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?

Designing organization systems

So, I’ve decided to change my approach to organization. Not sure when I made this decision, it just sort of happened and then a only recently did I realize consciously that’s what I’ve been doing.

I’m an engineering student. I just recently changed discipline to engineering. Before, I was a chemist. I still am. I’m just a chemist who’s studying chemical engineering.

So, I’m learning a lot about the engineering thought process, and realizing how it’s similar to but different from the science thought process. In science, the underlying question is usually a “why?” Why doesn’t this reaction work? Why does this related reaction work? Etc. In engineering, the question is typically a “how?” How can I optimize this? How do I get this to work?

Anyone with executive function issues knows that organizing – and staying organized – is littered with hows.

So, I figured, why not apply my engineering principles that I’m learning to organization? Organization can be thought of as a system. I just need to design and optimize systems to help me stay organized. What if I think about organization as not a matter of keeping track of all the details, but a matter of designing systems that keep track of the details for me?

I’ve already used this with success for the laundry (with my laundry sorter and getting changed in the bathroom all the time and using timers). Which, as a side-effect, solved the problem of the floor of my room. I’ve also designed a system for improving my regularity of gym trips, and I’m working on a few others.

So, I just figured I’d chat a bit about my thought process when I set up something like this.

  1. What do I need? I ignore social acceptability here. Which is hard. It’s hard to focus on “I need ____.” when my brain is going, “I should be able to do it like everyone else!” So this step takes me a few weeks, to figure out what my actual need is. In the case of the laundry thing: I need something that will let me keep my floor clean, and I need it to be something I can actually keep up with. Lastly, I need the transition to the new system to go smoothly – there has to be no system-breaking problems with it by the time I roll it out. If I fail the transition, I won’t be able to implement it. That’s just the way I am.
  2. What do I want? I again ignore social acceptability. It’s okay to be selfish! I’m the one who’s going to be doing it! So, here, it was I want a system that sorts my clothes into tops, bottoms, underwear & pajamas so I don’t have to go digging through everything to find what I need to wear. This is not a need, so if it were to turn out that I can either get my floor safe to walk on or I can get the sorting, I’d sacrifice the sorting.
  3. What are my limitations/constraints? So, in this part: Space. My room is tiny. No room for a full dresser (plus, I hate dressers anyway since I fail at folding and so have a hard time getting stuff to fit). As mentioned before, I fail at folding, so it has to be something that wouldn’t need me to master the black art of folding. I’m not going to magically get over my inability to organize and keep track of stuff, either. Nor am I going to remember to go out of my room to put stuff away, so it has to be something I can do as part of getting changed/laundry/etc. And, money-wise, I needed it to be something I could set up for less than $60 CAD because I am a grad student and we get paid peanuts. Finally, I’m not going to figure out how to break my black-and-white thinking regarding changes overnight, so I should just accept that if I fuck up the transition, I will be unable to follow through with it and will need to try out something else.
  4. What do I already have in place? Erm… Piles on the floor. Dirty clothes go in this pile, clean clothes go in that one.
  5. What are the problems with what I already have? Well, ignoring that clothes on the floor take up a lot of space and really aren’t safe to walk on, sometimes it’s hard to tell where one pile ends and another begins, plus my dirty laundry isn’t sorted. For doing laundry itself, I make use of the kitchen timer, which works when my roommates don’t turn it off to be a passive-aggressive about something – what, I don’t know. I know they do it on purpose, but I can’t magically realize why they’re irritated.
  6. Can I build on something I already have? It’s easier to modify existing stuff than it is to build something entirely new from scratch. This is why it takes children two years to learn to walk competently but an adult can learn a new physical skill in a few weeks. Kids learn much faster than adults, but adults have the framework of existing skills that can be modified. Plus, I know my existing strategy is within my wheelhouse of things I can manage. Therefore, it’s far more likely that a modification of the existing strategy will also be within my wheelhouse of things I can manage than it is that something I design from scratch will be. What I will do is take from the strengths of the existing system: Namely, I always change in the same place, and I always put my dirty clothes in the appropriate pile as soon as I’m done. Timers help me remember to change over laundry, but I currently have a problem with roommate sabotage. Finally, when I get around to sorting laundry, I sort it in four groups: Dark colors, light colors, whites and towels. Take that, modify it.

So, once I had what the problem was figured out and my end goal figured out, I went researching. Someone I know has a laundry sorter, and I priced them. I found they were relatively inexpensive – I got mine for about $35, taxes in. I made sure to get one with four sections. Now, I have somewhere to put the laundry when I get changed. Next, I went looking for plastic bins. I found some that were fairly cheap, and got enough for both my partner’s clothes and mine, sorted by pants, tops, and everything else so six bins. I came in a little under-budget, as the bins came to about $20 since I lucked into a sale.

Then I went into troubleshooting what could go wrong before I applied this:

  1. Room is tiny. So, I have to move the sorter elsewhere. Bathroom fits it perfectly, so I’ll stick it in there.
  2. Problem with above solution: I’m not going to remember to carry laundry from my bedroom to the bathroom. So get changed in bathroom instead.
  3. Not a lot of room for bins in current room configuration, but if I move my desk, I can stack them next to my bed. That works.
  4. Roommate sabotage is a problem that needs fixing. I have a timer on an old cell phone I don’t use anymore, why not use that instead of the kitchen timer and take them out of the equation?
  5. Solution to 4 leads to problem 5: The reason why I started using the kitchen timer was because if I used a timer within arms reach of my computer, I’d shut it off without thinking about it and it wouldn’t serve its purpose. So… set the timer across the room, so I still have to get up and move to shut it off. This will work.

Then I applied it. I chose a Saturday to build everything and set up the bins because it’s a lower stress day and I was less likely to get too anxious about it (I still ended up cursing a lot, I admit) and also because Saturday I have enough time to do laundry. First, I built the sorter. Then I sorted the laundry, which made me realize I needed to do laundry, so I started a load. I set the timer up away from my computer, then I sorted my clean laundry into the appropriate bins.

So far, the only breakdown in the system is that I just don’t have enough work jeans so I sometimes end up with, “I don’t have enough dirty laundry to do a load, but I’m all out of stuff safe to wear at work!” And I usually discover that on a work morning. So I will remedy that in a few weeks, when I get the money saved up.

The other systems I’m working on:

  • Prevention of clutter buildup. This one is still in its infancy. I’m still trying to figure out why I have clutter buildup, so I can sort out a solution to the underlying problem.
  • Kitchen countertops: Should be fairly easy – I think all I need to do here is have garbage cans where I most frequently work in the kitchen rather than where they’re most commonly placed. Relatives will try to move them back to the “right” space whenever they visit, but nothing says I can’t just move them back where I want them when they leave. In the pre-implementation troubleshooting.
  • Housework: Not even sure where to begin here. Thinking I need to break it down into smaller problems, but not sure how. Need to think more.
  • Keeping track of school/work stuff: I’ve got some good stuff to build off, here, but I’m already doing pretty well with it, so it’s low on the priority list.

I have to say, thinking about organization as an engineering problem? Way more effective than anything I’ve tried before. For the first time in my life, I can safely walk across my bedroom floor. That’s pretty huge. Doing it everyone else’s way never worked, so it’s high time I chuck their ways out of the window and choose instead to design my own. So far, it’s working.