Short term v. long term organization

Organization has been something I have trouble with for all my life. My very first school report cards include comments about my organization, and I remember getting chided for losing stuff more than other kids while still in preschool. This is something that surprises and confuses people who know me well.

You see, I’m very good at organizing things.

Except when I’m not. And then I’m a fucking train wreck.

When it comes to putting order to chaos, to systematizing a set of data, to seeing patterns and sorting things into categories, and to similar work, I am very good at organizing. I am the person who other people run filing systems past at work. I am the person that other people go to for designing systems to be easy to find, logical and sensible. I do it in writing, when I formulate arguments for papers and proposals, on my computer with my system of filing scientific papers, and so on. I know how to set things up in a way that makes sense. Even when it’s a job that would drive most others up the wall with tedium, I get a quiet satisfaction out of bringing order to the chaos. I enjoy it.

But when it comes to keeping things neat on a day to day basis, and other organization tasks that require keeping track of small things or remembering to do things that aren’t easily put into a routine, like doctor’s appointments and running unexpected errands, we leave “strength” territory and enter “train wreck” territory. 

Other people can’t understand how I can be so good at organizing things, yet so bad at keeping myself organized. I’m not really sure I understand it myself, except that I’m pretty sure it’s executive function related. But, to make a long story short: the set of skills used to see patterns, and make things conform to those patterns – i.e., those used to make a one-time organizational effort – are completely different to those used to keep track of appointments and clutter and suchlike. People bundle both skill sets under the heading of “organization” and assume it’s the same thing, and then can’t understand why I can be so good at it until I’m a train wreck.

There’s different types of organization. I’m good the system-design type and the follow-routine type, but very bad at the keep stuff neat and keep track of things types. This is why I can beautifully organize all my books alphabetically and by subject… and then over the next few months/years, entropy will take over until the organization is destroyed, until the lack of organization ticks me off again and I re-organize.

And don’t tell me that if I do “a little bit at a time,” it’s easier.

It’s not. If it was easier for me to do it your way, don’t you think that I would?

10 thoughts on “Short term v. long term organization

  1. autisticook says:

    I can identify with this a LOT.

    One-off design or pattern recognition? Fine. Maintenance? Not so fine.

  2. Alana says:

    YES! This is exactly how my organization skills are too. Well not quite exactly, but very similar. I will set up an organization system but slowly over time it falls apart due to lack of maintenance. Then I set up another AWESOME one and it lasts for a while, then falls apart. And so on and so on.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Same here. The only things that have ever stuck around for a long time are things that I can make part of other tasks – like how my laundry sorter making sorting laundry part of getting changed. If I can’t make it part of something, I lose it in a few days or weeks.

  3. notesoncrazy says:

    “It’s not. If it was easier for me to do it your way, don’t you think that I would?”

    This. A million times this.

    And regarding the different types of organization and some being practically superpowers and others being consistently meltdown-worthy (my words, not yours, of course)…I identify. Because patterns are awesome. Laundry is not.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Laundry isn’t too bad for me so long as I use a timer, but yeah, I get what you mean.

      Also: Getting told to do a little at a time has always been a pet peeve of mine. To do “a little at a time,” I have to 1, overcome perfectionist black-and-white thinking that doesn’t let me stop at “a little,” 2, recognize that the room is becoming disordered, 3, recognize that I have time to order it, 4, remember that this indicates I should clean, 5, initiate the task, and 6, follow through with it. All of which are things I’m bad at. By contrast, if I wait till I have a full day, I can spend the day putting order to chaos and use skills I am good at. It takes a lot less out of me to do it all at once.

  4. I think the day to day stuff is more regulation than organization, which is why we can be so good at one and so bad at the other. I have this problem too. :-/ The daily stuff relies on the whole initiation, monitoring and inhibition of actions plus probably some attention thrown in to really screw with us. Whereas the pattern recognition tasks are more straight up organizing (sorting, categorizing, etc.). Pattern recognition is my number one survival skill. It’s like the Swiss army knife of autistic survival, it seems.

    Also, apologies for syntactic disorganization. My brain is mushy tonight but I couldn’t resist commenting anyhow.

    • autisticook says:

      Pattern recognition for the win.

      I’m thinking it even bleeds over into how I relate to people sometimes. I listen to their story, look for patterns, and identify points they have in common. One of my dearest friends told me last week that I said something about her boyfriend when they had just started dating a year ago that made her scratch her head, but in the end it was the reason she broke up with him last month. His behaviour fit a pattern.

      So, yeah. Swiss army knife.

      • ischemgeek says:

        Same here. Pattern recognition is really useful.

      • Pattern recognition is the #1 way that I relate to people. I have a scary ability to predict people’s behavior once I know them–not so much in short term interactions like conversation where I have to process things “live” but in longer term relationship stuff.

        Once my husband had a big stressful meeting and as he was talking over how he wanted to approach it, I predicted what the other person would do if he said x, y and z. He called me right after the meeting and said the conversation was like watching a movie play out because it went almost exactly as I’d predicted. It’s a bit spooky how predictable people can be.

    • ischemgeek says:

      No worries – when I’m tired/brain mushy, I tend to forget to use pronouns, nouns and articles, so I can’t really criticize someone else for writing issues when they’re feeling off.

      Also: Yes. If I can make something part of a task – so, like, throwing dirty clothes in the laundry sorter instead of on the floor while I’m changing, I can do the keep up with stuff type of organization, but in terms of putting stuff away when I’m done with them/noticing when I’m running low on a thing/anything that requires initiation of a new task? Nope. Bad at it.

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