Guess What? You're Wasting Your Time If You organise

messy office clutter disorganized

Photo: via Jeffrey Beall on Flickr

How much time do you spend each day getting better organised? Cut it in half.When it comes to investing time, thought and effort into productively organising oneself, less is more. In fact, not only is less more, research suggests it may be faster, better and cheaper.

IBM researchers observed that email users who “searched” rather than set up files and folders for their correspondence typically found what they were looking for faster and with fewer errors. Time and overhead associated with creating and managing email folders were, effectively, a waste.

By combining threading with search, technology makes an economic virtue of virtual disorganization. The personal productivity issue knowledge workers and effective executives need to ponder is whether habits of efficiency that once improved performance have decayed into mindless ruts that delay or undermine desired outcomes. Are folders and filing systems worth fifteen to 20-five minutes a day of contemplative classification and sort for serious managers?

Obsessive Type As might insist hands-on organizational design is essential to getting a firm grasp on essential correspondence. More measured assessment argues that this is exactly the sort of administrivia where the energy literally isn’t worth the effort. To frame the productivity issue more starkly: what would really prove more personally productive — folders that sort 15% faster? Or key phrase search capabilities that were 20% better?

Not a single colleague or client I know would pick the former. Their personal productivity paradigms have shifted. The notion of “getting organised” has the aroma of anachronism. Ongoing improvement in email/document/desktop and cloud-centric search frees them from legacy information management behaviours like filing.

Similarly, they want meeting invitations and schedules with embedded links that instantly trigger — and sync — commitments on their calendars. They don’t want to spend more time overseeing scheduling logistics; they expect their technologies to smoothly structure time slots and highlight — and even anticipate — conflicts in advance. They’re “organising” for flexibility, adaptiveness and immediate response. More accurately, their technologies exist to give them greater speed and flexibility. Their personal organizational ethos reflects a Toyota Production System “just-in-time” attitude. The technical configuration facilitates a pull — not push — time management. organisation has given way to improvisation.

Siri offers a lovely honey-voiced example. Watching — or rather, listening to — how people use Apple’s voice-recognition interface/assistant is remarkably revealing. A cynic would say she’s a procrastinator’s delight; the questions she answers and the requests she accommodates are overwhelmingly of the “last minute/on-the-go” variety. In the knowledge worker community I observe, Siri responds to and tracks personal organisation on the fly. She’s treated like a person whose job is to spare her boss from the mechanics and frictions of organising. People don’t use her to automate their personal organizational tasks like filing; they use her to do the task. (What’s particularly fascinating is the look of horror/anger/irritation/panic if, in fact, Siri can’t understand, find or make the requested change.)

Instead of better tools for better organising, people want their organisation done for them. organising is wasteful; getting its benefits is productivity. Consequently, people I work with want their email to recommend who should be added to the list of colleagues getting a document for review and comment; or have their calendar suggest additional invitees for a planned project review; or give them a reminder that they have a relevant Excel spreadsheet macro when they’re revising a financial plan. They want what I’ve described earlier as “promptware” — a cue and intervention that creates measurable value in the moment, rather than promised efficiencies in the future.

The essential takeaway is that the new economics of personal productivity mean that the better organised we try to become, the more wasteful and inefficient we become. We’ll likely get more done better if we give less time and thought to organisation and greater reflection and care to desired outcomes. Our job today and tomorrow isn’t to organise ourselves better; it’s to get the right technologies that respond to our personal productivity needs. It’s not that we’re becoming too dependent on our technologies to organise us; it’s that we haven’t become dependent enough.

This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.

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