I write for Time Management for iPad magazine, an authority on Time Management. This is my article on organization, originally posted on the Time Management for iPad page in June 2013.
When mice try to navigate a maze, or when humans try to drive home on congested highways, the disadvantage becomes immediately apparent. It is impossible to see around corners or over barriers, or therefore the attainment of a goal must be the result of guesswork, trial and error, progressive learning and some luck.
An observer, however, enjoys the advantage of oversight, being able to watch the progress of maze participants and commuters alike, from above. The observer can see the obstacles, the path home is clear. This is why airborne traffic reporters are such a good idea.
When it comes to getting organized, few people do it well. Endless tasks and priorities tend to overwhelm, leaving people scurrying, head bowed, down one blind alley and then another, in the desperate hope of getting something done by the end of the day.
It is not shameful to have to admit to being poorly organized, since organizational skills are not innate to the majority of people. Human beings are hard-wired to react, not pro-act. When something has to happen now, most of us are good at leaping to action. Some people even prefer to see themselves as “last-minute types” who work better under pressure, which is in essence the opposite of being organized, since it is about living in the here and now, where adrenaline rules. Certainly if short-term reactive action generates a better product than unfocused work spread out over a protracted period, then yes, better work indeed has come from pressure. But that, to me, is like saying, cooking a steak in a microwave oven is better than letting it sit on a counter for a week, getting warmed only mildly by the air around it. There is a missing middle step, a planning step (a recipe) where top-quality can truly be found. I believe that most last-minute people are bored by vagueness and see no middle ground. Yet these people can put their talents to best use by incorporating a plan that includes deadlines for review and revision, steps that lead closer to true excellence.
Organization is a learned skill. We cannot rely on innate ability. Here’s why:
The human brain is really quite good at helping us get through life one event or crisis at a time. However there are two major elements that make organization a very real problem, physiologically speaking.
The first is memory. The human long-term memory system is able to store millions of ideas, events, faces and words, and is able to keep most of them readily accessible for an entire lifespan. However, the human short-term memory system, where the processing of the immediate happens, can only hold about seven items at any one time. This means that a verbally dictated list of ten items to purchase at a grocery store will result in a recollection of seven or maybe eight items by the time the store is reached, unless a distraction happens along the way, which will result in an immediate “taking over” of the short-term memory system, flushing the ten-item list away, and leaving one or two residual items available for recall once the distraction is over.
The second hindrance to true, innate organizational skills is emotion. Humans are ruled by emotion first and logic second. Every person, every physical space, every activity and experience is assessed first by our reflexive emotional side, to ensure there is no danger being presented. Every purchase people make, from buying shoes to selecting a vendor for a corporate contract, is overridden by emotion. Things have to feel right. There should be no fear. These are subjective judgments made by human emotion. Only after these have been satisfied can we then rationalize our decisions with logic.
The short-term memory issue hinders true organization by the very limited amount of information it can handle. When a person has to organize tasks, or a workplace, or an inbox or a to-do list, the number of items involved quickly exceeds the amount of space available in short-term memory to handle them. They become a mass of indistinguishable obligations, and the human brain is unsuited for effective deciphering of such things.
Then, the second problem – reflexive emotion – comes into play. As the tasks that require organization grow beyond manageable, the brain and body perceive them as a threat. Clarity of thought is replaced by fight-or-flight reaction, which is why so many people find it so hard to prioritize tasks and so easy to procrastinate. These two conditions are two sides of the same coin: the impossibility of organizing due to mental paralysis.
The solution to organizational challenges, then, is to move up to the level of the observer. The weaknesses presented by short-term memory and reflexive emotion force people to operate at ground level, just like a mouse in a maze. There seems to be no time to get one’s bearings when there is just so much to do. However, when a person can obtain a bird’s eye view, patterns and opportunities appear. You become your own traffic reporter, able to see blockages, alternate routes and goals with ease.
How is this done? Simply by taking the time to write things out. The medium used would be up to the individual: a pad of paper and a pen; a blank wall and some sticky notes; a dry-erase board; or a computer-based application; anything that allows two key things to happen: first that the jumble of ideas, obligations and deadlines swimming around in short-term memory are actually pulled out of the brain and deposited securely on a tangible surface; and secondly that time is actually taken to do this. Time is an ally, not an enemy. Time spent writing things out gives the thinking brain a moment to work things around and develop ideas. Then, the space created in the short-term memory area by downloading the initial ideas onto paper or a whiteboard, gives the brain somewhere to put these next steps. The traffic jam starts to clear. Tangible items – sticky notes, written words – can be moved around. Arrows can be drawn connecting one idea to another. Project plans can be laid out, accurately scheduling work tasks over days not hours. People become motivated and enthusiastic rather than fearful and elusive. Vision makes ideas real, and sets the enormous potential of the human being to action.
The best primary tool for organizing does not come from a box. It sits on your shoulders, encased not in bubble-wrap, but in an envelope of protective emotion. Once that envelope is removed by way of the perceived security of the written word on a tangible surface, true organization, and true progress, becomes an open road.