Against “Organizational Skills”

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Photo via Criss Cross Circus

Things go haywire pretty easily. You’ve seen it happen. One minute you’re on top of things, then suddenly you’re in the middle of a mess you can’t explain, just hoping to get out.

It happens at work. Something slips through the cracks. A deadline gets missed. There are recriminations and that odd, awkward dance of responsibility-shifting where no one quite blames anyone else openly, but everyone denies the problem lies with him.

Something similar happens at home. You miss an appointment. Nothing gets puts back in its right place. Stuff is everywhere. You want to cry from the pressure to be in multiple places at once.

The cure for all this, we’re told, is to develop better organizational skills. If only we could juggle one more ball, then the world would work as a finally tuned machine. The problem keeping the world from running smoothly, in this scenario, is you. If only you were better, your job and family would be smooth sailing. The problem is that you are simply an incompetent manager of your time and resources. If you’d just get your act together, everything would be bliss.

It’s not true. More often than not, the idea of “organizational skills” is a smokescreen that hides a deeper, more serious problem. Many people think they suffer from a lack of organizational skills when, in fact, they suffer from a glut of possessions and commitments. In other words, the chaos of our work and personal lives is not a result of lacking something (organizational skills), but the result of having a surplus of everything else.

This isn’t to say that people and organizations aren’t disorganized. They are. But that disorganization doesn’t stem from the places most people think, nor are the solutions to the problem of disorganization what people typically imagine.

Stopping the juggling act at home requires some boundaries. You will have to say no. No to more commitments. No to more stuff. Somebody wants to give you their old coffee-maker? Say no. You don’t really need to commit to another weekly meeting. Just tell them you can’t make it. Ever. Instead, stay home and fill a box with things you can get rid of.

The situation at work is trickier because saying no at work is trickier. Still, you don’t have to volunteer for anything. You can begin by telling yourself that your worth is not tied to how much you do at work. If you can’t say no to your boss, you can say no to your own impulse to take on more: more assignments, more responsibility, more worries. You can say no whenever possible to more things that would test your “organizational skills.”

What’s important to notice here is that the default understanding of why things are such a mess privatizes a cultural problem. Our culture is a culture of excess. We prize having just a little bit more. We ignore limits. We celebrate clutter.

A culture that trains people to ignore limits is a culture of stressed out, unhappy people. To keep the consumption train rolling smoothly along, we are taught the reason for our unhappiness lies in us. We are at fault. We haven’t tried hard enough to develop our “organizational skills.”

It’s no accident that this explanation has economic benefits for the system. By convincing us that we are the reason for the chaos in our home and work lives, they keep us buying. We keep right on acquiring more and more, convinced that the clutter will evaporate once we get ourselves “organized.”

At work, companies have learned that the ideology of “organizational skills” allows them to demand more from employees. Corporations can ignore every inherent human limit by asking more and more from employees. If you can’t cut it, they’ll find someone who can, someone with better “organizational skills.” Thus, corporations avoid the costs they would have to accept to hire more staff and instead transfer those costs to existing employees in the form of increased stress. Employees accept this arrangement because they believe the fault lies with them and their poor “organizational skills.”

I’m not making an argument for sloppiness or confusion. I am making an argument for boundaries. The reason we’re disorganized isn’t because we lack skills, but because we lack respect for limits. Berating ourselves about our inability to organize all our stuff and all our commitments won’t help a bit. The solution is not to learn to keep more balls in the air. The solution is to put down as many balls as possible and walk away.

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