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Creative Organization

By Santiago Eastman Herrera

On doing research for this article, I was surprised by the results. While looking for the psychology behind planning ahead, I got plenty of hits about the “benefits of organization” and what areas of the brain a clean shelf can make go “brrr”. When I looked into what a disorganized brain is like, though, I got articles with titles like: “You’re a Slob—And How to Fix That”, “5 Ways to Stop Being Disorganized”, “7 Steps to Become More Organized in a God-Honoring Manner.” It took me some intense searching to find benefits to not having your workspace look like a minimalist study in plastic cases.

Putting that aside, now that the semester's started, I do my usual routine of looking for important dates in my syllabi to write in my calendar. I tend to be more organized in my approach to classes, but there was a lot of trial and error leading up to this. The biggest issue I faced was internal—how do I ensure I stay on track and not make it so complicated that I stop doing it? After some research, here are some things I’ve tried:

  • The Calendar feature in Outlook

While this worked for me at first, as soon as one semester ended and the next began, I found myself having to change a lot of settings I set up months ago. Changing things last minute also didn’t work very well for me. The interface felt too clunky, especially with recurring events.

  • A large, physical whiteboard calendar

This one worked well because I could easily change things and then hang up the finished product within reach, like on my fridge or by my desk. Mine shows the days of the week, with permanent stuff, like my classes, blocked out and everything else in blue or red whiteboard marker. Once a new week rolls around, I erase everything not black and start again. The only problem with this one is that it’s not portable.

  • A To-do list

You know what this is.

  • A physical agenda

A small five-dollar Walmart planner I can throw in my backpack is great for classes. This option is good because it’s something I have to physically fill out, which means I’ll be more likely to remember assignments and exam dates.

I ultimately ended up using both the agenda and the whiteboard calendar. I split up tasks depending on their type: appointments, important dates, and homework assignments go in the agenda, while reccurring events and scheduled visits (like to the doctor or dentist) go on the whiteboard.

This may sound like a lot, but hear me out: I do it once a week, for 30 minutes max, and then I don’t worry about missing anything for a whole seven days (with the added bonus of having twice as much to check off as the week goes by as an extra boost of dopamine).

If this still sounds like too much, then Concordia creates helpful full-semester planners every term that you can print out and fill in as you see fit. They’re found in the Learning Resources area of the Student Success Centre, under the Time Management tab.

Looking through the syllabi ahead of time also lets me know what my professors are like. Do they give me the space to be super creative with my assignments, or do they want a more structured approach? Giving me due dates and a broad topic with the freedom to do whatever I want within that topic works best for me (it’s structured, but I still feel free to create).

All this leads me back to the benefits of being organized. The more I investigate the ways people organize their surroundings, the more I’m convinced that there’s a spectrum for how messy or clean people feel comfortable being. Even though I’m more on the organized side of things, there needs to be room for me to change things up and do something different. Otherwise, I get bored or simply add more work for myself to do (that I end up not doing). There are obvious benefits to keeping things neat:

  • Cleaning can be therapeutic.

  • Dr. Bethany Cook, in this article on the psychological influences behind tidying up, says that an unorganized area (whatever that means to the person) takes up mental energy that could be used elsewhere. Having your space organized means you don’t have to look for things because you know exactly where they are and can dedicate precious brain power to other tasks.

  • Better organization allows for better future planning.

  • Because you know how the week will go, if done well, you’ll have time to do everything you need with some free time left over!

However, this can easily go overboard, especially if it leads to compulsive organization. Since keeping things organized can make the afflicted person feel more in control, they’ll want to plan every last second of the day or put everything into boxes, and life can’t always be treated that way (not to mention that this will affect others’ lives negatively). The human brain is very fickle. The part of your brain that predicts what happens next is hard to please. Professor Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organized Mind, says that if everything is planned to the point of being predictable, we get bored. If things are completely unpredictable, we get frustrated. (Read more of his interview here)

I feel most creative when I’ve allotted a specific amount of time for myself to just sit at a desk. Since I have my week planned out, I won’t feel bad for taking an hour or two to write just a single page because that time was already set aside, and I know I’ll have more time in the future. This doesn’t mean being disorganized is bad, however.

In many studies (like this one), having a messy desk is actually seen as a sign of increased creative and emotional expression. From what I’ve personally seen, people aren’t usually disorganized at all—they know exactly where everything is and don’t need to look for it. Everything just looks cluttered from an outside perspective. There are also benefits to having a bit of clutter:

  • Disorganized people tend to be more creative.

  • The lack of restrictions around having plans means they feel like they have more freedom to create or go in interesting new directions.

  • They tend to be focused on the big picture, not bogged down with tiny details, which helps when planning complex things. They are still usually organized, just in a way that makes sense to them.

One of the reasons I think there’s so much stigma behind disorganization is because they don’t mesh with other more established methods of organization and planning. So much space is taken up by the rigid schedule of school (and capitalism) that a disorganized person’s way of doing things doesn’t work within that space. If anything, it often clashes—what looks like a messy desk to one person may be perfectly sorted to someone else.

Just like being too organized though, there are still problems with going too far. If a person has too much disorganization around them, this could be a sign of some kind of problem in their life (like being overwhelmed, sustaining unhealthy habits, etc.).

In the end, it’s all about balance. Don’t feel bad about not having a Pinterest-ready study if that’s not what helps keep you feeling creative. A lot of my initial trial and error was just finding what worked best to keep me motivated. Seeing I have 5 important things to do feels bad, but if I break everything down into manageable chunks, it looks far easier to deal with—and I get the added satisfaction of seeing my progress in detail! Finding the right organization method will depend on your unique way of working and thinking, but experimenting is part of the fun. Once you find something that clicks, it'll feel like you can get anything done—and you can.


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