Podcast: Getting Organized with Joshua Zerkel

If you’ve followed Evernote (or this blog) for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered Joshua Zerkel’s name more than once. As Evernote’s Director of Global Community and Training, Josh travels the world meeting with customers and running Evernote’s community programs. But he’s also a Certified Professional Organizer with tremendous insights into how we can gain more control over our work and our lives.

In the first half of a two-part conversation, Josh reveals the hidden source of organizational frustration, suggests an easy way to gain control over clutter, and tells us how he wound up with such a cool job in the first place. Take a listen:

Taking Note: Episode 7

Length: 17 minutes
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Selected highlights:

I saw a quote of yours in a recent article from Business Insider: “Productivity is a nice byproduct of organization. The real difference is in how empowered you feel in your work and, really, your life.” We tend to focus so much on outputs and quantity, I wonder if we’re ignoring something that’s more fundamental.

I would say that we are, based on my experience working with people on productivity and organization over the years. No one ever comes to someone like me, a productivity consultant, saying, “I want to feel more empowered over my life.” What they say is, “I have piles of paper on my desk,” or, “I have zillions of digital files, and I want to fix those. I want to get those problems under control.” What’s underneath that is really this feeling of disempowerment. Going through your work or through your life disempowered puts you in a bad spot on a perpetual ongoing basis until you get those things under control.

To me, the real benefit of getting organized or being more productive is that feeling of empowerment, “I’ve gained control over this thing that was challenging for me.” Once you have that sense of empowerment, you can do much better work. You feel better. You think more clearly. You have better relationships because things that are troublesome or are getting in the way just aren’t there anymore. That’s the biggest benefit I’ve seen from people who I’ve helped get organized in the past. After they get organized they say, “I never thought I’d feel this way. I thought I might get my desk organized or I might get my files under control, but I didn’t really realize that it would help me think more clearly or help me feel more empowered over my work.”

Once you have that sense of empowerment, you can do much better work. You feel better. You think more clearly.

So it’s really about getting to that problem behind the problem.

The real problem is that none of us are ever taught how to get organized, or how to manage our time, or how to manage our digital files… I think that’s why we see this proliferation of blogs, and articles, and people like me, consultants, who are designed to help people figure out these things that we’re somehow supposed to know how to do but are never really taught.

There are so many options out there. There are so many solutions. Sometimes they conflict. Is there a best place to start?

There is a best place to start. Typically, it’s with whatever’s driving you the most crazy, because that’s where you’ll feel that you’ve made the most progress. For instance, if seeing piles of paper on your desk every day is driving you insane and they’re also getting in the way of you doing your work because you can’t find the thing that you need to, then starting there might be a good spot. If you are having a different type of problem, like you can’t find the files on your computer because everything’s a mess and you don’t have a good search tool, maybe putting things in Evernote would help you get more organized, and that would make you feel better and hopefully help you be more productive. It’s really that, “This is driving me crazy,” is a really good place to begin.

You’re saying that this can be a very immediate thing, a very visceral thing. You don’t have to necessarily sit down and make a whole big inventory of all the things that you’re dealing with.

That is essentially it. I’ve seen people go to great lengths, spending lots of time planning how they’re going to get organized, but I have yet to see that actually work in practice. Because they spend so much time planning how they’re going to get organized that they never actually do it. I’ve seen this time and again: “Well, I’m making more lists because the lists will help me get organized.” You can spend all day and all night making lists, but if you don’t actually do the things on the lists, you’re not actually achieving anything. We have this strange thing that can happen to us where we feel like we’re making progress but we’re actually not. We’re just organizing to get organized.

There are a lot of different levels to what organization can be. Organizing my workspace, making sure that my desk is clean. Temporal organization where I’m cleaning up my calendar and thinking of time management. Or it could be cleaning up my digital files, or organizing my tasks. Are there any common principles that apply throughout all of those levels?

Generally speaking, there are some common themes that apply whatever you’re trying to get organized. One is put like things together. If you, for instance, have a bunch of paper on your desk but you know they fall into certain categories, maybe you start by just grouping the piles by category. If this is applicable in your world of time management, maybe you’re having the same type of meeting but at different points throughout the week, maybe you could look at consolidating those a bit so you’re getting that same topic together rather than spreading it out. It’s really about what are the common themes amongst the things that I’m doing, and grouping those together. That’s one general tenet of getting organized. Put like things together, whatever those things might be.

One general tenet of getting organized: Put like things together, whatever those things might be.

Another one, and this can go sometimes too far down the path for most people or many people, is get rid of things you don’t need. This is where people often get stuck in the organizing process. You don’t have to get stuck there. It’s really about deciding what you do need, and then if there are things you know for certain that you don’t, maybe you get rid of those. This could take the form of physical things. Oftentimes, this is the, “I might use it someday,” syndrome. If “someday” hasn’t come in a long time and you really can’t perceive a point where you might need the thing, whether it’s a document, or a physical object, or the type of meeting that you’ve been having that you continually push off, maybe you just look at getting rid of that thing. You don’t have to go all the way to minimalism, but maybe just start with the things that are easy to get rid of.

There are so many places to put your stuff. There are so many inputs that are coming at us from all directions. How do you manage those inputs?

How I manage them personally is how I typically recommend other people manage them whenever possible. We can’t control where the inputs are coming from or how often we’re going to get them, but what we can control is how we’re notified about them, and how often, and when we choose to respond. For me, I receive almost no notifications. The truth is, I’m not in the type of the job that requires an immediate response. Maybe if I worked in PR that might be different, but the reality is any time someone sends me something, it can probably wait an hour or two before I get back to them, and the world will not end.

To get control of the inputs really boils down to how you manage the notifications of those inputs, and then how you choose and when you choose to respond. For me, I typically respond a few times a day rather than in the moment. In the moment, I’m probably doing something else. It’s hard enough for me to find time to sit down and focus on doing deep work. I don’t need to be notified or bothered by something that isn’t relevant to that work at that moment.

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