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« The Top 10 Ways to Manage Your Time Successfully | Main | The Four Quadrants (A Different Version) »

The Role of Structure

Have you ever noticed how you can tell what type of driver someone is just by following their car for a few hundred yards? We pick up on all sorts of clues almost subconsciously. We note all sorts of things like their speed, the line they take on the road, how confident they are and whether they know the width of their car. We get a lot of clues too from the state of the car itself. If you see a dirty car in front of you with broken rear lamps, a loose bumper, and several dents being driven in the middle of the road, don’t you pull back a bit further than normal? You just know that it is only a matter of time before it hits something or somebody, and you have no intention of being the one on the receiving end!

In just the same way, we can tell almost immediately how organized someone is whom we are dealing with. We pick up the clues and even without consciously thinking about it we judge the person’s reliability. Do they call back when they say they are going to? Do they answer e-mails quickly? Do they miss deadlines? Do they turn up late for meetings? Do they always seem busy or rushed? We only need a few of these clues, and we have built up a picture – very quickly indeed.

The trouble is that if you are judging other people like this, then it’s a racing certainty that other people are doing exactly the same to you. You may not think it matters much that you forgot to return that phone call for a couple of days, or that you needed chasing up about the proposal you were writing, or that you appeared at a meeting hot and bothered five minutes late, but it’s exactly those things that your boss, your colleagues and your clients are judging you on. 

The question they are asking about you is already being answered. “Are they going to be someone who is easy to deal with, or someone who is going to need constant chasing and ultimately won’t be worth the bother?”

The organized person is equally easy to recognize when you deal with them. Your telephone calls are returned promptly. Your e-mails are answered by return. They follow up at appropriate intervals. They are on time at meetings and have actually read the preparatory papers. In short they do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. They are a pleasure to work with because you know you can rely on them.

The really annoying thing about an organized person is that their private life is usually as well-organized as their work. While the disorganized person is struggling over a huge backlog of work, the organized person is at the theatre or on the ski slopes!

The disorganized person has literally no idea how the organized person does it. It might as well be magic.

And indeed it is magic. But not the type of magic that you find in fairy tales. It is more like the type that stage magicians use. The type that when we’re told the secret we say “Oh, that’s how you do it!”

In principle, once you know how the trick is done you can do it yourself. Certainly for some tricks you might need a great deal of practice and training, but once you know the secret it has moved from the realm of the “impossible” to the “doable”.

So what is the secret that the organized person uses to do their “magic”?


The typically disorganized person sits at their desk reacting to everything that comes to them. If a phone call comes in or a colleague talks to them or some new e-mails come in, they leave what they are doing to attend to the new stimulus. And they have hardly started on that before they are off on the next thing. It’s a constant bombardment of different things, all of which produce knee-jerk reactions. Because the disorganized person is always starting things but never finishing them, they have hundreds of loose ends which in their turn provide yet more distractions. They have no structure to their day, so they are basically attending to whatever is making the most noise at any given time.

The organized person deals with one thing at a time and leaves no loose ends. They use a mixture of routines and systems so that they know both how to tackle everything and also when to tackle it. If they are working on something and a distraction appears, they simply make a note to deal with it at the appropriate time and continue with what they were doing. The old saying “A place for everything and everything in its place” is the basis of how they work. They interpret that to include “a time for everything and everything in its time.”

So where do you fall on the Organized/Disorganized continuum? What would it take to move yourself nearer the Organized end? Remember being organized is not some magical quality which only certain very lucky people are born with. Anyone can be organized – because it’s “easy when you know how”. All you have to do is to look at your routines and systems and check that they are working. If they are not, improve them until they are. If you don’t have any routines and systems, start some!


To give you some practice in improving systems, here is a simplified description of the way a disorganized person typically approaches their e-mail:

Ten e-mails come in, and they deal with three and leave the rest “for later.” Another ten e-mails come in and they deal with three and leave the rest “for later”. Another ten e-mails come in and they deal with three and leave the rest for “later”. This scenario is repeated five times a day for a working week. At the end of the week they have dealt with 75 e-mails and have a backlog of 175 e-mails. They then spend several hours trying unsuccessfully to clear the backlog, while bemoaning that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Your task is to design a better system for dealing with e-mails. How difficult do you think that is likely to be?

[The original version of this article was published in my newsletter in August 2004]

Reader Comments (1)

Very good article, Mark!
February 20, 2013 at 22:27 | Registered CommenterMichael B.

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