Perfectly Disorganized

Originally from Matt Baier’s Organizing Works Newsletter, February 2007


It often takes 50% or more of the total effort to squeeze out the last 10% or so of quality or whatever it is perfectionists want out of a situation.  Not a good investment of time. –Jeff Olson, The Agile Manager’s Guide to Getting Organized, 1997

One of the great obstacles I face as an Organizer is my clients’ fear that I will be a judgmental perfectionist with them.  The irony is, however, that more often than not, my clients are greater perfectionists than I am.  How is this possible? See if this sounds familiar.  You need to stain some shelves and the color is just not coming out the way it did in the hardware store.   You’re discouraged so you put the staining project on hold until you can get the right color stain.  Meanwhile, several more pressing priorities come up and days, maybe weeks pass.  Perhaps you do get back to the hardware store and realize the color difference has less to do with the stain than the lighting.  Now you have to rethink the lighting in your home before you can get back to the staining.  As this happens the contents of your shelves lie on other surfaces and these contents attracts company, in the form of other “temporary” clutter, because of the beyond-help environment.  One can of worms opens up another can of worms and where does it stop? 

It stops when you give yourself the freedom to abandon perfectionism.

I am a big believer in the saying “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”    Having too many unfinished projects lying around can really weigh you down.  They can be a nagging source of guilt and a reminder of failure.  Who needs THAT? Checking things off your To-Do list is tremendously satisfying and it allows you to move on to the next great challenge or project with a clear mind. 

I am not without a perfectionist streak myself.  I understand it.  You know all the elements in your head of what it takes to make a project just right and there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be just right, but something happens, probably beyond your control, probably unforeseen, that compromises that perfection and it drives you crazy because there’s no good reason for that compromise.  You may try fighting it or you may be discouraged by it, but either way you are slowed down and it affects the other important priorities in your life.  This is precisely the point where you really need to reconsider that perfectionist vision, because it can destroy that precious irreplaceable commodity we call TIME.  

To be sure, perfectionism has its place.   We expect it from surgeons and pilots, for example, but perhaps we can let it go if it’s not happening with the stained shelves, I mentioned before.   List your top 20 priorities in your life and see if perfectly matching décor fits in there anywhere.   To continue with this example, you might ask yourself these questions:  What if you spend the time and effort to apply a darker shade and it’s STILL not perfect?  Will the slightly imperfect color be as noticeable once the contents of the shelves are covering it again?  What are some of the priorities that you will have to say ‘no’ to in order to say ‘yes’ to the pursuit of the perfect stain color?  Perhaps your answer to these questions is ‘I don’t care, it still matters’.   So be it, but I would suggest at least get in the habit of asking questions like these when your perfectionism is preventing you from moving on.  You might be surprised at how much you might be able to let go of, in the greater scheme of things.   When you free yourself from the strangleholds of perfectionism, you open the doors to new possibilities, things that perhaps you didn’t think you had time for.

Will you still notice projects that you allowed to be less than perfect?  Of course you will, but remind yourself of the more important things you were able to move on to, as a result.  You won’t notice the imperfections for long!

Here’s a final thought.  In most cases you can always go back and finish a project perfectly later on, when you have more time.  Let’s take scrapbooking for example.  You may have 3 large boxes of photos you want to put into scrapbooks, when you have some ‘free time.’  Perhaps this project has been weighing on you for years.  Put off the perfect plan and settle for a good plan today.  Purchase a generous number of photo albums with 4×6 sleeves and just fill them up chronologically with the photos and dump the duplicates, the packages, and even the negatives.  Today’s scanning technology makes this possible.  Still sound too daunting?  Just sort the photos in small boxes by year.  The idea is to simply move the process forward in manageable steps so if that rainy day ever comes when you have the time to create scrapbooks you will be able to hit the ground running with your chronologically organized photos.  In the meantime your photos will be more enjoyable and more protected than if they are just buried in storage.

Matt’s Tips

1. Build Flexibility Into Your Organizing Systems.  I am often asked if I recommend color-coding files.  Yes, colors can be stimulating and some simple color associations can help you remember where to look for things, but beware.  Too many colors can quickly get confusing and can actually DISTRACT you from effective filing.  If you find colors helpful, I recommend using them on lard box bottom hanging files that can represent major categories, but for the individual folders, stick with the widely available manila folders.  Why?  Let’s say you want to always use red folders in your red files.  If you run out of red folders, you won’t substitute it with a blue one, you’ll wait until you make a trip to Staples before creating a new file.  Keep a plentiful supply of manila folders so you can make that new file NOW.


2. Be Selective With WHERE You Are Filing.  It’s been estimated that 85% of what we file is NEVER retrieved.   To make better use of your immediate filing space, distinguish between what you are likely to retrieve this year and older files that you are hanging on to just in case.  It’s not uncommon for me to find that 75% of a client’s files are kept “just in case.”  These can be stored more remotely, so long as they are well labeled and dated.  This action not only gives you more filing space, but allows for the truly important and more current files to be revealed more easily. Some files, on the other hand, are so important that we don’t want to let them out of our sight.  So don’t.  Create a desktop solution for Running Files.  Last month’s newsletter will explain how, without cluttering your valuable desk space.

3. Reconsider Some Filing Entirely.  You can save yourself a lot of filing stress and confusion by reassigning some items that don’t need to be organized in a file cabinet at all.  Case in point:  Owner’s Manuals.  Owner’s Manuals can be very bulky especially if you are keeping them with small parts associated with a product.  Owners Manuals fall into the “just-in-case” category, so don’t waste your time over organizing.  For the same reason, I recommend keeping warrantees in the same place as the Owner’s Manuals.  Keep a generously sized clear box or drawer to collect them all.  In the rare  event you forget how to program the DVD player or you need to check out the printer coverage, it’s not that great a hardship to sort through all the manuals and warrantees if they’re all in one place.  Also, don’t go nuts with filing coupons.  Be highly selective and keep them where you need them.  I like to keep a small clear envelope of coupons and gift certificates in the pocket of my car door, so that I’m not cursing myself for not having those money savers WHEN I need them.

4. Happy Medium.  I don’t happen to agree with the organizing advice of “only handle a piece of paper once.”  If find it ineffective because it is a standard of perfection that can be discouraging.  It’s one thing if that piece of paper is junk mail, but quite another if it is a bill to pay.  Any organizing challenge is more realistically solved if it is broken down into smaller, faster, and easier pieces.  With the bills, for example, just spend a minute (literally 60 seconds or less) every day sorting new ones into a bill paying area.  This will not only get you through the mail every day, but make the task of bill paying considerably easier.  If your ideal is to pay every bill when it comes in then dealing with the mail AND dealing with the bills becomes more unlikely.  Break the tasks into smaller pieces and move the process FORWARD.  Perhaps you’ve got a great system for organizing your receipts, but there’s a slew of them scattered all over your desk and in various other locations.  This month’s Featured Product is a happy medium solution for that problem.

5. If You Must Perfect a Task, Delegate Another.  Perfectionists will no doubt observe by now that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”  True enough, but one must also recognize by now that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do every task perfectly.  The key to maintaining creative control over what matters most lies in recognizing what matters LESS.   The more you can say “no” to some things, the more you will be able to say “yes” to others.  Let’s say, for example, you have to put together a presentation at work for a Friday.  You want to get every detail prepared just right because this presentation may  have a strong bearing on a much needed promotion and raise.  Let’s also say that this coincides with a dinner party your are planning for the day after.  You have been looking forward to the dinner party because you have a passion for cooking.  If you are a perfectionist, you will labor over all the details for both events long into Thursday and Friday nights, but you simply have to be at your mental and physical best for BOTH of them.  Something’s gotta give and it can’t be your health.  Consider, instead, having the party catered or asking family members to help with it EVEN IF THEY WON’T DO THINGS THE SAME WAY YOU WOULD.  You can show them all how it’s done at the NEXT dinner party.  And for heaven’s sake  order dinner in while perfecting your presentation for work.  Instead of worrying about the cost, think about the raise you’re going to get!

Featured Product: File Jackets-  I don’t recommend this solution for all files, but if there are a select few items that consistently fail to get filed, then this product represents a happy medium, that will push the process forward.  Receipts are on the top of the list of annoying bits of paper that consistently litter desk surfaces.  Perhaps you have a system for sorting your receipts in you file cabinet, but you don’t want to go to it every time you produce a receipt.  These file jackets make it easy.   Keep one within easy reach and label it “Receipts.”  The next time you’re looking at a loose receipt, just drop it in the “Receipts” jacket.  It doesn’t get easier than this.  In this way, when you DO have a minute to file, you have one place to look for receipts.   The same system works great for business cards and any other loose bits of paper. 

Being organized is not about being perfect.  It is more about being able to do WHAT you want to do, WHEN you want to do it and it is about controlling the controllables, both of which can be compromised by perfectionism.  Free yourself of this obstacle wherever you can and move on to the things that really matter.   Life’s too short not to!

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