Disorganized colleagues, stop feeling bad and own your chaotic brilliance!

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[Image description: Two wombats eating from a metal bowl. There’s a large wombat, and a cute little baby wombat. The’re both dark brown. The bowl has vegetables–looks like corn and carrots and half a green apple. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. As usual I procrastinated in writing this blog post—look, House of Cards season five is not going to binge-watch itself while eating an entire container of vegan chocolate ice cream. I don’t know how this blog post will turn out or whether it will include pictures of wombats for some reason. (Update: It definitely includes a picture of wombats).

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 all

[Image description: A black-and-white graphic of a pterodactyl in flight. It has a long head with a beak, and large bat-like wings. Need to find a better image, because pterodactyls look much cooler than this. Image obtained on Pixabay.com.]

managing 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.”

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Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier 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.

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  • As a ‘Type A.2-ish’ with a bit of chaotically creative, great article. Plus, as an Aussie who works for an conservation NFP and we look after Common and Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats on our reserves, thanks for the photos!

  • Patricia Osage

    Seriously that post made me feel so so much better about myself! That’s me! I ALWAYS have leftover brochures keeping the occasional bar wrapper company along with the half empty bag of baby carrots I’d hoped my kids would eat before they turned into little dehydrated things. I ALWAYS have pages of notes from various meetings and calls on multiple legal pads in my desk – and omg expense receipts. But I am a killer grant writer and stakeholder steward and program developer. In fact I had to stop going to conferences because it gave me too many ideas about ways to scale up/increase donor base/lead/create/etc.
    Wow. I now have a classification and it is a positive one! #ChaoticallyCreative yay! Thanks, Vu – hey is that a skittle?!

  • Lindy Brett

    Keep the skittles away from me. (I now officially love Vu. (Vous? Tu?)(Must go back to the French app))

  • Susan Sowers Sergent Buchholtz

    Love this blog! You must have been in my car, in my office and definitely get my creativity! Thanks!

  • Lisa Barton

    Monday, June 5, 6:13am (EDT)
     Finish invitation list
     Edit video
     Write thank you notes
    X Post NAF Comment
     Make coffee

  • Historian312

    “Disorganized” is a funny word for many of us who are actually extremely organized, but whose style is, shall we say, improvisational (or even nest-like). I know where most of my stuff is — it’s distributed in particular piles or containers in particular rooms, vs. just anywhere. The piles may look messy to others, but that doesn’t mean chaos reigns. Of course, extremely cluttered spaces can be a health hazard, and may present a fall hazard, so that’s a concern. But I don’t know that I go with “disorganized,” or even “chaotic.”
    (BTW, as a historian I’d like to suggest that you back off simplistic generalizations like “Since the beginning of time…” and “…society has had a bias toward…”. Whose society are you talking about? In what part of the world? In what time period? By “beginning of time” do you mean since the start of the universe [however one places that in time], or the from the beginning of humans’ timekeeping — and again, which humans, in which cultures that kept time since before writing developed? It’s a tad broad, as you write it. Almost kept me from reading on. I suggest that you lead with something more specific and relatively recent — even current, since the fad for decluttering and organizing reached a fever pitch just a few years ago.)

    • LouAnn Lucke

      I actually felt differently – I like how Vu puts things since it is outside of my own generational “box” and it helps me see how things are being processed by people doing similar work to my own who are not in my age range. Yes, maybe some broad generalizations, but overall not missing the mark in my estimation – meaning all worth thinking about. Or maybe matching an undefined bias. I like the broad strokes because they help see patterns as not just in the moment. I also understand your point ‘historian”, and I think we all benefit from the dialogue. I don’t think though that leading with something “current” would necessarily add – i think that Vu pulls from a lot of spots and that is what makes his writing unusual.

    • Cheryl Slavin

      I think Vu was using hyperbole, which is a literary device.

  • LouAnn Lucke

    I read a lovely book quite a while back and whose title I now don’t remember – it was about creativity, since I have spent a lot of my life thinking about how creative people work. This book offered the idea, after researching how numerous creative people come up with major new ideas, that they come when they are no longer “researching”, which they do a lot – but when they are sleeping via dreams, or a sudden bolt of an idea out of nowhere. I also remember when reading about Virginia Wolfe’s writing that she would wake up or walk around and put things on notes anywhere in her house. To me two examples that inspiration often comes in unexpected moments and in unexpected ways. Some would call this disorganization. Personally, I think we may be feeding the mind bank of ideas with piles of things, pulling from a wide range of sources, not trying to “organize” it all, not even sure what it means – and it does include some physical chaos perhaps. I think if those of us working in nonprofits saw our work more as creativity maybe a lot of things would follow – rather than thinking it is a business model – boxed, labeled, in a particular time frame, etc.

  • bexlizard

    This self-professed “type B+” ENFP thanks you for this post! I’ve often questioned my owned leadership abilities because I’m not as rigid and linear as some of my colleagues.

  • Theresa Southern

    If it is possible to meet at the corner of #ChaoticallyCreative and Type-A, I’m there.

  • Hey, do you, work your own way, follow your bliss, etc., whatever, amen. But when you become the sort of colleague who grandstands for 25 minutes in a team presentation because you can’t self-moderate time, or who can’t respond to emails as part of a daily routine, or who thinks showing up late for meetings or calls on a regular basis is an Adorable Personality Quirk… that’s where we’ve gotta part ways.

  • After decades of trying to organize myself I recommend the following. If your room/desk/office is just too messy for others, simply tell them, “I’m going to clean this all up. As soon as I find my blowtorch.” Then move on.

  • Mary Taylor

    I love you! And it wasn’t a tangerine, it was an orange.

  • abstract668

    Thanks for the wombat photo. Maybe that was what was on my roof at 1 am that made my dog go nuts. It looked like a raccoon to me but I didn’t have my glasses on.

  • Laura Plaut

    I will join the Vu love-fest on this one (and I only have 7 tabs open right now… no wonder I’m feeling so sluggish this morning!)

  • Katie Thorson

    THANK YOU for writing this. I consider myself pretty productive and efficient, and I’m totally disorganized. Take what works, embrace the rest 🙂

  • Jennifer Simmons

    I have to say that I was an organized perfectionist until I became an Executive Director! It has taken years, but I’ve given up on the guilt of not having a perfect desk, or being able to find my todo list – most days my desk looks like I’ve be abducted by aliens and that is OK.

  • Keren Taylor

    Thank you for this post! I really enjoyed reading it, while avoiding my email InBox and the pinging of new emails coming in!

  • Mijo

    Vu, your timing is PERFECT. I was literally sitting here staring at my desk (which does look like the opening scene of Wall-E, how did you know!?) and shaming myself for how long it took me to read a single article earlier this morning, when this post popped up in my feed. I felt so liberated. And then I read the FB comments pointing out how our more organized colleagues don’t find this cute at all, as they are often having to pick up our slack and clean up our mess. Too true. I try to be aware of this but I struggle with it, as my staff would be quick to tell you. And some FB comments also pointed out the gender dynamics – of how men get the freedom to be messy and creative but women have to hold shit together. I know that’s right! Even someone as disorganized as me, as a woman, I have had to do this for men more times than I can count. So… suggestion for a follow up post at some time? How to love your disorganized creative self without being an asshole to your colleagues or perpetuating gender/race/class inequity.

  • Stacy Ashton

    I consider losing receipts a form of generously donating to my organization.

  • Lorraine Thomas

    I have never felt so empowered by my unmopped floors, the half inch of dust on my Jane Austen action figure, or the stack o’ shit in my inbox (which I’d measure if I could find the ruler.)

  • Jim Ketcham

    Your descriptions of the chaos that can reign on desktops was spot on for my own. I was diagnosed with ADD 8 years ago and it explains SO much about my life-long struggles with procrastination and “messiness.” However, I do have an ability to plow through chaos without mussing my hair (although I now keep it cut very short because I kept getting a “comb-over.”) I have learned to think of myself not as “DISordered” (who gets to decide that??) but as Differently Ordered. Many people say “Creative types think outside the box” but I and many other ADD-ers say “Wait — there’s a box??”
    Having said all that, I acknowledge (as is pointed out in some of the earlier comments), that I have at times driven my family and friends and colleagues bonkers because I did not plan ahead and crammed all my work into the day/week before. Once I finally get focused, I am not at all available emotionally and am often ornery toward anyone who dares to interrupt my hyper-focus.
    I can highly recommend “ADDitude” as a print/email magazine that often covers all sorts or related issues, including Adult ADD.

  • Debra Burrell

    Can we add the disdain that the early-rising larks show for us later-rising nightingales? I can’t help it if you are awake at dawn, fresh-faced and ready to take on the day. But then, when it’s 11 p.m. and I’m getting my second wind and you are weeping because you aren’t in bed yet, I don’t feel so bad because I hit the snooze button 10 times.

    • S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

      My mantra is “If I haven’t had my 15th cup of coffee by 9am … people will die”

  • S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    VU, seriously OT: “while eating an entire container of vegan chocolate ice cream”

    Have you tried the Nadamoo! Salted Caramel ice cream? OMG. So delish. I even emailed the company telling them they made a mistake on the nutrition label. It claimed there were four servings per pint. WRONG! I got only one serving 🙂

  • Too Many Seasons

    Considering I read this as a procrastination from completing a presentation that is due TOMORROW, I feel like I fall into the disorganized camp. But I don’t hit all the bullets–so maybe there is space for those of us who straddle the line? I mean, I do use One Note for almost all my meetings now….what would you call a medium COOL?

  • Tara Mazurk

    Hear hear! I’ve had a similar experience (especially with multiple tabs, countless sticky-notes, a running list/journal of ideas and concepts that I never get around to – I really should). Found this site, Puttylike, which helps ‘multi-potentialities’ (people with different interests/pursuits) combat external pressures of a linear career path. Similar experiences, yet different topic to what you’re talking about here. Just thought to share. Thanks Vu! http://puttylike.com/

  • Doris Hamilton

    Thank you, merci and muchas gracias for this affirmation of our creative nature.
    Fittingly, I just read your post today, July 6th; it WAS worth the wait!