The hidden costs of being super organized

People who are good at organization do it effortlessly, right? Think again. Some real talk on the work of being organized — and tips for easing the burden.
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My hairdresser recently found out we were both Virgos and flipped out. “Oh my god, this explains so much. I bet your house is full of lists and that everything you do is for a very specific reason.” I gave her a suspicious look I felt like she had my number.

I’ve always been a really organized person. I meticulously cleaned my room as a child, and I can list on one hand the items I’ve lost in my life. I’m still haunted by a sweatshirt my mom brought back for me from a trip to Cape Cod when I was 9 that I lost a few weeks later. WHERE ARE YOUUUUU?

I didn’t realize how ingrained in me order and organization were until my brother stayed with me recently. Suddenly, the sponge wasn’t in its exact place (dish drying rack, stored vertically so it dries out quickly and doesn’t smell), and like items weren’t stored together in the fridge (the audacity!).

Though Marie Kondo would be proud (I’m a big fan, duh), I was a bit shocked to discover that almost everything I use and touch has some sort of system. I have a pretty complex “which pillowcase goes on which pillow” scheme that isn’t even worth explaining (it has to do with avoiding ironing). And I try to pull dish towels from the bottom of the pile when I use them so I don’t end up washing, and thus wearing out, the same ones over and over. (I don’t feel great sharing that last sentence with you.)

I’m not here to give you tips on how to stay organized. I’m here to break the bad news that being organized is work for everybody, even the ones who are “good” at it. And it’s tiring. What seems like an innate ability is actually a constant stream of effort.

Why this rant? I recently learned about the term emotional labor all the invisible emotional energy behind the scenes of life, like preparing to have a difficult conversation with your partner or acting like you’re in a good mood when you’re not. Unsurprisingly, women do a lot of this type of work. And women of color do even more emotional labor than white women while dealing with racism on a daily basis.

Though organization doesn’t necessarily involve the same emotional weight, it, too, feels like invisible work. I realized that I was almost constantly working to stay organized. It was like a depressing light bulb going off, and I felt even more exhausted than before.

I’ve found that organizational labor doesn’t stop at my front door. It extends to work, too. For example, one of my biggest pet peeves is when someone says, “We need to…” to no one in particular in a meeting. In my experience, it’s a phrase people use when they don’t actually have a clear idea of what needs to be done or who needs to do it. In the past, I’ve jumped to take on these unclear requests because someone has to, and because it made me uncomfortable to leave something unresolved.

Here’s how I often handle vague requests at work: I immediately ask specific questions to try to avoid guessing what the person means, I repeat back what I think they want done, I outline the tasks I think are needed and get confirmation they are accurate, and I give an estimate of how long I think the tasks will take. While taking these steps to clarify someone else’s communication for them may save me time and angst in the long run, it’s still WORK. And, overall, this kind of dead-end work isn’t likely to contribute to my career growth.

Lately, I’ve been trying to recognize and reduce all the types of organizational labor I do. When I get vague requests at work, instead of just jumping to help, I’ve started waiting. Sometimes the person clarifies their idea, or I realize they were just thinking out loud and didn’t actually want something done. Sometimes someone else does the labor of deciphering what they mean and organizing the work. It’s amazing the amount of extra labor you can avoid just by sitting quietly for five minutes.

I’m also trying to reduce extra labor in my personal life. For example, I let friends plan and organize our get-togethers. I’ve even started keeping frozen dinners in my freezer because eating one every once in a while, instead of being a meticulous meal prepper, doesn’t make me a bad person.

Clearly, being organized has its benefits, but the world won’t end if I’m not planning outings with my friends every weekend, or if I forget to renew my car registration. My new year’s resolution this year was to cut corners where I can so that I can get more rest. Almost everyone I know is trying to get their lives under control and improve work-life balance. For me, simply being able to recognize that I’m doing organizational labor feels like an important first step in conserving my energy.

9 thoughts on “The hidden costs of being super organized

  1. Great post, Sarah! Organized women often get tapped by their families to take on more at home too, sometimes with a snide remark that “you don’t want me doing it or you’ll freak,” implying we are too crazy to let someone else do the laundry or plan a family trip. Saying no (or staying quiet) is critical to your self care, and I hope that in time you won’t view frozen meals as cutting corners so much as simply feeding yourself.

  2. Thanks so much Emily! Sounds like you might be a super organized woman too. Your feedback is great – I also hope what I now see as “cutting corners” can become a new norm. In fact, I almost left a dirty dish in the sink last night… but then I washed it. Baby steps.

  3. This past weekend, I realized that I was getting drained planning dinner reservations or what to do on the weekend. Sometimes, I don’t know why I take on that emotional labor to organize, especially when no one is even asking me too…just pressure I put on myself. My husband and I came up with a hypothesis this weekend…if we alternate planning our weekends, I feel like I don’t always have to be planning things and he feels more ownership to plan too! It was an interesting conversation to say the least…

  4. I love this article — I can SO relate. I can actually see a dividing line in my career between when I was an emotional labor ‘pack horse’, and when I was a ‘carry your own bags, I’m full’ achiever… I’ve gotten mountains more accomplished towards my own goals on this side of the line. Thanks Sarah!

    1. Christina, this is motivating and inspiring to hear. I’m working on saying no (or just not saying anything) and delegating when I can. Thank so much for sharing!

  5. My coworker just walked in to put spare lightbulbs in my drawer. “Wait,” I said, “I have a system of how they should be arranged.” “Of course you do,” he said. Being super organized is a blessing and a curse. The amount of time I spend just thinking about being organized is ridiculous. Be careful what you wish for…

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