“bring on the lists”: how I found my organizational mojo

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at the end of the day, if something doesn’t work for you, toss it!

by Anonymous, Contributor

I fucking love organizing. 

My assignments for the rest of the term are all in a neatly-ordered to-do list, I budget in beautiful colour-coded tables, my inbox filters work like a charm, and I know how I need to prioritize every day for the rest of this week to keep on top of my responsibilities.

I’ve led multiple organization workshops. I’m my friend group’s go-to declutterer. Spreadsheets are my happy place.

I fucking hate organizing.

My childhood was punctuated by near-daily fights over missed assignments, sloppy work and my refusal to use an agenda. My backpack was always shoved full of crumpled papers, I lost points on tests for forgetting to show my work, and I wasted time when deadlines loomed. 

I was disorganized. I wasn’t trying to be, but I was – mess just seemed to happen to my life, like I was some kind of juvenile entropy magnet. And I was told, if I just tried harder, if I just cared, I could be as organized as anybody else. 

But from a fairly young age, I knew that wasn’t true. 

The agenda was my biggest and most consistent issue. Ever since my first day of kindergarten, when I was given my very first big plastic matte-blue daily planner to take me through the academic year, I couldn’t make it work for me. 

I tried to do what we were taught to do in class, what my mom told me “every normal person” does: fill it out, use it to keep track of my assignments, organize my priorities. 

But it quickly fell apart. I’d forget to use it, or I’d lose track of long-term projects until I “saw” them again on the week they were due, and the less it helped me the less I was inclined to use it. 

And the worst part by a mile was that I had no explanation for why I was failing at this “simple” task. I couldn’t justify it, even to myself. In other people’s eyes, missed deadlines and sloppy work were evidence of a moral failing, as though I were being deliberately self-stabotaging and digging my heels in specifically to irritate them. At five, six, and seven years old, I didn’t have the words to explain that this was an issue of “can’t,” not “won’t.”

So I started building in failsafes. I tried all kinds of things – most of which didn’t work – and when I found anything that did, even partly, I clung to it no matter what. My assignments went in an online to-do list. My class notes went in PowerPoint. I stopped missing as many commitments. 

But I was still disorganized. An organized person would have a “normal” system, I was told, not this patchwork quilt held together by force of will and fear of failure. 

So when my high school advanced English class was assigned to help middle-schoolers who had been flagged as needing extra help with their own organizational skills, I begged the teacher in charge to excuse me from the tutoring sessions. 

“I’ll volunteer for anything else you want, but please don’t let me near these kids – I’m fundamentally disorganized, I’ll ruin them,” I tried to explain. 

She wasn’t having it; so, off I went, determined to do the least damage I could. 

And in that spirit, when the student I was paired with told me about how she struggled to use an agenda too, I wasn’t going to do what had been done for me – try to brute-force the issue and assume she wasn’t trying hard enough. Instead, I started taking her through the systems I had come up with for myself. 

Suddenly, half the class was clustered around my computer, watching me build a sample to-do list for a semester’s worth of work and answering questions about my alternative methods. 

And that was when the cartoon lightbulb went off above my head. I was organized! I wasn’t fundamentally incapable of keeping my life in order. Over the years, I had gotten very good at this, and I had never even noticed because my strategies didn’t map on to any of what I had been told “organization” looked like. 

For the first time, I understood something fundamental – the things that worked for my brain weren’t necessarily the things that worked for “everybody else.” And when I decided to embrace how my brain worked rather than trying to make it conform to somebody else’s framework, life got so much better. 

In other words: “Organize for the brain you have, not the brain you wish you had.”

Since I gravitate to calendars, to-do lists, and spreadsheets – bring them on! I haven’t touched an agenda since I moved out, and good riddance to it. Since I know I prefer to complete tasks in one big “chunk” rather than dipping in and out of them, I either break my projects down in advance or budget enough time to blaze through them in one fell swoop. I have a passionate love affair with ordered lists. 

And I have let this spill over into other areas of my life, too. 

Without a system – or with a system in place that doesn’t come naturally to me – my living spaces always quickly devolve into piles of clutter. So, when I’m building a system to cut down on the clutter, I embrace the piles!

Right now, I have a “gym clothes pile” on the chair beside my bed and a “laundry pile” beside the door; sometimes, I add a “clean but not put away yet” pile in front of the dresser. 

There’s a “currently important papers” pile on the nightstand, and an “important but not right now” pile on the desk beside the “sort through this later” pile. 

It’s certainly not a catalogue-perfect minimalist aesthetic vision of a room. But it’s clean, everything has its place, and I know where my favourite black t-shirts with funky logos are kept. It’s exactly what I need it to be – and that’s what organizing should be! 

And you can pry my MacGyvered, patchworked, perfect-for-me systems out of my colour-coded-spreadsheet-wielding hands. 

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