I’m going to get a little bit personal today. I’ve never had an easy time keeping things tidy and in their places. My living space is full of clutter – clothes on the floor, unwashed dishes, the occasional full garbage bag that I’ll totally take out tomorrow. A lot of the files on my computer are named things like forlater.docx, aaa.txt, aaaa.txt, kdslfj.jpg, put in similarly useful folders. In short, I am what some would call “disorganized”.

The word disorganized is in scare quotes for a reason. I really don’t like that word and the way it’s used on people. Growing up I was labeled “disorganized”, and I knew many other people my age who had also earned that label. There was an implicit, heavy pressure on us to become “organized”. People went so far as to create organizational systems for us, leaving us with the simple task of maintaining it. But for me at least, it seemed that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I was trapped in my own disorganization. Being a “disorganized person” became a core part of my identity.

If you are also a “disorganized person”, I want to let you know that there is hope. But it might not look the way you think it does.

The big problem with being a “disorganized” or “organized” person is that it makes these things a part of your identity, as happened to me. When people call you something over and over again, you’re likely to end up agreeing with them. That’s not just some proverbial fluff, that’s an actual psychological theory. When you call someone disorganized, you’re implying that it’s some inherent part of their personality. And that is simply bullpoopy.

A lot of people see organization as some all-or-nothing endeavor, which causes no small amount of perfectionism. If you’re “organized” or trying to be, then you’re not allowed to mess up or you lose your merit badge. But nobody is perfect, and the people who you see as “organized” probably lapse from time to time on their own organizational habits. In fact, it’s more common than you might think for a so-called “organized” person to instead be someone who’s good at projecting the image of being “organized”.

I think a lot of people who struggle with organization tend to get things backwards. Rather than looking at organization as something that can make life and schoolwork easier, it becomes about fitting the image of what an “organized” person looks like. So they throw together an organizational system that looks just like the real thing and then try to maintain it. This is little more than a fantastic exercise in biting off more than you can chew. It’s not impossible for this method to work, but going so far against your own ingrained habits makes forgetting or “forgetting” to maintain things ridiculously easy.

Organization isn’t even really a singular concept. It’s more like an overarching term for a broad set of semi-related skills. The concept is so valued because having these skills tends to make other areas of life go more smoothly. The great news is, skills can be learned. The bad news is, you’re not going to be great at all of them overnight. It takes work, and most of that work is actually in habit building. Rather than creating a system and then building habits to maintain it, it may be more productive to identify where you want things to go more smoothly, how, and what baby steps you can take to get there.

One of the neat things about habits is that you actually already have a ton of them. They’re not necessarily habits that are conducive to your goals, but they are things that exist. You might take your shoes off in the same spot every night, only for them to end up somewhere else because you kick them out of the way later. Maybe you keep all your notes in one notebook with little to differentiate them. Perhaps you don’t put your laundry away when it’s done and end up throwing your dirty clothes on the floor instead.

When you try to build a habit, you usually have to try to break the old one as well. I find that the easiest way to do this is in baby steps, working with the habits you already have instead of against them. Maybe instead of working on putting the laundry away, you just get a second laundry hamper and rotate. Perhaps you just try to lazily kick your shoes off a bit to the left of being in your way so they stay in place until you need them again. Rather than keeping separate notebooks, you label each class’s notes with a different color pen. Sure, it sounds a tad silly, but these are all habits that can help build better organization, and are fairly small habits to learn.

At the end of all of this, I have just one question for you to consider today: what’s one organizational habit you have and don’t like, and how can you tweak it to suit your needs better? For extra credit, ask yourself that question again once you have the habit fairly well engrained. And again, and again. You’d be surprised the difference this can make over the course of months and years if you keep at it.

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