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I've got a friend that has recently become aware that his own disorganization makes his performance really go down, and asked me for help on how to be more organized. I have been organized and detail-oriented since I have memory, so I give advice here and then, but I've failed to put together a nice plan to start from scratch or follow methodically (how ironic).

I haven't been able to come up with other references or activities that could help in getting to be organized per se, rather than getting more organized at a specific activity (like, in our example, coding).

So, which other ways are good to learn to be organized?

EDIT: Most of the answers make me think that I have not been clear enough on my question. I am not asking on how to develop properly or how to structure the code, but rather how to transition from a "living the moment" type of personality to a planning, structured approach to the tasks that you need to work on. Software development is just the case here but should not be the focus of the answers.

I had rephrased the question to account for that, since it was brought to my attention that some examples I provided were misleading.

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In addition to seconding the recommendation for the GTD book, since you're software types, you might also want to check out "Joel on Software". – adeena Feb 14 '14 at 14:13
Your posting isn't very clear, as "working at software companies" is very broad. Is your main focus technical work or you both project managers? If you work is technical, is your main job about beeing a programmer and writing code? – mrsteve Feb 27 '14 at 16:09
I wrote a brief article about what helped me organize my day and my life. It would not hurt to read, you might like it and it may help you.… – luigi Mar 6 '14 at 18:07
up vote 7 down vote accepted

For a top-down approach to self-organization, I second the suggestion in another answer for The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

For many people, that's too difficult a place to start, understanding your life purpose before you can dig out from under the scraps of paper and sticky notes and email and phone calls from your boss. To make yourself room to start thinking about the bigger picture, I recommend Getting Things Done by David Allen. It provides a structured process to get a handle on the things you need to do, and a method for keeping track of them. Searching for "Getting Things Done" or "GTD" will turn up a lot of information on the web, as will the GTD tag here.

Many people view Covey and Allen's approaches as being in opposition. I disagree, I think they are both useful and meet in the middle, with their strengths at opposite ends of how to "get organized".

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I would recommend to use top-down approach - start from meaning of life, your life roles, every role's goals, tasks for every goal, etc.

I highly recommend the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People - it structures your thoughts about self-organization.

I recommend this book to all my friends and employees - it gives you the framework for improving your life. It's like Zend Framework or Drupal for the person who want to be productive, efficient and be able to achieve many goals (which should be of course collinear to your life mission/goals) - you take this framework and then implement your own life on the basis of it.

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I highly recommend 30 Days of Getting Results. It is mostly based on another book by the same author - Getting Results the Agile Way. Judging by the name you probably could guess that it was written by a software developer.

What I find most useful is the concept of prioritizing your day by setting out to finish only 3 things. Here are a couple reasons why such a simple idea is so important:

  • It forces you to be selective with what you want to accomplish in a day.
  • Having only 3 things on your list, you're less likely to feel overwhelmed.
  • You no longer have to maintain a laundry list of tasks (which always makes you feel guilty no matter how many of them you have accomplished!!)

Also, I recommend taking notes more often. I personally use Springpad. Another popular choice is Evernote. If you like writing things down on actual paper, Moleskine offers a good selection of notebooks.

I initially thought it would make things even messier, but it actually has been quite the opposite.

I used to have a habit of jumping from one task to another. I would start a task then suddenly "remember" that I needed to do another task which lured me into beginning while leaving the first task incomplete. This vicious cycle would continue until I was surrounded by tasks that were begun but never completed.

Jotting things down allows me to free up space in my brain, and helps me cut back on the occasional "memory leak". Once I write everything down and am able to see all of my tasks lined up, I can prioritize much more easily.

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To me, the thing that's lacking with your friend is the "why" question. "Why put the effort in to be organised?" If I were in your place, I'd start this process by talking that question through with your friend -- what are they unhappy about with their current (presumably less organised) approach to world, and what do they want to see as a result of changing that approach?

Next would be for both of you to evaluate together if the goal (the benefits of being more organised) is worth the ongoing investment of time and concentration (the effort and change in mindset that goes into becoming and being more organised). Contrast your experience against theirs. Talk about what you get in return for your upfront investment of time.

If your friend feels positive about the idea of change at this point, then definitely start the education ball rolling, and 7 Habits is a great place to start.

The other thing that might be worth doing is trying to convey the joy of tinkering and tuning your own productivity methodology. Trying new tools and ideas. I think a lot of people miss this about many people with a productivity mindset. We enjoy the process as well as the outcome, and perhaps that's something you can also share with your friend?

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I'd like to start by saying that people have different strengths. So tell your friend not to feel too bad, he or she may have other qualities like creativity, physical aptitude ect...

To the actual question, I think there are several things that come into play. Including discipline, prioritizing, understanding, quick thinking and even creativity. If you believe it does take that many different things and more; then it is easy to see why not that many people are very organized.

We have a tendency to want to do more. We don't realize that will power is a limited resource. Organization can make us more effective but there is a limit to what we can accomplish. Once we are able to set realistic goals for ourselves, then it is turn to discipline ourselves and do the things that we can do. Unfortunately many of us did not learn discipline at an early age. So we need to learn it as adults. It just takes time, success is a very good reinforcer. In general I would look at "being organized" as a life long learning activity.

I would suggest to stay away from books that will tell you that it it is simple if you just follow their steps. Because they implicitly say that since it is "easy" (whatever way they choose to say it), and only depends on us. Then, if we don't do it, we are losers responsible of our self imposed problems. The reality is that things are not that easy, otherwise we would be done with it. And we only have the energy to do so much before our body reminds us one way or another. Don't misunderstand me, difficult things can be the most rewarding and worthwhile.

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Very simple!! :) Dont take stress and try below suggestions.

Start using some online kanban board to focus on current work in hand and manage work in queue. Use some GTD softwares in your mobile, like : And leave fear of forgetting things to get done at right time.

If you prepare notes use MS OneNote. And draw some mind maps for quick reference, once you are completed with your notes.

If you feel that you easily get distracted then use pomodoro techniques while working on a task. If you are wasting a lot of time on computer facebook, twitter ets, track it using ManicTime.

If you feel a lot of stress because of pile of work try 80-20 principle (complete 20% of your work only)

If you are not able to prioritize your work then try Urgent/Important Matrix.

If your hourly earn rate is more than hourly rate of your work then delegate it and get it done by others by paying some small amount. You'll find many freelancer working for you.

Let me know if it helps otherwise I have few more tips too :)

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Your posting isn't very clear, as "working at software companies" is very broad.

Is your main focus technical work or are you both project managers?

From my experiance as a Phd student on developing state of the art programming languages, I learned a lot about how to be a good programmer.

Being organized and writing organized code are two very seperate or orthogonal things.

If you write good code you automatically write organized code.

And if you want to write good code, books like Code Complete, Clean Coder and Beautiful Code hardly help (or worse hurt your learning abilities) and things like "Joel on Software" might be very counter intuitive and also teach you the wrong things.

If you want to learn to write good code (that is automatically good organized) you need to learn mathematics like "Category Theory", linear and abstract algabra, type theory including dependent type theory, first and higher order logic, etc.) Then you need to learn how functional programming in the programming language haskell. This takes about 5-10 years if you have a master degfree in computer science, otherwise longer. From there on you can decide to learn the next generation of programming langauges like Coq.

I know the answer is hard to understand (and therefore might not be upvoted or may be downvotes), but I don't have more time to write details. If there are questions in the comments I can clearify.

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Hi, the point of the actual activity that we do is really not relevant. We're not talking about development but about transitioning from a personality of "living the moment" to a personality of planning ahead, working in a process and structuring the work that you do. My question is not how to achieve a good product as a result of your work, but how work properly, regardless of your activity. – Alpha Feb 27 '14 at 19:37
Okay. You paragraph "... I suggested several books that focus on creating code that is readable and forces you to organize ideas in a meaningful and relatable way. (Code Complete, or Beautiful Code)." can be misinterpreted. For instance: "creating code that is readable" is a completely separated concept to getting organized and planning ahead. – mrsteve Feb 27 '14 at 23:35
Thank you very much! I had rephrased and removed that part -- you're right, it was misleading. – Alpha Feb 28 '14 at 1:15

Thank you for clarifying your question. I realize my original answer addressed another answer here rather than your original question.


This is a case where purpose and mission are fairly well defined, you are writing code to solve a customers problem and maintain a business relationship.

The day to day activities are also fairly clear. You write specs, write code, fix bugs and present a working application.

There is an aspect of higher level considerations besides vision and purpos, and that is standards and guiding principles. t I sensed this from your original question and it is why I recommended the books written by Bob Martin. Standards and principles make up a framework that make clear what is expected and acceptable behavior in the performance of your mission. discovering and adhereing to these should go a long way in helping you transition from the reactive behavior you describe to the proactive behavior you desire.

ORIGINAL ANSWER Top down, bottom up it depends on your current situation. If you have your act together doing everything you are committed to do but you want more, are bored or unsatisfied then top down is your you.

If you can't think past your nose because you're missing deadlines, you've got way more clutter and are stressed then bottom up is for you. You'll blow a fuse trying to think about anything too abstract.

I haven't read Code Complete but it looks like a good one and I'll take it as a recommendation. In turn I would like to recommend two books by Bob Martin, they are "Clean Code" and "Clean Coder"

A topic in the discussion of GTD and seven habits is the maintenance of standards and principles. Standards and principles are necessary to prove a concrete set of boundaries around what is acceptable behavior. They create a framework of ethics that help you set goals, priorities, and deciding what needs to be done next.

These two books provide lots of good insights to standards and principles of software professionals.

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Woah, I had no idea about Clean Coder, I believe I may run for it myself. Great recommendations, thanks! – Alpha Feb 11 '14 at 1:43

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