Are you too organized? How to cut yourself some slack

Can we be too organized? I don’t think we ever set out to turn something good into something problematic….

When I was in grade school, I loved Sanrio products. My mother used to drop me off at the stationery section of Shirokiya while she took care of errands in other sections of what used to be a small Japanese department store in Honolulu. I didn’t mind as I preferred staying there to following her around. I spent hours examining everything in each character’s product line. Hello Kitty and Little Twin Stars were my favorite.

Growing up, I knew my parents had just enough to cover our basic needs. They couldn’t afford extras. So, I never bought anything. So when I received Sanrio products as gifts, I treasured them. I hid them where my little brother couldn’t find them. I never used the little notebook paper. And, if I tried out a colored pencil, I would only use it to write my name or the names of my friends or boys I had crushes on. When I did, I wrote gently not to dull the pointy tips. I didn’t want to have to sharpen those pencils because that would not only use them up but would vary the lengths of the pencils and disrupt their perfect alignment.

Looking back, I adored not only the cute school products but also the clever packaging. Everything–from little colored pencils to packages of facial tissue–had its own compartment within the plastic boxes or cases.

To this day, I am a huge fan of Japanese stationery. I hate to admit I spend too much time on My husband and daughters are fans too. When we visit, our family will spend at least half a day at more than one Tokyu Hands location.

Our attraction to a sense of order

There is something so appealing about seeing things in perfect order.

Every spring, magazines feature decluttering on their covers because they know it will sell more copies.

My daughter loves a popular game app called I Love Hue. All it requires is that you rearrange color tiles so that they form a gradual color spectrum. She finds it so gratifying to solve the puzzles.

Seeing things in perfect arrangements may be visually appetizing. The true appeal, however, is the promise it holds:

If I can make it look orderly, I’ll feel calm.

If I can control the chaos in my environment, I’ll feel more in control of the emotions and worries in my mind.

Wanting order is understandable

If you feel this way, it is understandable. You’re busy and people depend on you. Moms, for example, usually

  • Need to remember every event for every member of our household (play dates, birthdays, holidays, business trips, doctor’s appointments, haircuts, etc.)
  • Stock their fridges and cupboards and/or make sure food gets onto the table
  • Know where everything is (or might be) in our homes, like where the extra rolls of packing tape are
  • Take out spring clothes and put away winter clothes
  • Jump on sales for necessities, like children’s clothes because they know what’s needed for the next season and what sizes to buy.

It’s a lot. So, of course, you want to corral the chaos. It’s natural to want to get rid of the disarray and feel some calm.

Are you being too organized?

If you’re reading this, however, I can bet that you do manage to get a lot done. And, while you think you need to be more organized, I can pretty much guarantee that you already are.

So, I often wonder, are we placing undue pressure on ourselves to get everything just right?

We need to feel we have control over our lives. But does this desire end up controlling us?

I remember savoring my Hello Kitty-colored pens so much, that they dried up before I could enjoy using them. Similarly, are there times when your desire for having things orderly overrides your ability to enjoy life? Do you ever focus on being too organized that you lose track of what is truly important?

How many times have you also thought…

If I can get this organized, I’ll be able to focus.

Once I get my house in order, I’ll be able to start my new project.

If I could just get X done, I’ll be happier.

We convince ourselves that if we can become more organized, we will be happier. And while having a sense of order can be calming, our minds will always find another requisite task. The work is never done. Our to-do lists never end. So being too organized can backfire.

How to cut yourself some slack

We need to give ourselves permission to not get it all done, to cut ourselves some slack but it’s hard when you feel responsible for people and things you care about. It helps to remember what really matters, what actually leads us to happiness:

First, happiness is neither a mood nor an outcome but a skill to practice. It is making an effort every day to build up inner calm that can sustain us even when things go wrong.

Second, authentic happiness stems not from something outside of us but within us. It usually involves doing work or having pursuits that are meaningful to you. This doesn’t mean it has to be something grand like solving child poverty or stemming climate change. It can be small like learning how to master a challenging knitting pattern or video game. Losing track of time while working on an activity that is sufficiently challenging and interesting to you is the way to find flow.

Third, another source of happiness involves deepening your connections with people you care about.

So, while there is a lot of stuff to do or take care of, your priority needs to be meaningful activities and making deeper connections. It’s overwhelming to even think about all the things on our to-do lists or calendars, but it helps to know what is essential and to tackle those things first.

What will you leave out?

In order to make time for those essentials, you will likely need to let go of some stuff. It means giving yourself permission to say no.

In another post, I offer 10 ways to do this. And, for an earlier version of this article, I described how being too organized can interfere with vacation.

But, what also helps is building daily habits, like:

  • Make a to-do list every day, putting only up to three really important tasks at the top, then adding less important tasks but only what you can reasonably accomplish that day.
  • If you find yourself, writing the same things over and over each day, question the task’s existence: Is this too big? Can I break it down? Who can I delegate this to? Maybe I skip this altogether?

How will you avoid getting too organized? How might you cut yourself some slack?

[ published an earlier version of this article.]