Tips on Leading an Organized Life

Neatness doesn't count, says Stephanie Winston, so long as you can find something fast

THE comforting news is that being well organized, as Stephanie Winston defines it, does not necessarily mean being neat. Nor does it require doing things in a regimented way. ``It's a very flexible system - you apply the basic rules of logic and common sense to your own personal situation.'' Furthermore, Ms. Winston says she does not regard people who are less than well organized and tidy as having major character flaws. ``You can be Mother Teresa or Attila the Hun and be organized or disorganized - it's not a moral issue.''

Make no mistake: Winston, author of ``Getting Organized'' (Warner Books), a bestseller that has sold more than 500,000 copies since its 1978 publication, clearly thinks that being organized is the way to go. It is, as she defines it, the ability to find what you want to find when you want to find it, and to do what you want to do in a timely fashion.

``I think organization is an extremely important tool for just living your life in a more effective way,'' she says.

Winston is the founder and president of The Organizing Principle, a Manhattan consulting company. She wrote ``The Organized Executive'' (also published by Warner Books) in 1983, and is now sifting through interviews with 38 corporate executives for a new book due this spring.

Her business clients tend to be senior executives who pay up to $1,500 a day for her advice. At Johnson & Johnson, the health-care products company, Winston helped Nancy Lane, head of the human-resources division, and her secretary to develop more efficient systems for handling everything from travel arrangements for Ms. Lane's frequent business trips to daily mail.

Everyone can be organized

At Winston's suggestion, the secretary screened the mail, handled as much of it herself as she could, and briefed her boss on what she had done.

``That way, the only paper that actually came into my hands was that which required me to act on it,'' Lane says.

Organizing a business is not so different from organizing a household, says Winston, who began her career by helping people at home. Almost everyone is constitutionally capable of being well organized, she points out in a recent interview. Some come by it instinctively, and others have to learn it, she says.

For those overwhelmed by the magnitude of certain chores, Winston suggests breaking them down into smaller jobs. Many people are so awed by the thought of trying to clean their closets and do the job to perfection, she says, that they procrastinate. Winston suggests starting with one closet, spending 10 minutes to half an hour on it two or three times a week.

``It may take you a month to get it done,'' she says, ``but so what?'' She also does not rule out the extra incentive of a reward. The promise of a movie after a particularly toilsome task, she says, can help.

Delegating and bartering some time-consuming or less-pleasant chores are also possibilities. ``The goal should be not necessarily to do the job, but to get it done - I don't believe in being a martyr,'' Winston insists. Hiring a high school or college student to do shopping and other errands can be a help, she says. Groups of parents may take turns driving one another's children to various activities. Spouses can swap home chores to accommodate likes and dislikes.

Friends can profitably barter, Winston says. She cites the example of two women who are cousins and close friends. One, an accountant, keeps track of the other's finances and pays her bills. The other, who dislikes dealing with money, does regular grocery shopping for her friend in return.

To save time at home, Winston suggests, consolidate tasks. That includes reserving a chunk of time in which to answer letters, pay bills, and return phone calls. Winston says she has ``in'' days for writing and phone calls and ``out'' days to keep appointments and run errands. On ``in'' days, she often relies on an answering machine to avoid interruptions.

Winston came by her expertise indirectly. As a political-science graduate of Barnard College she took a book-publishing job editing and translating books from French to English. After moving to free-lance editing, she decided to go on for a PhD in clinical psychology, but needed a more reliable income.

She heard about another graduate student financing her studies by helping people organize household moves. Since her editing experience also involved organizing, making sure that books were logically and coherently put together, she decided to work toward becoming a professional organizer.

A `junk chair' user

Winston says she practices what she preaches. Sometimes she purposely lets filing work accumulate, she says, so she can attack it for an hour or so when she is bored or restless. ``Organizing is really a lot of fun, once you get the hang of it,'' she says.

Conceding she is not the neatest person in the world, she admits to having a ``junk chair,'' as she recommends in her book, on which to put clothes after a day's wearing. She says she never lets the clothes accumulate, however, for more than three or four days at a time. She also recommends a temporary ``junk drawer'' in the kitchen for odds and ends.

As a recent housewarming gift for her good friends Charles and Norma Fox Moxley, Winston reorganized their extensive book collection. The couple was moving to a larger apartment partly because the books had taken over many of the closets and kitchen cabinets. Winston organized the books, first alphabetically by subject - from history to psychology - then by author.

``Just the idea of going over to a bookshelf that's well-organized makes you much more likely to use it,'' says Mrs. Moxley. Winston, she notes, also helped her reorganize her kitchen in an earlier apartment move. Rarely used utensils and pans were stored in boxes under a numbering system that put the least-used materials on the highest shelves.

Winston says the rewards of her job are many, though it usually takes a while for clients to grasp what's required and be willing to make tough decisions.

``The first few hours together can be quite stressful because I'm suggesting a whole different approach to doing things,'' she says. ``But then, all of a sudden - like one of those comic books where the light bulb goes on over someone's head - the situation begins to change and they take over. That shift is very exciting. I've had to tell people, `Hey, I don't think you should throw that away!'''

Winston insists that no one can be organized who does not want to be. ``Desire is key,'' she says, ``and it has to be strong and genuine enough to overcome some often very deeply ingrained patterns. You can never organize anyone against their will - never!''

Do clients once taught to mend their ways ever fall back into old habits?

Winston surveyed 40 previous clients a few years ago: Ten said it ``didn't take.'' Twenty said there had been improvement and a permanent level of change. And 10 said ``their lives have been changed; they are now organized people forever.''

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