of voice mail, so to go from getting 3-4 messages per day at most to getting 15-20+ on most days made me unhappy (and somewhat disorganized) for several months. I struggled with how to keep track of all the messages and worried constantly that I had not returned a call or had left a task undone. I found I was constantly scribbling a message on a scrap of paper or on a post-it note then losing track of who I had called and when — or, worse still, misplacing the scrap of paper with the message and then wasting time looking for the scrap.
It is more than obvious if you have ever heard me speak that I am a big fan of 2.0 web tools and other online freebies to keep myself organized. I simply could not live without Jott to send myself reminder messages on the commute to work or without all the assorted lists for packing, Christmas shopping, house projects, etc that I have stored on Ta-da Lists. I am an avid user of Google Docs and Calendar and can’t imagine what I would do without sites like SlideShare and Doodle. Still, in all this 2.o goodness I could not find a simple and effective way to keep my voice mail under control.
Then I stumbled upon a simple office supply item that has been my savior for the last 15 months – the voice mail log. I know this is not rocket science and it is more than likely that many readers have been using VM logs for years, but I have shown mine to a few people lately who had not heard of them or used them and they are now proud and happy owners of their own log books.
Now, you don’t need to actually buy a VM log (a simple dedicated notebook could do), but the way the log is set out it really allows you to record every transaction in completion and it can even act as an archive for future reference. Also, for less than $4 the price is nothing to quibble over. The exact log that I use is pictured here and I have filled a few of them in the last year.
I have my own code that I have developed for detailing each transaction and I leave a notation for when I called back, action taken, decision made, etc. I also like that there is a check box for when I am done with a VM. I am a list maker and I like crossing items off my lists so the VM log satisfies this need.
I find that I also use it as a rolodex and impromptu phone book. I am constantly looking up numbers in my VM log as it sits right next to my phone and on more than one occasion I was able to sort out possible problems based upon the notes in my VM log. I can tell you exactly when an author first contacted me about speaking, I write down dates and times for programs as a back up to the shared programming calendar (which sometimes has entries go missing since more than a dozen people have access), and it also quantifies what I do with my day.
While I prefer to use chat/IM, I know that most of the people I work with to book programs prefer the telephone so I have to accept VM as a part of my job. It is highly unlikely that I will ever like communicating via voice mail, but at least I have found a way to make it manageable and I have even found unexpected benefits all because of my oh so 1.o VM log.
If anyone has a better solution for voice mail, I would be happy to hear about it. Also, I would be interested to hear what paper-based office solutions you just can’t live without.
May 20, 2008 at 12:54 pm Janie Hermann