The Slob Reforms

May 06, 2009 |George Halitzka

We may have something to learn about management of time and paperwork from a guy who's gone from pigsty dorm room to clean and efficient home office.

In the depths of Mom's photo boxes, there's a picture of her firstborn son standing up to his ankles in garbage. Regrettably, I'm not visiting in the county landfill ... it's my college dorm room. Dirty clothes and unfinished homework had made my carpet disappear under the rubble.

I was an organizational basket case in college. Worse yet, the chaos wasn't limited to my room: I also made a mess of time, distinguishing myself as the Heavyweight Champion of All-Nighters. Just before a paper was due, I would camp out at the campus radio station where I worked and write till 3 in the morning. Then I'd find an uncomfortable spot on the floor for a nap, and ask the guy working graveyard to wake me in two hours.

With that system, it really stunk when papers were due two days in a row.

There were times when I missed meetings because I forgot, and days when I re-wore my unmentionables because nothing was clean. (Hey, I turned them inside out.) Worst of all, during my senior year, I completely forgot about a group final exam — just didn't show up. I only graduated after I agreed to grovel apologies to the people who got hosed by my absence, and the prof gifted me with a "C."

But even after that disaster, I was sure that getting organized was not in my genes. Daytimers were a tool of the devil designed to shackle freewheeling artists to The Man's arbitrary standards. God just made me the messy type.

Organizational Reform School

Maybe your chaos has never been as bad as mine, but you can relate. You're living in a state of barely-controlled insanity and it's taking a toll.

Or maybe you've made your peace with cluttered time and space — but your boss and girlfriend haven't. So you're headed for Organizational Reform School.

The good news is that organization's a learned skill. Steady effort will lead to improvement, even for born packrats! You just need wise habits in your life.

Of course, you may not want to take advice from a guy whose dorm was a sanitary landfill. So consider how thoroughly I've reformed since college. Here are some of the current features of my office:Because I can't cover everything about organization in 3,000 words or less, I'm focusing on paperwork and time. Those seem to be the areas where most people need help. But alas! — you'll have to tackle your closet without my help.

  • My e-mail inbox usually stays under a dozen messages. Today, it contains none — they're all answered or filed for follow-up.
  • I keep my calendar and task list constantly up to date, because I rely on them every day. (If they contain a mistake, I'm dead meat with one of my clients.)
  • My desk currently has nothing on it — really, nothing. Some days it's not so pristine, but things are almost always in neat piles for tomorrow.
  • Speaking of piles, I have none on my office floor. Papers are in the filing cabinet in labeled folders, and all my "stuff" is in drawers or storage boxes.

You, too, can clean up your act! Even if you don't go to the anal-retentive lengths that I have (and for anyone who's wondering, I neither color-code socks nor iron underwear), small steps can bring you a more functional life.

Why Organize?

As you contemplate your potential as a neat freak, the biggest obstacle may be time. I understand. Remember, I'm the guy who couldn't find an hour to tidy my trash heap.

Yet after college, I discovered a remarkable thing: I could be more productive by spending 15 minutes with my daytimer than an hour rooting around for missing work schedules. Since I made organization a daily habit, it's saved tons of frustration and hours of life.

I probably wouldn't be a published writer now if I hadn't reformed. Ideas are cheap — it's the donkey work of writing that separates the bylined few from the great unpublished masses. Making submissions, strategically harassing editors who don't call you back, and filing 3,000-word features by deadline takes discipline.Ahem ... I did submit this organizational masterpiece a few days after deadline. Do as I say, not as I do? In any line of work, cool ideas are useless without the ability to execute them. So whether you're a writer or a cable guy, good organization will benefit your career.

There are even spiritual reasons to get your life together. Think about my missed group final in college. If I'd spent a few minutes a day keeping a calendar, I would've kept my commitment to the people counting on me. Instead, I decided my time was too precious to be responsible.

Oops. From what I hear, God's into the "putting-others-before-yourself" thing.

If you can get organized, you may save time, advance your career, and please God — all while keeping your coworkers from attacking your desk with garbage bags.

Procrastination and Perfectionism

Until you know — and live — some basic principles, your organizational kick will end before Friday. (How many times have you cleaned your desk "once and for all"?) So let's start with Rule # 1 for organization: Don't procrastinate.

Checking Facebook will always be easier than putting your project deadlines on the calendar. But you'll do the deadline stuff later, right?

Wrong. We both know that "later" only arrives when you're frantically searching your piling system for the memo you forgot three weeks ago. Think about it: you can have a 2-minute distraction now, or a 30-minute stressfest later.

It's also important to clean up your messes as you make them. When you finish a big project, don't leave file folders in piles on the floor for a week! Your Mama was right, the job isn't over until the cleanup's done.

Unfortunately, most of us — despite our best intentions — are going to procrastinate occasionally. My wife Julie, the much-maligned "messy one" in our relationship, could fill you in on the clutter I create when I get home from a trip. If you're a perfectionist, those messes can derail your best efforts and send you back to your old ways. "Why bother?" you grumble. "I blew it — just look at this wreck!"

Uh, news flash: Jesus died because you're a screwup. So when you neglect your filing for a few days (or months), consider it your initiation into the human race. If you forgot to pay a bill, take care of it immediately and move on. Your organizational system isn't destroyed for life!

Don't let procrastination knock you down. But when it does, get over the perfectionism fast. Otherwise, your best-laid plans of mice and men are finished.

Give Things a Home

College was the first time I had to carry my keys and wallet. (Before that, Mommy was at home to bail me out.) I was terrified of losing them in the scary city of Chicago. So in spite of all my other disorganization, I started living one important principle: Always give things a home.

Every night, the keys and wallet went on top of my dresser. Every morning before I left the dorm, I shoved them in my pockets. Result: I didn't have to look for them in five different places and have a panic attack when they went AWOL. If you program your brain to put important things in a certain place, you'll have a much harder time forgetting them.

I realized after college that finding things a home applies to paperwork, too. Try designating places for items that are Unprocessed, In Progress, and Filed for Reference.

Unprocessed. Sometimes, you won't be able to handle an e-mail or a bill as soon as it hits your desk. (Maybe you're in the middle of Roller Coaster Tycoon.) So organizational guru David Allen says it's important to have an "Unprocessed" binIn his book Getting Things Done, Allen calls it an "inbox," but because most people associate that word with e-mail, I'll use the term "Unprocessed." that receives your incoming stuff — items that can't be dealt with right now. On your computer, these are the e-mails in your Inbox that need replies. On your desk, this is a folder for bills and memos and whatever else people inflict on you.

Don't make it a pile — use a bin or folder. (Keeping debris off your desk helps you stay focused.) Ideally, you should empty "Unprocessed" daily (or if your life isn't paper-intensive, weekly). All of its contents should end up in one of four places:

  1. Your recycling bin (or other form of circular file). If it's junk, dump it now.
  2. Your daytimer. Often, you'll get a long e-mail that has precisely one item applicable to you. So don't print off the whole message — just write that one item in your daytimer. Then get the thing out of your Inbox!I recommend setting your computer to archive Deleted Items. That way, you can access old e-mails if you need them using a keyword search — but meanwhile, they won't clutter your Inbox.
  3. Your "In Progress" files. So your coworker just sent you some data to put in the new product brochure. OK — take 30 seconds to make a folder that can hold everything for the project. (You may have an electronic folder on your computer desktop and a physical folder in your file rack.) Then when you sit down to tackle the brochure design, you know just where to find everything.
  4. Your "Filed for Reference" section. Someday, you may need the directions for your fancy new labelmaker — but not today. So quickly make a folder called "Instructions," put that bad boy inside, and throw it in your filing cabinet.

You'll be amazed how much less paper and e-mail will pile up if you deal with things daily. My experience says that most paperwork takes five minutes or less before you can banish it forever.

In Progress. While I was in high school, I worked in a hospital's Medical Records department. As charts for recently-discharged patients arrived, they found an easily-accessible spot in our Temp filing room. When some guy's tardy lab results came in, we could easily locate his chart and stuff in the paper. Once his folder was complete, we'd move it to the much larger Perm Files, where it would gather dust with 20,000 of its closest friends.

Here's how the same system can work for you: After a quick stop in the "Unprocessed" folder, things that need more attention should go into your Temp files, where they're easy to find. Let's call those folders the "In Progress" section.

You may have a file called "Bills to be Paid" on your desk, and one named "E-mails Needing Lengthy Replies" on your computer. These folders are permanent, but the stuff inside them is not: it's called "In Progress" for a reason! Older things belong in your filing cabinet.

You'll also have folders that are "In Progress" only temporarily. Every time you begin a substantial project, make a file for it. Toss everything relating to your sales proposal for WidgetCorp into one folder. Once WidgetCorp has become your client, move their records to the "Filed for Reference" area. You can pull it out again when it's time to renew WidgetCorp's contract. But in the mean time, you've cleared the "In Progress" section for new clients. Your life is easier when you can see at a glance what's going on now.

The "In Progress" section may not need folders if you're organizing at home. Perhaps you'll stick some papers on the fridge and put your bills in a countertop rack. The important points are that (1) you give things a home, (2) you deal with them regularly, and (3) the old stuff migrates to cold storage. Otherwise, your mess will come back with reinforcements.

Filed for Reference. This is where you put papers you may never need again — or not for a while, anyway. A file crate or cabinet will do the trick in the physical world. On your computer, you might use "My Documents."

Either way, make sure everything goes in labeled folders (which are arranged in order, of course). Never give into the sinful temptation of stacking loose papers in file drawers.

Organizing Time

It doesn't matter what tool you use. You can hang a cute-kitten calendar on your wall or buy a genuine-leather daytimer. Learn to use Microsoft Outlook or Google Calendar. Just pick something that will help you keep track of those elusive commitments! (You wouldn't want to forget a final exam, would you?)

Essentially, your time-management system is made up of bookmarks for life. Anything you need to do gets a mention — whether it's "Attend Sarah's birthday party" or "Write a Boundless article." For that birthday party, a simple note on your calendar will do. For big projects, the daytimer entry is a placeholder. It reminds you of the project, but you'll have more details filed elsewhere. So as I start a new article, it gets a folder in my "In Progress" file rack. Meanwhile, I type the deadline into Microsoft Outlook.

You can organize your time however you want. Some people with simple schedules use a calendar on the wall and nothing else. But if you have lots to keep track of, I recommend a system with three sections: a calendar, a task list, and contacts.

Calendar. Your calendar should contain stuff that has to happen on a certain day and time. I record my writing deadlines there and any meetings that require my presence. I don't know off the top of my head what I'm doing next week — sometimes not even tomorrow. But a quick glance at my calendar shows me what's happening, and when I have some free hours for writing.

Tasks. Your task list is for things that have a rough time frame, but can flex a bit — for example, buying stamps or calling a potential client. I find it useful to attach specific deadlines, then bump them back a day or two if needed. Some people use broader time frames and get along just fine — say, a to-do list for the whole month. The important thing is that you're recording details which could otherwise fall out of your head. And remember, "A goal without a deadline is just a suggestion."

Contacts. As a freelancer, I spend a lot of time connecting with clients — and you can tell by my contact list of over a thousand names. In your life, you may not need that many. But you still require a safe place for your boss's cell number, and sticky notes don't count. A Rolodex or a little black book is the way to go. If your contacts run into the hundreds like mine, I suggest a database program like Outlook. (Have I mentioned that I love mail merges?)

Unfortunately, most people in the world are not keen on doing you favors. So whenever you send an important message to a contact — perhaps that e-mail to human resources about your promised raise — record a follow-up task in your daytimer. A week or two down the road, that person may need a gentle reminder.

Don't Be a Slave to the System

Any counselor worth their salt will tell you to set goals that are "reasonable, flexible, and self-supportive." So when you're putting things in your daytimer, give yourself some grace. It's not reasonable to think you'll never make a mess again. It isn't flexible when you won't let yourself postpone a task until tomorrow. It's not self-supportive to beat yourself up when you couldn't manage 318 phone calls in eight hours.

Personally, when I realize that I've become a slave to my system, I know it's time to step back and re-evaluate. Answering e-mails isn't nearly so important as cuddling with my wife.

To temper my control-freakishness, I have a personal mission statement posted on the wall above my printer. It reminds me that meetings and networking and writing are only means to an end:

In the power of the Holy Spirit, my mission is to glorify Jesus Christ by crafting excellent stories that enable myself and others — especially those who feel like outcasts from grace — to live out our Divine design in the midst of authentic communities.

Ultimately, my whole life is a story about grace, and I want to help other people find the plotline God wrote for them. Organization only works when it helps me do that.

So if you're thinking about becoming a neat freak, go on — take the plunge! Reserve a Saturday to set up a system using some of the principles described here. Then do your best to live by them. Remember to keep the big picture in mind, and design the details so they'll work for you.

But don't let yourself become a slave to your daytimer — or your mess. Make organization a tool to accomplish what God created you to do.

Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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