Such a waste of time

Professional organizer Deb Lee runs a neat feature on her organizing blog every Friday, titled “Fact Friday.” This past week, she featured a statistic from 1992 that I found to be fascinating:

“In a recent survey of 200 executives of 1,000 of the nation’s largest companies, respondents were asked: ‘What percent of time do executives waste because they or their assistants can’t find things?’ The median response was 4.3 hours a week, based on a 40-hour week.”

[When Time’s Money, Organizing Pays Off · Penny Singer · New York Times · November 29, 1992]

Computer usage and digital search functionality have certainly increased and improved since 1992, but I doubt that this statistic is much different today. Now, we search for things like old e-mails and mis-named documents instead of paper memos and proposals.

The lede paragraph of the New York Times article says that six weeks a year are wasted looking for items when you’re disorganized. Think of all the work you could accomplish in six weeks. Amazing.

13 Comments for “Such a waste of time”

  1. posted by Glenn on

    “Now, we search for things like old e-mails and mis-named documents…”

    It is because of this situation that I have really learned to appreciate “Google Desktop Search”. It goes through and stores data on the actual contents of files and emails so that you can search for keywords that you believe are contained in them.

    Windows has also come out with a tool that is supposed to do the same thing but I have more trust in Google and since my computers are not running Windows, Google’s tool is the obvious choice.

  2. posted by mjh on

    It would be interesting to know what the overhead cost of staying organized is. From my personal experience, it’s high. It’s a price that, in the areas I’m organized, I’m willing to pay. But in areas where I’m disorganzed I’m unwilling to pay it. Generally speaking, the latter areas are the areas which rapidly disorganize without any input from me. (E.g. my garage is occupied most of the week by my 4 children.)

    If the overhead cost of organization needed to overcome the 4.3 hours/week is 6 hours/week, then it may be more efficient to just stay disorganized. Of course, if organization helps you feel better about yourself, then it may be worth it. On the other hand, if the organization necessary to overcome the 4.3 hours/week is only 1 hour/week, then it’s more efficient to be organized. And if being organized gives you an emotional boost, then it’s a double-good.

    But clearly this hinges on the opportunity costs of keeping organized or staying disorganized. Are there any studies available that weigh the time costs of being disorganized with *all* of the time costs of being organized?

  3. posted by the weakonomist on

    MJH made my point for me. It’s a serious effort for me to organize. I love sites like unclutterer for the content but I think it’s a bit naive to think that those 4.3 hours a week all go straight into productivity.

  4. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Staying organized becomes a particular challenge when you’re a family. Often, when one spouse is organized, the other isn’t (“opposites attract, right?). By default, the household organizing task and follow through become the responsibility of the organized one, because they have the list! When it comes to keeping on top of family matters, sharing responsibility isn’t enough. Couples need to share information, too. That’s a problem if all of the details are on the organized one’s personal computer or Daytimer. My solution is an online family record keeper and organizer, which is accessible by both partners anywhere there’s internet access. You’ll find it at

  5. posted by Laura on

    I see mjh’s point, but I think a lot of the effort in organization is up-front, like deciding on a naming convention for your documents and a folder structure for storing docs on the computer. Once those things are decided, if you follow the conventions, finding things becomes much easier. The key is to make the conventions simple and not have too many categories– which is what I find challenging.

  6. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    Is organization that high of an ongoing time cost, though? I think of it more as an up-front investment of time (time to set up a filing or time management system, say) that only needs time for maintenance afterwards. Of course, if the maintenance time needed is more than the cost of disorganization, it definitely doesn’t make sense to get organized (but such a disparity of costs makes me wonder how useful the original organization effort was).

  7. posted by Casey on

    Seems to me that the larger problem is only having 200 executives per 1000 companies. No wonder they can’t find any thing, they probably left it at their other company.

  8. posted by mjh on

    I didn’t mean to suggest that organizing is always, and everywhere, a net time consumer vs. time saver. My point was that, in my life, it seems to be a time saver in some circumstances and not others.

    I was just wondering if there were studies that had been conducted that measured the general time costs of getting and staying organized across several different areas.

  9. posted by asrai on

    There is an entire book about why being organized is not necessarily better. It’s called A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. You can read excerpts of the book at their website.

    My filing system looks messy, it’s a pile on my desk. but I can find what I’m looking for in a short time and I haven’t “wasted” anytime setting up and maintaining a filing system for my bills. But to someone who likes organizing it’s not wasted time. I find that this way saves me time and stress. I would spend more time filing and unfiling papers. Can I have my extra 6 weeks time in vacation?

  10. posted by asrai on

    Also in this “study” where the execs looking for items because of being disorganized? And what does one consider disorganized?

  11. posted by Love for Unclutterer « The Paperless Assistant on

    […] was no different. Yesterday, they ran this tasty morsel: Professional organizer Deb Lee runs a neat feature on her organizing blog every Friday, titled […]

  12. posted by Deb on

    weakonomist makes a good point…all the hours spent searching for things might not necessarily turn into productivity hours if one is more organized…but, some of those hours may turn into “fun” hours or just hours of doing absolutely nothing. That’s definitely worth it to me. More order = more productivity + more time doing the things I love to do.

  13. posted by Anna on

    Interesting the mention of computer digital search functionality – my employers have moved to a network system where the search function has been disabled!

    Given that a large portion of the workforce isn’t exactly highly IT-literate, and another portion create and handle more electronic documents than the rest put together, this is an impressive move, yes? 🙂

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