Getting Organized

The Devil in the Details

As an English teacher living abroad, my professional and personal life are positively drowning in details.  In a given week I teach something like 150 kids, ranging in age from about 6 to about 16.  These children are arranged in classes of 8 to 10 by ability, not age, though we do make a distinction between elementary and middle school students.

For each class there are a variety of different materials, and there are several different types of classes with versions that are different at the elementary and middle school level. In a given month I must do one-on-one assessments, grade essays and class participation, remember when and what tests to give, plan activities, and make adjustments to the curriculum.

Oh, and when there are holidays or special tests, one group of students gets out of sync with the others and my schedule for just that one class is off by a day.  This happens irregularly and over time the discrepancies pile up, so there may be as many as three or four classes that are one or more days off schedule, each.  What this means is that, whereas before I could think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10”, now I must think “ah, it’s Monday so all of the middle school kids will have the test from unit 10.  Except the first and second classes, they’re on units 8 and 9, respectively, so they get those tests.  Also I’ve got to remember to double up on homework so we can get back on track”.

Don’t forget that there are always students dropping out of the system and new ones coming in (my school is a private academy, not a public school, so kids come and go pretty regularly).

Finally, lurking far beneath it all is the slippery, malevolent software I’m forced to use, crashing at random and throwing errors which read like black-magic incantations, and a vast, tangled maze of record keeping that creeps as silently as thorn bushes growing over the fast-disappearing walls of my sanity.

It’s a looooooooooot to keep track of, and things were slipping through the cracks.  Sometimes it was a really inconsequential detail, sometimes it was more serious, but it’s unlikely in any case that as I get older the consequences of my mistakes will get less problematic.

So I Got Organized, and this is what I learned.  What I’ve recounted here is all fairly abstract, and is meant to be more of a framework for thinking about your own organization efforts.  If you want specific step-by-step instructions, check out Zen Habits, Cal Newport, or the Get Things Done system.

It’s All About Complexity

1) The basic insight is that being organized is about dealing with the complexity of your job.  Your need for organization scales as a function of how many more details there are than you can hold in your mind.  The rest flows from this one idea.

2) You have to make things as easy as possible on future versions of yourself. There is an information-asymmetry between your now-self and your future-self; while your future-self will know many things you don’t, there are details you have right in front of you now which your future-self will probably have lost sight of.

For example, when I go into a classroom it’s filled with children who are laughing, talking, fighting, and otherwise raising hell.  Just calming them down enough to start class requires all my working memory and multi-tasking skills, which leaves nothing for remembering what papers I need to get from them or special things I need to tell them.  So I make a to-do list (discussed more below) with anything on it that must be remembered.  When I sit down to calmly think through my day before classes begin, I’m not surrounded by screaming children, but I will be later.  I do my future-self a favor by clearly writing out everything he’ll need to do so he can focus on the kids.   During class I do my even-more-future-self a favor by taking notes on class problems, flow, results of things I tried, etc., so that he can look back on what I’ve written in a few weeks and draw insights from it, long after he’s forgotten the details.

3) As much as possible, try to carve tasks at their joints, or at natural stopping points.  Sometimes you have no choice but to stop right in the middle of something, but you can minimize mistakes by taking your daily workload, figuring out the smallest units it can be broken into, and knocking them out one by one.

This is not as trivial as it sounds.  Most of the mistakes I was making were a result of very small, very preventable omissions or filing errors.  For example, I might come in and see a huge stack of papers I need to grade.  Before returning the papers to the students I must both grade and enter the scores.  You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to input the scores, especially if I stop to check Facebook after grading.  This is bad because it pisses off the parents and it’s nigh-impossible to get something back from a student once it’s disappeared into the abyss of their backpacks.

I’ve eliminated this class of errors by establishing two habits: one, I carve the task at it’s joints, always grading and inputting scores for a class before moving on, and two, every so often I take ten minutes to review the scores I’ve input for all my classes to check for gaps.

3) A little bit of redundancy is necessary and desirable.  This is especially true if you’re in a job where no one is double checking you on the details (I figure most jobs are this way).  Keeping two different sets of records, particularly for things you do infrequently, will let you cross-check yourself and prevent you from getting too far off track.

An example of good redundancy is carefully recording the dates.  For each class I have a homework sheet with a grid on it that has a list of sudents’ names.  When I have a class, the date goes in three places: on the homework sheet, on the syllabus for the class, and on my to-do list.  This may seem like overkill, but it means that I can figure out in seconds what I taught on a given day, which students were absent, which ones did their homework, and what I should’ve received from them.  This has proven enormously useful when new students have joined our school, or kids have been absent for a few weeks and needed to catch up, or when something is missing and I’ve got to track it down, etc.  In addition, if I mistakenly write down the wrong date or put a score in the wrong column or something, I can use the redundant information to notice and correct the error.

To put it another way: you’re going to regret not writing something down ten times as often as you’ll regret writing it down.

4) Line-of-sight and spatial arrangement matter.  If I’ve got a lot on my plate, the things I can’t see might as well not exist.

In “The Intelligent Use of Space“, David Kirsh argues that space is a resource like time or memory which can be used with varying degrees of effectiveness.  He provides an example of good use of space through the seemingly-mundane activity of preparing a salad.  One subject carefully laid all the vegetables she’d sliced into neat little rows.  That may not seem clever, but by arraying her workspace in this fashion she could quickly assess how much of each type of vegetables she had, allowing her to add vegetables as needed and ensuring she didn’t run out of anything.  This would not be the case if she’d piled everything into a heap.  (Read the paper for a lot more discussion, it’s actually a pretty interesting topic.)

Structuring the environment allows you to offload some of what you would be doing in your head into the environment, lightening your load a bit and making mistakes less probable.  By sorting my papers into ‘graded’ and ‘not graded’, I can tell at a glance where I’m at in my day; by grouping papers from each class and each level together over time,  I can tell at a glance where I’m at in the semester (and I can find anything I need to).

You know how I guarantee the trash gets taken out?  I put that shit right by the door.  I don’t have to remember because, in some sense, the memory is stored in my environment. As long as my eyes are working the job will get done, no matter how absent-minded I may be on a given day.  The same applies for files, books, tools, or anything else I’m going to need often.  And this applies in reverse: don’t leave a browser with Reddit open because it’ll catch your eye and distract you.

5) To-do lists are powerful, and you should make use of them.  I didn’t appreciate this when I was in high school and the first half of college, but in a world where dozens of things compete for my attention, having a single place where I keep track of the most essential activities is a huge boost to productivity.  The effect is even greater when it becomes an ingrained habit.  At least in my case, I find it easier to focus on tasks, because when I have an idea or think of something I have to do, I just jot it down and return to work.  I no longer fret about whether or not I will remember to do it later.  Further, seeing the list and seeing one item after another being crossed off of it creates a productivity inertia which virtually ensures that I’ll get more work done.  And I can quickly re-prioritize tasks, say, choosing to knock out a couple of emails before I take a break for dinner because I know it’ll only take ten minutes.

There is a small downside: these days I find it difficult to remember to do something if I haven’t put it on a to-do list.  But given how cheap paper is and how everyone’s smartphones has a to-do list feature, this is a pretty small price to pay for having a clear plan of attack when approaching my daily workload.

From Here to Organized

It’s no doubt obvious how points 2) – 5) are really just elaborations on point 1).  Your need for organization is going to vary directly as a function of how much your job’s complexity swamps your ability to deal with it.

Once I realized this, and had gotten sufficiently frustrated with myself for making silly mistakes, actually getting organized wasn’t that hard.  The only two steps were figuring out what tools I needed to impose some order and being consistent enough to stick with it.  For my job I needed a general-purpose notebook where I keep my to-do lists and notes, and a bunch of files.  Over time I’ve made small adjustments here and there, and I’ve also gotten a good bit more organized at home (though I’ve been applying this information more haphazardly).

While I’m sure there’s volumes more that could be said about organization, this framework has helped me see the purpose of getting organized and how to do it.  As time goes on I’m only finding more reasons and more ways to not let the details get the better of me.

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