Her face went pale when she got the call. She argued and pleaded, but the coach was firm. It wasn’t his fault, he explained. All the other parents got their forms in on time. Her son just wouldn’t be able to play on the football team this year because all the places had been filled. But he’d been on the team for years, she reminded the coach. He was a good kid. It wasn’t even his fault! But the coach could do nothing…the team was full.
The Disordered Life
Mary was deflated when she hung up the phone. She is a busy executive who logs 60 to 80 hour workweeks, travels for business, and is raising three children. Like most moms, Mary is running at mach speed and is drowning in paper and responsibilities at home. She had simply set aside the football team sign-up form. Now she couldn’t even find it. Mary frequently misplaces important papers and spends countless hours searching for documents. She feels stress and terrible guilt about the backlog of paper and clutter at home. She just doesn’t have time to deal with the paper piles. Now, however, someone else had to pay for her chaotic mess. How was she going to tell her son? How was she going to tell her husband that they’d have to sit this season out?
We’ve all heard that being disorganized costs us time and money, which indeed it does, but as Mary’s misfortune demonstrates, living in chaos can bring much greater costs to our lifestyle and state of mind. When we live on the edge all the time, we lose out on many important things in our life.
Pay As You Go
When Mary hired me to help dig her out of chaos at home and at work, she told me that she felt the clutter in her life was trapping her in the “pay as you go” system. To her, the “pay as you go” system meant experiencing the consequences of her disorder on a daily basis.
Mary was not only disorganized at home; her office at work was also replete with organization problems. Her hand-me-down desk ate up the entire office and was covered in stacks of paper. A self-confessed piler, Mary simply heaped projects onto the floor in stacks when she ran out of surface space. Insufficient lighting and a depressing environment didn’t help. Mary had purchased every office supply she could think of to manage her projects and deadlines but to no avail. Her bulletin board was covered in layers of reminders that used to mean something. She knew that her disorganization caused redundancy in individual project files as well as her jam-packed filing cabinet.
Mary constantly faced the negative impact of her chaos as she looked for lost documents, missed deadlines, and continually came up short. She told me that more than anything she wanted to feel “on top of things.” She wanted to be able to respond quickly to questions that people asked her, rather than searching for the answers and feeling inadequate. She was living her professional life reactively, unable to fulfill her potential. Mary was paying the price for her disorganization every single day.
Another time we talked, Mary compared her disorder to being cheated. She said she felt nickeled-and-dimed by her particular brand of chaos. The paper piles at work and at home were grating on her nerves and causing all kinds of problems, including the trouble with the football team signup sheet. Mary was experiencing tremendous pain from her inadequate paper management.
Mary’s checkbook accounting was always falling behind because she hated bothering with it. Instead of unraveling the confusion in her account, she would close her checking account and open another one, leaving a small balance just in case something unexpected cleared the account. She did this without her husband’s knowledge because he left their finances, like most things, up to Mary to handle on her own. Her opening-and-closing habits precipitated an ever-growing list of account numbers and a flood of mail with multiple checking account statements. Poor Mary—her paper piles caused financial mismanagement, and her financial mismanagement caused even more paper piles!
The financial confusion wasn’t limited to her checking account. Mary also didn’t have a good bill-paying system and often lost her bills, incurring late fees. Her husband must not know about the late fees, she told me; he would hit the roof if he knew. She hated writing checks to pay for her tardiness. She spent hundreds of dollars, maybe even thousands, every year on late fees. She hated to think of the clothes she could have bought or vacations her family could have taken with that money. Ashamed of herself, she didn’t want her husband to find out how much money she was continuing to waste. She knew she could prevent this needless expense if she just took the time to figure out a better system.
Mary was at the height of frustration when she called me. She was beginning to let her family down as a result of her disorganization. She was disappointing herself and her boss with her ineffective project management. Mary was hiding her habits and wasting valuable family resources. Instead of being in control of her life, her disoriented environment and lack of systems controlled her. She had created her own chaos and was totally overwhelmed.
Like Mary, many of us feel plagued and cheated by an unruly environment. We have nonexistent or unmanageable systems. A wave of paper is taking over our homes and our offices with ever-increasing volume. Our financial management is poor as we try in vain to keep up with all the statements, accounts, bills, and receipts. Our financial struggles and paper pileup are separate but related problems that compound one another. We hate feeling so out-of-control, yet our frantic pace tricks us into believing we can’t slow down long enough to fix our own problems. Even if we don’t understand the implications of our chaotic lifestyle, we long for a better way to live.
The Ordered Life
Kathy is a local entrepreneur who always has several irons in the fire. She loves her work and diligently presses hard during office hours. In addition to her career, she participates financially in a couple of start-up companies around town. You could call her a serial entrepreneur because even though she is chief executive officer of a Web design service company, she can’t help investing in other good ideas. Her friends come to her with their wild ideas, and she very often turns those ideas into profitability. Whether she is running her design firm or reviewing a business plan, she seems to have boundless energy.
But Kathy is not just interested in work. She is a committed philanthropist who gives back financially to her church and to charities. She loves to read, and she collects the works of her favorite authors. She loves seeing her friends, going to movies, and enjoying the arts. She always seems to have time to go to a show, volunteer at church, or attend a gallery opening. Her kids are grown, but she sees them and their families often. Kathy and her husband travel frequently; they consider vacations the payoff for hard work. Their favorite thing to do is visit all the new restaurants in town for dinner dates. Having a full life and enjoying her time with family and friends is important to Kathy. She values having balance in her professional, personal, familial, and spiritual life.
Many of you are probably thinking that having a life as full and balanced as Kathy’s would be nice, and you may be wondering, How does she do it? Kathy runs a tight ship. From dawn till dusk, Kathy’s day is planned. Her calendar is full from seven in the morning till nine at night, and she manages it carefully. Since her college years, Kathy has always used a planner and to-do lists. She accomplishes a lot because she is organized with her time and tasks.
Kathy isn’t just organized with her time; she is purposeful. Her executive assistant helps her sort through the pile of invitations and appointment requests and prioritize them for her acceptance or regrets. Kathy knows that if she says yes to everything, she will no longer be in charge of her own life. She has to decline many opportunities so that she can keep her work and her start-up companies in a primary position of importance.
In addition to exercising restraint with opportunities, Kathy demonstrates self-control with her own workload as well. She dedicates the first and last half hour of each day to planning and organizing. She involves her assistant whenever possible to keep her accountable and on task. She sets this daily “processing time” as an appointment on her calendar. Making herself plow through requests and paper and projects isn’t always easy, but she does it because she is committed to staying on top of things. Other important tasks do not bump her daily processing appointments; she considers planning as important as meeting with an investor. Kathy understands the value of work-flow management.
As far as her personal life goes, she schedules events with her husband and children first and then populates her calendar with fun activities with friends. Kathy has learned that if she waits to fit family activities into her schedule, they will always be trumped by other pressing demands. Kathy enjoys her career and her social life because she has proactively made choices to schedule and stick to her priorities.
We can easily think that other folks have it made. We look at their lives and think that things are somehow easier for them than they are for us. Kathy has the money to afford a lifestyle of professional and personal fulfillment, we reason, so life is easier for her. After all, people who make executive salaries can justify a life of travel and entertainment. It must be nice, we think to ourselves.
Actually, Kathy and her husband give generously to their church and other causes, and they choose to live fairly modestly. They live in a three-bedroom home so they have room for the grandkids to visit, but they don’t live in luxury. They live comfortably within their means. Using their money to reflect their values is important to them.
Kathy spends a half day every week managing the information produced by her start-up companies and tracking their financial situation. She keeps a file on each of her invested companies and stays in touch with the principals. She doesn’t just throw money at these ventures; she actually spends time managing her involvement in them.
Similarly, Kathy’s husband, Rod, spends several hours a week managing their investments and their paperwork. He reads and files financial statements and keeps their home office in order. He retrieves his and Kathy’s receipts and enters them into a financial software program. Together, Rod and Kathy take their financial responsibilities seriously. To them, good financial oversight allows them to do the things they love in their personal life, like going out to dinner and traveling.
Kathy has held former jobs where she was burdened by an unrealistic workload and ill-equipped staff. She vowed never to experience a work environment like that again. She is in charge of the Web design firm, so she created an environment in which she could thrive. Kathy has sacrificed a healthy part of her own salary in order to make good hires. She recruited an experienced operations manager, a chief financial officer, and an executive assistant. Her assistant helps her keep her office organized so Kathy can work at full capacity. Kathy understands that competent and empowered staff will release her to spend her time wisely.
Delegating is not just a skill that Kathy employs at work. At home, Kathy and Rod make similar choices. Like the rest of us, they do weekly chores like laundry, bookkeeping, and grocery shopping. However, they dedicate a part of their income to hiring a housecleaning service and a lawn service. They are willing to do other maintenance chores, but they don’t want to spend their personal time scrubbing toilets or weeding. They don’t feel badly about spending money on a housekeeper or gardener because they use their reclaimed time to play with their grandchildren or volunteer at church. Kathy and Rod see both services as an exchange of value. They trade a small portion of their hard-earned income for quality of life.
By making use of other people’s skills, Kathy expands her own bandwidth to invest in the things that matter to her. She manages her time and finances well and wants to invest those resources in professional and personal activities that add meaning to her life. Instead of feeling guilty for not being able to do it all, Kathy knows that doing it all is an impossible and foolish undertaking. She would rather work in her strengths than in her weaknesses.
Because she invests in people to support her, Kathy enjoys coming into work and not feeling overwhelmed. She is free to do the things that chief executive officers of small companies are supposed to do, like generate business and manage the company. In former jobs where she was ill-supported, she wore all the hats and could never get on top of things. She also enjoys coming home to a clean home with a well-tended yard. Kathy doesn’t need a fancy house or a luxury car; she enjoys the simple pleasures of feeling accomplished at work and being wrapped in comfort at home.
Invest in Order
Are you a Mary or are you a Kathy? Do you have a life of chaos and frustration or a life of self-control and purpose? Most disorganized people are like Mary; their disorder is causing them tremendous pain in their professional and personal life. They long for a life like Kathy’s where they could master their time and resources, yet they wonder how they could create a seemingly utopian life like that out of their current situation. Presently, their disorganization is stealing their time, and they always feel behind. They may want help out of the chaos, but at the same time, their anxiety and poor coping methods prevent them from dedicating the time to digging out of their mess.
A disordered life can only become an ordered life when commitment takes charge of chaos. If we want to extricate ourselves from disorganization, we will have to change ourselves. We will have to accept that our mess is not confined to our space and our time management; it extends to our self-management. Our disorganization is about our choices. Like Mary, we’re in deep waters, and we need a lifeline to get out. We need to reclaim our lives!
Do you know the difference between spending and investing? I never paid much attention to these words until I became a professional organizer and discovered the connection between investing and order. These financial terms can show us our commitment level in almost any area of our life.
Spending is an activity. We spend money when we go to the mall and purchase clothes. We spend our time when we watch television. Spending indicates a trade. We trade our resources for something in return. We can spend thoughtlessly because spending doesn’t require much thought.
Investing, on the other hand, is not an activity; it is a purposeful choice. We invest our money in a mutual fund or a retirement account because we are preparing and planning ahead. We are saving for the future. We are choosing to sacrifice our temporary comfort for our long-term gain. Similarly, we invest our time in things that we have deemed important, like being active parents or spouses. Playing with our children and cultivating our marriages are both investment choices. Investing implies that we gain more than we put in; we receive a dividend for our investment. Spending executes a trade, but investing offers a reward.
If you are truly ready to change your ways, then you will need to invest in order. Chances are you’ve spent time and money on organizing in the past but with little reward. You may have spent time tidying up the playroom only to experience a toy explosion the very next day. You may have spent money on a plethora of plastic bins, thinking that products would answer your organizing problems. By spending your time and money on organizing, you’ve likely accomplished no more than a temporary trade-off. If you realize that your spending has made little or no impact, now is the time to begin investing. When you invest in organizing, you experience a reward for your efforts.
Pay Up Front
In contrast to Mary’s “pay as you go” system, in which she felt dinged by her disorder every day, you can operate another way. But as with any other investment, to invest in order, you will have to make an up-front contribution. The good news is that you’re investing in yourself. Your up-front contribution will be twofold.
First, you will need to learn about authentic organizing. You wouldn’t invest in a stock without researching it and knowing its background. In the same way, you should understand the nature of true organizing before you dive in and make an investment. Our fast-paced world has a skewed view of organizing that values speed and immediate impact. The problem with this approach to organizing is that the results don’t last very long.
Authentic organizing is a process, not an activity. It is an organic discovery process that enhances your self-awareness and helps you create systems that work with your lifestyle. Because organizing is a process, not a quick fix, you’ll have to dedicate time and resources to the process. You don’t make a front-end investment without dedicating time to study it. Likewise, you cannot make an investment without resources like money and energy. Investing requires a commitment of time, finances, and energy.
In the learning process, you’ll find that true organizing might be a little painful because it requires that you examine how you became disorganized. Through some introspection and strategy you can resolve the roots of your problems rather than simply addressing the symptoms. Engaging in a genuine organizing process might also be a little painful because you will need to evaluate your habits, behavior, and choices. If you are willing to learn about and embrace organization in the same way you would any other investment, you will be on your way to lasting change.
Second, your up-front investment entails establishing some new systems in your life. By applying a discovery process, you may find some areas that need improvement in your space, time, and task management. You will likely need to implement some systems to help you manage your belongings or your schedule more effectively. Perhaps you have existing systems that you need to tweak, and this is the time to make those adjustments. Your up-front investment in organization must include the creation of viable systems.
Kathy and Rod understand the importance of systems. They did not come about their careful financial management by accident. They took the time to create systems that would help them manage their income and expenses. For example, they sat down together and created a family budget. They added up their monthly income, deducted their church tithes and offerings, allocated funds for savings, and then set an account and a budget for each kind of expense. Their family budget took a little research and time, but that discovery process led to a budget that they felt represented their values. Allocating their money, starting with their priorities of planned giving and savings, allowed them to live their priorities. To go along with their budget, they established a system of capturing, coding, and tracking their receipts. Systems like a family budget and receipt management take a little time to set up, but they are up-front investments in your daily quality of life.
Stay in Sync
After you’ve made the up-front contribution in your investment process, you will want to do what all investors do: Watch your investments! Like an observant account manager, you will track the changes you’ve made and keep them operating at peak performance. This is the maintenance stage of organizing. No savvy investor researches a stock, contributes heavily, and then removes all interest. Wise managers are involved at every stage and maintain their investment. When something slides, action is required. Maintaining your investment in organization will require that you continue to observe yourself, your choices, and your systems.
Kathy lives and breathes by her calendar. A lot of people claim they don’t want to be tied down like that, but scheduling her priorities first actually frees her to stay on track. This is a way for her to maintain balance and order. Some people feel that when they live by their calendar, it controls them, but Kathy knows that the opposite is true. If Kathy’s calendar is full and an opportunity arises, she is in a position of power. She can adjust her priorities to accommodate the opportunity, put the opportunity on hold until she can fit it in, or pass on the opportunity. She is in the driver’s seat by retaining continuous involvement in her time-management system.
Those who don’t tightly guard their time struggle to keep up with those who do. If you don’t know what comes first in your schedule, you cannot recognize and seize opportunities when they arise. If you are in the dark about your commitments, you will constantly find yourself late, surprised, and ill-equipped for the next appointment.
Kathy made an up-front investment when she chose the calendar system she would use at her design firm. She paid good money for the software licenses to use the universal calendar and task-management program in an office-wide network. This way, everyone using the system can see what obligations other staffers have on their calendars. People can schedule meetings around everyone’s existing commitments. On her calendar, Kathy assigned colors to each type of activity so she can instantly see when she is out of balance. She consults her calendar practically hourly and works diligently with her assistant and family to stay in sync.
Whether managing your space, time, or finances, your choices will either support or conflict with your priorities. Staying in sync with your priorities requires systems, effort, and self-discipline, as Kathy’s life demonstrates. However, the alternative is an existence that is out of control like Mary’s life. Mary has never invested in establishing order, and therefore maintenance is out of the question. She is running at full speed but never reaches her goal. She is losing her belongings, papers, time, and self-respect. Mary’s disorganization is costing her the ability to live in congruence with her values. This is an awfully stressful way to live! Kathy, on the other hand, has less stress because she works hard to keep her life in check with the things that are important to her. Synchronicity with self is the result of embracing the value and practice of organization.
Act as Your Own Life Manager
Like Mary, many of us feel cheated by our disorganization. We are constantly paying the price for our haphazard lifestyle. In this state of chaos, we are inundated by our burdens and blind to our blessings. If we could change our perspective, we could change our lives.
We aren’t organized partly because we have undervalued an orderly life and our own precious resources. Perhaps unconsciously, we haven’t perceived our time or our money or our gifts to be very worthwhile, and we have spent them carelessly. Instead of being purposeful about the way we live our lives, we have simply endured our circumstances. Only when we recognize and honor the resources we’ve received can we start investing in the things that truly matter to us: our life priorities.
If you gave your children a thousand dollars to invest and instead they frittered it away on candy and movies and whatever struck them at the moment, you wouldn’t be very impressed. You might wonder where your parenting went wrong! It takes maturity to understand that earning money requires hard work. A realistic understanding of that labor makes investing appealing. Once you appreciate the cost of something, you want to invest it to preserve its value. Like children, we sometimes underestimate the value of our own resources and waste them as a result. Rather than managing our life resources, we can squander them.
We don’t often think about the brevity of life and realize that our days on earth are numbered. Instead, we get caught up in a frantic pace and discount the value of our time. As a result, we fritter our time away on activities that steal our energy and don’t contribute to our quality of life. People with terminal diseases come face-to-face with the preciousness of life. If they’ve been living a lifestyle of wasted time, their disease immediately changes their perspective, and they begin investing their time rather than spending it. If we could change our perspective and realize that tomorrow might just be our last day, we would be more likely to invest our time in meaningful ways.
We also undervalue our financial resources. Rather than considering how hard we worked to earn our living, we undermine the value of our money by spending it on useless things. We accumulate for the sake of accumulation. We have so much excess stuff that we have to retain storage units to keep all of it! We have so many things that we actually lose our belongings in our pile of stuff! If we truly understood the value of our money and aligned our spending with our values, we might choose to spend our money differently. In order to honor our priorities, we might invest in experiences and in relationships instead of buying more stuff.
At the end of our life all our money and possessions and clothes will go to someone else. All our labor and the stuff we have to show for it will vanish. The money and the stuff we call ours is really not ours in the long run. It is under our care for now, but it is only ours for a short while. Our assets are blessings that are here today but could be gone tomorrow. If we sincerely believed that every day and every dollar are gifts, we would radically change our behavior.
Time and money are not our only resources; God has also entrusted our talents and skills and relationships to us as resources. We did not receive our mental and physical abilities accidentally; God intends for us to use them for a purpose. Certain people are also in our lives for a reason; we can reach out to them or ignore them. Focusing on ourselves is easy when we are not practicing an awareness of our resources and blessings. When we carelessly use our resources, we act as if we are entitled to them instead of grateful for them. We can mindlessly spend the resources we’ve been given, or as conscientious managers we can mindfully invest them.
We can stop living recklessly by taking back control of our lives. We need a transformed perspective before we can transform our behavior. If you find that your life has spun out of control and you’re surrounded by chaos, you may have been an absent manager of your own life. Things are about to change! I invite you to take on a new role in your life: Become a diligent overseer. An overseer does not feel entitled to what she manages. She recognizes that the belongings and money and time and resources that surround her are simply under her care temporarily. She administrates those resources wisely because she knows they are gifts and not in endless supply. When we comprehend and treasure our resources, we are inclined to treat them with care and manage them responsibly.
If you want to reclaim your life and bring order out of chaos, you can begin a rewarding, freeing adventure! This book is for those who want to order not only their space and their time but their priorities as well. By the end of this book, you will be equipped to bring your daily life into alignment with your priorities. If you put these ideas into action, you can have more freedom and a higher quality of life. Not only will you learn organizing truths, principles, and strategies, you will learn how to become your own life manager!