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How Much Time Should You Spend Getting Organized? None

An MIT technologist argues that for many of us our old-fashioned approach to organization (i.e. our impulse to sort and file everything) is a giant waste of time.

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When looking to clear your mind, it's often suggested you might want to start by clearing your desk. Or your inbox. After all, doesn't the sense of order and control generated by getting your to-do list, your correspondence or your calendar in order, help business owners beat anxiety, stop wasting time searching for information and generally get more done?

Not a chance, argues Michael Schrage, an author and research fellow at MIT Sloan's Center for Digital Business, on the HBR blog network. Schrage argues that like much else in our lives, technology has fundamentally changed how we interact with information. However, our organizational impulses and habits often haven’t kept pace with this shifting reality.

Schrage calls organization activities that were once valuable, like filing, "legacy information management behaviors," and points out that search functions, synced calendars, Siri and the like, have now gotten so good that these sorts of behaviors have become a total waste of time. So if you’re one of those people who can wile away a Monday morning relabeling e-mail folders or working out a new color coding system for your calendar, Shrage has a word of warning for you:

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 e-mail 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 twenty-five minutes a day of contemplative classification and sort for serious managers?

The answer appears to be no. So what should you be doing with the time you save by not fiddling around with your filing systems? Procuring the best technology, answers Schrage. "The essential takeaway is that the new economics of personal productivity mean that the better organized we try to become, the more wasteful and inefficient we become…. Our job today and tomorrow isn't to organize 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 organize us; it's that we haven't become dependent enough."

Do you agree with Schrage that tech rather than carefully crafted systems is the right answer for organization these days? And if so, what tools have offered the biggest efficiencies for you and your business?

Last updated: Jan 17, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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