My new job requires me to be EXTREMELY organized. I am the opposite. Has anyone overcome serious organizational obstacles?
April 19, 2010 8:40 AM   Subscribe

My new job requires me to be EXTREMELY organized. I am the opposite. Has anyone overcome serious organizational obstacles?

Throughout my academic career, I've always been that student with the terrible habit of pretty much just shoving every single paper, rubric, etc in my backpack and then frantically digging for 10 minutes to find it when I need it. I never took notes because trying to organize them would distract me from actually listening to lectures. I never wrote down assignments or due dates, instead just opting to memorize them. Even my computer desktop is a mess of files and documents. To simply say I'm disorganized would be an understatement, but somehow I made it through college with okay grades.

Now I have my first job. It's a good job and I'm nervous about screwing up. I have to keep track of and update multiple status reports. I have to deal with loads of paperwork for different projects every day. I have to take extremely detailed notes during meetings. Everyone around me keeps files, binders, and takes rigorous notes when I can barely pay attention. I need to be more like everyone.

Basically, my organizational skills need to be the opposite of what they have been, but I don't even know where to start. I'd love to hear advice from people who were able to drastically change their lives and become so organizationally focused that you would never even know how much of a slob they used to be. Books, websites, tips, stories would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
How many of these things recur on a schedule? Set up reminders in Outlook (or whatever computer based calendar you use). Schedule in times for recurring tasks that don't already have a specific time. Take notes on a laptop (so you don't have to retype them, and so that "filing" is as simple as throwing them into a searchable folder).

Everyone around me keeps files, binders, and takes rigorous notes when I can barely pay attention. (anonymous)

Have you ever looked into the possibility that you might have ADHD? The only person who can tell you if you do is a qualified medical professional. These kind of organizational issues (particularly when it seems that you don't know how to change them) make me think it is a possibility you might want to look into.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:58 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, and one more thing: as you work on figuring out an organizational system that works for you, know your limits. If there is some task that you know in your heart of hearts you'll just never be able to do the way you've been told to, try to reverse engineer it.

In my case, I am horrible at keeping any sort of log. I'm supposed to keep a log of all manuscripts and proposals that are submitted to me. The goal of that task is to know what's on submission, and what's been acted upon (accepted or rejected). While I am absolutely awful at updating a spreadsheet, what I can do is create a designated folder in my email for submissions. All submissions go in this folder, and are flagged for follow-up in Outlook. If a submission comes in hard copy, I write an email with the pertinent details and put it in the folder. If I need to note something about the submission, I reply to myself within the folder. Once a submission has been acted upon, I deactivate the flag.

So, while I don't have a submission log, I have a set-up that achieves the same purpose, and that works for me and my boss. Are there tasks of yours that might similarly be reverse engineered to be things you can accomplish, that achieve the same purpose as the original, impossible task?
posted by ocherdraco at 9:07 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Can you make yourself checklists for recurring things like the reports? Automate whatever you can or do it in batches- I find it's easy to skip a tiny step like "check box Z" when filing a report unless I have a checklist, or I sit down with 20 reports and check all the box Zs at once.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:09 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read Getting Things Done by David Allen.

It's not so much about organizational skills as it is about building strong habits around organization and action.
posted by brain at 9:10 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always been ok on the organization thing, but a new recent job caused me to have to really step up my game. One thing that helped was watching other people to note their systems and adopting ones that made sense. Here are some new habits I've developed:

1. I have a series of recurring meetings that happen every week or two weeks. I set up a file rack with a file for each of these meetings (I like color as a cue so I have a different color file for each one). When I get a meeting agenda for that meeting, I print it and pop it into the file and delete the email containing the agenda. I go to the meeting, and take notes. When I get back to the office, as soon as possible I transcribe the notes one more time so they're clear and I can get rid of odd bits of conversation that went nowhere, and that goes into the file too. If there were any tasks assigned to me at the meeting, I transfer those onto a main to-do list.

2. Bring a pen and a highlighter to each meeting. As you take notes, highlight the tasks that you are going to have to do or follow up on. That makes it easier to spot your to-dos when you transcribe or file the notes.

3. If any of those tasks are quick and easy to do, just do them right away ("send program schedule to Jenny" where the schedule is all ready to go).

4. If you have anyone reporting to you, ask them to prepare the agenda for your meetings. It gives the conversation structure and you'll have an immediate record of what you talked about.

5. If, during my work day, I come across little things to bring up in my next recurring meeting, I jot it on a post-it note and stick it on the inside front of the meeting file.

6. When the files get too big, or for anything that has subcategories of information, I create a tabbed binder. After six months my old meeting notes and agendas go into a binder. For big projects, where there's categories like research, planning meetings, calendar/deadlines, multiple documents - I just set up a binder right away. Much easier than shuffling through a big disorganized file.

7. I am married to Outlook. I put all my meetings and appointments into it and set reminders for each and every one. In the morning, I look at my Outlook calendar for the day, the next day, and the week, and try to mentally organize and prioritize the day's most important tasks. When someone requests a meeting, I put in the calendar immediately. I've learned not to trust my memory. With complicated jobs, you simply can't remember all the detail AND use your brain for what you're being paid to do with it. Let the machine do some of the remembering for you.

8. I'm a fan of Inbox Zero though I rarely actually get to zero. I now use three email folders: Inbox, Reference, and Waiting. Reference is for things I just think are a good idea to hang on to and refer to later. Waiting is for stuff that's waiting for someone to get back to me. Inbox is all stuff that's actionable for me.

9. I printed out a copy of the Getting Things Done flowchart and I manage my desktop paper inbox using this. So, basically, I have an IKEA desktop mailbox with three racks. On the bottom rack is stuff I would find interesting to read when I have free time. On the middle rack is stuff I do need to read but not right away. Only the top rack has current project stuff. As things come in, they go into the top box. If I just left a meeting but don't have time to trasncribe and file the notes, that whole file goes into the inbox. If I have to edit something, I print the document and stick it in the inbox. Credit card statements I have to balance go into the inbox. Etc. At least once a week, but more like once a day, I go through the inbox and use the GTD system on the stuff in there. If I can do it within 10 minutes, I just do it and get it out of there. If it's a bigger project, the next task goes on my to-do list. I try to keep this box as empty as possible. It's nice to have the security of knowing that everything in there is important, and that if something goes in there, I'm going to be able to see it and work on it within the next few days - it won't be forgotten.

10. To-do list. I was never much of a fan of these, but now I'm an adherent. So this is just a pad of notebook paper that sits by my keyboard. Every week I start a new one on Monday. I transfer the tasks that still need to be done from last week to the top of the list. I also transfer anything that's lingering in the inbox. And then, as the meetings/conversations go on and I get new tasks, the new tasks go onto the list to. Cross things off as they get done. Every week, title and date a new list even if the old list isn't done.
posted by Miko at 9:13 AM on April 19, 2010 [31 favorites]

One of the main ways to stay organised is to try and have a central item to keep your important reminders, dates, anything. You can see now why people love their journals, calendars, blackberrys, all of this sort of stuff. If you learn how to develop an easy but regularly updated and referred to journal for example, you will find a lot of the noise in your brain goes away.

Use the journal/calender as much as you can, and take it everywhere with you. You might have to jiggle the way you organise this written down information to find a way that best suits you, which may be quite annoying initially. Since you are attempted to drastically change the way you function, it is better to do it in smaller steps rather than a complete overhaul, this way it can become habit and routine a lot easier.

Buy a notebook and calender, or use google's products like Google Calender, Google Mail etc etc
posted by tumples at 9:19 AM on April 19, 2010

I could have written this. I'm dyspraxic, and also, I never needed to revise or take notes during my academic career so it's a shock when I had to go to work and create useable records.

As above, Outlook reminders make a big difference. If you have a phone that you can use to set reminders or notes, use this - otherwise even writing something on a Post-It and sticking ti to your desk helps. Making lists is also a big help for me. Write down what you need to do, and cross them off as you go. If you don't want other people to notice, do it in Notepad on your computer.
posted by mippy at 9:37 AM on April 19, 2010

One of my first jobs required everyone in the office to use Outlook for appointment setting and shared tasks. I despised it at the time, but now I can't imagine using anything else. One of the best features for me is the ability to see your schedule and tasks in different increments. The first thing I do in the morning is to look at all my schedule views (daily, weekly, monthly), and make any additions for the day. I then spend the first hour or so of the day doing any little tasks that can be done in 10 minutes or less, prepping my daily schedule, and returning emails/phone calls. End of the day, I review tasks for tomorrow to make sure I don't miss anything.

I also find work plans incredibly helpful. If you don't already have one, set one up with your boss with 3/6/12 month goals and review it regularly. Weekly meetings with the boss can also be really helpful, since they require you to set specific deadlines and not leave anything to the last minute.
posted by susanvance at 10:21 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everyone around me keeps files, binders, and takes rigorous notes when I can barely pay attention. I need to be more like everyone.

Maybe you could ask some advice from a coworker? Pick someone approachable with similar duties. Just tell them that you've noticed that they have an excellent system and if they have the time, maybe they could give you some pointers. Usually people are quite flattered and happy to help.

When I've been in a similar situation, I just pretty much copied my colleagues system of organization. Later, when I was a bit more settled in the job, I would then adjust the system to be more my own. Or invented a system of my own, which is much easier to do when one has a bit more perspective on things. But in the beginning, if someone has already figured out a good system for this particular situation, why not use it.
posted by severiina at 10:23 AM on April 19, 2010

As a student, I was you. As a professional adult 12 years out of school, I am still you. But I am still trying not to be.

I've tried using many other people's plans and solutions but none of them have stuck because I always end up sabotaging myself by focusing on what doesn't work for me.

So what you have to do is just keep doing it. People may tend towards being naturally disorganized. But it's not a characteristic like being tall or blond or straight or whatever. It's a habit. And the way to change habits is to just power through and change it.

When I'm being organized, I have habits I do everyday. I organize my notes/emails/papers at the start of each business day. I have a set of habits I do before I leave each day. Except when I don't. But when I mess up, I just get back on the horse and try again. Some people are much more organized than me; some are less. But just keep doing what works for you. Over.
And over.
And over.

And eventually, though you're natural tendency might always be set to 'messy' -- it will be a messy that works for you and your position.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:28 AM on April 19, 2010

For taking notes during meetings, if you feel you are missing information and instructions you may want to start bringing in a recorder (with the permission of your boss). Take as many notes as you can, and make a note in places where you'll need to fill in the blanks using the recording.
posted by Anali at 11:39 AM on April 19, 2010

Adderall (although I'm actually trying a new med today). I know that sounds like a really easy answer but that's what took me from super disorganized to organized enough. ADHD was not manageable for me without meds. I am still not naturally organized. I can't diagnose you, obviously, but you sound pretty much like me, school-wise.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:17 PM on April 19, 2010

I used to work as a (very organized) lab tech.

I think I got this from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" but I don't remember: have a "Waiting For" list. That list is a place to park objects/information (like supplies or technical specifications) you've requested but not yet received. For example, if I was waiting for a chemical to come into the lab I'd put it in "Waiting For." That's not a "To Do" as I've already done my bit - ordered the chemical. At the same time, I don't want to forget about it as I haven't completed the loop yet. Periodically review the "Waiting For" list for items that need to be re-addressed.

Also, I had a Word document on my work computer labeled "Reference." I used that for random info I knew I might need one day but didn't know where else to put it. It contained everything from phone numbers, to chemical concentrations, to notes about where I had put a replacement part for some machine. It was an information "junk drawer" of sorts.

Good luck.
posted by ticketmaster10 at 9:56 PM on April 19, 2010

I've used Getting Things Done when needing to impose organisation, too. It's kind of based on providing a system that's so foolproof that you can spend your time doing things instead of fretting about them. There's also a major advantage in having a system at work that someone else could pick up if you disappeared out sick for a while - I took over from someone who had an unexpected injury once, and learned a lot about how many things go wrong when someone's disorganised and doing everything ad hoc.

Also, keep track of every phone number and contact name you're given - not furtively, but visibly, so that you and anyone else looking for the name of your contact at X or the direct line for the guy at Y can find it there.

With minutes, you might want to learn a note-taking system, or ask someone else who's done the same minutes about their method. It's definitely a learned skill and helped by experience of the meeting type, because you get used to knowing how you'll be writing them up and what the minutes are really for, so the key bits jump out and let you make the notes both concise and detailed.
posted by carbide at 12:43 AM on April 20, 2010

I use the concept of Gives and Gets. My written to-do list has forward slashes ( / ) for things I have to-give, and back slashes ( \ ) for things I have to-get. Make the slash an X when it is done.

If you want to take this to the next level, and if you have access to Gmail at work, you can send yourself emails using the + symbol to tag and filter these things. Something like and For your gets, you can append someones name as well like Then use filters to show everything Mike needs to do! If you set up Contacts for all of these email addresses, your workflow will go a lot quicker. I use the + trick for quotes, important account numbers, questions, shopping, tobuy, towatch, etc. etc.

I have recently started using Evernote for this same purpose. The awesomeness of Evernote is that it is on my iPhone and on my desktop. I always have my iPhone on me and can write a note and tag it appropriately wherever I am. Not applicable to work, but whenever I hear a song on the radio that I like, I take a voice memo in Evernote and google the song later to download on iTunes.
posted by jasondigitized at 5:50 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd love to hear advice from people who were able to drastically change their lives and become so organizationally focused that you would never even know how much of a slob they used to be

This is me, and I am nthing Getting Things Done. In the end you may decide not to go whole hog, but the book gives you specific steps to follow which address your exact situation. You need to develop habits whereby you automatically collect everything that comes into your world with any potential meaning, decide what that meaning is and what you want to do about it, and put reminders of those decisions in a place where you'll regularly look.

If these techniques do not come intuitively to you, as they did not to me, you will not find a more comprehensive and effective approach to learning these behaviors in any other single place.
posted by sudama at 7:23 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

In a way, I'm like you. Rarely took notes in school and generally my papers weren't even in my backpack but in a pile in my desk. Over time I slowly picked up organizing habits. When I started my Roth IRA I picked up a portable file organizer and folders. When I got my current job I slowly picked up on meeting requests and meeting notes, and inherited a file cabinet preorganized. When four coworkers came to me at once to delegate work, I decided to buy a book on time management. Here's some good news: every job takes time to get up to speed with. If you feel swamped now, you'll get better over time.

On notetaking: I place a recording device on the table so I can revisit the meeting and review notes afterwards. If I were really worried about time crunch, I'd hit up our transcription lab since they have playback pedals. This lets me focus on participating in the meeting. I'm a bit concerned about your organization's practice. In your case, it seems everyone is taking detailed meeting notes. Rather than waste your time pouring over notes and recordings, why not ask someone before the meeting if you can get a photocopy of their notes afterwards? Or even better, have a designated meeting scribe take notes and hand out or email copies afterwards.

On time management, I use Outlook, because my organization uses Exchange. Here's my advice to you on Outlook:

1. Set your Outlook work schedule. This is used for meeting makers, and if you work a non-standard schedule and do it wrong you'll get invites to meetings you're not awake for. Do not set up a "Work Schedule" calendar entry like my boss did and I did following his lead. There's a preferences setting for this you should use instead.
2. Set up recurrences for recurring meetings and tasks. It's difficult to say whether you should use Outlook task lists for recurring tasks due on a certain day or schedule them in the calendar. The calendar has the advantage that it makes your existing time commitments visible in a way that the task list makes obscure. On the other hand, it also looks a lot less flexible than it really is. Pick a strategy or ask your boss. Set an alarm for the bare minimum notice you need: for meetings, travel time; for task done at your desk, 0 minutes.
3. Turn off the damn email interruptions. It's tempting to turn on (or does it come by default?) the new mail popup. But this is a focus killer and you must eliminate it. Yes, there is mail that is important. So make email filter rules to alert you for important mail only. 'The system is down' alerts, mail from your boss or your bosses' boss, etc.

Much of this takes practice to get good at, or requires an upfront investment of your time. This is why it takes you time to get up to speed.
posted by pwnguin at 8:54 AM on April 21, 2010

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