Debunking the Organization Myth

By Susan Baum, Cynthia Novak, Marcy Dann, and Lesli Preuss

January, 2010

Opening Scene

Heard at a parent discussion group on organizing twice-exceptional (2e) kids:

“Her desk is a mess, and I can’t see how she knows where anything is,” Alexa’s mom complains. “I bought her a notebook with sections and pockets, but she lost it. Instead, she stuffs papers for her different subjects in her textbooks. Why can’t she be organized like me? As an attorney, I know that life works best when there is predictability and order.”

“I wish Charles were more like Alexa,” interrupts Charles’ dad. “He has a compartment for everything. If one paper’s out of place, he practically has a meltdown. Charles’ attention to details and his precision drive me to distraction! He can’t even start his homework unless all his pencils are sharpened and lined up neatly on his desk. There’s no time for all of that. Our social schedules are so hectic that I have a hard time setting up a homework routine for him.”

“I’m even more frustrated than both of you,” responds Craig’s mother. “My son and I are kindred spirits – both out-of-the-box thinkers. We love spontaneity, but people are always telling us to get organized and get into a predictable routine. Believe me, I try; but it lasts about a week before we both feel stressed and incompetent. How can I be a successful engineer and still enjoy the mess?”

“I know what you’re saying,” Brooke’s Dad replies. “Teachers say to give kids a quiet place to do their homework, so we bought Brooke a new desk for her room, with a special lamp, and even in-and-out trays for her work. But the only use she has for her desk is to pile her clutter. When we insist that she clear off the desk, she just cries because she says she won’t be able to find anything. Her favorite place to work is the kitchen table with all her stuff spread out. My wife and I can’t understand it – we both crave solitude and quiet when we do our work. Brooke does get good grades, but we worry that she’ll never learn to be organized or independent.”

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? Are we being asked to subscribe to the myth that to achieve success we must embrace a more organized approach? Is there only one best way to be organized?

In the previous article in this series (The 2e Profile: Multiple Perspectives, September, 2009), we discussed the importance of understanding who we are in terms of our personality style preferences (Gregorc, Baum & Nicols, 2004). We described four personality types – two of which are more linear and the other two more spontaneous.

Linear 

Spontaneous

Concrete Sequential/Practical Manager

Concrete Random/Creative Problem Solvers

Abstract Sequential/Learned Expert

Abstract Random/People Person

Let’s return to the scenarios from the parents’ discussion group and use these four personality types to better understand the parents’ and the children’s feelings and attitudes toward organization.

A Conflict of Style

The table below shows how the parents and children differ in their personality style preferences.

Scenario

Parent’s Personality Type

Child's Personality Type

1. Alexa and her mom

Abstract Sequential/
Learned Expert Manager

Concrete Random/
Creative Problem Solvers

2. Charles and his dad 

Abstract Random/
People Person

Concrete Sequential/
Practical Manager

3. Craig and his mom

Concrete Random/
Creative Problem Solver

Concrete Random/
Creative Problem Solver

4. Brooke and her dad

Concrete Sequential/
Practical Manager

Abstract Random/
People Person

Alexa’s mom is clearly an abstract sequential/learned expert. Her duties as an attorney require her to be logical and to create a predictable routine to be successful at her job. However, her daughter is a spontaneous organizer who prides herself on a more contextual approach. Alexa can find things better when she places them where she is likely to use them. Her mom, equating an organizational style with life success, thinks it would be better for her daughter to function as her mother does.

Charles’ dad is an abstract random/people person who has a more spontaneous style of organization than his son. The dad can neither understand nor relate to Charles’ need for routine and structure. Instead, the dad’s focus is on interpersonal relationships and his social agenda. In that realm, emotions and how people are relating to each other matter more than predictability and details.

In the case of Craig and his mom, conflict results from a stereotypical perception of how it looks to be organized. Indeed, both Craig and his mom share a random, spontaneous perspective of organization. Attempts to box them in do more harm than good.

Likewise, Brooke’s dad is following advice about what organization should look like, even though Brooke is doing fine in school. Brooke has her unique way of organizing, which seems to be working well for her. Trying to make her adopt an organizational style that is not natural for her is causing Brooke much stress.

While one of these parents’ approaches to organization is likely most familiar and comfortable for you, does that mean it’s better than the others? Think about your preconceptions about organizational patterns by considering these questions:

  • Do you personally know successful people who organize themselves differently from the way you do?
  • Can a person be successful but not be a “neatnik”?
  • Do you believe that successful people can have messy desks, or do you ascribe to the perception that any clutter is a sign of incompetence?

What is Organization?

Thinking that there is only one way to be organized may cause stress at home or in the workplace. Gaining a clearer understanding of diversity in organizational systems, on the other hand, can lead to greater appreciation of the different paths to success. The rest of this article will help you match organizational strategies to your child’s organizational preferences by doing the following:

  • Exploring the notion of what it means to be organized  
  • Reinforcing the idea that we need some form of organization in our lives
  • Debunking the idea that there is only one way to be organized
  • Providing guidance in choosing organizational strategies that can enhance the quality of our lives.

According to the website Self-Improvement-Advice.org, being organized is:

 Being able to easily locate your possessions – material or information – without putting in a lot of mental effort; and being able to set them back as needed, just as easily... In other words…being organized is a state of being in control; in control of your space and mind.

We can add to this definition that being organized is also a matter of being in control of the events in your life so that you can be productive. 

Enhancing Productivity

As we discussed earlier, each of us has our preferred ways of relating to the world and ordering our lives. If we really understand our personality style preferences and if we identify the organization strategies most closely aligned with them, we can make choices that enhance our personal productivity.

For many twice-exceptional learners, productivity is problematic for different reasons. For example, gifted students with Asperger Syndrome may become bogged down by their organizational needs and fall prey to perfectionistic tendencies. In contrast, gifted students with attention issues often find themselves with no particular strategy for organization due to their need for spontaneity and creative stimulation. They may start new tasks as soon as they become bored, leaving unfinished piles littered throughout their space (or yours).

Differing Organizational Needs

For many talented students with learning or reading challenges, linear forms of organization actually minimize their effectiveness. What these children need are spatial and holistic kinds of organizational strategies. For students whose emotions govern their lives, on the other hand, mood may dictate what they do rather than any predetermined schedule or organizational strategy. What’s necessary then, given these variations in approach to organization, is to align organizational strategies to personality style preferences. Following are information and tips to help you do that for each of the four personality types.

Organization Profile of the Concrete Sequential/Practical Manger (CS/PM)

Characteristics that May Affect Organization 

  • Excel in linear kinds of organization strategies, those we typically associate with time management and anti-clutter “experts”
  • Are easily distracted by clutter and other kinds of environmental noise
  • May be more dependent on adult support than students of other style preferences because they tend to be somewhat perfectionistic and may have a fear of failure

What They Need to Function Effectively 

  • Both detailed directions and set routines
  • A time and place to keep their things and a quiet place to work, both of which allow them to better focus on the tasks at hand

Strategies for helping CS/PM students to be productive are:

  • Allocate a quiet place for homework. A desk away from noise and activity is best.
  • Help them organize a school binder with tabs for each subject, assignment sheets, and a monthly calendar listing due dates.
  • Make assignments, with parameters specified, readily available in written form or online.
  • Provide a wall calendar, a timer, supplies in drawers with organizers, and file holders with multi-colored file folders. Use file folders to store the different drafts, the papers they wish to save, and the ideas they must put on hold for awhile.
  • Establish a specific routine for homework that the family respects and can live with. Consistency is essential.
  • Strategize to avoid over-dependence. For example, provide a daily checklist of tasks arranged in the order to be completed. Establish a rule that youngsters can ask for help or show their work only after the assignment is completed and before starting the next task.
  • Help CS/PMs with their perfectionistic tendencies:
    • On the daily checklist of tasks, include an estimated time for each assignment. Set the timer to that estimated time to limit how long the youngster works on a task or assignment. (Parents should check with the teacher to understand expectations for time spent on each assignment. The teacher should share these expectations with the student and both should agree that, for the time being, the work finished within that time segment is sufficient.)
    • Explain that work submitted for the first time is a draft and need not be perfect. There will be time later to correct anything the teacher feels needs changing.
    • If children feel frustrated or overwhelmed by their perceived expectations for a task, help them break the task down into manageable parts with the mantra “We’re only concerned with part 1 now.”

Organization Profile of the Abstract Sequential/Learned Expert (AS/LE)

Characteristics that May Affect Organization 

  • Prefer a predictable, linear approach to organization
  • Crave in-depth information and pay little attention to isolated details  
  • Seek out opportunities to discuss ideas
  • Can be forgetful about time and details, getting lost in thought and compromising their productivity
  • Organize ideas by sketching them out conceptually and understand concepts through the use of visual models that show cause-and-effect relationships
  • Make notes to themselves using word phrase summaries rather than a list with detailed, specific information

What They Need to Function Effectively 

  • A quiet place, free from distractions and clutter, to study and think
  • To see the big picture and understand how ideas are related to one another
  • Outlines rather than lists
  • Long periods of time to focus on intellectual challenges
  • To be surrounded with resources and have access to expert opinions and knowledge
  • Help with keeping track of appointments and papers, and with remembering to do mundane tasks

Strategies for helping AS/LE students to be productive are:

  • Provide a quiet place to do homework, such as a desk in their room away from noise and activity or a table in the library where they can spread their books about. Access to the Internet, where they can satiate their intellectual curiosity while studying about a topic, also enhances their learning.
  • Provide a binder with tabs for each subject, assignment sheets, and a monthly calendar for listing due dates. Include blank pages for sketching out concepts and Post-it notes for jotting down ideas. Pocket pages also help AS/LE students organize extra information that they find on their own about a topic.
  • Make available pads and pens where AS/LE learners can sketch and fiddle with ideas.
  • Post a monthly calendar on the wall to help these children see the bigger picture and plan accordingly.
  • Hang up a bulletin board and use brightly colored Post-it notes to serve as reminders for those mundane tasks like brushing teeth, coming to dinner, and getting a good night’s sleep. Providing an electronic calendar with appointment reminders is another option.
  • Restrict time spent on homework. AS/LE learners might get sidetracked by exploring ideas or going beyond the assignment. To help them stay on task, have them begin their study time by creating an outline of what needs to be completed. Under each main topic, have them sketch out the specifics that will be required.
  • Set aside an ample but reasonable time period for work. Keep their intellectual appetite in check by having AS/LE students estimate completion times on their outlines. Allow time for them to talk out some of their ideas with an adult either before they begin their homework or a during a mid-session discussion break.
  • Allow music while working. It often helps them to keep their minds from wandering into more interesting realms, especially if the assignment is not challenging enough.

Organization Profile of the Concrete Random/Creative Problem Solver (CR/CPS)

Characteristics that May Affect Organization 

  • Take a nonlinear, spontaneous, and holistic approach to organization
  • Tend to be energetic kinesthetic learners who think and plan better while moving
  • Appear disorganized and messy, with piles on desks, over-stuffed drawers, and neglected file cabinets
  • Are able to locate what they need among their many stacks and piles
  • Are often argumentative, think they have the answers, and resist suggestions
  • Tend to have a lot going on at the same time
  • Are at great risk for disaster in school, where success requires sequential approaches often underdeveloped in these children during childhood

What They Need to Function Effectively 

  • Choices
  • Simple ways that work for them to keep track of their stuff (Research seems to show that creative people organize their desks intuitively to correspond with the way their minds organize information. According to a January, 2006, study of hundreds of CEO’s, the highest scorers in innovation and risk-taking scored lowest on organizational and neatness skills.  (http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=JenniferWilliamson).)

Strategies for helping CR/CPS students to be productive are:

  • Allow space to spread out and move about. While the CR/CPC individual can work anywhere, a desk is probably the least appropriate choice. For some, the floor works well. (In fact, some have been known to talk through an assignment by lying on the floor while tossing a ball in the air.)
  • Make a laptop computer available for research and written work, allowing them the flexibility of sitting in a rocking chair, standing at a counter, or walking about.
  • Create a work station with shelves and compartments. Each project or subject area should have its own shelf or container to house the stack. Pencils, pens, and other materials should be in a single container – not one for each different utensil.
  • Provide a variety of containers to organize piles. The mind of a CR/CPS organizes by making multiple web-like connections that are spontaneous and not planned sequentially. Because ideas pop into their heads as they search through their “stuff,” it’s important for these individuals to have the materials they need scattered around them as they work. Searching among piles helps them make connections between and among projects. Encourage them to create webs to track ideas as they occur.
  • Giving these students a different binder for each subject might make organization easier for them. Binders are tricky for this group, so use pockets instead of tabbed sections within each binder. The different color pockets can signify homework assignments, handouts, notes, etc.
  • Encourage frequent breaks and ensure that movement is part of the routine. Having nerf balls, bouncing chairs, or fidgets available will help them sustain attention to the tasks at hand.
  • Allow music, if appropriate. Having music or the television on in the background helps some of these children sustain attention. For others, such background noise is seductively distracting and should be eliminated.
  • Use a monthly calendar placed in easy view to help them see the bigger picture and plan accordingly. Have them create to-do lists on the calendar made up of Post-it notes. Allow them to arrange the Post-its in the order in which they wish to complete chores, assignments, and other tasks, and to rearrange the order if necessary. They can also use the Post-its to keep track of the many activities in which CR/CPS children tend to be involved. This strategy develops a kinesthetic understanding of flexible sequencing, showing youngsters that plans are not etched in stone and can be changed as needed. When children complete a task, crumpling up the Post-it note and tossing it in a waste basket is rewarding in and of itself. They can even make a target game out of the process and keep points for accuracy. (Remember, the CR/CPS is motivated by fun and adventure.)
  • Respect their need for change of routine and for choice. Accept skipping around among assignments and tasks as long as children have a way to get everything done. Support their time management by asking them what tasks must be done and when they are due. Help them to articulate a commitment by asking when they plan to do a particular task and how much time they think they will need will. Then ask if they need you to remind them. For household chores, follow the same routine. Tell them what you need to have them do and have them tell you when they plan to do it. Again, say that you would be happy to remind them of the time.
  • Limit the number of rules you have for these children and adhere to them consistently. Also, give detailed directions. Instead of saying “Clean your room,” say “Hang up your clothes and put away your games.”
  • Set broad parameters for time. Encourage CR/CPS children to set the timer and work for 15-minute intervals. (The length of time will vary according to age and development). Then encourage them to reward themselves with an exercise or protein break. Sitting with these youngsters to get them started often helps them to get their mind focused on the task. 
  • Provide CR/CPS students with a “traveling office,” a large backpack, preferably on wheels, in which they can carry with them everything they need at all times. Getting organized to go to and from school is problematic for these students, and they do best when they don’t have to think about it. Within the pack can be a zipper compartment for utensils, another for lunch, and so forth. While everything may just be thrown in together in the backpack, at least what they need is all in one place.

Organization Profile of the Abstract Random/People Person (AR/PP)

Characteristics that May Affect Organization 

  • Care little about organization and have little regard for details
  • Think holistically and prefer piles to files, but their piles are usually neat
  • Follow the spirit of the rule rather than adhere to details
  • See deadlines and curfews as flexible
  • Crave connections to others and see all events as social opportunities
  • Dislike being alone and shut off from all distractions
  • Tend to be friendly, sensitive, and at times overly sensitive

What They Need to Function Effectively 

  • To be around others so that they can pay attention to many conversations simultaneously
  • To be recognized and made to feel special
  • To have the focus more on relationships than on order

Strategies for helping AR/PP students to be productive are:

  • Allow them to work at a table within earshot of the family. They tend to get lonely when sent to a quiet isolated place. Not knowing what else is going on in the house is a distraction for them.
  • Create an area in their rooms where they can organize their piles. Shelves and bins work well for AR/PPs.
  • Because their minds organize holistically, encourage them to use webs when planning research papers and writing assignments. From webs can grow outlines if needed. Software programs like Kidspiration and Inspiration provide templates for holistic planning.
  • Provide colorful markers, scratch-and-sniff stickers, rainbow stickers, and other materials that they can use for decorations, calendar reminders, and rewards for completing tasks in a timely order.
  • Encourage study buddies and homework pals. Because these youngsters are social, having study dates makes focusing easier. Remember that they will need to schedule off-task breaks to just socialize during their time together. The breaks can act as self-rewards.
  • Provide or have AR/PP youngsters design a monthly calendar for the wall. Let them decorate deadlines and create an original set of friendly reminders to themselves for key points throughout an assignment. Send them an e-mail as a reminder of due dates and appointments; make sure it’s personal and lets them know how proud you are that they are on track.
  • Make a habit of showing that you appreciate their efforts by using stickers, hugs, compliments, and other symbols of appreciation. You will be supplying the emotional reinforcement they need plus reinforcing task completion and adherence to structure.
  • Because these students tend to misplace things, keep duplicates of important items like keys, books, and completed assignments. Have the children decide where to place the spares so that they can be returned to that place when the original item is rediscovered. Following this type of procedure will help them develop the habit of putting things that are important to them in the same place.
  • Like, CR/CPSs, AR/PPs are also candidates for the “traveling office.” But do require them to clean out their “office” once a week. Lo and behold, you will probably find any item that went missing during the week.

Conclusion

We must remember that each of us is a combination of all styles, that we have profiles of strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, we must recognize that we cannot force our youngsters to be like us if it’s not their natural way of being.

What’s essential to understand is that each organizational style has merit and can offer a unique pathway to success. However, we must also be able to recognize when a preferred style is not working for a child. In those cases, by encouraging the child to be flexible and to borrow strategies from other styles, we can help the youngster to jump start his or her productivity.

References

  • Gregorc, A. (1982). An Adult’s Guide to Style. Maynard, MA: Gabriel Systems.
  • Nicols, H., & Baum, S. (2003). A toolkit for teens: A guide for helping adolescents manage stress. Washington, DC: Office of Overseas Schools, United States Department of State.

Resources

All of the authors of this article work at Bridges Academy in the following capacities: Susan Baum is Director of Professional Development, Marcy Dann is an Educational Therapist, Cynthia Novak is the Middle School Director, and Lesli Preuss is the School Psychologist.  

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