The 7 stages of organization

This is a tongue-in-cheek guide to the various stages of organization I myself have gone through. Enjoy, and don't take it too seriously. Realize that there's no judgement here, because each stage of organization works if you only have a certain number of things to do. If all you ever have to do is 1 thing at a time , trying to remember is just fine. (what? Are you 7 years old or in prison or something?) 3 things? Use post it notes! Frictionless is designed for the person who has 100+ things that have to get done eventually, even if they can only work on 10 at the moment. Personally, I think 100+ things is typical of the modern professional adult, but some people have simpler lives, the lucky bastards.

The first stage of organization is trying to remember what you're supposed to do.

This doesn't work. Human beings can only remember so many things at once. Some can remember more than others, but unless you're 7 years old, you're going to have more things to do then you can possibly remember. So you're going to forget to do things or you're going to have to move to a new stage of organization.

Even worse, trying to remember things keeps your mind busy remembering instead of doing. So trying to remember things actually works against you accomplishing anything. Just pictures all those husbands in the supermarket chanting "Eggs, Milk, Cereal" as they aimlessly wander the aisles of the SuperMarket Sunday at 9PM and you'll see what I mean.

The second stage of organization is making piles to remind you of what you're supposed to do.

This doesn't work. It seems like it works and you can get by for a long time with piles, but the problem with piles is that unless you actively clean out those piles of all the cruft accumulates in those piles until you either have to buy a new house or change jobs. Anything in the bottom of a pile will effectively never get done. Soon, you'll be back to stage 1 again, trying to remember.

You can always tell someone in the second stage, because their office/house/whatever is a disaster, but if you rearrange one pile they'll fly into a rage. Essentially, you've just rearranged their brain. Don't do that. Send them a link to this website instead.

Note that piles can masquerade as other things in this electronic age. If you have an email Inbox with 10,000 items, and you're constantly marking items "unread", and you send yourself emails, you're a piler. The problem with even these electronic piles is that effectively, you have to read 10,000 emails to find the one email that lists what you have to do.

The third stage of organization is the post-it note stage.

This stage starts off innocuously enough. You simply write items on a post it note and stick it somewhere. You can tell people in the late phases of this stage, because their offices look like they've been struck by a post-it-note tornado. Especially because people in the post-it-note stage have usually just graduated from the piles stage.

In really advanced cases, the person will have post-its in multiple colors. Beware of those people because they are on the verge of a personal and professional meltdown. Seriously, I'm not kidding.

The problem with post-it notes is similar to that of piles. It doesn't scale. Once you have more then say, 20 post its in your field of view, not only are they constantly bugging you, falling onto the floor, etc. but you have to physically scan each one. Really, the post it note stage is really just a smaller more compact version of piles. There is hope though, because it leads to the key concept you'll need in all the later stages. Write Stuff Down.

The fourth stage of organization is the to-do list.

This is the first stage that shows true potential. Rather than trying to remember, you write stuff down. You can survive for a long time in this stage, years in fact, because your paper to-do list keeps a perfectly good record of what you have to do, which frees your brain for actually doing.

The real catch for the paper to-do list is that you have to spend a certain amount of time maintaining your to-do list. Your to-do list gets more and more complex until you end up spending a fair amount of time copying/recopying your to-do list. Even if your to-do list is electronic, you still end up having to skim the to-do list constantly. At this point, you either end up partially regressing with some things written down, some things piled, and some things in your head, or you hopefully try to move on to a more advanced stage.

The fifth stage of organization is the organizer, whether paper or electronic.

Ok, you've started writing stuff down so your brain is clear for other tasks. Except certain things have to be done at certain times. You also need your to-do list with you at all times. This is the time when many people buy an organizer like that sold by Franklin Covey, or a Palm/Treo.

Organizers have a huge advantage because you can organize things by time. So if you need to do something on a certain day, you write it in that spot in your organizer. This whittles down your to-do list yet again. It also integrates calendar information, which can be a huge advantage for some people.

When I was self-employed, I loved my paper organizer, and if I was still self-employed, I'd probably still be using it. Organizers work best for people whose to-do items revolve around time, because effectively, you can slice your to-do lists by days of the week or month, and be back down to a manageable set. The nice thing about a paper organizer is that it also works as a diary, which is one of the reasons that I would still use one if I was still self-employed.

The sixth stage of organization is the review, or planning.

Using an organizer isn't enough. To really be productive, you have to start acting instead of reacting. That means taking the time once/week to sit down and plan. Every organization system tells you this, from Franklin Covey to David Allen. Yet its very easy to get sucked into the details of your organizer/planner whatever and miss that the keystone of every organization system is really spending 1 hour/week to organize the other 39+ hours.

This stage is also known as the weekly review stage.

The seventh stage of organization is some sort of organizer, plus being organized.

This is really the essence of David Allen's book. Using an organizer and planning once/week isn't enough because almost everyone who is trying to become more productive and be less stressed needs help in getting organized. That means not just having an organizer, but a filing system, a inbox, a whole bunch of helpful tips from Allen's book.

This stage is also known as the label maker stage, because anyone who has reached this stage will be quite surprised to find that a label maker is one of the most useful office devices they can own.

Copyright 2007, Pierce T. Wetter III