I have, somehow, gained a reputation as a Very Organized Person. I’m probably a little less organized than my friends and coworkers think I am — I firmly believe this is a pass-fail area of life, and being 85% organized is enough to make everyone else think you’re at 110% — but I can confidently say yeah, I’m pretty organized. I — barring NYC subway debacles — show up to things on time. I don’t cancel plans because I have something else to do that I totally forgot about until the day before. I own a label-maker and I use it. Sure, I don’t know all of my passwords because, my god, password rules are preposterous, but I do have a dedicated way to keep track of them so I can avoid the whole “What street did your mother grow up on?” thing.
Now, you may be thinking, Great, another effortlessly organized Instagram-perfect bish here to shame me, a hopeless disaster human! But as the elementary school teachers who saw the inside of my very messy desks can attest, being organized really isn’t a quality I was born with. It definitely isn’t effortless, although the effort has started to feel more natural over time. But it’s something I’ve been able to commit to ever since I started viewing it as a gift to myself, and a gift to the people I care about.
Being organized is one of the main ways I practice self-care. A lot of people think of self-care as something that’s done in a nail salon or on a massage table once a month, but for me, it’s something that can be done frequently, one new Google calendar event, addition to my to-do list, or auto-pay bill at a time. Because, look: Not having your life together — losing important documents, running late all the time, worrying about money — isn’t exactly fun. It’s stressful. Sure, we all know that person who strollllllllls up to meet you 30 minutes late, and seems utterly unbothered by (or even aware of) their tardiness. But if you’re anything like me, being disorganized leaves you feeling flustered, anxious, and/or embarrassed. So I’ve found that being organized is a relatively easy way to remove unnecessary stress from my life.
A lot of people think they are too busy and simply don’t have the time to get organized, but...I don’t have time to not be organized! I’d rather take 20 minutes to get my life in order now than spend 45 minutes looking for my glasses prescription, 10 minutes on the phone with my eye doctor, and three days waiting until I can find the half-hour to go pick up a new copy of it. And if I keep all of my prescriptions in the same place, I won’t have to!
In addition to keeping my blood pressure from spiking every time I realize that I’m going to need my social security card for something, I see being organized as something I can do for other people. The older I get, the more I understand that my personal decisions and my overall mood have a major effect on those around me. And when I don’t do important things — whether that’s paying a bill or preparing for a meeting or showing up on time or going to the doctor — it matters.
We all know — and have, at times, been — a chaos person. You know exactly who I’m talking about. They think “It’s on my to-do list” is just a figure of speech. They don’t call you when they said they would. They take three weeks to confirm a date for the hangout they suggested. They “think it’s maybe strep” at least a half-dozen times a year. They told you they were going to do a thing that affects you both — book a flight, pay a bill, talk to their boss about taking that day off — and when you later ask them, “Oh, hey, did you do the thing?” they send you a wall of text explaining why they did not, in fact, do the thing. They are always super apologetic, and their excuses, when taken alone, are always reasonable(ish). But after a while, you realize it’s a pattern, and one that is exhausting.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that being chronically, perpetually disorganized sends a message to the people who are always on the receiving end of the excuses: “I don’t value your time.” “It’s OK if I inconvenience you.” “I didn’t really consider how this might affect you.” “Your needs are not a priority to me.” Being flaky isn’t cute; it’s disrespectful. This isn’t the intention, of course. (And, in fact, most of the disorganized people I know are actually trying to make too many people happy.) But the reality is that being close to someone who is consistently all over the place requires a tremendous amount of emotional labor — reminding them to please take care of that task; making adjustments to your own schedule to accommodate their last-minute changes; worrying that you’re nagging them; having to say “it’s fine” and “no worries” every time they drop the ball, because god forbid you are anything other than a chill girl with no feelings.
Who wants to be close to and/or have sex with someone who makes them feel that way? Not me! And so I try to be the shit-together person I wish to see in the world. I don’t want the people I love and care about to think of me as a cracked iPhone screen that somehow gained sentience. Being organized is my way of saying to them, “I value you and your time, I recognize that we are in this together, and I want to be at my best for you.”
Of course, it helps that I happen to like organization, or at least I don’t hate it. But even if I did hate it — even when I do hate it — I would do it anyway. I don’t always like showering, or eating my vegetables, or standing in line, or obeying the speed limit. But I do these things anyway because I understand that on occasion I will have to do things I don’t like for the sake of the greater good because we live in a society.
Though I tend to think of showing up on time, being (somewhat) tidy, and keeping a to-do list as objectively good things, there’s always someone ready to remind me not be “too” organized. Organized women are typically portrayed in pop culture as uptight losers at best, and high-strung, controlling nags at worst. And for every woman with a Pinterest-perfect pantry, there’s a KonMari takedown or a new hot mess wine mom meme. Being organized isn’t exactly cool. It demonstrates effort, the least cool thing there is.
But, my god, I’d rather be calm than cool. And, if I really think about it, it’s rare that I’ve looked at a disorganized person and thought, Wow, they are so cool. Being flustered is pretty much the opposite of being cool.
To be clear, I’m not saying that in order to be a good friend you have to transfer all of your baking ingredients into clear plastic containers with perfectly-printed labels, or that you’re an asshole if you don’t use the Dewey Decimal system to organize your bookshelf. Listen: I get dates mixed up, forget to reply to emails, and misplace things on occasion; for several months, my desk drawer contained a tipped-over cup of Goldfish crackers that I didn’t feel like dealing with. Everyone has a different definition of “organized” and occupies a different spot on that spectrum, usually for very specific and personal reasons (some of which are less about choice and more about circumstance). And it may be the case that being organized isn’t a form of self-care for you at all; your gift to yourself might be cutting yourself some slack and ignoring your to-do list and carefully-laid plans for a few days. I’m just saying that making a good faith, consistent effort to be organized in a few areas that feel significant and worthwhile to you can have a big impact on how you feel, and on how you make others feel.
If you’re not sure where to start, you could do what I did: start with the things you most often feel stressed, embarrassed, or guilty about, or with the things you regularly find yourself apologizing for. Those are the ones that will likely have the biggest return on investment, and having success there may just give you the confidence and motivation to tackle a few others. Or maybe you won’t, because those one or two were all you needed! Whatever — it’s your life!
There is no perfect system or magical app that will suddenly make you an “effortlessly” organized person. But the effort involved is actually, I think, kind of the point. It’s not easy. That’s what makes it feels special and good and worthwhile. Having your shit together is a gift, and it’s one that you actually deserve. 🗓
Rachel Miller is a senior lifestyle editor at BuzzFeed and the author of Dot Journaling―A Practical Guide: How to Start and Keep the Planner, To-Do List, and Diary That’ll Actually Help You Get Your Life Together.