Why Getting Organized Isn't About the Stuff

What is lack of organization costing you?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the average worker wastes about an hour a day looking for missing information in messy desks and files.

That’s 20 hours a month, or six working weeks a year lost to get organizeddisorganization.  Said another way, if you got more organized, you could take a month off work every year and still get in an extra two weeks of productivity.

We know what being disorganized feels like – lost files, missed deadlines, piled-up dishes and frantically reacting to everything around you without ever accomplishing any of your real goals.

We tolerate the chaos, until something hits the breakpoint. Then, the lost client, misplaced jewelry, or missed opportunity propels us to action.

We head off to Target in search of storage bins or the office store for a new calendar and filing system. Or we get a smart phone.  Surely an iPhone will help us get more organized.

For a while, our new system works. But then our old habits return, and within a few months (or days), we’re surrounded by the piles.

Why? Because we started with the stuff.

The real secret of getting organized has nothing to do with file folders or alphabetizing your spice drawer; it’s about getting clear on what you want out of life.

I’ve spent my fair share of time sorting and resorting piles of clothing and papers.  But I never got truly organized until I took a long, hard look at my business and my life and decided what success looked like in both arenas.

You have to create a mental framework for yourself before you can start working on a physical framework.  Instead of hoping to create success and happiness by organizing your stuff, you need to define what success and happiness mean for you in the first place.

Here’s a three-step success template we use with our clients:

1. What’s your purpose?  This is a big question, and the answer may be a moving target.  But unless you have a reason for getting out of bed, your life is going to be nothing but a grind.  Thinking about what mark you want to leave in the world is the only way to clarify your priorities.

2. Where do you want to play?  You have a zillion to-dos.  But which ones are truly important to the bottom line, to your staff, to your family, to your spirit?  Identify the 5-7 core areas that have the biggest impact. In our business, spending time with clients is the single most productive thing I do.  As a mother, one-on-one conversations with my daughters have a huge payback.

3. What are your priorities?  Look at your 7 or 8 important activities; how much time are you spending in each of these areas?   If your answer is not enough, the problem isn’t your file folders.   It’s learning how to allocate your time.

I posted my core success areas on a white board in my office.  Every time I pick up a piece of paper, set an appointment or start to buy something, I look at the list and ask, “Is this going to create success? If not, why the heck am I doing it, buying it, or touching it?”

When you know what’s important to you, it’s a lot easier to organize the good stuff and part with the useless junk.

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Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. The founder and principal of McLeod & More, Inc, she specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro.   Copyright 2010 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.