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Discover Your Personal Organizational Style

file folder iconI’ve long been interested in systems of personality or temperament typing, ranging from the Keirsey Temperament Sorter to the Ayurvedic doshas to any number of magazine or Facebook quizzes. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found the Myers-Briggs system very helpful in my personal and professional life—much more so than the quiz I took about which kind of pirate I would be. But all such quizzes and systems offer maps of difference. For instance: in learning that my dosha is pitta-kapha, I also realize that I have no vata traits—which are in fact the very physical and temperamental traits that characterize one of my best friends. The system of doshas offers a way of understanding the differences between us and why we prefer very different kinds of food and activity. The utility of any such system depends upon how detailed its maps of difference are and upon the context in which you’re using it.

My interest in such systems probably explains why, of the many organizational and self-improvement books I’ve read or skimmed, How to be Organized in Spite of Yourself: Time and Space Management that Works with Your Personal Style by Sunny Schlenger and Roberta Roesch really stuck in my mind and remained one that I frequently recommend to others. Schlenger and Roesch believe that no one organizational system will work for every individual, because we each have certain built-in preferences or styles. Through short quizzes, case studies, and specific suggestions tailored to each style, this book offers the reader the possibility of figuring out just why the filing system that works for your colleague doesn’t work for you, or why those stylish containers you splurged on because they looked good aren’t really fulfilling their intended purpose on your desk. No one style is inherently better than any other, as each has its benefits and drawbacks. Understanding those pros and cons can help you select organizational tools and strategies that will actually work for your particular style and circumstances.

Organizing Time

Schlenger and Roesch describe five distinct styles to organizing time:

  • The Hopper quickly and and frequently switches tasks throughout the day. Hoppers often enjoy variety and like to feel the gratification of completing small tasks, but they may be easily distracted by other people or technology. This is the most common of the temporal organizing styles.
  • The Perfectionist Plus seeks excellent performance in every activity, sets very high standards for herself and others, and may have difficulty distinguishing between valuable and less-valuable uses of her time.
  • The person who is Allergic to Detail enjoys thinking about the big picture and new ideas, sometimes neglecting smaller details or follow-through.
  • The Fence Sitter can see both sides of an issue and thoroughly researches upcoming decisions, both large and small, sometimes to the point of forestalling action.
  • The Cliff Hanger thrives on adrenaline, deadlines, and external pressure, but sometimes loses track of all the commitments he’s juggling.

Each of these styles has particular strengths, such as the ability to juggle multiple tasks or to do big picture planning—and yet those very same tendencies can lead to problems when you’re under pressure or working with others. Schlenger and Roesch offer specific suggestions for each style, including different kinds of to-do lists: some are organized by date, others by priority, and others by enjoyability of tasks.

Schlenger and Roesch also recognize that changing circumstances might lead you to temporarily adopt the behaviors of a particular style as a coping strategy. Thus they recommend reading not only the chapter that seems to best describe your own style (and there might be more than one—you might be a Hopper and Cliff Hanger combined, or perhaps a Hopper at work but Allergic to Detail at home) but also the other chapters as well. Reading the profile of a temporal style very different from your own preference can at the very least demonstrate to you the strength of your own internal tendency—as well as some of the assumptions or judgments you may make about people with styles different from your own.

Organizing Space

Schlenger and Roesch describe five styles of organizing physical space:

  • The Everything Out likes to have reminders, mementoes, and project materials in plain sight and within easy reach.
  • The Nothing Out prefers to have surfaces cleared off and materials stored away.
  • The Right Angler enjoys having things look a certain way, with the appearance of precision.
  • The Pack Rat keeps almost everything.
  • The Total Slob believes that organizing things is a waste of time that could be spent on creative pursuits.

Again, each of these styles has particular strengths and weaknesses. Each chapter offers specific suggestions for filing systems, furniture placement, and strategies for working within your natural tendency to enhance your productivity. Granted, I think the label “Total Slob” sounds fairly pejorative, but the overall approach of this book is to honor the individuality of each style and its possibilities.

Working With Others

Whether you share living space or working space with others, collaborate on projects, or delegate tasks to someone else, sooner or later your own organizational styles may come into conflict with those of others. Like the Myers-Briggs system, which helps me get along better with others whenever I serve on a committee, this typology can assist you in understanding why other people behave the way they do and how best to communicate and work effectively with them.

Time Warp

The first edition of this book, which is the one I remembered reading in a public library 20 years ago, was published in 1989; the copy I re-read to write this post was from the second edition, published in 1999 with some additional chapters about using technology. As you might expect, the paragraphs about BBSes and “The Internet” now seem very dated. But Schlenger and Roesch make some excellent points that any ProfHacker reader tempted to jump at the latest and greatest tool or device we write about would be wise to remember. You have to ask “will it work for me”—and more specifically, “will it work for my particular organizational tendencies.” If you’re an Everything Out, for instance, a paper-based planner might suit you better than just using the calendar in your phone.

In short: if you suspect that your organizational strategies could use some modification, but you haven’t been successful with one of the popular one-approach-for-everyone systems, this book might help you understand why and offer you some helpful tips for doing things your way, only better.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Tim Morgan]

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