Please teach me how to become organized.
February 1, 2012 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I feel hopelessly disorganized as I become more aware of what “organized” looks like, and I have no vision for how to change. I'm studying to be a teacher, and I have so many different interrelated resources for my own learning as well as for teaching, and they are piling up in random places. My computer desktop is abysmal. I'd like a meaningful and structured method of organization. How do I get from where I am now (chaos) to a system for storing papers, and proper naming conventions for files? And most importantly, as teachers are in the constant process of being inspired, collecting things and creating output of various forms, I need a semblance of a workflow to keep me afloat! My apologies in advance for over thinking this and making it perhaps more complicated than in has to be.

Here are some things I am rapidly accumulating:

- Various PDFS (from the Ministry of Education, Unit Plans from the Web, handy templates for classroom use)
- Slideshows (notes) from classes I am currently taking
- Written notes from classes (I don't take too many and the ones I have taken seem somehow random and unappealing)
- Handouts from classes (from specific activities to overviews on teaching a given topic, to issues in education)
- Papers I accumulated from my practice teaching
- Any materials accumulated from professional development courses in the future (or workshops for my personal interests that overlap with my teachable subject areas)
- Lesson plan inspiration and unit ideas based on things that excite me that I see tying into the curriculum (these run from saving a link to a radio show, an image, or a written blurb)
- My bookmarks (I bookmark things and never look at them again, but deleting them feels like a waste or like I'd regret it. Should I organize them a certain way? Use Pinterest instead?)

Like I said, I don't know what to do with these things, since they are all part of a whole and I have a hard time seeing a pattern for going through and separating things. I have considered keeping everything in Evernote in notebooks with labels like course title (eg. “EDU 123”, “EDU 456”), and using tags for the subject matter, which varies (eg. “differentiated instruction,” “literacy”), but if I were to do that, I would prefer to drag in Slideshows and pdfs for the same purpose since these are more commonly used in my courses, but I believe it's impossible. Also, this makes me question whether I should add separate notebooks for unit plans in my subject areas, notebooks for fragments of ideas and brainstorming... you get the idea. I am getting hung up on how things connect and where things belong.

Things I (maybe) want to use but I don't know how to do use them effectively:
- Evernote
- Desktop stickies
- bulletin board with graphic organizers or templates to organize my thinking
- binders
- folders
- bookmarks, or maybe Pinterest
- naming conventions for my desktop, and appropriate folders
- A way to make this stuff automatic!!! Visual cues, associations, a workflow! Habits! I am jealous of how other people use colour coding systems and those types of tricks.

Do you see a way to simplify my life a bit here? What should my organization system look like? And from there, what should my process look like? I am looking for all kinds of suggestions, such as “in your _____ folders keep such-and-such a template and start with that,” your obsession with coloured post-its, or maybe habits to avoid. Are you a teacher? What kind of categorical framework works for you? Thank you so much, Metafilter.
posted by to recite so charmingly to Education (12 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a terribly disorganized person, but the following components of my non-system work remarkably well for me:

All PDFs go directly into Mendeley and get their metadata corrected or added manually.
I set up a few watched folders on my hard drive - with this feature, any PDFs saved to these folders are automatically added to Mendeley, which will automatically try to guess the bibliographic information. You can also have Mendeley automatically rename the files, e.g. I use Journal Name-Author Name-Year-Title.

I don't always bother with sorting things into folders, as I'm too scatterbrained to go back and do that consistently. I use Mendeley's search function to find what I'm looking for later.

I annotate (highlight and add notes to) PDFs within Mendeley. This helps me be more organized because I'm more likely to remember things that I've annotated.

I can access the full PDFs via my work computer, as well as synced PDFs from any other computer. iPad syncing isn't great since you can't annotate PDFs via the Mendeley iPad app - for that I use Goodreader.

All bookmarks and websites I've highlighted bits from go into Diigo. I try to use at least a tag or two when I'm bookmarking, while the highlighted sites are automatically added. Since you can search the highlight text, I usually don't bother with going back and tagging those bookmarks.

You can login from any computer and it's free.

Google Docs
Google Docs is where all my notes, papers, and other written things live. I used to use Evernote for this but I eventually found it to be limiting, and decided I preferred Google Docs since it lets me keep everything in one place, including a wider variety of file types.

Best of luck!
posted by brackish.line at 1:57 PM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is your so-called disorganization causing you an actual problem? If so, what is it? Address that problem rather than "disorganization," which is after all little more than a vaguely-disapproving term that anal-retentive people use to passive-aggressively criticize those who are not like them.

My approach has been to save everything on my computer, anywhere, and use search (Spotlight/Windows Desktop Search) to find what I want. My theory is that the computer can keep track of my files better than I can. So far so good.
posted by kindall at 2:00 PM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you are planning to keep these resources long-term, I would avoid tying yourself to specific applications like Evernote. I would develop a series of folders on your computer, grouped at the top level by "what kind of thing is this?", then use nested folders to further categorise, perhaps by what type of media (bookmarks, presentations, notes, templates - like that). If something fits into more than one folder, you can put a copy in multiple places (or put an item in one place and add shortcuts in others). You can, if you wish, still access these through some form of application but, if you decide to change applications or what you use becomes unavailable, your material is still organised at a base level.

Naming conventions are important, especially if you are going to end up with a lot of stuff. Work out a way to name files so that it is clear from the name what it contains, regardless of where it is stored. If you want to be super-organised, you could develop an index in a spreadsheet or something that is searchable, allowing you to browse for items without clicking back and forth through folders.

The key is to make sure that you have everything organised independent of any application that you can't control. Where I work, we are currently appreciating the value of this, as we have to transfer all our records from an electronic document management system to another agency that doesn't use this application. Because we developed strict naming conventions, we can export the records easily and, even outside the application and having lost all the meta-data that it contains, it is still easy to see what each record is and where it belongs, simply by the file name.
posted by dg at 2:01 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My job requires and generates enormous quantities of physical and digital files, which I organize into four sub-categories: subject files (for reference material); project files (for client work); proposal/marketing materials, and; admin/finance. The first two systems sound like they might be relevant to you. I'm terrible at many tiered filing systems (especially electronic ones, since you can't see what's where) so I have to keep it simple.

Regarding subject files, it's been a boon to me to use the same categories for my electronic and paper files and to keep a list of those file headers everywhere... on the bulletin board by the filing cabinet, on my phone, in my calendar, etc. It helps me direct staff/future me where to file something because I can jot the category in the top right corner of the cover page and toss it into the "to be filed pile. Duplicating the categorization system make me more certain that I've found all of the resource materials I have on a given topic. The category can always be changed.

On the paper side, if a document might be filed in two categories, I put the original in one place and a photocopy of the cover/first page in the other place, with a note telling me where to find the document. On the electronic side, I just put a copy of the document in both places.

I have a special category of reference file (both digital and electronic, since they match) which includes things like form letters, sample agendas, thank you notes, templates, etc. that can be customized but speed up matters so I don't reinvent the wheel every time.

For paper files, I've been trying a system I recently adopted for my freezer: labeling food with the toss date instead of whenever I cooked it. It leads to less thought and more action, e.g., eating the nearly expired food and heaving old stuff automatically. Similarly, by labeling paper files with the toss date, when obvious, or another note like "new versions published each august" helps people keep the files clean and up-to-date.

For project files, I establish a convention for the first four letters of the file name that matches to each client or job-- it's intuitive rather than consistent. All files for that project start with that prefix so they are easily identifiable and group together in my always ginormous documents folder. After the projects are done, it's easy to grab the files and move them into electronic storage.

I've also started a sub-folder I call "Future Trash" where I stow things that are confusing and get in the way 99 percent of the time (e.g., drafts and superceded versions of files) but aren't necessary to keep indefinitely. When a project is finished, out it goes. BTW I have a "Future Trash" folder for email too, where receipts for items ordered by not yet received, newsletters I will probably never read, etc. go. Every now and then I empty most of it, which I can also do without fear because all of my email is automatically forwarded to a gmail account set up solely for archive purposes. For all of the Future Trash folders, it's not worth being organized about them because most of the time keeping the stuff is unnecessary.
posted by carmicha at 2:42 PM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Whatever system you pick, pick one and commit to it, at least for six months to a year. Don't worry about getting the absolute right one. Just pick one and stick to it.

Limiting the options will make organization seem a lot less daunting, and will force you to get on with actually organizing instead of trying to sort through all the different ways of organizing.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:54 PM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

a workflow!

This is what the endlessly recommended Getting Things Done is really good for. I increasingly think that implementing the full GTD system is overkill, but one aspect that really did transform how I do things is the idea of separating the stages of collection, processing, and "doing".

Before you do anything else, I recommend establishing one box on your (physical) desktop, and one folder on your (computer) desktop, perhaps supplemented by one file folder that you carry with you in your bag or briefcase, and first dumping everything that needs organizing into these. All future incoming stuff should go into these, too. That's "collection"; "processing" means dedicating certain portions of time to going through the contents of each of these "inboxes" until they are empty, filing them away according to whatever structure you choose to adopt, and at the same time adding a note to a to-do list if there's some action you need to take in connection with them.

Apologies if this is obvious but it wasn't, originally, to me, and now it is by far the main way I keep calm about everything like this...
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:59 PM on February 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

As a professional organizer, there's so much I could say on this subject that I'd overrun the thread. That said, I have a few suggestions. One is to take a peek at my colleague Helene Segura's new book, Less Stress for Teachers: More Time & An Organized Classroom. Perhaps flip through it in the bookstore or preview the Kindle version to see if it eases your mind.

Next, I find that the method(s) you're going to use are secondary to figuring out some bigger picture issues, like what's causing your disorganization. Tools don't organize you -- they help maintain what you've already conceptually organized. So start by asking yourself a few questions about what's going on with you. Is it purely overwhelm due to the amount of material? Is this sense of overwhelm new, or have you been struggling with organizing resources since high school?

However you name things, think about the long term. EDU 123 will be meaningless to you in two or five years, so focus on the main idea/main subject matter of a course. Doing so will help you break down what kinds of material you have to work with.

Creating a system can start as simply as sorting through the stuff you have and coming up with a handful (let's say 5) of overarching categories to start. You've probably been taught how to mind-map, so don't be afraid to sketch something out to help you envision this. So, make 5 folders on your desktop, label them by overarching topic (administrative, learning disabilities, subject-matter teaching, personal development issues and perhaps tools/resources). Then, going item by item (from folder or document on your top left corner of your screen), start moving things to one of these categories.

With a "clean" desktop, you'll be less overwhelmed, and you can begin to drill down and create sub-categories. For example, within the subject categories folder, maybe you'll have notes for English, History, Chemistry, yadda yadda. Use big folder icons to make it feel more like you're moving actual "things". Indeed, once you create a classification system for your digital resources, you can then mirror that SAME system for organizing your papers.

As for bookmarks, if you're afraid to delete something you've had a year or two and have never used, trust that anything you REALLY found useful on the web can be found once again, if necessary. AskMe is proof of that.

Finally, consider the fact that you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Talk to your professors, or to new teachers who graduated a few years before you did, or teachers for whom you've student taught, or even set up a consultation with a professional organizer who has experience working with teachers. When I work with teachers, whether for their classrooms or home workspaces, I find that they system we pick comes from evaluating the way the individual teacher thinks and processes information, so although all of us can give you advice, getting some personalized advice (from colleagues or a PO) will help you find solutions that fit your needs.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 3:00 PM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

(And I totally agree with kindall: there's no moral virtue in organization. Do it to the extent that it improves your life, makes you feel good, and gives you more time to do other more fulfilling things; don't imagine that you "need to be organized".)
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:01 PM on February 1, 2012

I don't know how you feel about capital-S-"Systems" but I used to be a chronically disorganized, lost, late, all-over-the-place mess until I started using Getting Things Done. Just pck up the book from the library and see what you think. I'm not an absolute devotee, but I have committed to about 75% of the strategies in GTD and have not lost a single file or document in two years. I can find any item in my filing cabinet or email within 30 seconds. It's been miraculous for me.
posted by arcticwoman at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another fan of Getting Things Done. Great system, easy to follow, and most importantly, it helps you "destress" Organization. The organization flowchart does the mental work for you and it's so elegant - a thing of beauty, really.
posted by gardenbex at 5:30 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

With respect to organizing your desktop, you answered your own question, under the heading, "Here are some things I am rapidly accumulating." The answer is...categories! You categorized all the things on your desktop. Now make folders with those labels on them and put the things in the folders they belong in.

People get hung up on whether they are using the "right" categories, as if there were such a thing. The reality is that any group of things can be categorized "correctly" in several different ways, and what matters is the context. Your needs supply the context; chances are, the categories you just listed are exactly the right categories for your needs.

You can drill down into those folders and make subcategories, but beware of going overboard with that. It's perfectly OK to have a lot of things that aren't completely homogeneous lumped under one general category. Your only concern is, can I find a handout on topic x more quickly if it's under Handouts or if it's another folder down in Handouts > X.

My apologies if I'm stating the obvious, but for organizing knowledge, it really is just...categories.
posted by bricoleur at 6:22 PM on February 1, 2012

This is something that I'm struggling with, as well.

As far as professional development activities/programs and potential unit-plan-type resources, I got myself a plastic bin that holds hanging file folders, a set of hanging folders, and a set of plain tabbed folders to go inside. I labeled hanging folders with the different subjects I'm working with- one with biology, one with earth/space science, one with integrated science, one with general teaching knowledge/tips- and then labeled regular folders to go in to those file folders. For example, I just did a workshop through a local museum on climate control- so I made a folder labeled "Climate Control", placed that in the Earth/space science hanging folder, and kept the whole thing in the file box. It seems silly to do much more than this system in terms of paper organization, especially when I don't know where or what I'll be teaching in the future.
posted by kro at 7:50 PM on February 3, 2012

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