Organizing Solutions for the Disorganized Entrepreneur

After more than 20 years as an entrepreneur and a consultant to entrepreneurs, I am convinced that for many entrepreneurs, "organized" is an enigma. "Organized entrepreneur" may even be an oxymoron, because the very strength that makes great entrepreneurs makes for poor organizing ? at least organizing as most of the world defines it.

For the majority of my career I called myself an organizing consultant. The most frustrating aspect of that role was defending myself against people's pre-conceived notions about the word "organized" - particularly as it related to me. They imagined me having "one piece of paper on the desk at a time". And as someone who lived and worked in a methodical (boring?) manner. They assumed I could not even imagine experiencing the chaos of feeling totally overwhelmed by my surroundings. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

I had the good fortune to grow up in a very organized household. Four of us shared the top floor of a 2-story farmhouse ? with the bathroom downstairs where my father's parents lived. As soon as I went to school, my mother went to work full-time. In addition, she handled the normal activities of a farmwife, such as gardening and canning and was very active in the community as well. Being responsible for taking care of my own physical environment was an unspoken expectation ? and was role-modeled by my parents. I have no memories of panic situations, such as frantically looking for car keys or lost pieces of paper. Although the house frequently looked cluttered, it could be quickly corrected, because everything had a place.

My first husband was not only organized, but fastidious. We used to joke that we made a great team because I could make a mess faster than anyone he knew, but he enjoyed cleaning it up. His profession was one that involved very long term projects, so cleaning up the kitchen was something he enjoyed because he could see immediate results.

After we adopted three children, I began to spend time with other mothers listening to horror stories about their struggles with organizing. Prior to that event, I had not given much thought to how I organized my life. As I sat on a playground in New York City, I would hear comments such as "We haven't eaten on the dining room table in months because it's covered with papers," or "We had to file an extension on our income tax again this year." At that time I was looking for a way to make extra money for our household and I had read that many successful businesses resulted from entrepreneurs listening to what other people were complaining about. Thinking about my own experiences, I realized that I had a history of helping other people take control of their environment. During one summer vacation, I helped my aunt, a mother of five, organize her kitchen and closets. In high school I organized a music library. As an au pair in college I developed a recipe retrieval system for my boss, a gourmet chef. I even created a filing system while I was a volunteer for a non- profit agency in the West Indies.

I soon realized that helping other people to organize their environment also improved their lives. And for myself, it was quite therapeutic as well. As someone who had frequent bouts of depression, one of my techniques for coping was taking control of my surroundings. When my mind began to feel totally overwhelmed, I found comfort in controlling my environment ? especially getting rid of whatever I possible could, so there was less I had to control.

As I became interested in creating a career as an organizing consultant, I began paying attention to how I organized. I read articles on managing time and space to compare how other people did it. Often I became frustrated that I was unable to act in the routine ways that "organized" people described. Funny things like getting dressed in the morning frustrated me. I observed that I didn't have a routine, and as much as I tried to develop one ? after all, that's what "organized" people did, I failed. Sometimes I fixed my hair first, and then put on make-up, frequently stopping to do something in the kitchen before I finished. I found little time to "straighten up" before taking the kids to school and often folded clothes in the middle of the night. Nonetheless, I seemed to get lots of things accomplished (though never as many as I wanted to!), and other people often asked me how I did it.

After I declared myself "an organizing consultant," I was determined to become the role model for organized living. One attempt stands out clearly in my mind. It seemed to me than an "organized" person would have a menu plan. So with great diligence I would get out my cookbooks over the weekend, plan the menus for the following week, and purchase the ingredients. I soon discovered this plan was a horror to me. The menu said that Wednesday was spaghetti night ? but I just wasn't in the mood, so I took the leftover vegetables, a few scraps of chicken, and made stir-fry instead. I finally concluded that organized cooking for me meant three things:

(1) always having plenty of staples on hand,

(2) buying a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables once a week, and

(3) preparing a meal depending on my feelings that day.

Although my career as an organizing consultant started by organizing homes, soon clients asked me to help them in their office. I was terrified at the thought. How would I know what to do in a business? I was trained as a musician! But I agreed to try, and soon discovered that many of the techniques that served me well in the home setting worked equally well in business. The first step was always getting rid of the unnecessary. Ask any 100 employees if they know there are things in their office they don't need, and 99 of them would say "Yes!" But how many people go to work and say, "Well, I don't have anything better to do, I think I'll clean out my files today." In fact, if they do, they may well be confronted by a colleague complaining, "What are you doing that for? We have to finish that new proposal!"

Research shows that the average worker spends 150 hours per year looking for misplaced information, and 80% of what most office workers keep is never used. My being there as a "consultant" gave people permission to take the time not only to eliminate what they didn't need, but to discover what they had that might be useful to other people in the organization. We then created systems in storage closets and filing rooms that allowed people to access each others information. Often it eliminated the purchase of supplies and materials which already existed. Plus it helped erase time lost reinventing what another employee had already created.

I've always been intrigued by God's sense of humor. I am now married to a man for whom organizing is a mystery and he is totally disinterested in changing that. He'd simply rather have someone else do it for him! Talk about a challenging relationship. Now I not only have to cope with my own organizing struggles, but someone else's as well. This, however, has facilitated my career, because one of the most common questions I am asked is "What if the problem is my colleague or spouse?"

One of the things I've learned is that there is a big difference between inclination and motivation. If I am motivated to do something, I can. If it is not something at which I am innately skilled, it will take me longer than it does someone else, but it is possible ? and the results are very satisfying. On the other hand, it is impossible to convince someone else that they should be organized ? or anything else for that matter ? if they don't see the need. I am blessed with a husband who is the most supportive person I know. He never complains about my outrageous and often hair-brained ideas! Without his support, I would never have been able to grow Hemphill Productivity Institute into a team of nearly 60 people committed to helping entrepreneurs take their innate skills to the marketplace. One of the principles of survival in business for a disorganized person is to surround yourself with people who have skills complimentary to your own. I would have burned out years ago had I not found strategic assistants who are brilliant at cleaning up the messes I create.

I have always been, and continue to be, frustrated with my own lack of inherent time management skills. The idea of making and prioritizing a list continues to be a challenge for me. For one thing, I always interrupt myself before I complete the list. Deciding whether something is an A, B, or C priority is a complete impossibility for me ? though goodness knows I've tried! But I have finally made peace with myself (most of the time, anyway) by continually making lists. One of the principles I teach clients is "Half of any job is having the right tool." When it comes to time management ? I must capture a "to do" when I think of it. That means carrying a tape recorder in the car, a phone call to my self when I can't write my idea down and large blank pieces of paper with me when I'm sitting on an airplane.

The secret of time management for me is to categorize all those "to do's" from various places, and then organize them according to when and how I could do them. For example, "mail a birthday card to John" goes on my calendar, because it has to be done on a specific day, "buy new stapler" goes on an "Errands List" and "check out www.someplace.com" goes in "On-Line To Do's." Often I discover I don't have the "Errands List" with me when I decide to run errands, but it's amazing how the very act of writing it down helps to create a list in my memory. It's not a perfect system, but it works most of the time ? and I've been known to call my office from the supply store to ask my assistant to check my list!

I may always be frustrated by my plight to improve my own organizing skills. But the good news is that I get better and better everyday. In the meantime, I am totally capable of helping clients who feel they are hopelessly disorganized take control of their lives and their businesses. From my perspective, organizing is an art, not a science. It's not forcing our clients into any pre-conceived notion of "organized," but helping them to develop systems and techniques, and to choose the right tools that will enable them to be the best entrepreneur they can be. Three questions we ask repeatedly: Does it work? Do you like it? Does it work for others? If the answer to any of those is "No," we have to go back and refine the systems, tools, and techniques we have designed. Organizing is a journey, not a destination. It cannot be installed; it has to be nurtured. Your entrepreneurial success will be judged by your results ? not your organization skills. But improving your organizing skills will probably increase your chances of success, and will undoubtedly make your journey a lot smoother!

© Barbara Hemphill is the author of Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever. The mission of Hemphill Productivity Institute is to help individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment so they can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives. We do this by organizing space, information, and time. We can be reached at 800-427-0237 or at www.ProductiveEnvironment.com

In The News:

How to Organize Your Desk  The New York Times
Students organize COVID-19 pop-up testing sites  The Ohio State University News

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