Since the beginning of time society has had a bias toward the Type-A individuals, they with their to-do lists, and their “bullet journals,” and their “inbox zero,” and their “daily flossing.” We tend to look down upon the disorganized, equating cleanliness with godliness and other sayings related to being neat and orderly. These messages have been pushed so hard that those who are disorganized in their work and personal lives are left feeling like crap.
You may be considered disorganized if:
- You have like 12 or 25 open tabs on our browsers at any one time
- Your desk looks like a “coffee-stained dumpster fire of chaos and broken promises”
- Your car is filled with handouts, brochures, food bar wrappers, and at least one fossilized tangerine or something
- Your email inbox has 7,438 unread messages or some ridiculous number like that
- Your meeting notes are scattered across differing pieces of paper, notebooks, and written on your hands or sometimes on the backs of paper plates or napkins, and sometimes you take pictures of these notes, but then you forget about the pictures
- Your to-do list is not all in one place, and you sometimes forget to check stuff off…because you forget to do stuff
- You sometimes can’t find stuff, such as expense receipts
- You get easily distracted in the middle of tasks or trains of—oh look, a Skittle!
I am definitely one of these people, since all of the above are true for me. So I know this way of being has been leading many of us to feeling guilt and shame and despair. I’ve attended workshops and read books on de-cluttering and project management and how to not be a terrible, horrible human being. Among my 25 open tabs are things like a guide to the Pomodoro technique, because sometimes I desperately wish I could manage my time and attention better. Once a while I look enviously at the people who have their meeting notes all in one place–like a notebook, one not covered in mysterious doodles and splotches of melted dark chocolate.
It does not help that organized colleagues, mostly well-meaning, have adopted a sense of superiority. “You should try this,” they say, or “Would you like a piece of paper, instead of writing on your hand with that Sharpie?”
Well, if you identify as a disorganized person, I am here to tell you that you are not a terrible, horrible human being! You are an amazing person who just happens be differently-oriented when it comes to time and task management! And there are plenty of benefits that come with that:
Messiness leads to risk-taking: This New York Times article describes experiments where they place people into neat or messy rooms, and then ask them to do different things: Choose fruit smoothie flavors to try, and come up with creative uses for ping-pong balls. People placed in messy rooms unsurprisingly came up with more creative uses for ping-pong balls—28% more creative. The fruit smoothie test is a little more complicated, but overall, people in messy rooms also tended to gravitate away from conventions and toward trying new stuff.
Procrastination leads to better results: This article points out the numerous benefits of mild to medium levels of procrastination. For instance, procrastinating on apologizing to someone may give you a chance to really think about things and maybe give a better, more effective apology. Plus, within reason, the stress produced by deadlines and other factors can enhance focus on and performance of other tasks. (However, with moderation; as this article shows, procrastination can be destructive).
Distraction is correlated with creativity: Meanwhile, this article summarizes several studies showing that people who are more creative tend to be more easily distracted. “[W]hen faced with a problem, while a typical thinker may focus in on one obvious solution, a more distracted thinker will often take in all the information, relevant or irrelevant, and come up with more creative, engaging [,] and complex ideas and solutions.” (I added an Oxford Comma. #OxfordCommaForever!)
There you have it. These are just a few of the numerous articles indicating that the way we think about disorganization needs to be reexamined. There has been talk about diversity, not just in terms of identities, but also in terms of perspectives and leadership styles (such as an overdue appreciation of introverts as leaders). Yet, this never includes diversity in what I will call “Chaos Orientation, Onset, and Likelihood (COOL).” A low COOL score—two or fewer of the bulleted items above—means you are not prone to chaos and disorganization, whereas a high score means you are. See? Because of my high COOL score, I was able to come up with that acronym immediately. OK, it took me an hour, because I got distracted by YouTube videos of awesome 80’s rock songs, and articles about wombats, who apparently are able to poop perfectly square droppings! Those of us who are high-COOL may seem loopy and messy and even weird, but we make up plenty in other important ways.
Of course, all of this is within reason. If your distraction, messiness, and procrastination are actually preventing you from getting work done, or you keep missing important meetings or deadlines, or your quality of work is meh, or you’re forcing others to pick up your slack, and everyone around you hates you with good reason, then that’s a problem you need to work on.
Overall, though, we need to rethink this bias towards “being organized.” Because we may be stifling our creative colleagues, forcing them to conform to various strategies that may not work for them and may not be lifting up their creative strengths that are needed to do this work well. It may also affect the way we view entire communities. The challenges we face in this sector are complex and messy, because society is complex and messy, yet due to our biases toward tidiness and linear pathways, we tend to fall into conventional solutions for very complicated problems. We may look down on diverse people and communities simply because they may not adhere to what we consider to be “organized,” when their orientation towards multifaceted complexity and chaos may actually yield the best answers. But that’s for another post and another time.
So, organized people, you are awesome. We cannot get anything done without you allmanaging deadlines and keeping everyone on the team on task. But stop judging us! You need us! Try to understand that to-do lists, schedules, bullet journals, or whatever that works for you may not work for everyone, and that’s OK. Try to acknowledge the fact that to do this work well, we need not just the organized people, but also those who are creative, who think like pterodactyls, and they (we) tend to be more “disorganized,” easily distracted, and our desks look like the beginning scene from Pixar movie “Wall-E.” We often feel a lot of guilt about it already, and sometimes embarrassment—like the one time I wrote on my hand, then leaned my face on it during a meeting, and ended up transferring the ink to my face, and I had to go to the mirror to look at it so I could read what it said to remember which funder I needed to email—so try to be sympathetic!
In fact, considering the boosts to creativity that messiness and disorganization bring, maybe those of you who are hyper-organized may want to challenge yourselves this week to be a little messy and disorganized yourselves. That extraneous piece of paper on your desk? Don’t recycle it. Just leave it there this entire week. Don’t you feel more creative already?! Now go solve that societal issue you’re working on.
Meanwhile, my fellow disorganized people, let’s not call ourselves disorganized any more. I like the term “Chaotically Creative.” #ChaoticallyCreative. It’s an adjective, as in, “He’s chaotically creative.” (If you use it as a noun, like “He’s a chaotic creative,” I will hunt you down). Stop feeling shame and guilt that you don’t always function like your more organized colleagues. To do this work well, we need a diversity of skills and creativity level. Here, I wrote us this mantra. May it guide you on the darkest of days…usually at the end of the month when you can’t find your lost receipts and the financial person sends you snarky reminders.
The Chaotically Creative Unicorn’s Mantra:
“I am a chaotically creative person. My strengths include creativity, spontaneity, and the ability to think outside the box, like a pterodactyl. Pterodactyls are awesome. Where am I? Is that a Skittle? I love Skittles! I wonder if pterodactyls would like Skittles, if they weren’t extinct. Ooh, I’m so hungry now. I wouldn’t eat a pterodactyl, though; they’d probably be very chewy. Anyway, because I am creative, I get distracted a lot, and that’s OK. My desk is often messy, and that’s OK too, although sometimes I lose receipts. Speaking of receipts, I should go on a walk. No, I need to stay here and finish reading this mantra. I will try my best to not lose my receipts, but things happen. Just because I lose stuff or forget to do things once a while does not make me a bad person. I’ll explore tools and techniques that will help me be a little more organized and I’ll work to make sure my colleagues are not forced to do extra work because of me, but I understand that not everything, or even anything, will work for me, and that’s OK. I will not feel guilt or shame for being chaotically creative, because the work I do is complex and requires a lot of boundary-breaking ideas. For instance—a movie about a pterodactyl and a wombat! And they are buddies! Even though they are different! I am a chaotically creative person and I’m awesome AF.”
Support the maintenance of this website by buying NWB (Now NAF) t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.
Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NAF by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NAF Facebook community for daily hilarity.
Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.
Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.