When disorganization derails your workflow

This guidance shows you how to cope.
By Teri Saylor

Some workplaces have employees who seemingly thrive on chaos and have difficulty managing their time.

While you may be continually reminding colleagues to submit the reports that you need to complete assignments, they may struggle to meet your deadlines because they are disorganized. This not only creates a high-stress environment, but it also can put your organization in jeopardy.

Disorganization is bad enough when everyone is working side by side in the office. But its effects can be magnified during a time period when so many people are working remotely — like during the current pandemic.

Individuals might be messy and disordered because no one ever taught them how to be organized, said Odette Pollar, a consultant and owner of Smart Ways to Work of Oakland, Calif. 

"Sometimes people compensate for their disorganization by working longer hours, not taking breaks, skipping lunch, and working weekends," she said. Over time, they are likely to fall behind and struggle to catch up. When that happens, their problems spill over and can affect your entire organization.

Pollar and other workplace experts offer strategies to help you cope and gain more control of your workflow, even when it's others causing the chaos.

Recognize disorganization is different for everyone. Thanks in large part to technology, our world is becoming increasingly more complex. "Back in the day, being disorganized meant having a messy desk," said Kelly Harris Perin, founder of Little Bites Consulting of Durham, N.C. But in the modern work world, people are plugged into many channels, and the definition of "staying organized" is different for everybody.

For some, being disorganized still means struggling to maintain a neat desk. Others have difficulty keeping their tasks and to-do lists in order. Then there are people who can't manage their time or set priorities and may need a helping hand, according to Harris Perin.

"If disorganization is a problem in your workplace, create teams that work together and help each other stay on track by sharing ideas and exchanging tips on how to be more efficient," she said.

Get to the root of the problem. If your colleagues are not meeting deadlines or are showing up at meetings unprepared or not showing up at all, they may be struggling, according to Jessica Iennarella, CPA/CFF, controller at the State Bar of Arizona in Phoenix.

"When people don't remember they are expected to attend a meeting, or are unprepared and muddle through, they are viewed as less than professional," she said.

Iennarella recommended taking a strategic approach by finding out why they are struggling to stay on track. Are they obsessively checking their email? Allowing too many interruptions or spending too much time online? Help them create simple strategies for managing their time, such as scheduling specific times to respond to emails and setting aside time to shut out interruptions. If the problem runs deeper than simply being disorganized, it may be time to consult a manager to determine next steps.

Quantify the cost. Being in constant disarray often comes at a cost. One obvious example: If you don't pay an invoice on time, you could incur interest or penalties.

If your team's inability to stay organized is causing your firm or business to lose money, develop strategies to ensure tasks are completed on time. Working ahead on projects by completing items that are not time-sensitive before a deadline looms or breaking large projects into small tasks and putting them on a timeline to measure progress will help keep everyone on track, Pollar said.

Figure out how to manage up. You may struggle to manage your time because your boss runs up against key deadlines or holds up a project you're working on. When this happens, it can be difficult to encourage them to change because they may not be receptive to your suggestions.

Iennarella recommended taking a soft approach.

Instead of being confrontational, explain that the timeline you have in place is not sufficient to meet your deadlines. Then follow up by asking how you can better communicate your need to stay on track on your end. If nothing changes, try to work around the problem by setting earlier deadlines that compensate for the delays you encounter along the way, she said.

Clarify expectations. Sometimes individuals struggle to stay organized because they don't know what is expected of them, according to Harris Perin.

"When people are promoted into a position they are unfamiliar with and don't have clarity around their job, then they may consider everything urgent and fail to prioritize," she said.

In a case like this, it's about defining work expectations and learning to set priorities, a skill that often comes with time. As a manager or co-worker, providing support and skills training can help your team members overcome their deficiencies and get more organized.

Help those who don't realize they have a problem. In some instances, people are not aware their disorganization is harming the entire team. If you manage a small group, it's easier to determine which employees are struggling and help them develop strategies for success. It's up to them to accept your observations or coaching, and if they don't change, you should decide how to deal with it, and that may be by implementing corrective action or micromanaging them to bring their work up to standards.

"Try to cope with it for a month, and if nothing you suggest works, you may need to consult with managers to explain your concerns," Iennarella said.

Bring in a professional organizer. If your team is so disorganized that you can't handle the problem alone, Pollar suggested hiring a professional to help create systems for you and your employees.

"Find someone who does this professionally to show you how to catch up on backlog and finish your mountain of work," she said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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