How to Get Organized in 2015 Without Pulling Your Hair Out

A new year means resolutions may be weighing heavily on your mind. But instead of getting fit, eating healthier, returning to school, or taking more vacations, maybe you’ve resolved to get organized so you can take control of your life. Sounds like a phenomenal idea, but you’ll first need to clear the haze and organize your thoughts before moving forward.

Not only does getting organized bring structure to our busy lives, but it can also save you money. I once believed the “you get what you pay for” principle applied to every facet of my life. Then it hit me: It’s possible to get substantially more bang for your buck if you play your cards right. Simply put, spend less on convenience by planning ahead.

Here are 10 key principles to help you get organized and maximize your time:

1. Establish Goals

This is a common practice among organized individuals; they don’t embark on a journey or commit to a project unless it has a specific purpose.

Making a plan doesn’t necessarily guarantee smooth sailing, but it helps channel your thoughts and energy in the right direction. You should also have a backup plan in place so you won’t grow discouraged if things go off script.

To illustrate, think of two college students — one who enters school with a list of objectives in mind and and makes sure to stay on course, and the other who figures it out as they go along. During my collegiate years, those in the latter group often spent several years trying to find their way, struggled in the classroom, and racked up more debt in the process.

In fact, a recent study from Complete College America revealed only 19% of students from non-flagship universities (36% from flagship institutions) graduated in four years. That’s costly behavior when every additional year spent at a public four-year institution equates to another $22,826.

Even if returning to college isn’t on your agenda, this clearly demonstrates that a little planning and will power can go a long way. Don’t know where to start with the goal-setting process?

  • Recruit an accountability partner. It helps to have a cheerleader on your team who will motivate you to keep going, but convey the truth when you get off track.
  • Write down your goals. Goals can fall into several categories, including physical, spiritual, financial, mental, career, education, and so on. However, they should be classified as short-term, midrange, and long-term before prioritizing and devising a plan of action. It’s impossible to properly prioritize tasks when there are competing to-do lists all over the place. And multitasking isn’t very effective (more on that later).
  • Prioritize. If you try to accomplish too much out of the gate, the risk of failure is substantially higher. For the upcoming year, I’ve only selected five goals to start with. Once those are fully executed, I’ll move down the list. (Read billionaire Warren Buffett’s advice on setting priorities.)
  • Make a list of specific objectives for each goal. For example, if organizing your finances makes the cut, you can use short-term challenges as your specific objectives.
  • Set milestones and due dates. This will (let’s hope) instill a sense of urgency. On the other hand, it can also provide a sense of purpose and motivate you to move forward, since following through will enable you to achieve a desired result by a certain date.
  • Don’t procrastinate. When you wait until the last minute, you risk missing a deadline or, even worse, getting nothing done. Do it now.

2. Attitude Is Everything

Setting goals in an effort to get organized is not always easy. Frankly, it can be draining if you’re used to winging it and are now trying to live on the straight and narrow. If you’ve struggled with money in the past, think about how difficult it was to make the changes needed to begin working toward financial freedom. For me, it meant many long days and sleepless nights.

Ultimately, after changing to a positive perspective, I started to see improvement. And that’s the same mindset you must adopt to get organized. A study from Concordia University’s Department of Psychology revealed a positive correlation between optimism and the ability to regulate stress, which is good news if getting organized is going to take more work than you anticipated.

Maybe you’ve been through a series of hardships and find it difficult to think positively. If so, it’s time to begin replacing those negative thoughts with positive ones through uplifting self-talk. MindBodyGreen’s “14 Mantras to Help You Build Positive Self-Talk” is a useful resource to help you get started. Among my favorite mantras on the list are:

  • “I know with time and effort I can achieve.”
  • “I love challenges and what I learn from overcoming them.”
  • “Each step is taking me to where I want to be.”

Along with positive self-talk, I’ve found that vision boards also help lift my spirits; they serve as frequent reminders of why I work as hard as I do and the rewards I’m trying to attain.

3. Don’t Be a Perfectionist

People often confuse organization with perfectionism. In reality, being a perfectionist may require you to spin your wheels endlessly, which can mean countless hours lost on unproductive tasks.

The idea here is to hone in on your competencies and not become overwhelmed by small distractions that will divert you from your intended course.

For example, if your mission is to organize your home office so you can locate pertinent documents quickly, spending countless hours picking out the perfect décor or patterned file folders could be detrimental. What’s important is having your files placed in a logical location and a clutter-free setup, not the throw pillows on the decorative chairs.

If you’re a perfectionist, I suggest you do what my hairstylist did. She recently decided to renovate her salon, but only allowed herself to work on it in the evening hours once her clients were gone. Eventually, she accomplished her goal, but not at the expense of her business.

I’m not suggesting you become one big, sloppy mess; there must be balance. But don’t become so consumed with making everything perfect that you forget to execute your priorities.

Besides, perfectionism may also be detrimental to your health, as suggested by a study by members of the Association of Psychological Science. Some of the effects include body dissatisfaction, social phobia, and unnecessary stress, the latter particularly among new mothers.

4. Use a Calendar

To effectively map out the forthcoming days, months, and year, calendars help out a great deal. Disorganized people often overcommit because they don’t have this tool handy and end up saying yes to every appealing invitation, leaving less time to execute their goals. Calendars will also help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Here are a few more helpful tips on maximizing your time by using a calendar, from the McGraw Center of Teaching and Learning:

  • Schedule your most important tasks at the beginning of each day to increase the chances of completion before distractions start rolling in and you fall behind schedule.
  • To boost focus and productivity, devote blocks of time to specific tasks.
  • Leave empty spaces in your daily schedule for recreation, make-up work, and any other unforeseen obligations.

5. Keep a Notebook

Remember when your grade school teachers mandated that you brainstorm before writing an extended essay? We often use these same techniques as adults when we’re faced with a difficult decision that will have a huge impact on us and appear in our proverbial essay, or life story.

In essence, the notebook is your secret weapon. How many times has a brilliant idea surfaced or you’ve had an epiphany, but gotten sidetracked and later spent way too much time trying to remember the idea? Organized people are all about efficiency, so they typically have a notebook handy, whether paper or electronic.

Need more convincing? Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines and entrepreneurial mastermind, carries a notepad everywhere he goes. A number of other significant figures also carried a pocket notebook, including Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Albert Einstein.

6. Clean Your Space

Once you’ve organized your thoughts, it’s time to clean your space. There are several conflicting studies regarding the impact of clutter on productivity, but I maintain that purging and decluttering are paramount. They provide a breath of fresh air; I just can’t focus when there are piles of mess all around me.

If something hasn’t been used in months or years, let it go. And once you’ve gotten your space where you want it to be, make decluttering a part of your daily routine.

Check out “How to Declutter Your Home in a Weekend Without Spending a Dime“ for tips on how to free up space in your home.

7.  Deal With Mail and Incoming Documents Right Away

Piled-up documents can lead to unrest and frustration. Even if you don’t have a home office, you should have some form of organizational system for financial and work-related documents. I put my documents in a fireproof file cabinet and mini-safe, arranged by financial institution or vendor, to stay organized.

This method worked best for me when I grew tired of the constant piles and decided to get my documents in order. What started out as large piles of bills, statements, project notes, and other documents became several large but organized stacks that I eventually narrowed down and stowed away.

For help getting started on your own piles, read more on how to organize and file financial documents or how to start an electronic financial document system.

Wondering what all this has to do with mail? As mail comes in from service providers, vendors, or clients, you’ll have a system intact so you won’t miss important information.

No more late-payment fees, delinquent accounts that can plummet your credit score, or costly mistakes on a client project because you failed to read the fine print. More importantly, your children will thank you when they’re able to go on a field trip or shop at the book fair because you made the deadline for sending in money.

8. Stop Being a Control Freak

Simply put, share the love by delegating because teamwork makes the dream work. The more time you spend on things you loathe or that overwhelm you, the less time is available for your strengths or things that matter most.

I know this is easier said than done, but you may need to dig deep or see a therapist to grasp an understanding of why you are this way. Is it a result of anxiety associated with being unable to trust others, or a fear that the task won’t be executed properly?

Once you transition into the world of the ultra-organized, you’ll realize time is your most precious asset and it shouldn’t be spent on tasks that reveal your weaknesses and bring on unnecessary stress.

Besides, what’s the worst that could happen when you let go of your fears? Hiring someone who’s experienced and has all the proper credentials for the job minimizes the risk of major issues. If all hell breaks loose, you may spend a little money making things right, but the world won’t end.

Or you may find that you love the idea of being able to focus on your core competencies once you relinquish control. But you’ll never know until you give it a shot.

9. Relax

While we’re on the topic of stress, I should emphasize the significance of keeping it at a minimal level so you can remain on course and properly execute meaningful tasks with minimal distractions.

We often put on superhero capes and attempt to do it all, only to realize we’ve had enough and eventually throw in the towel. To add insult to injury, a Stanford University study suggests multitasking is not only counterproductive, but hinders efficiency and peak performance, as our brains are not wired to focus on several things at once. Simply put, less is more.

As I mentioned earlier, a key component to getting organized is setting goals and following through with a plan of action. But if you have 10 things going at a given moment, how can you devote your undivided attention to the task at hand? The answer is simple — you can’t, and you usually wind up resorting to old habits.

I recently had an “aha” moment where I realized I was overextended and needed to step back and regroup. Did I fall behind on my projects? Sure, but it was necessary to pause and assess the situation to determine what changes were necessary.

10. Recognize Needs and Wants

Differentiating between the two is a basic principle and definitely helps minimize clutter. Stop acquiring stuff you don’t need and don’t have space for, and it will help keep your spending under control. However, many struggle with this concept in our “entitlement” society.

We discuss money matters all the time on our site, but I’ve found the easiest way to get spending under control is by incorporating a zero-sum budget into your financial regimen. Doing so enabled me to pay off thousands in debt, build an emergency fund, and achieve financial freedom.

Bottom line: Getting organized isn’t an isolated event, but an ongoing activity that takes tons of hard work and persistence that will pay off in the long run. It’s enabled me to think clearly, even in the midst of turmoil, and work toward living the life I’ve always dreamed of. And I’m confident you can do the same.

Allison Martin is a writer, financial mentor, and business consultant to mommy-preneurs. Her work has been featured on ABC News, MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, Credit.com, and Money Talks News. When she’s not writing, Allison enjoys spending time with her family and traveling.