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How to Think About Organization

The writer Jeff Goins tells the story of asking a friend for some investment advice. The friend was successful in making money in the market and offered a piece of advice that should help you understand what I’m thinking about when I think about organization.

He told Jeff, don’t do what I did, think how I thought.

In other words, if Jeff sat down and just tried to copy what his friend had told him he would be setting himself up for failure.

Yes, it worked for his friend, but whatever situation Jeff was facing was bound to be different.

He had to use what his friend told him to help him think through to his own decision(s) and not as a template for doing the exact same thing.

It is similar to a story Clayton Christensen tells in How Will You Measure Your Life about his conversation with Andy Grove from Intel:

I said, “Andy, I still can’t. I need to describe how this process worked its way through a very different industry, so you can visualize how it works.” I told the story of the steel-mill industry, in which Nucor and other steel mini-mills disrupted the integrated steel-mill giants. The mini-mills began by attacking at the lowest end of the market—steel reinforcing bar, or rebar—and then step by step moved up toward the high end, to make sheet steel—eventually driving all but one of the traditional steel mills into bankruptcy. When I finished the mini-mill story, Andy said, “I get it. What it means for Intel is …” and then went on to articulate what would become the company’s strategy for going to the bottom of the market to launch the lower-priced Celeron processor. I’ve thought about that exchange a million times since. If I had tried to tell Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, he would have eviscerated my argument. He’s forgotten more than I will ever know about his business. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think. He then reached a bold decision about what to do, on his own.

Christensen gave Grove the framework and Grove was able to apply it to his unique situation using his years of experience and insider wisdom.

In this experiment I will tell you what I did, but more importantly I want you to see how I thought and use that as a starting point to begin your own organization journey.


We are all organized in some way in our lives. It might be something small like a sock drawer or something huge like a garage or our kitchen.

I would bet though that somewhere you have things arranged the way you want and if asked about it you undoubtedly take pride in it.

It could be a card collection or stamp collection or TV Guides like Frank Constanza.

For me it is my books. I love how I have my books organized, though with two young sons and losing my home office, they are all stuck in boxes in the garage now. However, if I need a book I know where exactly I can find that book and that brings me joy.

So we have one “thing” organized. How does that help us organize all the other things?

That one thing will show us the path to getting everything organized.

Finding Your Path to Organization

Chris Bailey spent a year after college running a series of experiments on productivity. He wrote down everything he learned in his great book The Productivity Project. One story he tells early in the book applies to our organization journey. From The Productivity Project:

During the 1960s and 1970s, the University of California at Irvine was one of a group of universities that decided to build their campuses without any paths. (I went to school in Canada, but I love this story.) Students and faculty simply walked in the grass around the campus buildings as they pleased, without following a walkway that was already paved for them. A year or so later, once the school could see where the grass was worn around the buildings, they paved over those paths instead. The sidewalks at UC Irvine don’t simply connect the buildings to one another in a predetermined way—they’re mapped to where people naturally want to walk. Landscape architects call these paths “desire paths.”

We have to find our own desire paths when it comes to organization.

How are we keeping some things organized already? Why can we do it in one area and not others?

When I sat down to think about why I can find one book out of a thousand, but I couldn’t find a pay stub to save my life, I started wondering what was the difference.

Then I had an inkling of an idea.

What are the Common Factors

Martin Windstorm writes in Small Data:

There’s a well-known quote that says if you want to understand how animals live, you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle.

I knew I was going to have to go back and find different books on different subjects. It could be for a multitude of reasons. I seem to ebb and flow with the topics I love reading about.

This month it is of course organization, but I’m also dipping into learning skills, note taking (specifically mind maps) and philosophy.

I have books on each of those topics and they are somewhere in the 20+ huge plastic bins I keep them in.

So being able to find the book I need is important to me.

What about all the other stuff? What about old receipts, pictures from five Christmases ago or that dang power cord for my PS2?

I could care less about that stuff compared to my books, but they sure did become important when I had to return a purchase, send the pictures to my Mom or watch a DVD.

With my books I was living in the zoo, I knew where everything was. With everything else I was in the jungle. A messy, huge, unorganized jungle.

I had to go explore the jungle. I had to find the common factors behind my books and everything else I want to organize.

How Do You Want to Spend Your Time

Everyday when I wake up I read this quote by Steve Jobs:

“If today were the last day of my life, would I do what I was doing today?’’

So these past few days and really the last few months I’ve been thinking about organization. And it hit me.

I use a few apps to track my time; both what I do during the day, my exercise and my sleep routines.

What if I had an app that tracked all the time I wasted looking for stuff? I wonder what kind of readout I would get at the end of the week, month or year.

I desperately want to stop wasting that time. That is not what I want to spend my time doing every day.

So I started treating everything that brings me feelings of clutter like my books.

How I made this jump will be the topic of tomorrow’s post. Stay tuned.

Published in Monthly Experiment Organization

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