Organizing Theory & Artistry

Why Willpower Alone is Not Enough to Become Organized

Some fascinating new research on willpower has been in the news lately.  The research suggests that our brains are a combination of rational and emotional processing centers and that there is a limit to how much each side of the brain can handle at a given time.  When one side of the brain is “full” the other side is going to take over and make the decisions, even when we don’t want it to.

For example, if the rational part of the brain is taken up processing something like a challenging and complex issue at work, there is no rational brain left when it comes to issues like deciding the appropriate foods to eat and the emotional brain will take over and eat whatever sweet and sugary foods it wants to.

Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue, and that we would follow through on our New Year’s resolutions if only we had a bit more discipline. But this research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited, and that our January promises fail in large part because the brain wasn’t built for success.

–Jonah Lehrer, “Blame it On the Brain,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2009

Although not indicated in the research above, I would not be surprised if it is also true that if the brain is overwhelmed on the emotional side (such as handling a difficult relationship or a death), the rational brain might take over certain decisions that would be better off handled by the emotional side.  For example, some people withdraw rather than getting involved with difficult emotional situations.  It might be that their brain is simply saying, “I am so overwhelmed by this emotional situation that my rational brain is telling me to avoid it and give myself a rest from thinking about it.”

Something also not indicated in the research but possibly true as well is that each person has different brain capacities on the rational and emotional spectrum.  My husband, for example, has a nearly endless capacity for rational thinking in almost any situation, whereas I lean more toward the emotional and sometimes have to focus hard to let the rational side of my brain kick in.  We are a good balance for each other as different situations require different brain processing skills.  Often people convey emotional thinking as “weak” and rational thinking as “strong” but I am convinced this is not the case.  There is a place for both types of thinking.  In business, emotional thinking can be very beneficial in any managerial, personnel or customer relations matter and certainly in marketing and sales.  After all, if you can’t motivate people, persuade or resolve conflicts, your success is greatly hindered.

In personal relationships, rational thinking is sometimes necessary to keep our relationships healthy or make difficult choices.  My husband’s rational approach to resolving conflict between us, for example, is one that he insisted on early on in our relationship and it continues to amaze me how powerful that approach is.  I honestly cannot remember the last fight I had with my husband or what it was about.  Whatever the issue was, it has been resolved.

So, fascinating as all of this is, if you are a person who needs more organization in your life, how can you use this brain research to your advantage?

  1. Self-awareness. You probably know at some level whether you are more of a rational or emotional thinker in most decisions.  You also need to try to pay attention and realize which type of thinker you are in specific situations.  Organization often rewards rational thinkers more than emotional ones.  Emotional thinking tells us to hold on to mementos or items that foster a sense of security.
  2. Promote rational thinking. Believe me when I tell you this is very hard for me personally.    I know it is possible to have deep emotional relationships with objects. When trying to improve your organization, however, you have to learn to be more of a rational thinker.  In this area, some of the rational questions you might ask yourself about your belongings or information are: How does this benefit me?  Does it make me money?  Does it save me money?  Does it save me time?  Does it promote my health or safety?  Is it in good repair? Is it commonly available? Does it cost me more in time or money to keep and store it than it would to just buy a new one if I need it?  Would I prefer to have a new one rather than the one I currently have?
  3. Reduce emotional thinking about stuff by limiting it to objects that deserve it. It would be ridiculous to assume that we all can become coldly rational and toss out everything that does not meet some rational criterion of need.  (Although I have met people who come close to this!)  If you are an emotional thinker when it comes to your stuff, use your emotional skills to discern which objects or data have the most positive emotional value.  For example, when you have a huge stack of your child’s artwork, some of the pieces will really connect with you, either because of the subject matter (I have a great drawing of a “fairy” from my 4 year old I think is amazing) or the situation it was created in (the first scribble from my 1 year old or the first time my 4 year old wrote “mom”).  Try to zero in on these high value items and preserve and organize them first.  Don’t let the high positive emotional value objects get lost or buried.  Sometimes we can be motivated if we think of our role as being a good steward of the most positive memories.  The key here, though, is to try to develop your skills at quickly discerning high value from lesser value objects.
  4. Eliminate objects that are an emotional burden. There are items that are highly emotional but promote negative emotions rather than positive ones.  Try to identify these burdens and remove them frequent view either permanently or at least temporarily in storage.
  5. Sort your stuff according to your emotional and rational weaknesses. There are both emotional and rational reasons we end up with a lot of “stuff.”  You can rationally justify hundreds of lightbulbs or rolls of toilet paper, for example.  One of the best tools to stop accumulating things, I have found, is to sort the items that are accumulating into the mental categories that address why we are accumulating the item in the first place.  Often just stacking like items together is enough.  Once your brain processes that you have enough of something, you will stop feeding the need to buy more of it.  For example, I once worked with someone who kept a drawer of magazines with “important” articles and was instructed not to throw any of the magazines away.  Since they were important to the person, I sorted them by magazine title and date and put them in labeled racks on a shelf.  Interestingly, once they were all sorted in this way, the person realized that they were just magazines and decided to toss about 75% of them!  Craft supplies often fall into the weakness category.  If you try to sort the crafts by specific projects rather than just heaps of color-coded materials, you start to realize where you are over-buying or whether there are crafts you really don’t want to do any more because you now have something better.
  6. Distract yourself from the voices that tell you to stop organizing. We have all been there.  You get on a roll with organizing and then it stops.  Why?  “I’m tired.”  “It’s boring.”  “I don’t know where to start.” With regard to the energy and boredom requirements, this is where background noise can really help.  A Ruly Mix is great.  I like to stream Frontline shows to feed my head while I am sorting papers in my office.  Sometimes watching a television show about organization or home improvement can be great background motivation as well.  With regard to the overwhelming feeling, this is where breaking a project into really small parts helps.  If you don’t know how to unbury your desk, go one paper at a time.  Do you know how to file this piece of paper?  If yes, do it!  If no, why not?  Although it is tedious, sometimes addressing one piece of paper creates a system that will save you hours in the future.  Even if you can’t motivate yourself to continue, at least identify why you are not continuing.
  7. Don’t let emotional burdens associated with disorganization drag you down. Organizing is a highly emotional activity.  If you are struggling with disorganization, don’t let your whole life become consumed by it.  Celebrate small successes.  Continue the work.  Remember, we are not aiming for perfection.   You are still a good person if your home or office is messy.  Based on the research above, one of the reasons leading to your messiness may be that you are so involved with thinking about other important things that your knee-jerk emotional reaction to relax is kicking in.  Stress reduction and work reduction may be what you really need!  Give yourself a little credit!

Are you a rational or emotional organizer?  What do you do to distract yourself when your emotional side is pulling you the wrong direction?  Please share in the comments!  Commenters can get a Ruly thank you note if you email me your address to