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    The Organizing Principle: The Key to Straightening Things Out

    Excerpted from
    Getting Organized: The Easy Way to Put Your Life in Order
    By Stephanie Winston

    All concepts of order, from the simplest system of closet arrangement to the most complex computer technology, share one essential characteristic: an organizing principle. The idea behind the organizing principle is that any intellectual or practical system always contains a central pole, an essential priority, around which all the other components group themselves.

    For example, any State Department official worth his or her pinstripes has learned to recognize that the shape of a conference table can sometimes make or break a country's ability to negotiate. Years ago the North Vietnamese made a great fuss about the conference table at the Paris negotiations to end the Vietnam War. Once it was recognized that questions of status were the organizing principle behind the brouhaha-that is, people at a rectangular table have different status depending on where they're sitting, but everyone is equal at a round table-then the solution of choosing a round table became obvious.

    Once the organizing principle behind an existing situation, or governing a task, has been identified, you can decide whether it is the one that is right for you. If it is not, then you have the option of revising the principle. One of the most tragic examples in recent times of this principle in action was the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia over the piney woods of east Texas on February 1, 2003.

    The engineers on the ground requested better photos of the space shuttle's left wing immediately after it was evidently struck by a piece of foam debris just seconds after launch, but the request was denied. According to Fast Company magazine NASA was immobilized by an organizing principle that said "We always do it right"-which blinded them to the correct organizing principle, "safety first."

    The point of the organizing principle is to isolate the purpose you want to achieve and/or define a guiding pole that governs action. The whats and the hows-that is, the practical solutions - will flow fairly easily once you understand the whys.

    Let's consider the organizing principle in terms of the psychological factors discussed previously. Probably, as your life became more and more complicated over the years, you have occasionally been able to step back and say to yourself, "I am being self-destructive. I've got to stop this right away." Whereupon you went through a period of intense, determined organizing that ended a day or two later when you discovered that nothing had really changed and you were right back where you started!

    At that point the feeling of helplessness, of life out of control, must have been intense and painful. But if you look at this whole pattern with the idea of finding the organizing principle, the hidden factors may begin to reveal themselves. In all likelihood you are causing yourself genuine pain in the service of a powerful theme, a powerful organizing principle: defiance of authority.

    You have chosen defiance as your focus, and as long as it is in operation, you will always revert to the old pattern of defiance leading to chaos.

    However, by recognizing that this outmoded, destructive organizing principle has been functioning quietly all these years, you are now free to bring it to the surface and change it-to devise a new principle more appropriate to your present life. Your organizing principle might then become: "The purpose of order in my life is my own ease and convenience-not domination by some impractical ideal." With that in mind as a basic point of reference, many changes become possible. Just as your previous actions were completely and spontaneously logical in terms of your old "defiance" motif, your newer mode of behavior will, after you accustom yourself to it, become completely logical in terms of the new "ease and convenience" theme.

    And that's what this book is about. It will not only help you plan your personal business affairs or time or closets more efficiently, but it will also help you establish a permanent way of life fitted to your own desires and goals. There is a considerable leap from the grand abstraction of the organizing principle to the actual solving of a problem, however. First you have to understand very clearly just what the problem is. The rest of this chapter concentrates on how to pinpoint the problems in your life and bring them to manageable, solvable proportions.

    It is not uncommon for clients to approach me with the cry "Please straighten out my life." Their daily life seems overwhelming, and organizing it seems hopeless. Such people cannot see that specific, smaller difficulties must be resolved before the whole becomes manageable. In contrast, some clients feel confronted by so many tiny problems that they are defeated by their very quantity.

    The first step toward taking things in hand is to define just what a "problem" is. Never yet, in my experience, has a situation been so complex that it couldn't be unraveled.

    To begin, provide yourself with a quick-reference tool-your PDA, laptop, or a spiral notebook. In this reference tool you will enter your "Master List"-a single continuous list that replaces all the small slips of paper you're probably used to. Use the reference to keep track of all errands, things to do or buy, and general notes to yourself about anything that will require action. This basic organizing technique is the first in a series of principles that will appear throughout the book highlighting the prime rules of organization.

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