Can a Disorganized Person Become Organized?

Three of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you three points of view. For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

Can an innately disorganized person become organized? I’ve read some articles that claim that disorganized people shouldn’t try to get organized because it takes up too much time and energy away from their core work. I am a naturally disorganized person but I do really want to be organized. I do a pretty good job of keeping organized electronically with files on our network drives and things like that. Also, my thoughts and approaches to projects and problems are organized and methodical. It’s just that I can never seem to get my desk organized. And I do find that getting myself organized takes me a long time. Once I get a system in place, it gradually falls apart.

What are some ways I can stay organized? And are there any “reformed” people out there who used to be like me but are now organized? If so, what did they do?

Anita Bruzzese says:

While there are plenty of tutorials online about how to best organize your desk (everything must have a place, only items you need immediately allowed on your desk, etc.) I think the key to getting organized for you is realizing that maybe the “expert” system that you’re putting in place really isn’t the best one for you.

That’s why I’d suggest that while it’s a noble cause to try and be organized like the experts tell you, it may make more sense to really consider how you work. If you’re a Post-It addict for example, then buy yourself a corkboard where you only place those notes, or use a whiteboard to jot down the “to do” items you need. Or, if you’re always losing your phone and keys amid the clutter, put a small basket or dish by the door for you to dump your personal items in when you arrive for work.

Try taking some photos of your workspace and study them when you’re sitting at home. It should be much easier, for example, to spot the files you haven’t used in a month or the books you never got around to reading. Do this from time to time so that you do a better job of policing your area with an objective point of view.

Alexandra Levit says:

First, some good news. It doesn’t sound as if your organizational problems hit you where it really hurts – and that’s in your approach to doing your most important work. De-cluttering your workspace is much easier, and it’s absolutely something that can be learned.

My most critical tip for keeping an organized workspace is to carefully manage what comes into it. I suggest thinking of every new item arriving on your desk as an insect that is infiltrating your territory. Your job is to dispose of it as quickly as possible, either by chucking it in the nearest recycling bin or putting it in its proper place. The only material on your desk should pertain to the task you’re working on at that very minute. Everything else should be labeled and filed for easy access. And by the way, the more paper you can avoid the better. Whenever you have the option of signing up for the electronic version of something, do it.

Don’t implement systems that overcomplicate matters. You won’t keep up with them and will end up feeling worse than when you started the initiative. Instead, work with your natural tendencies. For instance, if your office is cluttered because your team uses it as a brainstorming room and notes and tools are littered everywhere, set up a specific space for that purpose and instruct your team how to use it and where to store materials.

Finally, it’s terrific that you want to improve in this respect, by the way, but don’t be too hard on yourself. You may never be “perfectly” organized, and that’s okay. All you can ask is that you take action toward a visible improvement.

Alison Green says:

I completely agree that you need a system that works for you, regardless of what other people tell you is “best,” because we all have habits and ways of working that will nearly always override an organizational system that doesn’t mesh well with them. For instance, if you’re tied to your computer all the time, you might not like a paper-based system – and vice versa. And that’s fine. Find what works for you. (Just don’t let it be a web of Post-Its all over your desk.)

In addition to the great advice above, I’ll add that it’s key to have one central to-do list and put everything on it. And this doesn’t just mean emails and directives from your boss – it also includes things like a coworker sticking her head in your doorway and asking you to stop by when you have a minute. You don’t want to keep it floating around in your head, because that’s how people forget things, so put it on the list. Everything else – your email, your calendar, etc. – should funnel into this list, so this is the one place you’ll check throughout the day to stay on track. No more flipping through pieces of paper or your email (or your memory) to remember what you need to get done today; you’ll just consult your daily list to stay on track. Before you shut down for the night or first thing when you arrive in the morning, spend five minutes revising and updating this list for the day ahead by looking at your email and calendar.

And of course, any system is only as good as how vigilantly you use it. So whatever you pick, commit to it – or even the most brilliant system in the world will fail you.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

To answer this question, I want to differentiate between personality and behavior. Your personality is who you are, influenced mostly by your genetics, and stays relatively stable throughout your lifetime. Your behavior is what you choose to do, and you make that choice each time you take an action.

Similar to the way entertaining others takes energy for an introvert and rejuvenates an extrovert, it does take more energy for naturally disorganized people to get and stay organized. So you need to think about if it is important for your own productivity that your desk is organized, or if it’s simply because you or someone else thinks it should be organized. If you decide that becoming more organized is, in fact, a priority, here are my tips on how to sustain your new system:

  • Have a good, specific reason for why you want to be organized. Each day as you tidy up or put something back in its place, think of a positive thought that reinforces that message: “It’s so great to have a place for my keys because now I don’t have to waste time looking for them in the morning.”
  • Use labels to specify where things should go. In the absence of a designated spot, you’re likely to throw anything anywhere, especially if you are distracted, tired, or in a rush.
  • Work with your personality and your habits, rather than trying to change them. Observe how you do things now, and create a system that can support that in a more organized and methodical way.
  • Find your weakest spot and conquer it first. For me, it is paper. If I have a solution for minimizing the amount of paper that needs to be on my desk, it clears up my clutter dramatically.















Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Kimberlee, Esq.

    Love this! I want to add that I’m someone who was really disorganized until, oh, probably 2 years ago… simply because I never really needed to be organized. In school I had terrible study habits, rebelled against keeping a day planner at all costs, and it was fine because I’m reasonably smart and have a good memory… I’d been able to coast by.

    It wasn’t until I had a job that *required* me to have more things going on than I could keep track of that I finally developed methods for dealing with it. If you’re doing good work and have a handle on everything, you’re probably good to just straighten up the piles every now and again and try to let some wood show through the top of your desk. It’s probably not worth your time or mental energy to improve these habits if the ones you have are working just fine.

    If, however, you’re finding that you are missing things, or that anything is slipping through the cracks, develop specific strategies to deal with what you are lacking.

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  • Sarah G

    Love Alison’s suggestion of one centralized, all-encompassing to-do list, and updating it at the end of each day. It’s such a basic, simple idea, but somehow it hasn’t occurred to me. I make to-do lists, but not consistently.

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