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Lots of people are familiar with the phrase yo-yo dieting, but probably not with “yo-yo organizing”.  It’s a phrase I coined as a professional organizer, observing the tendency to approach organizing haphazardly.   We procrastinate until we can’t take the mess, and then dive in with a huge burst of determination, only to abandon the project halfway through when we run out of steam.

Sadly, being “partially” organized doesn’t last—the unfinished portions create blind spots in your system and doubt in your mind about what goes where.  Before long you backslide into the same state of chaos you began with, feeling demoralized. Just like yo-yo dieting.

While it’s easy to see the benefits of being organized, it can be hard to justify the time it takes to create a system.  It always takes longer than we think.  We experience decision fatigue.  We feel antsy to get back to life.

Yet, the very PROCESS of organizing —the journey of sifting, sorting, deciding and discovering, is highly beneficial.  Organizing is an act of studying, uncovering and curating knowledge–often reacquainting you with vital information that had receded from your memory.  In one famous study on retention, participants only remembered 54% of what they’d read the day before, and only 21% two weeks later.  Organizing is powerful.

  • Case Study #1 Patrick is a family lawyer who understands that a large part of his job is what he calls psychological warfare.   He knows that when he spends time upfront preparing his cases well—i.e. taking lots of notes, typing them up, printing them out, categorizing them and filing them in a binder with clearly labelled tabs for each aspect of each case, he’s positioned himself for success.  Walking into a courtroom, organized binder tucked under his arm, he’s aware with great quiet confidence that he’s already swayed the conversation.  Especially when he sees the opposing side pull out a sloppy accordion folder crammed with sticky notes and yellowing legal paper.   It’s not just the artifact itself –his smart binder— that creates the power, but the very actions that went into assembling it. He has all the facts top-of-mind and can recall details much more quickly than his disheveled, disorganized opponent.
  • Case Study #2 Lonnie was a newly appointed senior executive for a Cosmetics company who inherited a closet full of her predecessors files, with no baton-passing.  The company needed her to hit the ground running, so she couldn’t make the time to sort through all the files that’d been left behind.  She worked in chaos for months, piling her own stuff on the desk and surfaces, worried she was missing some critical piece of knowledge.  Finally, she made the time to clear out her predecessor’s files, sifting through every document to make sense of it all.  She unearthed valuable reports and contact info, eliminated obsolete material, organized the information and gained true insight into how the job was done.  For the first time since starting, Lonnie felt energized, confident and on top of her job. She gained a bolt of clarity on the unique contribution she could make. The process unlocked her creativity, confidence and contribution.

As knowledge workers, we are paid for our ideas, our ability to make good judgements, to be thorough and on top of our game. Ending the yo-yo organizing cycles takes time, yes, but the journey itself will yield huge payoffs, every step of the way.

Julie Morgenstern

For over 25 years, New York Times bestselling author and organizational consultant Julie Morgenstern has transformed the way individuals and companies function around the globe, including American Express, Microsoft, FedEx, and the NYC Mayor’s Office.

Her cutting edge advice has been featured on programs from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Good Morning America and NPR, and she is regularly featured in a variety of print magazines and publications, including Forbes, Harvard Business review, and The Wall Street Journal.

In today’s fast-paced culture, professional success often seems synonymous with long days, never-ending to-do lists, and sleepless nights. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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