Friday, September 14, 2007

Getting unorganized

Every new academic year brings a "new year's resolution" from many faculty: the intent to get "more organized". Even highly prolific colleagues have been quoted as wishing they were more organized, and one of the career mentoring programs I've been to had a nice session centered around the topic. Blogs and books abound to the extent that you could guarantee you got nothing done just by trying to read them all. Who wouldn't benefit from being more organized in our fast-paced world?

Me, for one. I am resolved to get unorganized this year.

Sabbatical felt very productive, but I always sensed that it was for reasons beyond having more time and fewer distractions from not teaching. Now that I am back in the throes of (two) classes and barely afloat, I'm realizing that my being organized is a problem. I have an insanely good memory for to-do lists (including the shopping list, household errand list, course prep list, and the list of lists). Every evening, I write down the tasks that have to get done the next day; every morning, I spent lots of time "getting things done" before realizing that several weren't even on the paper lists. By the list measure, I'm quite productive.

Unfortunately, the victim here is the spontaneous creativity that fosters research. When an idea pops into my head and needs a little cultivating through thought or code experiments, my organized mind immediately relegates it to a position on a carefully prioritized list. By the time I get to it, the snuffed ember that remains doesn't have enough traction to go anywhere. I'd be better off if I could ditch organization and chase the sparks without my internal task management system always reminding me of those blasted lists. In other words, I have to get unorganized.

Clearly, the trick is to find the right balance between organization and disorganization: some organization is essential to run an effective course or career. Most of the writing out there is aimed at those with too little organization though. I haven't yet found a blog aimed at those of us with too much. There are lots of little related pieces of advice: the standard 80/20 rule veteran faculty give to newbies (students rarely notice that last 20% of effort that takes you at least 80% of the time), articles on improving creativity, living a meaningful life, etc. These dance around the real issue: if you are very organized, you have to work hard at overriding that if you want to let yourself do the work that needs less structure. What are the best practices for introducing more chaos into your life? Yes, I know, that's another list ...

1 comment:

Laura said...

I use the GTD method of organization, which I think allows for this kind of creativity. With everything on a list, if you get drawn into an idea, you know that the list is still there; you won't have lost anything. I need to do more of this kind of getting drawn into something, but mainly I think that means having confidence that the other stuff will get done. I hope you'll post how it's going for you.