The Organized Mind

What Is Organized?

Everybody wants to be organized. Besides the obvious practical connotations associated with being organized, the trait affirms one’s character and responsibility and suggests to most people an attractive state: living in accordance with a set of positive characteristics intrinsically linked to planning, order, carefulness, and conscientiousness. It further indicates a diligent and reliable lifestyle and work style that bestow freedom from the chaos, pressures, and negative consequences of procrastination that are typically associated with conducting one’s affairs in a helter-skelter manner.

To be organized implies actively being in control and exerting control over one’s life. When you are organized, you impose order on your environment and the ways in which you interact with it. As well, being organized makes it far easier to get things done in an expedient and efficient manner. And, who doesn’t want to get things done? Most of us labor under the burden of too much to do, and not enough time and resources to accomplish the waiting tasks on our to-do list. The chronically disorganized person is apt to rationalize or deny his counterproductive behavior, kick the can down the road, and then must face the nagging specter of guilt that is the predictable consequence of his procrastination and irresponsibility.

In contrast to those who possess organized minds, those with disorganized minds usually find themselves responding only to that which is urgent, and neglecting or putting off attending to that which is important.

Being organized requires intentionally developed skills, ingrained good habits, and—most of all—a mind that can repeatedly bring itself to a state of order and calmness, and a mental set that can devote itself to sifting out distractions, interruptions, intrusions, fatigue, forgetfulness, and overexcitement.

The organized mind is habitually able to:

Find information, data, and material resources needed to put things in order and get done what needs to get done; retrieve needed materials for routine activities (such as keys, wallet, purse, phone, papers, etc.) as well as locate items and ideas relevant to activities and problem-solving.

Accomplish tasks and responsibilities that are necessary, relevant, and important (e.g., pay bills, respond to calls and communications, dispatch and fulfill assignments, purchase provisions, clean up and clean out, etc.).

Remember information relevant and salient to the dispatch of actions and achievement of tasks and responsibilities. This includes the abilities and habits needed for resuming work on tasks begun, partially fulfilled, and intermingled with other tasks competing for intermittent attention. In other words, possessing the capacity to hone in, accommodate interruptions, and refocus when interrupted while performing tasks. This set of attributes includes the mental mapping of the location, storage, and retrieval of ideas, data, and material needed to continue and complete jobs. It also includes the facile review and recognition of what has been done and what steps need to be done next to bring the task to completion and fruition.

Prioritize the sequence and importance of things that need to get done or taken care of; attending to the important and not becoming commandeered by the imminent demands that appear urgent, but actually can be placed farther back in the queue of things that need to get done.

Plan mentally a sequenced and structured outline of how to get things done—including allocating specific time needed to initiate, estimating time required to finish steps, identifying possible resources and costs, specifying ways to obtain resources (both material and people-related), and ascertaining the steps and interrelatedness of components of the processes for task accomplishment.

Reason with logic and demonstrate a facility for recognizing an awareness of the consequences of one’s actions, as well as the relation of cause-and-effect to specific consequences. The organized mind habitually employs an analysis of situations and potentials in terms of:

  • Reacting acutely to incoming stimuli and understanding of auditory verbal communications
  • Ability to attend to relevant stimuli and screen out nonessential stimuli
  • Competence in following verbal and written instructions
  • Development of abstraction, reasoning, and memory skills
  • Accurate recognition and comprehension of recurring similarities and differences among objects and events
  • Establishment of cause-and-effect thinking
  • Ability to develop and apply organizing principles in problem-solving
  • Ability to generalize and think logically
  • Intuitive apprehension of visual and nonverbal stimuli (necessary to picture, sequence, or construct outcomes, as well as to understand how things fit together)—necessary for appreciating the symbolic significance of “people” messages, emotions, and feedback
  • Ability to function efficiently in space and time
  • Integration of cerebral hemispheric functioning, so that verbal/analytical and nonverbal/spatial and inferential reasoning is holistic and comprehensive

Evaluate the changing conditions that affect the likelihood of task accomplishment, as well as clarity of thinking. This includes events and circumstances outside oneself and conditions and sensitivities in one’s own body and mind. An organized mind reflexively monitors and evaluates the effects of interventions and actions upon intended and unintended outcomes.

Discern key and subtle differences that can influence the direction, ease, and feasibility of one’s actions and intention in moving toward, amending, and modifying strategies and actions in achieving a desired result.

To read further about these mind skills, see my chapter in Confessions of a Maverick Mind entitled Bilateral Education: Integrating the Third World of Logic with Indigenous Hemispheres.

Disorganized: Normal, Abnormal, or Probable

With an outline of what an organized mind involves, let’s consider what it means to be disorganized.

Most people are concerned and self-conscious about their own degree of organization. Truth be told, we all have “skeletons in the closet” of our lives: material things to clean up or sort out, projects and responsibilities that beckon for completion, scattered and partially done items that compile untidily on our minds and environs. In addition to the visible evidence of disarray, there are psychological traumas and situations unresolved that hinder our peace by burdening us with feelings of ambivalence and ambiguity.

Only the most obsessive-compulsive and perfectionistic among us can sequester the anxieties of disorganization and incompleteness under the discipline of ritualized fussiness. However, such “orderly” habits are often more compulsion than goal-oriented mindfulness. In candor, we realize that each of us has pockets of fragmented thinking and incomplete or unresolved situations. Sometimes, the resolutions we desire and seek may not be entirely under our control in the present circumstances.

So, there is a degree of disorganization that is a part of normal life. What, then, is abnormal in regard to disorganization? Well, this is a domain that may truly be relative. I’m reminded of the anecdotal definition of alcoholism: you may be an alcoholic when you drink more than your doctor drinks! It can be a matter of who is judging whom and by what standards.

You know you are disorganized when:

  1. You think you are disorganized*
  2. People around you complain about your sloppiness, forgetfulness, failure to follow-through, etc.
  3. Evidence encroaches that your “act” is not together (e.g., habitual or severe procrastination or avoidance; failure to meet deadlines or standards; warnings or actual consequences of trouble due to your lack of follow-through).
  4. Your mind drives you a bit crazy with scattered thinking.

* Exception: if you are obsessive-compulsive; thus, fretting about being disorganized is part of your affliction.

Determining your own degree of disorganization requires a combination of comparison and soul-searching; perhaps a measure of feedback from others and the evidence in your life can help you make a reasonable judgment. Subjectivity is a natural, but often perplexing and error-prone view that besets us all.

I have developed a test instrument to assist you in evaluating the state of your own mind’s organization. Take the Organized Mind Test, and see how you fare. Click on the link for information about procuring this easy-to-take test and immediately scorable test.

Perspective and Comparison

Many people are predisposed to compare themselves to the attributes, accomplishments, and status of others. This is a natural and prideful human tendency, probably exacerbated by the influences of media, advertising and the ever-increasing accessibility of information about the rich and famous.

If you think you are well-off, smart, attractive, or fortunate, it’s not much of a stretch to ask: Yes, but compared to whom? (For some, the constant self-comparison can become a strong habit or compulsion.) A comparison of oneself to others deemed less endowed or blessed can also lend perspective. When you think you are doing better than someone else, it’s easier to forgive yourself, whitewash your shortcomings, and justify a lack of organization.

This tendency to self-compare also affects our own concepts of organization. Under the pressure of responsibilities and task demands, we may perceive that others are more organized or more productive. And, no doubt, some may well be. But we may also be influenced or even deceived by appearances, the outward representations of others wanting to look good, or the haunting effects of our own self-criticism or disparagement.

It’s hard to know exactly how to rank our own degree of organization. In evaluating our mind’s organization, we tend to be most sensitive to feeling overwhelmed, mental intrusions, and the criticism or nagging of others. These cues tend to distract (or even rattle) us, and make us question how organized and “together” our minds are.

Suffice it to say that there are many forces chipping away at the mind’s inclinations and efforts to think and direct in an orderly, organized fashion.

Detracting Influences

Many factors contribute to disorganization. Considering how many influences compete for our energy and attention, it’s remarkable that we can maintain any degree of cohesion, focus, and consistency. Nevertheless, we do so—some of us far more efficiently than others.

A brief review of factors detracting from mind organization yields a glimpse into the delicate balance and resilience required in order to stay organized:

Entropy—as described by the science of physics, nature tends toward disorder. In isolated systems (that is, without specific structure and dynamics to organize and contain the system), order tends to dissipate into disorder.

For those already overwhelmed, this is a piece of bad news. As someone once suggested, “Our universe is such that light dust settles on dark surfaces and dark dust settles on light surfaces.”

Therefore, nature itself has a nature of scattering and disorganizing. Entropy works like aging. Essentially, we are fighting a battle against forces far superior to our own energy and will. (Not that we should easily succumb, but it’s wise to look at the odds.)

Fatigue—there is a saying: Fatigue makes cowards of us all. While not debating about bravery, I suggest that the natural process of tiring contributes mightily and regularly to disorganization.

A prominent neuropsychologist, Deborah Wolfson, has quipped, “If you do housework the right way, it will kill you.”

Environmental assault—we are constantly bombarded with stimulation and demands. Media, digital interconnectedness, and the 24/7 operating world impinges on our abilities to screen out unwanted and superfluous information and appeals for our attention.

I don’t think there is such a thing as “environmental ADD,” but for those already afflicted, overstimulating and distracting environments compound tendencies toward disorganization.

We are beset with intrusions and temptations, colliding amongst themselves until we are buzzed and eventually worn out.

Demands of modern life—it is nice to fantasize about an idyllic and simpler life: perhaps a remote village, a reduction in obligations and stress, a pared down and more natural lifestyle. The reality, however, is that most of us don’t and can’t live that way. (Who knows whether such a dream would even be satisfying, were it realized in actuality?)

The situation for most of us is that we are pulled every which way by responsibilities, complex obligations, crowds of people, our own interests and temptations, abundant distractions, and impinging habits that take us away from the consistent pursuit of attaining our goals.

Complexity and competing interests—just try not watching or listening to any media or refrain from checking your e-mail or messages for a few days! There are many notifications, interruptions, and “information-checking habits” that can disrupt focus and organized thought. Besides work, family, and personal responsibilities, many people add on preoccupations with news, sports, TV or internet shows and videos, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. And, then, there is video gaming, which can be a black hole of preoccupation, narrow focus and repertoire, constrained thought, and procrastination.

On the healthier side, the time needed for exercise, cooking and cleaning, and socialization may eat into the time and focus needed to consistently get things done. As well, paying attention to various people, situations, and interests can complicate and extenuate what we have on our minds. Even organized minds have to work harder when there is a glut of information to track and sort.

Health issues, traumas, and medications—we are sensitive biological beings. Therefore, things that affect our health, our physiology, and the self-regulatory processes that influence our bodies and minds also affect our ability to think clearly and to organize our mental activity. Becoming ill or imbalanced will no doubt create adverse impact on organizational skills and practice.

Medications that help us may also have side effects not listed. Some medications are notorious for their deleterious effects on memory and for side effects such as fatigue. However, any chemical (even foods) that disrupt the delicate balance inside us can contribute to a decline in mental organization.

This is also the case with traumas. The nature of trauma is that it stays within the brain and nervous system to foster the repetition of the emotional and neurological experience that traumatized us. Trauma makes a person stuck in re-stimulation, flashback, and fight-or-flight mode. This “survival” orientation is inimical to orderly higher cognitive function, thus detracting from organization.

Organizing the Organ

Capitalizing on the “organ” in organized, it’s appropriate to affirm that it is the brain we are looking toward to develop and retain the organization that can make life run smoother. What is involved in organizing the brain?

One of the best ways I know to become more organized in thinking and behaving is to train your brain via EEG neurofeedback. This intervention is powerful, safe, and highly effective. Training your brain with this method diminishes and eliminates many symptoms, and, by its operating mechanisms, helps your brain to organize itself. (Indeed, this re-organization is likely responsible for the many types of symptom reduction.)

Another key to making your brain more organized is to develop and practice the habit of permeability. This capacity (which I discuss in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times) refers to the practice of attaching and detaching—that is, seeing events and circumstances from different points of view; it is the ability to become involved and, alternatively, to disengage and let go of an issue so that it can filter through you rather than get stuck in your mind. By practicing permeability, you become more flexible, which allows you to problem-solve and tolerate frustration much more effectively.

Good organization requires a critical set of skills comprised under the heading of self-control skills. These include components of:

  • Self-monitoring (the habit of observing and assessing oneself according to standards; e.g., observing and tracking your task accomplishment steps)
  • Recording (an adjunct to self-monitoring; i.e., keeping a systematic written log of data about your behaviors)
  • Self-evaluation (the process of assessing how well and to what degree your behaviors matched your objectives—based upon the measures you applied and data you collected). These self-control procedures are standard behavior modification components that you can apply toward realistically appraising and changing your behaviors.

Environmental supports—part of becoming and staying organized is the reliance on resources and environmental supports to know where things are, how they are connected and related, and how to access needed information, materials and personnel.

It’s a hardship to find things and maintain order when papers are piled up sloppily or randomly. Therefore, you need an adequate system of filing, as well as adequate space to store and organize things. This is not news: indeed, most people know and complain about having too much stuff—the overabundance of things is the bane of good organization. Yet, many people struggle with the “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” syndrome in regard to clearing out surplus: we need to get rid of stuff to become better organized. Yet the struggle with procrastination and becoming submerged in “to-do anxiety,” the difficulty in making many decisions, and the lack of consistent and rigorous methods to sort and discard superfluous items are the significant common denominators in disorganization.

In response to the need to store more “stuff,” our world is pushing us toward miniaturization. Microchips and digital technology are everywhere, thereby making off-site storage more viable as well as much more compact and efficient. This is a great boon for personal organization, and the use of technology allows not only for convenience and efficiency, but also for mental organization and “mapping” of information and personal effects. Why not take increasing advantage of these tools to help you store and retrieve information? With a hand-held device (e.g., a smart phone) accessing apps and the Internet, you have at your fingertips dictionaries, information repositories, and treasure troves of encyclopedic information. You no longer have to unfold and fumble with paper maps; you can store all your phone numbers and contact information, and with Google—everyone’s personal guru—you can find information and resources in seconds. It’s certainly worthwhile to learn how to use these tools and to make them your daily allies. Such efficient access can make you look smarter and quicker, and can free your mind from remembering a plethora of rote details.

Many people find it helpful to have a mentor to help organize themselves and to evaluate what is most important in the priority hierarchy. A mentor or coach does not need to supervise or hold your hand; rather, reporting to someone on a regular basis can help you see your progress, discover what you may have overlooked, and get useful tips to become more focused and efficient with regard to certain tasks. After all, other people have faced and surmounted organization quandaries, too.

Remember, too, that you are a “biological set of batteries.” You need recharging and rest. For most people, the world becomes more crushing in direct proportion to fatigue. A good sleep and a new day usually make the world look more inviting and more manageable.

Finally, getting exercise, attending to and maintaining a proper diet, and becoming aware of how medications affect you are all important factors in conditioning your mind to work and serve you in an organized manner.

Thoughtful Discipline and Disciplining Thoughts

There are practical tips and strategies for organizing yourself and your environment. However, what happens in your mind will manifest in your actions and habits, and ultimately will dictate and reflect in your outward organization and in how you run your life.

In addition to technologies and strategies, therefore, it’s important to undertake some measure of observing and disciplining your thinking. I’m not suggesting that you force thoughts out of your mind or that you use some material distraction to curtail obsessive thinking. Rather, I’m recommending that you develop habits of self-observation of your thinking patterns along with habits of re-routing your thoughts toward patterns of order, containment, and sequence.

When you find yourself bombarded by racing, random, or obsessive thoughts, practice the habit of detachment (i.e., permeability). The techniques and adjuncts described previously about training your brain (with EEG neurofeedback) and monitoring lifestyle habits and thinking critically about medications will help substantially, but there is more you can do to take charge.

In addition to monitoring your own thought attachment and practicing an intentional “letting go,” of disturbing or preoccupying thoughts, you may find that the disciplines of prayer and meditation are very helpful in establishing greater self-regulation.

It may be comforting to consider: At the outset, no one knows how to pray or meditate! You just start, and, gradually, God’s spirit, your own heart and subconscious, and the marvels of habit will move you along a path of greater mental composure and discipline. There is little as gratifying as bringing your own mind under peaceful control. This enlightening state is free and is available to you—but you must practice and devote yourself to its gradual attainment.

With regard to detachment and letting go of obsessive preoccupations and negative thinking, I highly recommend using Thought Field Therapy (TFT). You can learn this technique from a trained professional and/or from the self-help guide in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times.

Using the TFT method, you can substantially decrease avoidance and procrastination. In just a few minutes, you can clear your mind and rid yourself of distracting and obsessive thoughts. My patients routinely avail themselves of these helpful methods, often by calling me for Voice Technology (the very advanced application of TFT done by phone) when they are stuck or facing difficulties.

TFT also works integratively with meditation and prayer.

Planning and Mapping

The pragmatic and tangible aspects of being organized start with planning what you intend to do and how you will go about it. A great deal of satisfaction can be derived from envisioning results and mapping out the details and specifications necessary to make them happen. Buildings begin with ideas and architectural plans, and so do careers (perhaps less specifically initially).

You may not be confident in your planning skills or adeptness with details. However, the things you do accomplish inherently require some visualization and planning. So why not expand these skills and habits, little by little? Do some “reverse engineering” to analyze how you got something accomplished. For example, say you did some shopping—to get this done, you made the purchase and brought it home (or you hit the “complete order” button online. Before that, you calculated how you were going to pay for it; prior to that, you evaluated your options and chose the item(s) you needed; and before that, you visualized and anticipated what it would take to fill the void or need that prompted your thinking about and taking action to obtain the required item(s). You can transfer and apply this same process to more complex or daunting tasks.

Planning begins with setting expectations. Anticipating and predicting outcomes is a natural part of human survival. It is the precursor to motivation. Setting expectations is also the arena in which most disorganized people become unrealistic and eventually frustrated. Through a combination of guesswork, experience, evaluation, and feedback from others, you should hone your expectations about task accomplishment so that you don’t endeavor to do too much and then become disappointed and haphazard. Set goals that are reachable. Remember: inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.

Allocate specific times and step-by-step tasks that will become satisfying building blocks when accomplished and will give you confidence and eagerness to continue. For example, the job of cleaning a garage or an office can seem monumental. Begin by deciding how much time you will devote to one session of organizing (e.g. one hour or two, at most) and when you can commit to doing so. Clear out your distractions and negative thinking prior to the allocated time (see above), and spend only the time allocated for that session. Then, take stock of what you’ve managed to accomplish. This baseline can guide you in setting realistic expectations for future blocks of time to organize and accomplish tasks and projects.

Additionally, you should solicit feedback on your plans and expectations from a trusted friend or mentor—someone with good judgment who is self-organized and who can advise you on whether your plans and strategies seem reasonable and likely to succeed.

You must get in the habit of listing priorities and checking your priority list frequently. It’s one thing to make a list. It’s quite another to refer to that list and use it as a dependable and self-correcting navigation system. Disorganized people do not routinely use priorities as a course correcting and validating system to stay on track. Shift your priorities to make listing priorities a top one.

Monitoring and Assessing

Staying organized is easier and better with the practice of behavioral self-control techniques, as listed above.

Self-monitoring (the habit of observing measuring yourself according to standards; e.g., observing and tracking your task accomplishment steps) will train you to view your behaviors and your consistency more objectively. This is a first step toward gathering the data you need to modify your organizing behaviors. The process of self-monitoring itself can cause a reactive change in behaviors; but its longer-term value is to enable you to see yourself as you really behave.

In addition, you should record your behaviors to have a baseline and progress record of what you are doing and not doing in reference to your original goals. There are many ways to keep a log of task steps and even record thoughts about what you are doing and how you feel and perhaps issues to avoid with regard to attaining your stated objectives. This is the behavioral equivalent of weighing yourself on a scale or taking your blood pressure.

Self-evaluation is the ongoing process of assessing how well and to what degree your behaviors matched your objectives—based upon the measures you applied and data you collected. Self-evaluation is the critical link that leads you to make productive changes, based on your own recorded behavior patterns.

These self-control procedures are standard behavior modification components that you can apply toward realistically appraising and changing your behaviors.

You would also benefit from soliciting feedback from others about their ideas and perceptions of your organization. Such feedback can be overt, such as asking people you trust what they think of your progress in organizing. You can also obtain covert feedback—that is, observing whether people notice and/or comment about how well you “have it together.” For example, when a person loses weight, covert feedback might include becoming aware of the comments and notifications by others (without announcing or having to ask if they’ve noticed). If someone comments with appreciation for your getting something done, that can be taken as positive covert feedback.

It also helps to audio record yourself: priority lists, reminders, goals, and observations along the way. Your smart phone can serve as a list-making and feedback-offering buddy in this regard.

Making Changes

It takes time and a shift in inertia to make productive changes. At first, it may seem difficult, burdensome, and even overwhelming. But the rewards are worth the efforts, and you will succeed more if you follow the guidelines outlined herein.

You must set aside time to become more organized. Like other aspects of work and constructive change, it takes a restructuring of priorities and the making of sacrifices. You probably “can’t have it all.” But if you defer some of the less necessary choices in favor of the ones that really matter (for your organization, confidence, and peace of mind), you will make progress and enjoy the satisfactions that result.

Remember that negative emotions are very powerful and ubiquitous drivers of motivation. They are also inhibitors of productive accomplishment in that they motivate us to avoid the anxiety that accrues when we confront obstacles, complexity, fear, and decision-making. They are the banes of self-control, good self-direction, and competent organization. Even when you don’t feel them consciously, they can make you procrastinate and derail your intention and focus. So utilize the TFT techniques to rid yourself of anxiety, overwhelm, procrastination, burden, and avoidance. In this regard, you might seek professional help to get you started and moving toward independence.

Keeping Order

When orderliness and organization become a way of life, you will no longer tolerate the dishevelment that once characterized your arrangements and endeavors. It may take awhile to get to that point, but progress along the way becomes easier and requires less effort as new habits form.

You must pay the price for these valuable skills and more functional way of living:

  1. Establish systems and habits conducive to better organization.
  2. Set aside time to form new habits and give the task the time they realistically require.
  3. Practice, practice, take stock, get feedback, use the feedback, practice, and then repeat the process until it becomes embedded and fully integrated into your modus operandi.

To establish a baseline of your current organizational mind skills and to measure your future progress, take the Organized Mind Test that I’ve developed and use the incisive feedback it provides to help yourself get on track.