For those of you out there for whom organization comes easily, I am probably preaching to the converted, but for some of us we struggle with skillset. The zen of organization is the moment when you find a system of organization that naturally compliments your daily life and routine.
When your organization system and daily habit are not harmonized, the result is the chaos-clean cycle. Accompanying this cycle is the pride-shame cycle. We feel proud and calmed with an organizes space, and chaotic and shameful when our office looks like the file cabinet threw-up.
For the chronically or even pathologically unorganized, I am sure you have said to yourself that the mess doesn’t bother you. In fact I am sure you actually believe the mess doesn’t bother you. I know, because before I found my zen, I thought that too.
The fallacy of “it doesn’t bother me.” Rather than answer the question does it bother you, ask yourself how many times in the past month have I misplaced something? How many times in the last month was I late for court or an appointment because I couldn’t find something or because I forgot about a conflicting appointment?
As you sit here today, if a client from four years ago came in and asked for a copy from their file, would you know where to find it that moment? When someone calls, what is the probability that you can quickly locate a functional pen and piece of paper in your office? Do you know where you bar card, notary, and court admissions certificates are right this moment? Is there a drawer in your desk that you have to sift through to find a paperclip in?
Even if just one of the above applies to you, that is lost time. Lost time is lost money, and time-based loss is exponential. You are hemorrhaging money because of that mess that “doesn’t bother you.” Does lost money bother you?
It’s more than that though. Routine is comforting to the mind. For people struggling with depression, one of the first things that is suggested is to plan set a routine: Wake up time, shower, chores, breakfast, work, lunch, work, relaxation, dinner. The purpose of the routine is to relax the mind. To not require mental band width on day-to-day decisions, you just stick to the routine and can run on auto pilot, and thus free your limited energy during a depressive episode toward therapy, work, and getting well.
The reason chores are integrated into the routine, making the bed, cleaning, dishes, laundry, is because if everything is in it’s place, no mental bandwidth is taken remembering where something is, or stressing because something is lost. Everything is clean and ready and in its place.
Easier said than done, I know. I had advised clients, friends, family of this very true and good advice, but struggled terribly with implementing it into my own life. It wasn’t for lack of effort, either. My home and office are a graveyard of failed organizational systems. It all changed for me when a friend of mine who started an organizational company came over to do an inter-“friend”-sion for me. I need remedial help and I knew it.
This is what I learned that helped me find my Zen:
Your organizational system does not have to work for anyone else, it has to work for you.
What that means is, you have to create a system with how your day to day life functions. For example, if there are things you need everyday without fail, store them all together in an easily accessible area even if to someone else they wouldn’t imagine those items going together. By doing so, you create a one-stop-shopping location for all your daily essentials, and you don’t risk messing up any of the less used areas you are taking the time to organize with rummaging. It also means you have to know your patterns. I am a chronic paper hoarder. I live in perpetual fear that if I throw out a document or envelope that immediately and spontaneously it will turn out that I need the document, which will bring impending doom. It’s irrational, but truly, I get anxiety about when or when not to throw something out.
So for me, a chronic mess area is a stack of papers on my desk. I quickly realized that unruly stacks of paper were a problem for me because I would misplace documents within the stack and lose valuable time trying to find what I needed. The adage really is true, if you don’t have time to do it now, you won’t have time to do it later. So I had to bite the bullet and take the time. I divided the paper into shred, file, scan, or complete, and I bought a small paper shredder to keep right next to my desk. I also adopted a paper mantra, “No, do it now.” When the mail comes I immediately, shred, scan, file or complete whatever document I have received. I also don’t set myself up for failure by trying to open mail when I know I don’t have time to deal with it. So my mail sits in a designated mail bin, and I address it all at once in scheduled time that I block out for myself. Ever since my paper problem has been solved. That’s my solution, maybe that works for you maybe it doesn’t but just remember, it is what works for your that matters.
Procrastination is another major issue for me. Not due to laziness, or lack of desire to complete things. To the contrary, I get great satisfaction in completing projects. Yet somehow, I spent a huge portion of my career scrambling to meet deadlines, no matter how hard I tried. I had a very organized supervisor try to help me implement their organizational system, and I tried so hard to make it work, but it was just a dismal failure. Outlook reminders would pop-up but I would be on a conference call and snooze them, and then I would have a delinquent list of tasks on top of new tasks for the day, and very quickly that feeling of doom would invade and inertia would dominate from being so overwhelmed.
This experience made me realize a few really important things. I am a chronic under-estimator of time, and over-estimator of my speed and ability to complete tasks. Compounding this, while I am capable of multi-tasking, I prefer linear work – doing one thing to completion. I also realized that for better or worse, I have better recall with handwritten notes and documents, so the world may be using outlook, and I do as well, but at the end of each day I transcribe to my paper calendar, so it sticks in my brain, as well as being in my book. Again, this is the process to my Zen, yours may be different.
My solution was a lot more simple than I realized. First, I had to stop over booking myself with tasks. There are only so many hours in the day. I had to start giving myself adequate time to complete the work. Knowing that in any given day I may be bombarded with calls or emails, and that I still will have errands or other miscellaneous tasks to accomplish, I set a cap of three short written tasks a day, or one long. Then, for the last hour and a half of every day, I put my eyes and hands on every file, just for a few minutes, to review and determine next tasks. I do one thing in furtherance of every file for that last hour and a half so even if it isn’t that file’s day for task completion, every client’s project is moving forward, while I am still accommodating my linear task completion style overall.
Yet another life changing realization was, “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist to me.” Some people met that developmental object permanence milestone, and while I realize people exist when they aren’t there in front of me, for some reason the concept didn’t generalize in my brain to actual objects. For me to function efficiently, when I open a drawer, everything in the drawer has to be visible to me within it. So I purchased a series of plastic drawer organizing trays and glass mason jars and started sorting my drawers. Top drawer is what I use every day, once again, it makes sense to me, I don’t care what anyone thinks about the fact that my calendar and thumbdrives and pens are in the same drawer. I use them daily, I only have to touch one drawer to get what I need, and that means the rest of my drawers are not disturbed on any regular basis.
This same issue had to be applied to my file cabinet as well. My files are now in different color files, with a large font label with the client name. My criminal case files are red, my writing assignments files are yellow, and my civil case files are green – the colors may seem arbitrary, but in my mind red is alarming as is the seriousness of the case, so I can easily see a red file quickly. Writing is calming and happy for me just like the sunny color yellow. And civil cases are the pursuit of a monetary award, so green just seemed like the appropriate color. It just has to make sense to you, and help you find what you want when you need it.
One of the most aesthetically pleasing changes was the ugly boxes of reams of paper. I despised looking at them but never could come up with a good alternative. This one 100 percent credit goes to my friend. She had me pick out purchase an inexpensive but attractive bookshelf, and bookends (I got adorable chubby bronze owl bookends that make me smile when I see them). We took all the reams of paper out. I then stored them like a book on their end rather than horizontally on their broadside as they are packed. Truly the most aesthetically pleasing way I have ever seen paper stored. It make it easy to see when I am running low, is neat and organized, and because it’s attractive it contributes to me feeling happy in my space.
The value of happy is what Zen and the Art of an Organized Office is all about. Organization is meant to be the streamlining of the world around you to make your life easier. It isn’t the “adulting” equivalent of having to clean your room. Proof an organization system is working, is not that your office looks neat. Organization systems that work keep your office neat with minimal effort. It requires work to implement, but after that, the right system just sticks because it is tailored to how you and your brain work.
The best example I give to someone is kitchen organization. Everyone in the world who enters a kitchen for the first time, and is left to their own devices has an image in their minds eye of what items should go in what cabinet, and in what manner. This becomes apparent when you go to a friends house, and look for a coffee mug. The first cabinet you open, is the place that it makes sense to you that a coffee mug should be. That is your Zen organizational system – the place where it just makes sense that you would want to go for an item of that nature.
This innate sense of what is the “right,” place for us may be because that is how something was done when we grew up or sometimes it is completely utilitarian, but whatever the reason it is completely unique for each person. Want to spark a debate, post on social media asking people what is the correct way for a toilet paper roll to be hung, which is the proper way to put a glass in a cabinet, upside down or right-side up, does silverware in a dishwasher get loaded with fork tines up or down? Whichever way is your “right,” is your Zen, and all organizational systems in your life should leave you with that same sense of blissful rightness. Happy organizing, may you all find your Zen.