When I was studying for a PhD at Princeton, my advisor would edit my papers before we submitted them to conferences. At first, my drafts were often returned covered with so much red ink that I could barely make out what was written underneath. I'd slog through all the comments, make changes, and submit a revised draft - only to face another red tidal wave.
I felt completely overwhelmed. I wasn't making any progress, and my advisor wasn't giving me the feedback I needed to improve. Finally, after one of our multiple back-and-forth sessions, he scrawled across my paper, in enormous, all-capital scarlet letters: "WHAT IS YOUR QUESTION?"
His not-so-simple question about my question filled me with questions of my own. I wasn't entirely sure of anything at this point. When I asked him to explain, my advisor said I hadn't been clear about what I was trying to achieve as I wrote the paper. I should identify the goal of the paper right off the bat, he said, and write only with that goal in mind.
Goals are the flip side of constraints. Constraints are about obstacles, and goals are about possibilities. Having a clear understanding of both is key to moving forward in a way that's more likely to bring you success with the least amount of stress and effort. To be organized, everything you do should flow from your goals while taking your real constraints into consideration.
Knowing what to do, what not to do
When you don't know your goals, how do you know what's important? And if you don't know what's important, how do you know what information you need? Let's take that one step further: If you don't know what information you need, you can't know what information to encode - such as lessons learned from tasks you've completed. Thus, you're making it harder on yourself to be efficient and organized. When you don't encode the information you need, you can't recall it later. That means you often end up doing things you need to do poorly, or doing things you don't need to do at all.
As you can see, determining your goals before you begin a task or project is critical to success. Being specific about those goals is even more important. The more specific your goals are, the easier they are to achieve, and the easier your results are to measure.
That said, the way you achieve your goals doesn't necessarily need to be carved into stone. In fact, my eleventh principle of organization is: Be flexible about how you achieve your goals. Why? Because when we can't obtain our goals, we get frustrated and stressed. We may even give up. So I recommend being as specific as possible about your goals from the beginning, while also being open to seeing new ways to achieve them if your first approach fails. Let me put it this way: Be clear that you want to get from point A to point B. But also recognize there are a number of different routes you can take to get there.
By now, if you've been following (or at least humoring) me, you may have a little more self- awareness. You might have a clearer picture of the forces within you and in your environment that conspire to hold you back. You're beginning to understand how to define your specific goals.
Now you're ready to draw up plans that take into account your true constraints (and how you'll deal with them) as well as your specific goals. You're ready to tackle that big projector to-do list that's been keeping you up at night. Cool. But please allow me, patient reader, to delay you for just another moment. Before diving in, set aside some time to clear your mind. Don't think about the problem or project you're facing. In fact, try not to think about anything at all. Turn your mind into a blank sheet of paper, so you can get a fresh start.
Is your mind blank now? Perfect. Next, figure out whether you should, in fact, do the task you're considering at all. Does this particular mountain truly need climbing? Have others climbed it adequately before you? Did they take lots of pictures? If so, why do you need to whip out the pitons and follow in their path? Would your time be better spent chilling in your Barcalounger?
Now it's time to develop a plan of action. The plan should be designed to achieve your goals in a way that takes into account the actual constraints relevant to the project. It should include the specific actions that need to be taken, which are then matched to a timetable and to the available resources (in terms of people, time, money, and materials).
Of course, developing a plan requires making decisions. What are your priorities? What needs to be done, when, and by whom? How will you get the resources you've identified? To get the project done by the deadline, what will have to fall off the to-do list?
The bigger the plan, the bigger and more numerous your decisions are likely to be. In addition to being fairly poor at evaluating our own limitations, we're quite bad at making decisions.
Fortunately, we can learn to overcome, or at least compensate for, our poor decision-making skills. One way is simply to acknowledge them and try to recognize when they - and not you - are in control. Another way is to involve others. As I've mentioned before, I like to bounce my decisions off someone whose opinion I trust. That person usually helps me detect some faulty logic behind a decision. Or he or she will reinforce that I've made a good one.
Excerpted from Getting Organized in the Google Era by Douglas C. Merrill and James A. Martin 2010 Douglas C. Merrill. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.