The Little Known Secret to Good Organization

Dr. Hurd,

I love your articles and columns and have learned a lot about applying reason to everyday living. One area I have always struggled with was planning and organizing my schedule and goals. Do you have any thoughts on this? For example, I think I err on the side of trying to make inflexible schedules.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

An organized schedule is a reflection of an organized mind. If you want your organization to get better, start with your thinking.

For example, start by asking yourself: “What do I want to accomplish in a particular period of time? How much of this is realistic? And what’s the order of priority?” Jot down answers about these questions and make an outline. This is a necessary first step.

A lot of people think the key to organizing is the technique you use. Techniques are actually secondary. What’s less important than how you think is WHETHER you’re thinking in the first place. If you’re thinking about what and why to accomplish in your day, you’re already most of the way there.

You suggest that maybe your organizational techniques are too inflexible. That might be true, but the inflexibility itself indicates a deeper issue. For example, people become inflexible or rigid, in most cases, because they’re anxious and uncertain. The real question becomes: Why are you anxious and uncertain? The most likely answer is that you haven’t thought out your goals for the day — or whatever the time frame is — clearly and concisely, and you haven’t made sure those goals are realistic. Your lack of clarify makes you anxious. Your anxiety, in turn, makes you rigid and inflexible.

In fact, the thinking out of the goals is, in itself, the method of organization. If you spend a “session” of thought identifying and delimiting your goals for the day, narrowing them down based on priority, then you have in your hands a realistic and achievable to-do list. Am I saying that a certain kind of to-do list, or a certain way of typing or writing things down, is what makes you more organized? No way. I’m saying it’s the thinking you put into your planning that counts.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of making sure your goals are achievable and realistic. It doesn’t matter how much you WANT to get done in a one day period. What matters is how much is realistic to get done. Since there will probably be more things to do than you can get done, you’re forced to confront your priorities.

If you don’t do what I’m saying, then your emotions are going to do your prioritizing for you. This will lead you to feel, “I should get this or that done.” Well, maybe you should. But is it possible? Does it reflect a rational order of priorities, one that fits with your life goals? Emotions cannot answer these questions; you have to use conscious┬áreason and logic for these.

Emotions are good at telling us what’s important to us. Emotions express the desire, “I want.” But shoulds, oughts and organization have to be addressed with reasoning and thinking.

Good organization, if you think about it, reflects well-considered priorities. The biggest mistake I see people make is failure to have a clear set of priorities. As a result, they get distracted because they don’t know what’s most important, and why. If they had taken the time to consider their order of priorities first, then the rigidity you describe — a better word might be commitment — could actually help. “Rigidity” usually means sticking to something arbitrarily, even irrationally. That’s obviously no good. But let’s face it: If you’re a busy person you’re not always going to get everything you want accomplished on a given day. You have to take responsibility for making your own priorities.

If your to-do list is realistic, makes sense and is based on a rational hierarchy of your very own priorities, you won’t need rigidity to stick to it. You’ll want to stick to it, and will feel good that you did.