What Does “Get Organized” Really Mean?

Here’s are some helpful thoughts on “getting organized” from David Allen, Mr. GTD. I appreciate the way he says that being organized comes in a variety of shapes and sizes; though I’d imagine we all would say we are nowhere near as organized as we’d like to be. Having a dedicated inbox (or inboxes – I have one at work, one at home, and a folder in my briefcase for when I’m out and about) to put everything about which you haven’t made a decision  (so that you know where all that stuff is when it’s time to process, i.e., ask “what is this and where does it go?” “Is this actionable?”), and then trying hard not to use it as a storage bin, has been one of the most helpful tricks I’ve learned from David Allen.

What does “get organized” really mean?

You are disorganized if you need something somewhere that you don’t have or have something somewhere that you don’t need. If you have a phone and discretionary time (and you want to be productive), you need to have easily viewable the complete list of every single phone call you need to make. Otherwise you don’t have the information you need, in the format you need, to remind you of what you’ve agreed with yourself you need to be reminded of, when. If you are trying to prepare a lovely five-course dinner but the kitchen counters are still full of last night’s dishes, you’re not organized. There’s stuff in the way that you don’t need. In either case you’re not organized—at least as much as you could be, from your own perspective.

An exercise I’ve done in my seminars is that I’ve had everyone reach into their purses or wallets and get something that doesn’t belong there permanently and which has been there longer than a few hours (besides money). Almost all have at least one thing in that category—a receipt, a business card, a scrap of paper with scribbled notes, an old parking ticket. These are things whose location does not map to their meaning to the person who has them. If the item has no further usefulness, it is trash, but it’s not in the trash. Often it is something they need to store somewhere else—it is reference, but it’s not appropriately accessible as such. Sometimes it’s something that they need to do something about, but it is not in a place to remind them to do it. There is lack of coherence between what the thing is and where it is.

Lots of folks contend that their “stacks” are what they want and that’s the best way to be organized. But most piles that people have around them have a blended mixture of stuff to read (actions when they have time to read), stuff to store away that they want access to (reference), stuff to throw away (trash), and stuff they still need to decide what to do about (in-basket). The background stress from those constipated stacks generates a psychic callous—we stop noticing the piles, at least enough to really do something about them.

But, to be exact, with those stacks, you could conceivably be “organized.” It’s all relative—if you truly have decided that fifty pounds of miscellaneous paper material piled up all around your office is reflective of what it really means (these are all things that I just want to feel slightly pressured by but not actually do anything about, that I want to be able to find in a relatively short period of time, if I have to), then you’re organized. As a matter of fact, you’d be disorganized if you actually changed anything about those stacks.

So, how does the meaning of something translate into organization? Pick up anything around you that you’re wondering what to do with, and apply a simple set of formulae:

I don’t need or want it = trash
I still need to decide what this means to me = In-basket item
I might need to know this information = reference
I use it = equipment and supplies
I like to see it = decoration
When I could possibly move on it, I want to see the action as an option = next action reminder, reviewed when and where it could be done
I need to be reminded of this short-term outcome I’ve committed to = project list item, reviewed weekly
I need to have this when I focus on a project = support material
I might want to commit to this at any time in the future = Someday/Maybe list item
I might want to commit to this on or after a specific time in the future = calendared or “tickled” item incubated for review on a specific future date
I want to achieve this “bigger” outcome = goals, objectives, visions that you review on some longer interval (a.k.a. your higher level Horizons of Focus)
It’s something someone else is doing that I care about = item on Waiting-For list, reviewed at least weekly
I need to consider it when I do certain recurring activities = item on a checklist

Test these against anything you find lying around you in work or life that you think you need to know how to organize. Organizing tools should not be so mysterious—they are merely to support these various functions.

This is simple common sense. So why do so many people feel like they need to be more organized? Because most avoid deciding what so many things actually mean to them, which makes it impossible to know what to do with them. And what’s even thornier is that even if they “get organized” according to these simple criteria, it is highly likely that they can become disorganized rapidly. Over time (and often not that much time) things change in meaning. The magazine is no longer the current issue, the project is no longer something we’re committing to action, and the good idea isn’t so good any more. So even if we get our ducks in a row, they wander off of their own accord. Being organized is a dynamic process, demanding consistent reevaluation, rethinking, and renegotiating the relevance of things in our physical and psychological environment.

We don’t tell people how to get organized. We only assist them to marry what things mean to where they are. Simple, tricky business.

The Farmer


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