5 Ways To Stay Organized, According To Science

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Our lazy summer beach days and even lazier couch days are about to be traded in for the autumnal reality of deadlines and homework. Whether you're heading back to class or just getting back into the groove of work, we've got some tips to help keep you organized and productive well into the chillier months.

1. Don't de-clutter immediately.
We know, it goes against everything you've ever been told, but the truth is that some of us actually do thrive with a messy desk. It may look like utter chaos to your coworkers, but as long as it works for you, that's all that matters. In fact, a recent study suggests people with messier desks might also be more productive than the rest of us.

So what's "organized" for one person doesn't necessarily translate to everyone else. That means the first step is figuring out — and admitting to yourself — whether you really do know what's in that foot-high stack of papers, or if that stuff is holding you back. If you go at it just because it doesn't look nice, you may be just fighting your nature and setting yourself up for disappointment when all that clutter inevitably comes back.

2. Separate your to-do list.
But, even true messy-desk people have to know what they're doing. To help remember your to-dos, try separating your list from the rest of your life. The idea is this: If you're tethered to your laptop most of the day, that computer just becomes one nebulous thing that represents "work." If your list of tasks is on it, too, it'll get lost in the shuffle.

So, to make that to-do list stand out, try keeping your tasks in a physical notebook (remember those?) or in an app that's only on your phone. Or, if you have the patience for it, Daniel Levitin, PhD, author of The Organized Mind, recommends keeping each task on its own index card, so you can move it around in the stack as your priorities change. The point is to have a physical "to-dos" space that's totally separate from where you do the rest of your work.

3. Go public.
Nothing keeps us on track quite like the threat of looking bad or letting others down. So, if you're worried about falling behind, tell a coworker out loud that you plan to have that research ready by 4:30 p.m. tomorrow. Or go out of your way to volunteer to make the PowerPoint for your group project. Even if the rest of your team doesn't actually care that much, feeling like we're accountable to someone else is a long-proven strategy for sticking with our goals.

4. Just get moving.
Sometimes, the hardest part of not falling behind is just getting started in the first place. If you're having trouble taking that first step, try making it seem less intimidating by working in small chunks. The Palmodoro technique — which you can easily tailor to your specific needs with the Tomato Timer — consists of alternating work and break chunks. It might be easier to get working if you know you'll get to take a few minutes off to check Twitter soon after.

5. Forgive yourself.
Oh, crap. Just when you thought you were on top — nay, ahead — of things, your coworker gets sick and you have to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, as much as we may delude ourselves into thinking otherwise, we can't control our environments. So, you can do everything right and still fall behind.

The key to not staying behind, though, is a little more emotional. A 2010 study suggests that if we procrastinate and then beat ourselves up about it, that guilt can just spiral us into more and more procrastination. Instead, finding a way to forgive yourself can help you pull out of that pattern.

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