Organization at Work

Sheila Markin Nielsen, M.S.W., J.D.

His office was a mess. Piles of books and papers littered the floor around his desk. Stacks of cases and advance sheets teetered on the edge of his credenza. His office was a jungle of work stuff creeping ever closer to the last sanctuary of open work space, the center of Brad‘s desk.

Brad was not particularly upset with the state of his office. Sure it was an organizational nightmare, but he was at home there. He had always lived and worked in a tangle of his favorite things: newspapers, books, papers, trinkets. His college dorm room had looked the same way. The only reason his home was more organized was because his wife insisted on straightening it up. But he often told her to stop worrying about the mess and concentrate on more important things in life.

Brad‘s incentive to change came after he blew a crucial deadline on a major case just before his partnership review. This error dashed his hopes for making partner with some of the other leaders in his class. Instead of getting the brass ring he was put on probation and scrutinized by the partners. He was crushed. He had been one of the stars of his firm up to this point. This was a blow to his self-esteem. He was determined to get back into the good graces of the equity partners.

Brad came for career counseling to improve his performance at work.“I‘ve never cared about appearances. I pride myself on being able to remember things extremely well. I don‘t need a to do list. I can remember phone numbers without writing them down. Besides, I kind of like the mess,“ he confessed with a sly little smile as if he were getting away with something. We talked about that smile and the feelings behind the smile.
What did he get out of the organizational chaos that was so rewarding he needed to defend against losing it? We had a really good talk about that smile.

Brad was in his 30‘s. He and his wife had bought a house recently and they were expecting their first child in a few months. Brad revealed that it was hard it was for him to believe he was this grown up. “I really can‘t believe that I am not a teen-ager anymore. I guess I feel sort of boxed in and less free. I used to play guitar with a group of guys. I don‘t do that anymore. But I don‘t want to lose my sense of freedom. I can see where this is all going. Look, someday I‘ll be as stodgy as the rest of them, I guess. But I‘m too young to be one of the walking dead.“ Clearly Brad felt a sense of teen-age pride about his messy office. It helped him feel he was not giving in to a gray flannel world that represented the strangulation of his spirit.

Brad was honest enough to reveal, however, that there had been other nearly missed deadlines, and that he often procrastinated. He often started a number of different projects, bounced from one thing to another, and barely finished on time. As Brad progressed at work, he became involved in more complex litigation matters which meant his lack of organization damaged his image and his ability to perform at the highest level. This pattern would only get worse. Brad recognized that it was time to change his work habits in the interest of making partner and furthering his career.

Our work needed to proceed on two fronts. First, Brad needed some organizational games to play. If he could play these games consistently, he would develop organizational skills that would eventually clear up the mess in his cases and in his office. But we also needed to proceed on the second front, challenging his hidden wish to maintain the office equivalent of a grungy teen-ager‘s bedroom because organization represented selling out to deadening adulthood.

I gave Brad some organizational games to play and asked him to change his work habits. If he was not more efficient after playing these games for a few months, I promised him he could return to his old habits.

1) The first game is Early Alzheimer‘s.

Write down everything. Keep a running “to do“ list on a legal pad on the top of your desk. If you are making a phone call, write down the phone number next to the item so you do not need to look it up again. Use thick black magic marker to cross off what you have accomplished. Whenever you are distracted you can return to your work where you left off.

2) Play The Ball is in Their Court.

After you have made your “to do“ list, put a small box in front of each item. When you have done what you can to accomplish the task, put a cross in the box, and if someone else now needs to respond, put a circle next to the box to designate that the ball is in their court. If the person calls you back but you are not there, cross off the circle and add a new box because you now need to call back. This system tells you exactly where you stand in the call-back game.

3) Organize every case with a sheet secured to the front of the file with your “to do“ list right there.

Play “the ball is in their court“. Have phone numbers right next to each item. Play Break up. Break up big tasks into smaller ones. For example, let‘s say you have to write a massive memo. Start with: “research cases to 1980“ and put a box next to it; then, “research cases after 1980“, add another box; review similar memo written by Sue, another box, etc. The object of this game is to cross off all the boxes you can.

4) Everything Has a Home.

At the end of the day everything on your desk goes home. No Clutter Allowed! Clutter distracts most people and makes it too easy to lose things which wastes time.

5) Play Pitch It!

Make liberal use of the garbage can. The minute you can get rid of unnecessary paper, throw it out to reduce clutter and decrease distraction.

6) Write out your plan for the day on 5x7 notecards.

Play Prediction. On one side of the card list the work promises you make to yourself for the day. Be realistic. Use a thick black magic marker to erase everything you finish. Whatever you do not finish gets added to the notecard for tomorrow. Your goal is to have a totally blacked out card by the end of the work day.

Brad played these simple games. At first it took time to create “to do“ lists for each active file, find “homes“ for things that had not been put away before, and get in the habit of writing things down. Soon his office was better organized and his cases were under control. This new system also helped Brad to conquer procrastination. At first Brad wrote down the bigger projects over and over on his daily 5x7 “promises to himself“ card, but eventually he could see he never got the bigger tasks done. Tired of his broken promises, he broke up the big projects into smaller assignments and got them done more quickly once they were not as overwhelming.

At the same time that Brad incorporated new ways of organizing himself, we talked about his difficulty transitioning into adulthood: what adulthood meant to him, and why it was so frightening to him. We talked about whether his loyalty to the disorganized life of his childhood and teenage years would realistically prevent the numbing effects of adulthood he so feared.

Brad decided that he could keep his “inner child“ alive not by living in a chaotic work environment, but by engaging in activities that were more creative and fun for him such as playing in a jazz band with friends, and joining a basketball league.

After a few months of maintaining new habits, people at work, including his partners, complimented Brad and told him he was doing a great job. Brad began to get more challenging assignments again. This system worked very well for him. He decided not go back to his old habits. Brad recently received a bonus and all indications are that he will make partner this year.

Nielsen Career Consulting
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Sheila Markin Nielsen V Card
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