How many times have you set a goal for yourself only to completely let it slip away after a month or two?
I do this all the time, especially with things that are supposed to keep my life more organized. I’ll set a goal to clear my inbox every week or to keep my desk clean, and it starts off well enough. I commit to the idea, I make time for it; maybe I even sit down one day and do a huge purge, cleaning things up and setting myself up for success.
But slowly…over time…that steady progress just kind of goes away.
If this happens to you, then you know how frustrating this is. If you’re tired of setting goals that you just forget about or can’t make time for, then you need these six strategies for actually staying organized in the long-term.
Focus on creating good habits, not taking huge leaps
Sometimes tackling a huge goal feels good. Spending all weekend cleaning out and organizing your closet, for example, can feel amazing when you see it all get done so quickly.
However, this kind of high-intensity focus doesn’t last, and if you are relying on it in order to achieve your goal, you will quickly fall of track.
Instead of trying to make huge leaps in progress every time you work on your goal, focus on creating habits that you can stick to every single day. Look for really small steps that you can do no matter how busy your day is, and try to do them at a consistent time.
For example, if you’re cleaning up your desk, you might need to shred old documents that have been piling up, wipe down surfaces, and consolidate random pieces of paper into your notebook. Instead of trying to tackle these tasks completely in one day, try setting aside 5 minutes every day before you go to lunch to work on one of them.
Once spending 5 minutes a day on the task of keeping your desk organized, it will be easier to keep it up, even after you have triaged the worst parts of the mess. You’ll be able to catch problems before they start, because you will be consistently working on your goal (and it won’t even feel like work!).
Make it part of your weekly schedule
The best way to make a goal happen is to take it seriously, and that means making space for it.
When you’re plotting out your week in your planner, don’t forget to add your organizational goals to your to-do list. Even if you just plan to spend 15 minutes every Friday afternoon cleaning up your desk, you should make space for it on your schedule so that it actually happens.
Otherwise, it will be too easy to ignore. You might think you’ll get around to it when you have a free minute, or maybe that you are serious enough about getting organized that you’ll definitely make sure it happens — but there will always be something more important or urgent to work on.
If it is important to you, you have to make time for it and keep that appointment. When you start letting it go or just winging it, you might as well be deciding to stop working on it.
Think about what motivates you
Why do you want to have a clean desk? What made you want to create a better filing system, or organize your bookshelves, or create a book of resources for your team to use?
The answer might be more personal than you think. I remember the last time I committed to keeping a clean desk, it was because I had a client pop into my office unexpectedly when my desk was a disaster. I felt so embarrassed – I felt like I looked so unprofessional and I worried that she would think the state of my desk reflected the quality of my work.
If you can tap into the true feelings that motivate you — wanting to look smart and professional, wanting to always have the right answer at your fingertips, wanting to be someone people admire — then you will do far better at achieving your goals.
That’s because tapping into true feelings is the best way to get anyone to do anything! If you tell yourself you want to be more organized so that you can be more productive, but that’s really not true, then trying to motivate yourself to clean up just won’t be as effective as if you were being honest with yourself.
If you can remind yourself, “Hey, your desk looks messy and remember, you always want to look clean and professional,” it will be a lot faster and easier to get yourself to start working on it.
Don’t confuse one-time tasks with ongoing maintenance
One thing that’s really easy to do is to get your life completely cleaned up and organized, and then immediately start letting stuff pile up again.
It happens all the time, because it feels so good to get everything organized! You get it all done and think, “Wow, now that everything is so organized, it will be so much easier to keep up with it all.”
But unfortunately, that’s just putting a bandaid on the problem. If you don’t change your habits — the things you do every day to keep your life running smoothly — then the mess will just pile up again like it did before.
Clearing all the old papers and garbage off your desk is a one-time task. The ongoing maintenance is making sure those things don’t pile up again in the future.
Whether that means creating a new filing system so that piles don’t form, or just devoting 5 minutes a day to processing any papers on your desk so that they can be removed, you need to create a system that will stop the chaos from taking over again.
Change starts from within you, and how you approach your life. Focus on creating systems that will make it really easy for you to stay on top of things, as opposed to simply solving the problem right in front of you.
Reward yourself regularly
It might feel silly to reward yourself for something as simple as keeping your desk clean, but if it is something that you have worked hard to accomplish, then you should reward yourself!
Rewarding yourself is a great way to cement your new goal as a positive behavior, so that you’ll stick with it in the long term. And the reward doesn’t have to be huge. It can be as simple as taking 60 seconds to look at your gorgeous, clean desk and think about how awesome it looks thanks to your hard work. You could also give yourself a small reward like an afternoon walk or a special coffee every week that you keep up with your goal.
Don’t undervalue the work that you put in to keep your life running in a way that makes you productive and happy. We all need rewards sometimes.
Look for trouble spots and keep correcting
A lot of people drop off of goals because they try hard for a while but ultimately keep struggling. Don’t let this happen to you!
Goals are not an all-or-nothing situation. You don’t have to get it 100% right the first time. If you create a schedule for cleaning up your desk, but find that you keep falling behind, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. It just means you need to create a better schedule.
After a few attempts at your new goal, sit down and look at how it’s going. Does it feel easy to do? Or is it always a struggle? What are the hardest parts? What are the easiest parts?
You’ll probably find that there are one or two areas where it’s much more challenging for you to keep up with your goal. That’s okay! Those are just the places where you need to spend a little more time trying to find a strategy that will be really effective for you.
Those could also be areas where you could benefit from outside help. Do you have a super organized coworker? Try asking them, “You are always so organized. I’m having trouble keeping all my folders for our different projects clean and up to date. How do you do it or what strategies do you recommend?”
In my office, I have a huge desk that was used partially for storage before I started working there. That means people still sometimes try to store things like extra envelopes or pens on my desk — which you can imagine makes it really hard to stay organized! It used to really stress me out and I wasn’t sure how to approach my coworkers without seeming like I was just complaining about their behavior.
To solve this, I simply create a clear demarcation on my desk for where “my space” ended and where I was comfortable with “group storage” space beginning. My desk is big enough to make it work; I just needed to literally draw a line where I was comfortable.
How do you stay organized?
It’s so easy to set goals; it can be much harder to keep them up. When it comes to keeping your life organized and clean, it can be really difficult to make time and energy for these projects. However, they are so important, because they make it possible for you to get things done and succeed at work!