Review of Organizing for the Creative Person

Each of us on the Prof. Hacker team has our own history with a range of productivity texts and tools.  Organizing for the Creative Person: Right-Brain Styles for Conquering Clutter, Mastering Time, and Reaching Your Goals by Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping is a key part of mine.  One of our regular commenters, Tria, turned me onto the book in the mid-1990s, and it has had a lasting effect on me.  The fact that it was first published in 1993 and is still in print today shows the book’s importance for a lot of people, and I’m betting some of our readers would benefit from knowing about it.

The book starts with an overview of brain research that led to Dr. Roger W. Sperry winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981.  He pioneered research into the ways the right and left sides of the brain serve distinct functions.  In general, the left side of the brain controls logic, speech, and objectivity.  The right side of the brain is home to emotion, creativity, and humor.  Lemkuhl and Lamping write, “While some people use each side almost equally, most people naturally depend more on one hemisphere of their brains than on the other” (20).  Most organizational strategies (and books/websites) target the logical, orderly left side of the brain, which means they often frustrate those who are right-brain dominant.  The rest of the book details strategies for those who prefer creativity over logical, emotions over intellect.

Part of figuring out what strategies will work for you starts with figuring out what ways the different sides of your brain dominate the other.  Rarely does someone fully favor one hemisphere over the other.  Personally, I feel the left side of my brain take over whenever I deal with time.  I don’t wear a watch, but I naturally remain pretty aware of what time it is throughout the day without one.  I’m never late for a meeting or class.  In fact, I’m often the first one in the room.  But the right side of my brain takes over when it comes to discipline.  I rarely deny myself anything when it comes to food, money, or whatever else.  The time management and productivity books that mention rewards for meeting goals have never made sense to me.  I once tried to tell myself I could spend a certain amount at Amazon if I wrote a specific number of pages by the end of the month.  I didn’t write the pages, but I still spent the money, and I have a long history of such behavior.

The book details various strategies for handling particular instances of right-brain dominance whether it’s with issues of time, clutter, or emotions.  The biggest epiphany I had while reading the book came in the chapters on physical space and paper management.  In a nutshell, I realized that drawers are evil.  Putting things away in a drawer means allowing them to disappear from my mind, with the emphasis fully on “disappear.”  It’s much better for me to have organized piles on open shelves than organized files in drawers, and I never would have thought of such an option before reading this book.  For my campus office, I bought a desk with no drawers but a wide, flat surface where I can spread out documents and store more things within my sight.  Sure, I’ve got a couple of file cabinets for older reference materials, but things related to my current projects and responsibilities are all on various visible, open shelves, which has made a world of difference for my sense of organization.

The book was written well before online tools existed, but I think a lot of the ideas can be transposed onto the digital world.  Rereading the book for this post helped me realize why so many tools and techniques praised in other Prof. Hacker posts do not ring true for me.  Last August, we had a post on organizing class files, much of which is based on Merlin Mann’s concept of losing the shells.  There’s a lot of logic in that post about getting rid of paper materials and storing only digital copies.  Many commenters applauded the idea, and it seems perfectly logical.  But for a right-brainer like me, especially when it comes to paper, keeping only digital copies functions not as storing them but as hiding them.  Yes, I keep electronic copies of everything, but I also have files for every class I’ve ever taught with lots of paper in them.  This spring, I’m teaching a class I last taught in 2005.  When I open the computer file that contains all of the course handouts and readings from four years ago, nothing registers for me.  I just see lists of words.  But when I pulled out the paper file a few weeks ago so I could order books, I spread all of that paper out in front of me–a true right-brain technique–and felt things fall easily into place for me.  I made little piles out of the big one.  I reviewed doodles and random notes, annotations on printed readings and even new ideas on the back of a hotel bill I wrote on a flight form Phoenix.  I’m sure the five-foot-by-four-foot expanse of paper would make many Prof. Hacker writers and readers nervous, but I found it calming and beneficial.  And reading this book has helped me understand and appreciate why such strategies work for me.

If reading traditional organizational websites or books causes more stress for you because the ideas don’t ring true, I recommend checking out Organizing for the Creative Person.  It might show you a way of doing things that completely counters what works for others but that can revolutionize your sense of the world like it did mine.

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