Gradual Organization: How to Go from Slob to Productive

I’ll admit it: I used to be a slob. Several years ago, I would have been lucky just getting my clothes in the right drawers. To-do lists, calendars and detailed systems for managing my energy and time would have seemed like a fantasy. Instead I had nothing written down or sorted, relying on memory to keep track of important dates and tasks.

Looking at the way I run my life now, it would be hard to recognize my prior messiness. I went from slob to productive, simplifying my life by:

  • Carrying around a notepad to “capture” any tasks or ideas at any time.
  • Using a simple combination of a to-do list and calendar to record events.
  • Waking up at 5:30 each morning.
  • Maintaining a goals binder to track big projects.
  • Completely overhauling my diet and exercise habits to have more energy.
  • Creating daily goals lists to chunk out work for the next day.
  • Using weekly to-do’s to stay ahead on important work.
  • Batching my e-mail and web time from a few hours to 30 minutes a day.
  • Splitting up my work and free time–letting me boost my productivity while ensuring I get a day off every week.

Since I began writing about productivity and improvement at my own blog, I’ve been asked by a lot of people how I made such a dramatic switch. The answer is that changing from chaos to order isn’t like turning on a lightbulb. Gradual organization is the only way you can make productivity permanent.

Are You Running a Race You Can’t Finish?

Most of the time I’ve received feedback from people trying to organize their life, I see the same pattern: mass consumption. Instead of adding on one habit at a time, I see people trying to switch every behavior simultaneously. Eventually these people revert back into a slob.

It’s important to know how long to run a race before you start. Starting off a marathon by sprinting isn’t going to get you to the finish line. Similarly, taking on every possible GTD, lifehack or to-do list upgrade at the same time isn’t a winning strategy.

Permanent Productivity

My goal with any habit is a change that will last. Productivity is based on a collection of habits from using lists and organizers, to squashing procrastination and completing reviews. Here are the steps I used to gradually build the habits of organization:

The Foundation Comes First. There’s no point putting on a roof if your house is about to collapse. Tweaking little details of your organization system aren’t important if you haven’t maintained the fundamentals. Here’s the first three:

  1. “Capture” device. Always carry a notepad to record ideas and tasks.
  2. Running To-Do List. Be able to know, at any point, what needs to be done.
  3. Calendar. Record upcoming events and deadlines.

Invest One Month for One Habit. Pick one specific habit (waking up early, weekly reviews, daily goals lists, etc.) and commit to that habit for a month. If you feel the urge to take on another habit before the first month is over, give yourself a slap.

Fill in the Blanks. Spend at least twenty minutes writing and describing the improvement you want to make before taking on a challenge. Fuzzy blueprints don’t build great houses. The more details you can add about how your change works, the better chance it will last.

Directed Organization. There is no “perfect” system for getting things done. There are only different systems which work towards different goals and different people. Before you can add any new habits, you first have to know what you want them to accomplish. Many of my habits were put in place to help myself as a writer and student. Design the system that works for you.

Less is Better. The more complex your system, the harder it will be to maintain. As you build on new ways of organizing, strip down the old methods. Splitting your life into hundreds of different folders isn’t any better than clumping them in a heap.

Look for the Homeless. Organization can be summed up in one idea: give everything a home. If you know where your tasks, office supplies, events or ideas are supposed to go, you won’t have mess. Organization is only one component to productivity, but it’s a biggie.

The 90/10 Rule. 90% of the time it takes to get organized is in setting up the system. Organizing your hard-drive, schedule or files will take a lot of thought and investment. However, once you get the system set up, only 10% of the time is spent in keeping it organized.

Where Should You Start?

I doubt there are many readers here that are complete unproductive slobs. But if you’re drowning in chaos, where should you start? Were I to go back in time and give my former, lazy self some advice on where to start, this is what I’d suggest.

  • Buy a few notepads and a pen. In your pocket carry two of the notepads. One write “Capture” and the other write “To-Do”.

Then, for the next month commit to:

  • Always have your two notepads and pen with you.
  • Whenever you have a task, event, idea or problem, add it to your “Capture” list.
  • A few times a day, transfer any to-do items from “Capture” to “To-Do”.
  • Before you work on any project, game or activity, check your “To-Do” notepad.

This may seem like too simple. However, most people don’t even bother to start here. Keeping your to-do and capture pads with you at all times gets you in the habit of writing instead of using your memory. Checking your to-do before starting an activity keeps you from procrastinating.

10 thoughts on “Gradual Organization: How to Go from Slob to Productive”

  1. I’m one of those self-proclaimed slobs. My room is all clutter, you won’t even get to relax in it. I don’t even do my work there. I don’t have lists because I think they tend to limit me. I have the tendency to be spontaneous. Of course, I might just be making up excuses so I won’t have to organize myself! But I have to admit that your suggestions sound easy. Maybe I should give some of them a try. One step at a time.

  2. Wow. That picture of the bookcase in and of itself was enough to make me want to get organized. Part of my problem is I live in a 1.5 bedroom in New York with my husband and though we’re minimalists, it’s very difficult to stay organized in such a small space. In theory, I the idea of waking up early to accomplish tasks, but in reality I love to sleep and my freelance schedule of working at home easily accommodates that. Will have to start inching my way out of bed 1/2hour early at a time. It’s inspiring you were a self-proclaimed slob. I’ll give it a go.

    1. @The Innovative Traveler,

      Funny you should say that, I found it kinda silly that the books were organized by color….

  3. I only carry one notebook with me. It is the small pocketbook size Moleskin. I also carry a Pilot G2 mini.

    I start from the front page of the Moleskin for my TODO lists. I start from the back page of the Moleskin for my Capture lists.

  4. Some very, very sage advice about not taking on too many things at one time. It takes time, effort and experience to develop a new habit. You have go from that initial starting point of ‘conscious incompetence’ through the usually long-haul of ‘conscious competence’ before it becomes ‘unconscious competence.’ The stage of conscious competence usually starts off very slowly, very awkwardly and full of mistakes and frustrated effort. This is the point at which quitting comes easiest, especially when you load yourself up with lots of new things to do and one or two of them are easier to do (of course, doing nothing is even easier ;-) )

    Scott’s advice is bang on the nail here. Get a decent level of mastery with new skills before moving onto getting new skills. Good article!

  5. Peter, another great post. I think the best tip is gradual organization and remember that the biggest investment is in setting up the system. Once that is done, keeping it going will become easier. Here’s to clearing out the clutter. =)

  6. Peter,

    Having a capture device may be one of the best tips I have been given. Ever since I have started this, my ideas have not been forgotten. Now if I could only figure out a way to do capture ideas in the shower…


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