Organizational skillz
May 9, 2011 4:11 PM   Subscribe

How can I become less scatter-brained?

Help me get organized! So, it came to my attention today (and several days in the past) that my colleagues see me as disorganized. I am not exactly sure WHAT they see that makes them think disorganized, but I am agree I am not the most organized person on the planet. My coworker gave me a 5 on a 1-10 scale, but I am pretty sure he sees me as below average.

I am a first year high school teacher. I have lost a couple papers; on one occasion I am pretty sure my students tricked me by telling me I hadn’t assigned something I had (and I couldn’t remember if I had reminded them); my boss catches details in my planning that I overlook or forget to record.

I am also a pretty absent-minded person. I semi-regularly leave my keys in my boss’s office, walk in to talk with someone and leave my pen on their desk, or misplace my whiteboard markers. I once spent half an hour manically looking for my keys before realizing they were still in the door (this is an extreme case and not normal for me, though).

I have noticed that I have a problem completing a task through to the end when I am facing interruptions. I am not sure if it’s relevant, but if I am helping a student and another interrupts to ask me something, I often will stop what I’m doing to try and help them. I have noticed this at other jobs; when I was a barback, I would switch to another task (like clearing the bar) when I noticed it needed to be done, interrupting my current task (i.e., washing dishes). I have always been a multi-tasker and my dad says he remembers coming up to my room when I was in middle school and seeing me talking on the phone, doing my homework, listening to music and eating all at the same time.

I don’t think I have ADD. None of my teachers have ever suspected it and I can focus on reading a book for a couple hours without stopping if I am absorbed in it. I do have problems finishing a movie if I’m watching it on a laptop by myself. I took adderall recreationally a couple times in college (oops) and all it did was make me way more hyper and talkative.

Also, if I have a lot to do, I begin to internally freak out and can’t calm myself down to focus well. This happens rarely; only when I feel overwhelmed.

I never used a planner in college and never missed any classes, appointments, or assignments. This is the first time in my life that my lack of organizational structure has caused me problems. If it matters, I am pretty much 100% P on the Myers-Briggs scale.

Today my coworker told me that his old coworker ‘couldn’t hold down a job in the States’ because he was so disorganized (we work abroad). This scared me. My question is fourfold:

A) Is it normal to face organizational problems as a first-year professional employee?
B) How can I cut down on my absent-mindedness and become better organized?
C) Pretty much every job want ad I look at lists “excellent organizational skills” at the top of requirements. Am I screwed? Am I going to be that person who “can’t hold down a job in the States”? What are some job fields where amazing organization is NOT required, if they exist?

And finally …

D) Are organizational skills learned? Have any of you gone from hopeless absent-minded mess to on-top-of-it go-to person?
posted by queens86 to Work & Money (10 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Being a first year teacher has to be stressful and you are still developing your "routine". The stress could make you a little more vulnerable to distraction. So I would not freak about it. I find that deliberately making/having habits avoids a lot of " misplaced keys" and so on. Make your habits work for you. If you work best by focusing on one thing at a time (actually, despite the hype, we all do) then, in the case of the second student interrupting, acknowledge the request but continue with the first student.
Lots of very smart and creative people fit your profile.

In the teaching biz, I think being very organized is associated with being prepared. If you are prepared then don't fret. If you aren't properly prepared, then I think that is more of an issue in terms of performing your duties properly.
posted by PickeringPete at 4:27 PM on May 9, 2011

Yes, not from experience, but I know second-second hand that the first few years of teaching is the hardest. You definitely have to get a routine going, as mentioned above. And don't pay attention to your coworkers! They sound like they are trying to mess with you. If they say things like that again, ask them for specific tips. If they refuse, ask them to stop making comments. Seek out other "mentor" type people at school who can give you some good tips.
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:13 PM on May 9, 2011

Er, are the hardest.
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:14 PM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: Write everything down. You won't need to do this forever, but a collection of "saved wisdom" can help you through your first year.

Also, don't be too hard on yourself. Think about your first time behind the wheel of a car. It was a lot to manage at once, wasn't it? But now it's second nature. Teaching is no different.
posted by SPrintF at 8:12 PM on May 9, 2011

A) Yes, absolutely.
B) Checklists, checklists, checklists. Make a list of tasks, and a list for each task.
C) Meh. Want ads say a lot of things. They rarely mean much.
D) Yes and yes. Giving a fuck is 90% of it, and you're already doing that.

Also, re: Adderall. You took a recreational (over)dose, yes? Possibly in a non-standard manner? In a party setting? That doesn't count.

I say that because you seem to have textbook ADHD Inattentive Type; your description of you reads like a description of me, and I most definitely have that.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:02 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

(IANAD, however, so...grain of salt.)
posted by Sys Rq at 9:03 PM on May 9, 2011

Best answer: Oh. man. Teaching is vita interruptus. Or whatever that would be in proper and not made-up Latin. My heart goes to you. My first year of teaching will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Next: YES, organizational skills are learned. I suffer from acute anxiety, which strong organizational skills has ameliorated. But you don't need to suffer to learn! But it's important: at least 50% of effective teaching is organization (organizing ideas: what are you going to teach, how will you measure learning, in what order, and how will you instruct? organizing paperwork: artifacts of student learning, evaluation, assessment, etc. etc.)

You may have been able to keep track of your own life without a planner, but now you're keeping track of your life + all your students'. That means 175+ lives I had to track. No way I could keep that all in my head.

Lots of voices at once clamoring for your attention? Take a number. Seriously. Make everyone take a number and write down that number. As a teacher, kids, administration, the main office, the counseling office, the attendance office, parents, siblings, etc. all demand your attention and they will all be important. As you give the number, write it down so you don't forget. This means carrying a small notebook & pen/cil with you wherever you go. Write down who they are & what they need. As you get better at this, you'll also get better at prioritizing what really needs to happen THIS VERY MOMENT and what people just WANT to happen this very moment (and they'll want something to happen this very moment from 7 am - 8 pm).

Routines are your friend: plan your class periods to address whatever random stuff is coming up (tons of late work? Schedule it. This day at this time at the latest. Need to schedule a crapload of calls home? Schedule it).

You're finding out what your students are likely discovering: life gets really complicated and you do need to organize it. Because seriously--there is nothing worse than losing student work, especially if you teach in the inner city like I did. I did so twice in four years of teaching. Only twice. But I remember both times, and owned up to it. You can get by as a teacher with that happening once in a blue moon and owning your mistake, but if your rep isn't as someone who's together? Not only will you get played by kids, you'll kind of deserve it. Because, really, why should they bother to do it if you're going to up and lose it? Get a big accordion file for each class period. Color code if possible. All their stuff goes into that. No exceptions. EVER. Get a crap load of binder clips (the BIG kind) and clip all of one assignment together. If you get late work, initial it late and add it to the clipped pile. You will never, ever ever be able to get your kids to turn in work consistently if it disappears.

What worries me is that if you don't learn to be organized, your kids won't learn to be organized. Still, first year of teaching is a special kind of hell, so I feel you.

So if you were my student teacher, I would say the following:
- Get a lanyard for your keys & wear them around your neck. I knew plenty of teachers who did this, and added their ID to it. It matters with any age, but with high school kids especially. Not only will you get expensive things stolen from your classroom, but if you have a screwdriver or anything else remotely weapon-like not secured your classroom, you are now liable. (Seriously. Nice kids steal things from people they like sometimes--temptation is powerful. Kids do stuuuuuuuuuupid shit sometimes, things they often know are are stupid & dangerous...kinda like adults.)
- Whiteboard markers: screw 'em. But if you lose 'em, you pay for 'em yourself. You will either stop losing them, or stop caring about losing them. Either way = win.
- Get a planner. Use it: write in all days grades are due, holidays, ends of units, tests, project due dates, etc. Make your kids use a planner, bought or class-made. I stamped every day to make sure they wrote down the homework and/or important days to our class. Stamps made up a percentage of their participation points.

Finally, it's obvious I'm still a teacher at heart--verbal diarrhea. Feel free to MeMail me if you have specific issues you want to bounce ideas around about.

/former high school teacher w. impeccable US evals if that matters...known esp. for my organization skills. Wouldn't mention it, but it's pertinent to your question.
posted by smirkette at 9:37 PM on May 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

You have to grow up. You're not a teenager in your bedroom any more, you're doing a professional job. Brain surgeons may listen to a bit of classical music while they're operating but they're not logged onto facebook and happy to sharpen someone's pencil when they're in the operating room. Look at the length of your question. You have to be succinct and prioritise.

Write a list of things you have to do each day. Do the most important thing first - this is often the thing you want to do least but once it's out of the way you'll feel better. Only do the things which don't matter, or are just goofing off, after you've done all the important stuff. Doing things for people who can fire you is important. Doing things for friends comes second. Doing things for strangers comes third. If someone interrupts you with something less important tell them you're busy and they can see you later. If you always drop everything to help them they'll keep coming back. Delegate the menial stuff to other people if you can - develop confidence in a few trustworthy kids who can go get you a whiteboard marker. Your time is more valuable than that.

You don't have ADD (and neither do a lot of people who blame it for not putting the tops back on felt tipped pens). Don't worry about having 'great organisational skills' - that's just a meaningless phrase everyone has to write on their CV, like being a 'self starter' while also being a 'team player' it means absolutely nothing at all. Always put everything in the same place each time you use it or put it down - like your keys. Make everything a habit instead of learning it for the first time every time you do it.

Never let anyone see you getting flustered, particularly the kids. They're like sharks and if they smell blood in the water they'll tear you apart. You must always look in control, even if you're not. You can always sort out the details later. Don't worry about leaving a pen behind. Everyone does that, so - as Tom Waits observed about umbrellas - you don't even have to carry one as there's always one around when you need it.
posted by joannemullen at 9:51 PM on May 9, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughtful answers you guys! I looked up ADHD inattentive type and I seem to have some of the symptoms to a very small degree ... but definitely not all and definitely not to a point that I feel it impairs me. Wouldn't I have had some sort of trouble in college if I had ADD? I was never told I was disorganized by any teachers and it has never been a problem for me previously.

I started writing down everything last term (of course, the writing down tends to be in random lists all over the page rather than in a nice, linear column ... ) and that has helped a lot. I'm not sure how I did this job before I wrote everything down. I think scheduling regular tasks (grading, calling parents, planning) rather than just doing them when it seems urgent may be next.

Thanks again! You guys are awesome.
posted by queens86 at 5:07 PM on May 10, 2011

Oh man, reading your post was like reading my first year of graduate school. I worked for a few years in jobs I hated, but skated by with less than stellar organizational skills because I could. But, going to school to be a speech-language pathologist required a level of organization I never knew before (the paperwork, OY.) So, I feel for you, and urge you to give yourself a bit of break and use this opportunity to address this "area of need" in your performance evaluations this coming year :D

Smirkette has the bulk of it. I'd also encourage you to say "Not right now" to people who interrupt you. I know you're good at multitasking (as am I), but when you're dealing with the human services, students (or whomever you are meeting with) deserve your undivided attention. Tell the interrupter "Not right now, but let me write this down and get back to you". Get a deadline from them ("... by tomorrow" "... at the end of the day", &c.) It's hard to say no, but it is incredibly important to do so for your sanity and the sanity of your students and colleagues. I'd often ask people to email me if that exact time wasn't good for me. Worked like a charm, and it kept everything "on record" so there was little to none of the, "Well, you SAID blah blah blah..."

I also highly recommend you get a stack of manilla folders. Anytime a new topic or thing to do comes up, write it on the manilla folder, put the associated paperwork in it, and put it ON your desk or somewhere very visible/secure. I also kept a daily schedule (which I see you've implemented, good! :) Invest in a date stamp: stamp EVERYTHING that comes to your desk the date you received it. Stamp EVERYTHING you send out with the date you sent it out. Maybe SLPs are overly neurotic as we straddle the line between medical and educational pursuits, but I did that, and it saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

And lastly, I highly recommend ball-point pens that retract and have a clip so you can clip them on your lanyard. Super handy (and make sure the lanyard has a break-away clasp.)
posted by absquatulate at 5:01 PM on December 17, 2011

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