It takes just 30 minutes a day to learn how to be well organised.
But you have to be consistent.
When Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, one of the most interesting suggestions he made was the theory that to achieve excellence in a field, you need to spend 10,000 hours practising your chosen topic.
The maths suggest that this means if you work on something for 40 hours a week, it will take you five years to reach peak performance.
You already know that becoming a great accountant, nurse, teacher or administrator happens over time by blending the development of skills, knowledge and experience. This is why mastery of your chosen profession is usually thought of as a lifetime’s work.
I’m not going to argue with that.
Instead, I’ve got a different suggestion to make.
It’s about something called meta-tasks.
A meta-task is a task which deals with other tasks.
Here's an example:
Suppose you want to be a great teacher. You have got to get really good at managing a classroom, at defining learning objectives, at evaluation and feedback, at coaching and a variety of other skills which add up to being a great teacher.
To make this possible, you’ve got understand how to be well-organised. You need to make time to acquire the teaching skills in the first place and to ensure that each day you have the time available to complete your teaching tasks.
Being a well-organised teacher requires that you become expert at the meta-task of being, well-organised.
What would it take to become expert at the meta-task of being well-organised?
The answer is 10,000 hours of practice.
Being well-organised is a skill that like any other requires practice if you’re going to get good at it.
It’s worth your investment in because as a meta-task it supports the achievement of all your other goals. It’s relevant to almost any activity and so increasing your competence in this area will drive improved performance everywhere else.
What can you do to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice?
My answer to this is: spend 30 minutes of each day on intentional self-organisation. I think it's the key which unlocks how to be well-organised.
Here's How To Be Well Organised
1. Decide on an organisational method to use.
There are many different methods to choose from. Here are three of the best known.
- Getting Things Done — David Allen
- Zen To Done — Leo Babauta
- Getting Results the Agile Way — J.D. Meier
Each of these three offers a way to organise yourself. Start by picking one and adopting learn how to use it.
Do note that some of the methodologies are quite prescriptive. Don't feel obliged to follow them slavishly. Just use the elements that fit your way of working and get started.
2. Spend 30-minutes a day organising yourself.
Create a 30-minute window each day to spend implementing your chosen method. It might be that you use a start-the-day routine or you use one at the end of each day.
Just dedicate 30-minutes each day to these jobs:
- Clarifying your goals
- Defining priorities
- Deciding on which actions you'll take today.
If you’ve not tried this before, it can revolutionise your productivity.
I have my routines built into OmniFocus. When I get to work I open my laptop, iPad or phone and run through the tasks that I’ve defined which set my day up. It’s quick to do and creates momentum at the beginning of each day.
3. Spend 30-minutes a week on reflection.
None of the methods above is likely to suit you down to the ground. But, if you spend just 30-minutes each week reflecting on how things have gone, you’ll be able to adjust course.
By taking this small amount of time each week you will gradually evolve a way of working that suits you. This means it is far more likely you’ll stick to it over time.
I find the best way to do this is to make a journal entry. I have a folder in DevonThink called 'Reflections'. I simply open the folder and make a new note. I aim to jot down a quick note about how things are going.
Over time, I can review every note I make and this allows me to understand what is works best for me and which elements I should drop or modify.
Here’s a sample entry from early 2015.
" I’m struggling to use contexts (a feature of Getting Things Done) and this is slowing me down."
Today I only use three contexts. I’m either at work or at home. I have another context for creativity (where I work on creative projects that can straddle work and home).
If you're not sure what "contexts" is referring to this article explains things.
Choosing the right tools can make a difference. I review a lot of the best of these in What Is The Best Time Management Software?
4. Spend 30-minutes a month on progress checking.
Each month set a time to look at the progress you’re making.
By checking-in regularly you can reinforce your practice. The wider field of view you get when looking at a month allows you to see where you’re making progress and also where things are stuck.
I use this to check that I’ve got the coverage I’m aiming for across the big areas of my life. My aim is to spend enough of my time on the areas I care about most, whether these are projects at work, my personal interests or ones I’m looking to develop.
Here’s how the math adds up.
That’s not the whole story though.
By ensuring I dedicate this amount of time to preparation each day, I end up spending far more of my day intentionally focused on good organisation. If you keep at it, sooner or later doing so will become habitual.
At a conservative estimate, I think that engraining a practice like this will take at least a couple of months.
There's some further reading on habit formation here — the consensus seems to be a habit takes in the region of 66 days to form.
- How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) — James Clear
- How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit — Brain Pickings
The benefit of turning this practice into a habit is that the cognitive burden imposed by the practice itself diminishes as it becomes habitual.
It also means that I multiply the hours I spend getting organised, by the hours I spend being organised.
This is what I noticed.
Gradually over time, you turn into a more organised person. With more and more of your time spent being organised.
After a year, it's possible that most of the time you spend could be well organised time.
One final note.
Whenever you're practicing at something, with the intention of getting good at it, remember what people will say.
First they'll asked you why.
Then they'll ask you how.