What Does It Mean to Be Organized?

When I was a little girl, the dominant theme my mother related to me from my teachers was that I was disorganized. Even after becoming a good student in college, the disorganized critique emerged again, this time from a professor who was a great fan of mine. By then, I had had it with the disorganization observation, and told her that I might be disorganized, but it evidently didn’t affect the quality of my work. She gave me that, and that ended the conversation.

Or did it? Now, despite being a high-performing member of the workforce, I heard from my boss last week that I needed a systematic approach to tagging articles for our Website. By systematic, he meant I would take a step-by-step approach to tagging so the steps would never vary. Never mind that, technologically speaking, it makes no difference which tags you input first, so long as they all are added. “You don’t want to be disorganized, do you?” he railed at me. Since I had already explained that it made no difference which tags were input first or last, I let it go. 

What exactly does it mean to be organized? Is it an ends-justifies-the-means thing, so that any person who is good at his or her job, and also good at meeting personal-life obligations, is organized? Or can you get everything done you need to get done—and do it well—and still be disorganized? 

I found an article published in Fast Company a few years ago, “Seven Habits of Organized People.” I have some of the habits listed, but not all of them. Author Stephanie Vozza says organized people “seek out tools.” I don’t exactly seek them out, and the ones I use are so basic that I don’t know if they qualify as “tools,” but I do make the most of technological ease to keep on top of my commitments. I enter upcoming obligations into my iPhone calendar, and set two alerts, one a day, or sometimes a week, prior, and the second an hour or two before the event. I also take full advantage of the ease of creating folders in Gmail, so I have folders for multiple facets of my work, and even personal-life folders such as one labeled “brunch” with links to restaurants I’d like to try. 

Part of being organized, I’ve found, is being prepared, and technology can definitely help with that. I have an app called Pigeon that sends me alerts about New York City subway lines that are experiencing delays. And I compulsively check the Weather.com app right before I walk out the door. This makes it less likely that a delayed subway or an unexpected storm will keep me from fulfilling my commitments. When I travel by plane for work, I check—and obsess—about the weather more than a week prior to takeoff. And two times within the last year, I’ve changed my flight before it ended up getting cancelled. The last time this happened, I made it to a conference, while one of my colleagues—who left it to chance—did not. 

I don’t know if it’s being organized, or being a neurotic pessimist, but I subscribe to the philosophy, “Plan for the worst and hope for the best.” I try to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong, and then do whatever is possible to prevent those things from happening. And if there’s nothing that can be done to prevent those things, I focus on mentally preparing myself, planning how I will handle it if the worst happens. 

Less than setting priorities, which Vozza recommends, I multitask as much as possible, doing one task while I wait for needed information for another task, and moving back and forth seamlessly from writing to responding to incoming e-mails, usually not minding the interruption. This then brings me to another point of confusion. My stereotype of organized people are the kind who get irritated when they are interrupted because they like to work on one thing at a time, with each thing having its proper place in their schedule. So, if that hyper-structure and rigidity is part of organization, then I don’t make the cut. 

I also hate outlines. I’ve been told more than once that it’s helpful to create outlines before I begin writing, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I could create an outline, but what would be the point? I know my brain prefers to be inventive in the moment, and would ignore the plan in favor of whatever ideas pop up in each moment of writing. Is being inventive and in the moment antithetical to organization? I always thought organized people liked to create plans, and then get upset if they have to deviate from the plans. I, on the other hand, find plans tedious. 

There’s one point Vozza makes about so-called organized people that I have to agree with: Organized people “have less stuff.” Well, I mostly agree to the extent that I deeply regret that on my last trip as a travel writer I had to publicly open my suitcase, with everything spilling onto the floor, as I worked feverishly to eliminate a pound to satisfy the baggage weight requirement. I regret how foolish I felt while the other participants on the trip all made the weight requirements without such a scene, and each had exactly what they needed for impressive ensembles every night, while my overweight suitcase had a lot I didn’t need, and too few well-thought-out selections. 

Zeroing in on exactly what you need, or what you most will likely need, and not stocking up willy-nilly, whether for travel or for an upcoming project, is an important part of organization, which, I admit, I fall short on. 

What do you think it means to be organized? Is organization a trait that can be trained, or, like creativity, is it just one of those things—you’re either organized or you’re not?

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