Executive Function and Messy Offices

Executive Function and Messy Offices

I teach executive function strategies to students with and without learning differences, so I’d like to think I know a thing or two about organization. But right now—I hate to admit it—my office is a mess. There are piles of papers, pens and highlighters scattered about, and even a few candy wrappers on the floor (can I blame that on my students?).

I have plenty of excuses: We are busy preparing for a conference on Friday, a SMARTS workshop on Saturday, and then there’s Morrisey-Compton’s Executive Function and Learning Conference in Palo Alto on November 4th. We are putting the finishing touches on a few new SMARTS tools, drafting new SMARTS elementary lessons, and, on top of that, I have a caseload of 18 students ranging from 11 years old to 26 years old. I’m busy! So it’s OK that my office is a mess, right?

Finding Time

It won’t surprise you that many of my students also struggle with their own messes. Many of them are carting around backpacks that look like recyling bins—”exploding backpacks” as I like to call it. The problem is not that they don’t have a system; most of my students can explain to me how their binders and folders are organized. The problem appears to be finding time to clean things up. In a perfect world, students would put all their papers where they belong the moment the teacher hands them out. In a perfect world, I would clean my office at the close of each day. The challenge of organization, then, is often a time management challenge. Life gets crazy, no matter what your age, and therefore we will all struggle to keep things neat and tidy. If everyone has this problem, then it’s OK, isn’t it?

Make Your Bed, Change Your Life

I have another confession: I don’t make my bed every day. When one of my friends noticed this, he was shocked. He told me, apparently in all seriousness, “Make your bed every day. It will change your life.” In his view, by making your bed neatly each day, and presumably straightening up your room while you’re at it, you are creating a clean, harmonious, and organized space. This act sets the tone for your day, helping you be productive and on the ball. The same holds true for offices, backpacks, and the like. If my office is clean and orderly, then I will be able to be more productive and efficient. If our students’ backpacks are clean and organized, then they will be more successful at completing their work, or so the theory goes.

Organization is a Process

I refuse to feel bad about the mess in my office, but I can resolve to do better in the future and to share that process with my students. Instead of trying to hide the mess from my students (behind cleverly arranged potted plants, for example), I can be transparent with them. I can point out that my office is a mess, if they don’t beat me to it. Then I can explain why it got so messy, how I am going to clean it up, and what my strategy will be for preventing a mess in the future.

Your students are learning from you all the time, so make sure that your systems are visible. I may never be the kind of person who makes his bed each morning, but, as a working professional, I do have strategies that keep me organized and on track. By sharing how these strategies work and when they do not work, I’m modeling for my students how organization strategies are used in the real world.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director