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How Organized Are You?

Have a look in your closetAn organizationally talented friend was helping me organize the nightstand beside my bed.

“What’s this?” she asked, pulling a melon-sized object in a soft case from the drawer.

“It’s a blood pressure monitor,” I told her.

“How often do you use it?”

“Maybe once a year,” I guessed. I’d bought it a few years earlier at a steep discount even though I didn’t need one, thinking ‘Hey, great deal on a blood pressure monitor!’

“Why is it in your nightstand?” my friend asked me now.

“Um … because it fits?” I knew this was the wrong answer. But I didn’t have a clue what the right answer was.

Putting frequently used items in easy-to-reach places and rarely used items in storage may be a “Duh!” for someone who is naturally organized, but for the organizationally challenged, it’s more like a “Huh?”

Blame (Or Thank) Your Genes

I’m here to tell you that being an organized person is NOT:

  • Simply by choice
  • Common sense
  • The natural outcome of a conscientious attitude

Being organized is an aptitude. As in, it’s an inherited skill. What’s obvious to someone high in organizational thinking is by no means obvious to someone who’s low on that scale.

Thus, disorganization is NOT the same as:

  1. Sloth
  2. No interest in being organized
  3. Lack of a conscientious attitude
  4. Failure to try

I can personally vouch for #4. I’ve been making efforts to get organized for my entire adult life.

Why? Because I’m a conscientious person, and also a busy one. I want to be organized.

I LOVE The Container Store, and other stores like it (Hold Everything, Storables, etc.). They hold the promise that I, too, can acquire an organizing system that works, once and for all.

Unfortunately for me, I take after my rather ADD-ish, clutter-magnet dad instead of my focused, organizing-wonder mom.

I can take any organizational system and turn it into clutter almost overnight.

Over the years, I’ve made it a point to learn some rules of thumb for organizing.

These rules follow principles that naturally organized people just “get,” intuitively:

Assign everything a home, so you can put it back when you’re done with it.

Put similar things together. This is SO not intuitive for me. It totally depends on what you mean by “similar.”

(Having a similar function does not make things seem alike in my brain, but every organized person I know is a big fan of the grouping-by-function concept — rather than, say, by where something happens to fit, which is my personal go-to)

Place small things in front of larger things in the cupboard, so you can see them.

These insights are hard-won and precious to me. Even still, I cannot get my fridge to look the way it looks when my mom is visiting. When she’s here, it’s tidy and inviting. When she leaves, it quickly starts to resemble the deep discount bin at a flea market — a riot of sizes, shapes and colors with no discernible pattern.

Aptitudes Are Inborn Talents

I claim that organizational thinking is either a specific aptitude or an aptitude cluster. That means it’s high in some people, middling in others and quite low for some of us. It dictates NOT our interest in organizing, but our ability to organize.

Aptitudes are inborn talents that are never gained or lost.

A few examples of established aptitudes are three-dimensional thinking (e.g., parallel parking), number facility (arithmetic skills), word learning (for vocabulary building), pitch discrimination (used in music and learning other languages) and deductive reasoning (as in, “So it must be that the butler did it!”), among many others.

For more about the science of aptitudes, check out the oldest aptitude research outfit in the country, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

Practice Makes … Better

For all of you highly organized folks out there: I envy and admire you. If you can add to the list of “organizing rules of thumb,” I’d like to hear from you in the Comments.

If you’re on the low end of the continuum like me, it’s not your fault. It’s possible to get better at being organized, even if it’s always felt like an uphill battle. Memorize the rules and practice them. You can reach the top of your natural range, whatever that may be, with consistent effort.

For example, after almost 50 years, I finally *might* be getting the hang of putting the cap back on the toothpaste … 99 times out of 100. A personal best!

No matter where you fall on the organizational spectrum, never think of disorganization as a moral weakness.

Now do me a favor and take this quiz so we can all find out where we are on the spectrum.

[polldaddy poll=8642451]

Thanks for participating! Remember to leave me your best getting-organized tips in the Comments section below.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "How Organized Are You?"

  • multnoma
    February 15, 2015 - 10:28 am Reply

    my org tip is at the bottom if you want cut to the chase
    Some disorganized thoughts

    Setting some context: My wife is a hoarder. Not reality show level but close. There is nothing she won’t buy, and nothing she can throw out.
    So I don’t begrudge anyone a chuckle if this seems humorous but it is excruciating for me. And I accept that some will say hoarding is not the same as low organizational ‘aptitude’.

    The problem isn’t how to organize stuff, it’s that there’s too much stuff. Our kitchen cabinets are well organized. Prob is they contain stuff we don’t use. The counters are dunes of groceries that can’t be put away because the cabinets are already full. Can’t manage the laundry because all the laundry baskets (why do 2 people need 13 laundry baskets?) are full of not laundry. Clothes hung on doors because closets are full of not clothes.

    TG, somewhat surprised that you choose fretting over organization as a way to dodge the necessity of wallowing,
    i.e. why does leaving cap off toothpaste cause stress?
    Why did you feel better or rather what did you feel when you bought a blood pressure cuff?
    What feeling were you dodging by buying it?
    I submit that stressing about toothpaste is a way of avoiding confronting something else.

    Does not putting the cap on the toothpaste cause you a real problem (like losing your security deposit?) Even if you have low aptitude for order (btw I’m not buying that there is such) what is the problem it causes you?

    Container stores are to clutterists what liquor stores are to alcoholics.

    If you’re storing something where it fits rather than where it will be used, it means that your intent (consciously or otherwise) was to possess the thing rather than use it.

    You cannot organize stuff you don’t need or use. You cannot organize your time to do things you, way deep denial down, are angry that need to be done. You can only sit still and accept that you don’t need itor use it.

    Nevertheless, I do have a tip:
    Stop viewing organization as a never ending struggle for absolute order. Pick and choose.
    I have a place for keys, wallet, etc. and always put them there. Learned to do this not because I misplaced keys a lot but the anxiety about losing keys was very high.
    Compare with, in our house, flashlight might be anywhere.
    When I need one, it is annoying to have to look in a dozen places for it but not nearly the existential crisis that not knowing where my wallet is. So, organizing spot for wallet is high priority – flashlights ? not so much.
    Likewise I keep my meds, toiletries, first aid kit in a desk drawer in my home office. I can always find them and the space is strictly off limits to spouse.
    Pick your organizational battles.

    I do no doubt that you are a conscientious person. Being more ‘organized’ isn’t going to make you a better one.

    “Being organized is an aptitude” Really? Is sobriety an aptitude? Love?
    I believe they are acts of will (after Scott Peck).
    I would not fault anyone for applying their will in one direction or another except if 1) purport to care about me and 2) I am negatively affected by their choice. To be clear, the toothpaste thing would be a deal breaker for me, regardless of choice or aptitude 🙂

    And lastly, I never would have thought that someone who choose wallowing as a metaphor for emotional health would stress over insufficient orderliness 🙂

    • Tina Gilbertson
      February 15, 2015 - 2:05 pm Reply

      Multnoma, it sounds like you’re dealing with something far, far beyond what I’m talking about in this post. It’s like the difference between a hummingbird and a jumbo jet.

      Hoarding is a serious issue with huge implications for both one’s own emotional health and — as you eloquently described — one’s relationships.

      From what little I know about the disorder, it has virtually nothing to do with organizational aptitudes and everything to do with fears and anxieties. The difficulty is that many people who hoard don’t see it as a problem because they feel better, not worse, surrounded by their stuff. It’s their loved ones who suffer.

      I’m truly sorry for your situation. If you’d like some help seeking professional assistance in your area, feel free to send me an email. I’m at Gmail, and my handle is TinaGilbertson.

  • MissMaura9999
    February 20, 2015 - 12:18 pm Reply

    For 11 years I worked as a librarian in a small advertising association in New York City. Special libraries, as they are called, require not only organization but for the staff to know WHERE they put things. And the truth is, Tina, it doesn’t matter *where* you put things or *how* organized you are (or aren’t). The important and only salient fact remains: can YOU find where you put your things when you want them?

    For example, if YOU know where your bp cuff is then its being in the nightstand next to your bed is not an issue. If, after your mother leaves, the yogurt is in back of the taller juice container…so what? If YOU know where to lay hands on it you’re good. My experience has been that men cannot find things in a refrigerator unless they are at arm’s height and right in front. Full refrigerator? Oh wait, I know; it’s down at the bottom on the right side in back of the…….

    And finally, if you always put your keys/phone/purse in ONE place it will make your life less stressful. IMHO it doesn’t matter *where* you choose so long as you can remember it! (Kinda like where you park your car.)

    Just my buck fifty. Kindest regards, Miss Maura in severely frigid Charlotte, NC where right now the weather is more stressful than anything I *can* control 😉

    • Tina Gilbertson
      February 20, 2015 - 12:35 pm Reply

      Thank you for that validating input, Miss Maura.

      My problem is that I *love* what the fridge looks like when my mom visits, and I prefer having little-used items out of the way. I’m like a lover of great music who can’t carry a tune.

      Stay warm!

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