5 Ways to Get Organized and Think Clearly

The Costs of Being Unorganized

Being unorganized has bigger consequences than misplacing the remote control or forgetting to respond to an email. First, it’s expensive. A 2017 survey found we spend a total of 2.5 days a year looking for misplaced items, such as phones, keys, and, yes, remotes. Replacing lost items costs Americans $2.7 billion each year, and more than half are regularly late for work or school due to frustrating searches. 

Second, disorganization can have a major impact on your emotional well-being. Data shows people who describe their homes as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” are more depressed and fatigued, and have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who say their homes are “restful” and “restorative.” And if you’re working from home or unemployed, the impact of clutter is compounded because you’re constantly around it. 

While the pitfalls are clear, there’s not always a straightforward approach to being more organized. You could get rid of items that don’t spark joy, but you may inadvertently place too much attention on the number of things you have versus organizing and using those items in a way that improves productivity. It’s also not always about the physical items—your digital life, like the apps you use and the files you create, can lead to disarray. 

Five ways to organize your professional and personal life

The ultimate goal is to organize your life to help you find calm and think more clearly. This will look different for everyone; some thrive on simplicity and minimalism, while others find order in color-coded labels and consistency. Experiment with different approaches to see what resonates with you. 

Here are five methods you can try: 

1. Create standard naming conventions for labels and digital files

We’re all guilty of creating meaningless note or file names like “draft_V6” or “ideas.” In isolation, these vague file names don’t do much harm. But when you multiply this habit by the hundreds or thousands, you can quickly find yourself unable to locate a certain document, trying to decipher search results that all look alike, or wasting time opening dozens of notes to find the right one.

Establishing standard naming conventions keeps you and your digital workspace organized. These naming conventions don’t need to be intimidating or burdensome; instead, focus on adding as much detail as you can to the title or file name. You could organize your files by project title, type, team member name or initials, or date. For example, instead of “draft_V6,” you could add the date, draft title, and author name: “04012020_HowtoStayOrganized_EmilyEsposito.”

Find a format that works for you, and stick with it. If you’re working with a team, get buy-in from everyone and apply your naming conventions to notebooks or folder hierarchy as well, to make sure everything is organized. For example, you could create shared Google Drive directories like client > year > project, or use a combination of notebooks and tags in Evernote, so anyone on your team could easily find a 2018 writing project for XYZ client.

Pro tips:

  • Special characters (like @, #, !) will sort before numbers (0-9), which will sort before letters. Using a special character at the start of your most important notes ensures they always appear at the top of your note list.
  • If sorting by date is helpful to you, use a YYYY-MM-DD date format so alphabetical order is the same as date order. 

2. Leverage automation to connect information between apps

Throughout the day, you constantly jump between apps that each hold their own set of information. In fact, employees in one study switched between as many as 35 job-critical apps more than 1,100 times each day. This pattern not only impacts your productivity, it also increases the chances of losing information or having too much data siloed in certain apps. The result? Keeping track of which tasks are completed in which app not only clutters your digital workflows, it also clutters your mind.

Tools like Zapier and IFTTT can help you connect your favorite apps, so information automatically flows between each one. With Zapier, you can search for apps (like Evernote), and choose from a list of “Zaps” (pre-made integrations), or create your own workflow. For example, you could send Dropbox files to Evernote or create Trello cards from new notes in Evernote.

IFTTT also lets you search for pre-built integrations, called Applets, or create your own. To extend Evernote, create Google Calendar events based on new Evernote reminders, or add new WordPress posts to Evernote so you can keep everything in one place.

3. Optimize your desk space

Your desk can quickly become a catchall for clutter, accumulating pieces of paper, Post-it® Notes, pens, and snacks. While all these items serve a purpose, how you organize and display them has a big impact on how you work. The more cluttered your desk, the more stressed and anxious you’ll feel. 

Don’t assume that a bare desk is best, though. Your optimal desk setup depends entirely on you.

For example, “someone who is a very visual processor would not do well if everything was put away out of sight,” said Jennifer Truesdale, owner of STR8N Up Professional Organizing Services, in an article from Money.com. If you need visual clues, keep your documents and supplies out on your desk, but use a color-coded system so you can keep track of your work at a glance. 

Another way to organize your desk is to think about your daily workflow. Identify the three to five items you use most regularly and place them within reach. Everything else can be stored or put away. Or have your desk mirror our natural tendency for linear processing. Place “incoming items,” like your computer or phone, on the left and leave an empty workspace in the middle. Place outgoing items like staplers and completed paperwork on the right. 

Try different arrangements until you find one that feels intuitive and streamlined for how you work and process information.

4. Reduce waste and clutter by going paperless

Although the world recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, there is still more we can do to reduce paper waste. Our lives are increasingly digital, yet paper remains a modern reality. The average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper each year, and while some of it does get recycled, a large majority sits in your filing cabinet or on your desk. 

When your coworker asks to see a printed document, you don’t have the luxury of using the “Ctrl + F” shortcut to locate the right one. Go paperless to save time searching for information and declutter your physical space. 

Before you begin, audit what you currently have. Critically evaluate what you need to keep and what you can recycle. This chart is a great place to start:

The goal is to transform as many paper documents into digital files as you can. You may need to keep important paper documents on file (like legal documents), but you can still digitize them so you have a secure back-up copy. 

Once you’ve tackled your current pile of paper, make a plan to go paperless in the future. It will take time to establish this new habit, but an easy way to start practicing is with meetings. Rather than printing presentations, documents, and meeting agendas, move everything to a note in Evernote. Attach presentation files and supporting documents directly to the note and share with your team. 

Pro tip: Scanning paper files into Evernote is as simple as using your smartphone’s camera. While in the Evernote app, tap the camera icon and point your device at the item you want to scan

5. Make organization a habit

Think of how organized you are after you move to a new home or office, or after you dedicate an afternoon to streamlining your digital life. A few months later, you probably notice the same culprits: a cluttered desk, organizational systems no longer being used, or file names going haywire. This is completely normal, but you need a plan in place to keep yourself organized. 

These tips aren’t just one-off strategies; they should be incorporated into your routine on a regular basis. Make time for organization like you would for a meeting or big event. Block off ten minutes at the end of each day and set a reminder to clean up your digital and physical space, or leave an hour on Fridays to focus on organization. 

You could:

  • Walk around your work space or home to gather any loose items lying around. Place those items in your physical inbox or scan them to Evernote. 
  • Clean off your computer desktop, clean out the downloads folder, and empty the trash.
  • Look at all your digital inboxes (places you receive new information, like your email or Evernote) and archive, delete, or move things to specific folders.

Pro tip: Use the GTD Weekly Review Template to keep you on track. 

Simplicity leads to clearer thinking

Organizing your life doesn’t simply mean decluttering. While that is one aspect, you should take a more holistic approach. Consider what you need in order to find calm and think more clearly, and apply that to your physical space, workflows, apps, and digital files. 

And remember, you don’t necessarily need to throw everything away. If you want to keep something, just make sure it is presented in a way that makes sense for you to do your best work.