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Organizing Yourself From the Inside Out: Keys To Increasing Productivity and Creativity

 by Joe Peraino, Ph.D.

Have you heard this before: “I’m going to get organized this time and stick to it”? Maybe you have said it yourself. Staying organized is like trying to keep weight off; we do it for a while and then fall back into old habits. Most of us have learned many organization techniques over the years: get a day planner, make to-do lists, develop an organizing system so we can find and store things easily, touch paper only one time, “do, delegate, delay or dump,” and have a method of handling phone calls and e-mails. All too often, however, we end up still getting bogged down, and the planners and the to-do lists fall by the wayside. We end up right where we were before, maybe a little improved but still struggling with overload, over commitment, and overly tired.

Why can’t we stay focused and organized? Much like in dieting, something or someone comes along and interrupts the plan. Your manager asks you to do a special assignment; your mother is suddenly in the hospital and you have to help take care of her; you find yourself spending a lot of time being social during work hours; or you are inundated with phone calls and e-mails. In providing personal coaching services, I find individuals have tremendous difficulty remaining free from distractions. In general, I have found that people do not stay organized when 1) stress is not managed, 2) the people in our lives are not managed, or 3) our emotional or psychological problems are not corrected. If any of these three factors exist, it is difficult to stay focused on an organizational plan.

When we have control over these three life circumstances, then we are organized on the “inside.” “Inside” refers to our emotions, our mental state, and our psychological make-up. Being organized on the inside frees up energy that is then used on organizing the “outside.” “Outside” refers to the environment and the situations we find ourselves in. We only have so much mental stamina. If it’s all used up solving or trying to manage personal “inside” issues, then little is left over for managing our work, home, friends, hobbies, family of origin, etc. People stay organized in their work and home environments (the outside) only when their personal life is organized (the inside).

High levels of productivity and creativity occur only if we have learned organizational and time management skills and we can deal with stress, manage people, and are free from our own psychological distress. We need all four factors to be in place to be fully productive and have time for creative pursuits. We can only use the time management and self-organization techniques if we have ourselves together; that is, if we are organized from the inside out.

Organizing the outside: a few time management and organization techniques.

Obviously, not all techniques generated over the years can be summarized in this short article but my coaching clients have found the following tips most useful. These techniques may not work for everyone since we all live and work in different kinds of settings. What might work for one person may not work for another. The reasons for these vary depending on personality, the level of distractibility, or not being organized on the inside.

Planning. One minute of planning saves five minutes in execution. That’s a 500% return in time savings on the investment of planning!! Since most of us sell our time, increased planning produces increased productivity and leaves more time for creative pursuits.

Develop the habit of neatness. Most executives would not promote a person with a messy desk or work environment. When things are in their proper place, one saves a tremendous amount of time. Why waste time remembering where you put things? Neatness and organization make you feel relaxed and in control.

Have everything at hand when you begin a task or project. Clear your desk of everything but what you need for the task. It reduces distractions and you’ll save time. Pretend you are a chef; have all your utensils and ingredients within reach.

Resolve to handle a piece of paper (or e-mail) only once. Make a decision on it: toss it, delegate it to somebody else, act on it, or file it. Handling a piece of paper many times is a huge time waster. 80% of papers filed are never used or seen again. Best way to save time: throw things away!

When finished with something, put it away. This could be reference materials, pen or paper, clothes, cooking utensils, travel brochures, files, checkbook, whatever. Complete your transaction. Be done with it so you can move on, both physically and mentally, to other things without worrying about it again.

Develop a planning system. Every successful person has one. You can develop your own system with the essential features to include daily, weekly and monthly lists. Lists bring order out of chaos and can probably save about 25% in time. Lists reduce feelings of being overwhelmed. After you have made your lists, prioritize them.

The most effective people do the most important thing first. “The secret to success is constancy to purpose.” (Benjamin Disraeli) Those who think, plan and stay organized will reach their goals and function with great efficiency.

Getting organized on the inside. We are able to use organizational tools most effectively when 1) we handle stress, 2) we manage people, and 3) we minimize personal problems. These are the three precursors to organization and productivity. Let’s look at how we can handle these three areas.

Stress. Stress is the experience of a situation as being overly taxing and self-endangering. Stress responses can be physiological, behavioral, or attitudinal. Ways to manage stress include the following:

  • Limit the amount of stress you are exposed to.

  • Be proactive; take charge of situations.

  • Take a break, dialog with others; get some feedback about the situation or person.

  • Maintain physical activity: running, yoga, tennis, etc.

  • Change your environment.

  • Change your perspective about what is stressful.

Most of us think that in this busy world, one way to handle stress is by multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is simply doing many things at once. Research suggests that we should avoid multi-tasking at all costs! What happens when your computer runs more than one or two programs at a time? It runs slowly and laboriously. Multi-tasking makes a computer less productive. Multi-tasking makes us less productive, too!

Managing people. How we deal with co-workers, supervisors, supervisees, spouses and children can take up a lot of our time and mental energy. Are we being taken advantage of? Are we pulling somebody else’s weight? Are we a people pleaser? Here are some organizational tips on managing the people in our lives.

  • Learn to say ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ to others is saying ‘yes’ to ourselves and our goals.

  • Identify people who steal your time; don’t succumb to their schedules or tactics.

  • Somebody else’s crisis does not have to be yours.

  • Control interruptions: the more you allow them, the more they will happen.

  • Ineptitude on their part does not constitute an emergency on yours.

  • Don’t give in to the shrillest cry, squeakiest wheel, or loudest complainer.

  • Don’t get stuck as the “official” problem solver.

Psychological or emotional problems. Marital problems, child management issues, depression, addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or food, chronic anxiety, attention deficit disorder, worry, perfectionism, procrastination, fear of failure, fear of success, and family problems are a few examples of mental states that interfere with organization and productivity. A study released in May 2002 found that 20 million Americans suffer from depression. Nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce in the United States. It is an understatement to say that these conditions affect our productivity and ability to stay organized. Space limitations do not allow for an in-depth discussion of these bandits of organization, but fortunately, there are numerous techniques and interventions to treat these problems.

This article just scratched the surface about how to organize oneself inside and out. There are numerous resources that can help in each area (organizational tools, stress management, learning to manage people, and dealing with psychological and emotional issues). These are important life tasks. Why procrastinate? Get organized inside and out!

Joe Peraino, Ph.D. is a professional and personal coach. He serves on the faculty at the University of Houston and Baylor College of Medicine. He is author of numerous scientific articles and has recently released a CD entitled From Dependence to Independence: Promoting Maturity in Children, a live recording made to parents of ADHD children. He can be reached at 713-859-7759 or by e-mail at for consultation or product purchase.

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