Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Scatterbrain’s Guide to Getting – and Staying – Organised

I was the kid who forgot her swimming costume and towel when the Brownie leaders arranged for us to go to a school’s swimming pool as a treat. The three detentions I got at school were all due to handing in homework late (though I swear one of them wasn’t my fault). I got my ears pierced when I was eight, but was in my late teens before I could buy a pair of earrings without losing one or both within six months.
Discovering this will shock people who have known me fewer than ten years, but I am a bona fide scatterbrain.

Yup, me. The crazy lady whose handbag is full of painkillers, spare tissues and indigestion tablets. Who not only met every deadline during a BA, Open University and MA over the past four years, but often submitted work early. The one who seems to be permanently attached to her planner.

 I had to get organised because I was so disorganised. I found that getting organised was surprisingly pain-free and gave me more time to get work done or, more realistically, relax and have fun. And I shall now share my best strategies…

1. Have a planner and colour code it.

 Seriously. Buy a diary or planner with lots of space under each day and create a colour code. It doesn’t need to be elaborate – using just two or three colours will make a humungous difference.

 I write deadlines and important appointments in red. Social appointments and anything that can be rescheduled are in blue. I also write notes to myself – usually stuff I need to do or buy – in pink (important) or purple (not important). Birthdays and anniversaries are in green. Black is miscellaneous and may be underlined or circled by the relevant colour later.

 You can see at a glance what you need to do and what else you’ve got on. You can review the notes to yourself and, if they’ve become more important after not being done for a few days, re-enter them under the higher priority colour. It might seem pedantic, but the pay-off is immense. Besides, your personal colour coding will become automatic after a few weeks – and you will probably find yourself using it in other contexts.

2. For every email account, make a folder labelled ‘Important Stuff’.

And whenever you get an important email, copy it to your Important Stuff folder. This way, you still have it with your old/read email (which I find useful), but can also find it in an instant. I found it particularly useful for my university email account, which bombards me with emails of varying importance (from ‘vital’ to ‘irrelevant’). If I save emails to a general folder, the important ones get lost amongst the rest.

 If you get considerably more emails than me, you could create folders for different types and levels of importance. For example, new addresses/phone numbers, online payment records, especially kind words from friends… It takes half a second to copy an email to the relevant folder and a few seconds to retrieve it. Compare that to trawling through a general ‘saved email’ folder or list of read/old emails.

3. If you have a lot of something, make an inventory.

 I refuse to believe I’m the only person who has bought books I already own. And it used to happen more than I care to admit. So I typed a list of all the books I own. Ditto DVDs. I won’t lie: this can take a while. But it saves time (and money) in the long term; and updating it every few months doesn’t take very long at all.

 I can now see what books I own and take printouts when I go shopping – though if I had a smartphone, I’d access the list through that instead. Whenever I buy a new book, I jot it down. Every so often, I type up the changes and print a new copy. It’s also handy to look at your inventory instead of having to search your shelves, especially if you don’t keep your books (or whatever else) in a strict order.

4. Fall in love with lists.

 But not too much – if you spend more time making the lists than getting stuff done, there is no point. I write a general to-do list once a week and update as needed. If it gets too long and difficult to handle (stop giggling!), I make specific lists for each project or type of task and make a note on the general list to refer to the specific ones. I also find it useful to split each task into small chunks – especially if I’m procrastinating.

5. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip up.

 It just makes you more stressed, anxious and disorganised. If a strategy isn’t working for you, see if you can adapt and personalise it to make it work. If it still doesn’t work, move on. But you owe it to yourself to give organisational strategies – whether mine or others – a decent shot. Being organised can and does change your life.


  1. I have a pending file in my email for emails I've read but don't have time to respond to and for emails I haven't read yet but will. If I didn't have this file, I would forget about the emails. Not so cool.

  2. You're wonderfully well organised, Hayley. I used to be quite efficient, but since I started writing, I'm not so on top of things.
    I have a spreadsheet for all my stories and it's usually kept up-to-date. I have a project book with colour-coding and also colour-coded character cards for my novel. But I only did those after getting into a muddle. I also have hundreds of scrappy bits of paper with scribble on them.
    Otherwise, I am hopeless with lists. If I write a shopping list, I'll either leave it at home or refuse to look at it while shopping. I think it's the challenge of finding out if I can remember everything on the list that appeals. It doesn't work, though. I always forget something.
    I keep a diary, but I forget to look at it.
    Fortunately my life is mainly about writing these days and that's the one thing that I do try to keep organised.

  3. Wonderful post, Hayley, and one I shall read again as I'm trying to get more organised! I make a shopping list then forget to look at it - but I think writing it down helps me to remember.