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Tips on how to become more organised

"What do you want to know about getting organised?"

That's a question I ask my colleagues and friends every so often to get ideas for my articles. The last time I asked, more than one person responded: "How do I even get started?"

If I were to write a beginner's guide to getting organised, it would lead off with one absolutely essential piece of advice: Break down your projects into smaller pieces.

Breaking down a goal into smaller objectives and daily tasks is crucial to success. All organised people do it, but not all advice articles make this point explicit. I think it needs to be explicit. It's so important that you should not gloss over it.

The real secret to being organised is figuring out how to get yourself to do the actions that are necessary for the organisation to take place and continue going forward. You have to be able to define the actions — and that's what breaking down a goal is all about.

Where to start getting organised

Before you can get organised, you have to have a goal.

"I want to be more organised" is not a goal. Try to picture what it is you actually want. Try to put it into words. And what's also important is to try to make those words positive and actionable, rather than negative.

Let's say for example that you feel like your email is out of control. You want to organise your email.

Negatively defined goal: "My email is a mess and I don't want it that way any more."

Positively defined goal: "I want to always be able to find an email quickly when I need it."

The positive and actionable goal focuses on what you want to be able to do ("find emails quickly"). The goal formulated with a negative slant just restates the problem that your email is messy and you're unhappy about it.

Here's another example:

Negatively defined goal: "I have too many papers. They're cluttering my desk and cause distractions, and I hate it." (Notice how there's no clear picture of what you want to happen or how you want the situation to change).

Positively defined goal: "I want a minimalistic workspace that is conducive to helping me focus. I want to leverage my computer and the power of OCR and search to be more efficient at finding important documents." (Notice the emphasis on positive words, such as "focus" and "efficient").

Quite literally, you have to picture what it is you want, and put it into positive words – concrete and actionable words.

How to deconstruct a goal

Once you have a goal and have put it into words, you have to deconstruct it.

An easy way to deconstruct a goal is to think about what you would write on a daily to-do list in order to accomplish the goal.

You would never put "Create a minimalistic workspace that is conducive to focusing" on a to-do list. Rather, you might write:

  • Clear mugs and cups from the desk
  • Scan papers in inbox
  • Shred scanned papers
  • Straighten out computer wires

Example: Photo organisation makeover

I want to give you a longer example of how to break a large organisational project into smaller parts to fully tease out how it happens.

I've been working with a colleague, Stephanie, on a total digital photo organisation makeover. She has thousands of photos spread out across multiple computers and online storage services, and she just wants them organised.

1. Define the goal

The first time we sat down together to discuss the project, I asked her: "What is it you want? What is your goal?" I stopped her before she could even answer. "Let me rephrase that. What do you want to be able to do with your photos that you can't do now?"

Stephanie essentially said she wants to be able to find photos easily, no matter what device she was using.

2. Understand the problem

My follow-up question was this: "Right now, when you look for a photo, how do you look? Do you remember the date or the people in the image or an event when the photo was shot?"

What this question was really asking was: "What kind of solution should we design so that it fits your needs?"

She said she usually remembers her photos roughly by date, such as "in college," but also sometimes by the people in the photo.

We considered a few possible solutions, but didn't settle on anything just yet. Often, it helps to move forward with a few pieces of an organisation project so see if your definition of the goal changes the more you learn about the problem.

3. Assign yourself small tasks

Based on our meeting, Stephanie came away with a short list of tasks. It looked something like this:

Take inventory: List the places where photos are kept, both locally and online

Turn on Photostream (Stephanie uses several Apple devices , so consolidating photos through Photostream seemed like a logical and simple step to perform early on)

Retrieve passwords for any photo sites not used in a while

Download Facebook photos and data

These four tasks were the extent of Stephanie's "next steps." Notice her list is only a couple of items long. She could easily do all these tasks in a day if she buckled down, or less than a week if she did one per day.

4. Set deadlines

The way to follow through on simple, short tasks is to set deadlines. I like to use a task management app, such as Awesome Note or, to keep track of my to-dos and assign deadlines to them. With Stephanie's project, I don't know if she's giving herself deadlines, but she has soft deadlines based on when we decide we'll meet with each other next to continue the project. My assumption is that our next meeting looms on her calendar and makes her feel accountable for doing what she said she will do.

It's the doing that's hard

Not everyone feels accountable to himself or herself. I think we all have strategies for making ourselves feel accountable, though, such as telling someone else about our plans, or wagering money that we will or will not do something. Remembering a task is not hard. Just set a reminder on your smartphone. It's the doing that's hard. If you have small tasks that are very specific, you're at least increasing your chances that you'll follow through.

The adage "every journey starts with a single step" is entirely true. Or if you prefer, "Showing up is half the battle" speaks to the same intention. You have to give yourself clear and actionable things to do and a reasonable amount of time in which to do them. Otherwise, you'll never so much as get started.