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Just how organised do I have to be?

A question I often get asked is “Just how organised do I have to be?”

My answer is “enough and no more!”

Over-organisation can be almost as big a problem as under-organisation. The reason for this is that once you have got organised enough to carry out your function satisfactorily any further organisation is going to take up time and effort unproductively. We can all think up plenty of examples of this simply by bringing the words “government” and “bureaucracy” into our minds. When I was working on inner-city projects for the Church of England twenty or so years ago, I remember we were shown, as an example of “good practice”, the form which an American governmental organisation required projects to complete when they were applying for grants. It was forty pages long! Bear in mind that these grants were intended to help small community projects, whose staff were very hard-pressed and frequently not particularly literate. We decided not to use a form at all, but simply asked projects to write in and tell us whatever they felt like about what they intended to do - and if we liked the sound of it we went and looked at it on the ground.

Another aspect of organisation which people often have trouble with is keeping their desk tidy. In many organisations having a tidy desk is taken as being an indicator of efficiency. Whether this is really the case or not is doubtful. If you ask a successful businessperson what the secrets of their success were, I doubt if “having a tidy desk” would feature in their list. They may or may not have a tidy desk - it’s just that they don’t see the tidiness of their desk as being a relevant factor in their success.

Personally I’ve never found it easy to keep a tidy desk, and if I look at my desk now I’ve got a whole load of junk on it. Let’s have a look:

Two books I’m currently reading
A Travel Guide for my forthcoming holiday destination
A prescription I’ve just picked up from the pharmacy
A tube of toothpaste I bought at the same time
An empty cup of tea
My car keys
My wallet
My binoculars
A heap of credit card vouchers which I’m weeding
My task list
My list of personal contacts
A ballpoint pen

It looks a mess, but I can put my hands on every one of those items instantaneously, and they are all in the process of being actioned in some way. In other words, although it looks a mess, it is actually highly functional. If I try to keep my desk tidier, then a) I will have to spend much more time doing so; and b) I won’t be able to find so quickly the stuff which I’m using. Now of course a desk can easily become so untidy that it stops being functional and starts to impede your efficiency. I know all about that - I’ve been there! The point is that we need to find the degree of order which gives us the greatest degree of effectiveness.

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for the list of what you've on your desk. The "clean desk/messy desk" question is a good one, with different answers. For example:

o It's good to have a clean desk, because you can focus better - "out of sight, out of mind"
o "" because others will realize you're more organized, and therefore more effective

o It's good to have a messy (maybe "busy" is a better term) desk because people with think you have plenty of work, and are a hard worker
o "" because you can more easily find things
o "" because you might lose something - "out of sight, out of mind"

You can of course find counter-arguments for all these.

Good topic!
October 22, 2007 at 13:37 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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