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Will I ever get it all done?!? … some tips for improving your organisational skills

By Ruth Fordyce
Alpha Psychology and the Resilience Centre

In my work with clients experiencing anxiety or any sort of stress, a topic that often comes up is the feeling of being overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done. Whether it’s schoolwork, the household chores, work tasks, or juggling the endless array of family events and social catch ups, it’s likely that you sometimes feel like there are not enough hours in the day. However, this is a feeling that can escalate, causing you to panic, avoid tasks or people, and then criticize yourself for letting things get out of hand. This of course saps all your motivation and leads you further into the problem. Disorganisation is a common problem, so let’s look at some reasons why this might be so.

Why do I find it so hard to be organised?

Our lifestyle in most Western cultures today is extremely complex. Our brains struggle to keep up with this level of constant information-gathering and decision-making. Consider the way in which humans have lived for thousands of years (and still do in many countries) – daily life was comprised of fairly simple and repetitive routines, and often choices were quite limited. For example, deciding what to eat was mostly based on which foods were available. What a contrast to the experience of grocery shopping and wandering past literally thousands of products trying to decide what you need or want! Why write a grocery list? Because most of us struggle to remember 10, 20 or 30 different items, especially if some of them are unusual (it’s easier to remember standard items like bread or milk that we buy every week). And yet in other contexts, we often expect our brains to remember a vast number of things we need to do, people we need to call, and so on. If you have been kicking yourself for forgetting things, you might need to cut your brain some slack!

A second reason to consider is personality style. A number of well-researched personality questionnaires (for example, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) include a dimension of personality that relates to organisation and decision-making. Some people have a natural desire for order and completion and they tend to develop their own habits for keeping their space neat and tidy, remembering jobs they need to do, and so on. Some people are differently wired and tend to prefer flexibility and spontaneity. They may find it harder to plan and organise as it does not feel as ‘natural’ for them. If this is you, do keep in mind that there are many assets to being a flexible person! For example, you probably cope much better with interruptions and last minute changes to plans, than do your highly organised friends. However, you might also find it helpful to learn a few habits that can help you be organised, when and where it’s really needed.

There are two main areas of organisation that many people struggle with – organising their time and organising their space (or more specifically, the constant array of ‘stuff’ that comes into that space, be it your home, office, car etc).

Organising your time

The first step is to develop a good system for remembering all the things you need to get done. Given the above information, it’s important to stop relying on your brain to keep track of all your commitments and tasks. Find a way to keep an external record, so that you are no longer relying on your memory to keep prompting you (which often fails, and can be exhausting). Time management expert David Allen speaks of the importance of ‘emptying your head’ as the first necessary step to getting things done effectively and efficiently. Here are some examples of an external system:
– a simple to-do list written on paper
– an editable to-list (for example, a Word document on your computer), which enables you to easily move things around as priorities change
– using your smart phone – either a specific app or entering tasks into your calendar along with alerts/reminders (an incredibly useful feature!)
– post it notes, placed so as to remind you
Now I’m sure you have heard this tip before but I believe there are a couple of further steps to ensure that a ‘to-do’ list actually helps you. The first is to use a method that resonates with you. If you are practically attached to your smart phone, then an app may be helpful. But if you are a traditional pen and paper person, feel free to stick with that. It is much more likely to work for you.
Secondly, the real key with any system is that you need to refer to it regularly. This is where most people fall down. Make a habit to check in with your list on a regular basis. For most of us, this would be each day. Perhaps look at your list while you eat breakfast or have your morning coffee. Another idea could be to review it at the end of the day, and make a note in your diary/calendar/phone of a couple of things you can achieve the following day.

If you are following this approach but still regularly find that you are missing deadlines or running out of time to do things that you consider important, you may need to take stock and assess all your commitments. There are three main possibilities:
1. You have taken on too much – some tasks will need to go. Be realistic about what you can achieve. While it’s hard in the short term to say no or pull out of a commitment, you will feel so much better in the long run without the constant guilt of unfinished tasks hanging over your head.
2. You are taking too long on some tasks – you will need to speed up (this is often an issue for perfectionists). Try to identify some tasks where you can simplify or streamline things a bit, and save your time for the tasks that really need your best effort.
3. You are wasting time on other things instead of focusing on what needs to be done. Let’s face it, this is a struggle for all of us. Self-discipline is not easy! If you find that you procrastinate a lot, Andrew’s blog on this topic may be useful.

Organising your space

Professional organiser Lissanne Oliver has shaped my thinking greatly in this area and I highly recommend her book (see below). I’m sure you have heard the saying “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. Simple and yet hard to achieve! Here are some ideas for actually living by this principle:
– When you bring something into your home, think about where it should be stored, and put it there as soon as possible.
– Try to put things away as soon as you have finished using them. Small amounts of tidying on a regular basis are much less exhausting and overwhelming than having to do a big clean up.
– Consider also a place for things that come and go a lot – a dish or a shelf for your keys and mobile phone, a spot for mail that needs to be opened or bills that need to be paid. These are things that often get lost, or that clutter up the dining table, because we haven’t ever designated a proper spot to store them.
– If your home is bursting at the seams with ‘stuff’, here is an interesting rule for thinking through whether to keep something: Do you use it regularly? Is it beautiful? Is it of great sentimental value? If the answer to all three questions is no, then have a think about why are you hanging on to it!
– Recognise that you will regularly need to make time to cull your stuff and throw things away. This is especially true in regards to the endless variety of paperwork that comes into our homes every week – newspapers, bills, catalogues, school notes, and so on. I love Lissanne Oliver’s suggestion to open your mail right next to your bin so you can immediately throw away all the unwanted items. Developing small habits like this can save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.

Again, sticking to these strategies requires discipline, especially at first. But the pay off can be far reaching – whether you’re hoping to have a more restful and clutter-free home, be ready for tax time – or simply remember where the car keys are! What can you get started on today?

Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.

For further reading

Getting Things Done by David Allen
See his website http://www.davidco.com for further information and a range of free tools and resources.
Sorted! The ultimate guide to organising your life – once and for all by Lissanne Oliver
See her website http://sorted.net.au for further information.

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