This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: How to become an organized teacher with Organize 365’s Lisa Woodruff.
I’m speaking today with Lisa Woodruff. She is a former classroom teacher who now owns her own business and teaches organizational skills for a living. I am a subscriber to her Organize 365 podcast, which I highly recommend if you enjoy learning about the mindset of organization, as well as practical tips. Most are focused on the home but she does also have episodes on classroom organization.
Also, if you struggle with keeping your classroom papers organized, she has a Education Friday Workbox which is a system she created to help you find a manageable way to handle all the papers that come across your desk. It’s a physical box that is mailed to your house with folders inside and comes with training videos and a course … it’s a pretty cool system. (That link is my affiliate link, and I earn a portion of the sales on the Teacher Workbox at no additional cost to you.)
Use the player below to listen to the interview:
Lisa, tell us about what you’re really passionate about and what your mission is right now in your work.
Angela, thank you so much for having me on! I am passionate about helping women get out from behind the laundry and the dishes so that they have more time to do whatever they were uniquely created to do, which is different for every single person.
What is it about organization that you’re so passionate about? Why do you think that’s such a transformational thing for women to find their path with?
I think that to live an organized life frees up your time. I often say that there’s both time and money and it’s kind of like yin or yang. Often, we will sacrifice our time to save money, when if you just spend a little bit of money you would get a lot more time back. I see organization the same way. I would find that if I was doing something repetitively, but I stopped and I really analyzed and thought about what I was doing, I could streamline it a bit and save myself 5 or 10 minutes, which over time, would gain me a lot more time.
I knew that I was successful in a lot of the things I did because I was organized. Most specifically I saw it in the direct sales field. I’d been in a lot of direct sales companies, and the people who were organized and able to replicate what they were doing with their down line, always made like 10 times what everybody else made. It didn’t matter what they were selling. The fact that they were organized and able to create a system that other people could replicate, would boost their income. I knew that organization was a way to get more money and time. If I could teach people that organized way of thinking, then they could use that for whatever they wanted to get more time and money for.
Everyone wants to be organized, but some people probably would describe themselves as not naturally organized people. Do you think that there’s such a thing as naturally organized?
Yeah. I think we definitely have natural tendencies. Like I’m an analytical math person. I’m dyslexic — you could teach me spelling for the rest of my life. Spelling is just not automatic for me. I’m naturally organized, and I always thought you either are or you aren’t organized. What I found over time was that as a teacher, I was teaching them what I was doing as I went through it, and I would get these cancellations. I was like, why are they canceling? Their house is a hot mess.
What happened was that they were learning and they didn’t need me to finish the house. If I did a couple of rooms with them, they could finish because they saw the process I went through — it was a systematic process. This was probably the middle of 2012 after I had started Organize 365 that I realized that this is teachable. I knew that I would professionally organize people because that’s how I was earning my money, but then I knew that the Organize 365 blog was going to work, because I just needed to figure out what I was teaching and how to do that over the internet so people could get their homes organized somewhere else.
How much of what you teach is tactical and how much is based on mindset?
In the beginning, it was all tactical because I was a teacher. I didn’t know how else to do it. Now I would say it’s 90% mindset.
That to me is really interesting, and that’s where I really see the parallels between what you do and what I do. If teachers come to me somewhat for organization (more so for productivity, organization is a piece of that) I often find that there’s some sort of limiting belief of something else that is holding them back from creating change or from having the life that they want. If you want to get organized, there’s a gazillion articles out there about how to do it. If it were simple as just someone giving you a plan and then you just follow the plan, then everyone would be organized. If it was as simple as me just saying, “Here’s how to have more work/life balance, do these things, don’t do those things,” then every teacher would have a reasonable workload. There’s obviously more to it than that and it has something to do with that mindset or core beliefs they hold.
Yes. Also, I want to say that there’s an order to organization. I have determined that the order is decluttering, organizing, productivity.
Everyone wants productivity, but you cannot have productivity without organization, and you can’t have organization without decluttering. It has to go in that order. Even if you’re looking at your 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, the first thing you have to do is what can you get off of this list? What can you totally declutter 100%?
After you figure out what you can declutter, then you look back at your 62 hours that are left and you go, “Okay, if I combine all the grading on Thursday night, I could take five hours of grading and turn it into three hours just by organizing it in a certain pod. Or I could take all of our copies and only go to the office on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, so that eliminates Tuesday, Thursday. On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I not only go for copies, but I also go for supplies and anything that needs to be dropped off there.” Then you start to organize your tasks into batches, that’s the organizing part.
The productivity comes from working that plan: The productivity is the execution. Organization is how you get to productivity
I never quite thought about it in that frame, but you’re right. The first thing that I try to get teachers to do is to figure out what can I eliminate? If you have too many things on the list, it doesn’t matter how efficiently you get them done. You’re still not going to get them all done, and the truth is that a good third of them probably don’t even need to be done to begin with. They need to be eliminated — which is the word that I would use — but you’re saying declutter, which is the same thing. Declutter that to-do list, get rid of some stuff first, then organize it. Then focus on productivity.
Yes, and if you follow anyone that focuses on only one of those three, it’s because they’ve figured out the other ones intuitively. If you’re going to follow a true productivity expert who’s not going to teach you the decluttering and organizing steps, you end up frustrated because you understand that they are productively using this checklist and to do this less in these operating systems, but you didn’t do the decluttering and organizing parts, you never get the result that they had.
Likewise, if you only focus on decluttering and minimalism (that’s really popular right now, as in I’m just going to have less) it gives you an immediate reward because all of a sudden you see less because you’ve just gotten rid of a whole bunch of things. Decluttering is an immediate kind of a high, you can get really addicted to it. If you don’t then organize and increase productivity, then you just keep trying to declutter more to get that high back again. You don’t get it because what’s left really shouldn’t have been decluttered. Now you’re decluttering things that should not have been decluttered, trying to get more organized just from the act of decluttering alone as opposed to grouping like with like, and then productively figuring out where that best fits in your schedule and in your life.
Let’s talk about some of these mindset shifts then. The first step is decluttering. What are some of the beliefs or the mindsets that a teacher would need to have in order to effectively declutter?
First of all, as teachers, we can find a use for anything and we want to save it just in case. If it’s paper, we might as well laminate it so it will last forever. My husband would know, when we were dating, I was a preschool teacher. All I did was color, laminate, and cut out lamination for two years straight. I’d laminate stuff from home, and he would say, “Why does everything have to be laminated?” I was like, “Oh, because this lesson I’m doing now, I’m going to do for the next 20 years.” But, you’re not. I spent so much time coloring and laminating, I can’t even tell you.
The number one thing I would say now being in my mid-40s as a teacher is that, I never taught the same grade twice. If you’re making everything permanent so it will last for three to five years, but you’re never going to teach the same year twice, some of that you might not need to do. Also, we would keep (and of course this was in the 90s) but we would have these teacher closets of literally everything. Bottle caps and toilet paper rolls and extra crayons and all of that stuff.
Part of decluttering is realizing that today, Amazon Prime delivers. I know that costs money. But also, you can send an email out — all of your parents in your classroom have all of this stuff in their house, too. You can replenish your whole toilet paper roll stash in 24 hours. Don’t save any more toilet paper rolls until you actually know you have something coming up next week where you need those.
The decluttering is, having more of a “just in time” inventory or what you have planned in the next month even. Not what you might need for the rest of your life.
Yes. “Just in time” instead of “just in case.” That’s it. You know what, now I think back on my own teaching practice and I was exactly that teacher. I remember writing all the new state standards on chart strips because we had to display them. Laminating them all which cost the school probably 80 gazillion dollars and then they change the standards three years later.
I think we all laminated them!
I think about all the learning materials I made them, like this is going to be the best thing ever. I’m going to use this for years and then I wouldn’t, because even if I stayed in the same grade level in the same school and the curriculum all stayed the same–which are a whole lot of ifs–I wouldn’t want to do it the same way the next year. I would think of something better or some sort of twist on it. I spent a ton of time trying to make things perfect and make everything super durable and organized so it would last forever. The truth was, I just did not need to have that amount of stuff.
I’m just thinking, if instead of all of the preparation we make for the week to go into teaching, where we make everything as new and bright and perfect as it could possibly be, what if we flipped it? We still did the lesson plans and all of that, and we had all of the materials and we taught it. Then at the end of the week we’re like, “Okay, of those 20 lessons I taught, these five were really good and these two were amazing. I am going to take an extra two hours and take the two that were amazing and collect all the samples and put them in a binder and know that that I’m going to replicate next year.” Versus, doing that with all 20 on the front end.
I love that, really being intentional about what worked, what didn’t work, and being reflective. Just preserving the things that really deserve to be preserved, instead of starting off the planning process, assuming that everything should be kept and therefore needs to be amazing. That’s so good. Any other mindset shifts around decluttering that we need to think about? It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the classroom, just anything that you think that a teacher would need to know in order to move forward?
Decluttering is easy, it’s fast. It should not take you a year and a half to declutter your classroom, your house, whatever. You can literally grab black trash bags, turn on really good high powered music and declutter any room in 30 minutes or less. The only question you’re asking yourself is, do I need this? Really you should be asking, donate or trash? See how much you can get out of that room, not how you’re going to use stuff, but is there anything in here that’s trash? Then is there anything in here that’s worth donating to give yourself that space before you get to the organizing stuff.
What do you do if you are the type of person who looks around the room and panics and thinks, “I need all of these things”? What do you tell yourself then?
In that case, I would only do one subject or one shelf or the master bathroom or the laundry room in your house. Like an area that isn’t as emotionally charged and much smaller, and then just do that one space.
Okay, so start with decluttering in a place that’s easier. You just declutter this one area, so then you’re going to move into organizing that area that’s already been decluttered? You’re not going to ever do this out of order? Would you want to have all of your areas decluttered and then do all the organization or?
You could definitely do that, like if you want to take a weekend and just power through and declutter everything. Or do one room at a time.
Okay, so let’s say that you have decluttered this one area of your classroom and now you’re ready to move into the organization point, what are the mindset shifts that you would need to make here? Or maybe some of the limiting beliefs that you would need to watch out for?
Okay, so the first thing with organizing, I’m just thinking of this gigantic middle school classroom closet that we had. We taught Montessori, so we had a bazillion, million, trillion manipulatives. My co-teacher was amazing, she was wicked smart and such a fun teacher, but not organized at all. I swear I got the job just to organize this closet. In this closet were all of these materials, but there was no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever.
Now, there are a couple different ways you could do organizing. One would be to just do one bookshelf at a time. I would say this closet was the size of a really small bedroom. It was not a small closet at all. You only want to organize the space that you have the amount to actually organize and put it back. In this case, I started on a Saturday morning and I cleared out the closet, sorted everything “like with like” in the classroom, and then I built it back into the closet. I actually think I did it in the summer because it took me a week.
I would put all the science stuff on one table and all the math stuff somewhere else. Then once we pulled it out of the closet, we then saw more things that were broken or could be donated. And then we designated bookshelves in the closet for each of the subjects or each of the levels and put them back in. That would be a huge organizing job that you would do in the summer or maybe you would do it over winter break.
What about in terms of getting organized at home?
You’re not going to have time right now to organize your house if you’re actively teaching, so don’t buy my program. Do not do my 100-day program right now. It’ll just leave you frustrated. The one thing I would say to do is the Sunday basket and we also have a teacher box. Those two things organize paper only.
The Sunday basket was created in 2002 when I had two babies and I had paper everywhere and couldn’t get anything done. I’m a productive organized person, but I was paying my bills late because I couldn’t find the bills to pay them. I had this stack, 14 inches high of papers on the end of my kitchen counter, adoption paperwork, medical paperwork, direct sales paperwork, just all of it was mixed in there. I had no system whatsoever. One Sunday, I divided all my paper out on the floor and I had 40 distinct piles of things that needed action. I had slash pockets because I was a teacher, so I put them all in 40 different slash pockets. You know those plastic things that go in binders that have tabs on the end and they’re colored? I put those in a long rubber basket and then I started doing that every single Sunday night and I called it my Sunday basket.
I would go through all of those, decide what had to get done this week, because here’s the thing, you always have more to do than you have time to do it. It doesn’t matter if it needs to be done. The only questions is, does it have to be done this week? If I don’t get it done this week, it’s late or we miss the registration or something bad happens, and I would keep those out. Then I would keep the rest in there, and as I got mail or notes or ideas, I would throw them in the Sunday basket because they could wait until Sunday. This Sunday basket system and the teacher box system is similar: Anything that comes at you, like you get a paper from your administrator and you have to make some change in your future lesson plans, where do you put that paper? You put it in the Friday teacher box and then on Friday, you go through all those random notes and assignments that have been handed to you. You go through them and you make decisions: Am I going to do this? Am I going to do it now? Or can it wait until next Friday?
Often for us women, we are doing so many things especially during the school year that you need to delay everything as long as possible. Here’s the thing, you know this is true, you get a note from your administrator. They’re like, “You have got to make this change, you need to implement this change by this date.” What I would do is implement it immediately, because I’m a good girl and I want to get an A and I want to be obedient. By the time that day comes around, they change their mind. Sometimes when we take action right away so that we don’t forget, we end up doing work that we wouldn’t have to do if we waited until it was due. We would have known about that if it’s in a Sunday basket at home or the Friday box at school, it gives you a place to put all of those things instead of trying to remember them. I have nothing in my head anymore. I don’t have a to-do list because I have these boxes that I drop all my notes in and I set time every week that I go through them.
No time to finish reading? Download and listen on the go!
I really like what you’re saying here about delaying something, and that is going to be just music to people’s ears who already procrastinate. Yes, I’m doing something right.
I think for people like you and me who want to get things done right away, it’s really imperative to learn that because I learned that the hard way. I think of it as doing double work. You do it right away and then you find out something changed and so you end up having to redo it later. Or it’s something that you also have to get involvement from others, so maybe your co-workers also have to do something, and now you’ve done your part and they haven’t done theirs, so you’re waiting around for them. Again, it ends up with double work.
This idea of not necessarily doing it right away, but thinking about when is the optimal time for this? Then either writing a to-do list or putting it into that slash pocket so you can then deal with it at a better time. Or maybe all those things come on Sunday. Having this system where you’re not just reacting to things — that’s something that I hear a lot from teachers, is they had this great plan for the day and it’s constantly being thrown off because there are all these other things coming at them.
While it seems everything is urgent and important, not everything really has to be done immediately. Sometimes we just do it immediately, because we’re afraid we’re going to forget.
Right, and as you get those requests brought to you during the day, the reason why you’re doing it right away and interrupting your own plan is because you have your own plan written down. You know what you were going to do, but if you don’t act on this thing that was given to you, when are you going to do it and are you going to remember to do it? Where do you put it? On your desk? There’s no place to put it. If you have a place to put it, like a Friday box, then you go, “Can this wait until Friday?” If yes, that goes in the Friday box.
If you do all of your grading on Thursday and all your planning on Thursday, then call it the Thursday box and then you could put all of your grading in there too. Everything that can wait until that night where you’re going to do the work before you go home is all in that box in one place. We know that if we sit down and we do all the grading at one time or go through all of the notes at one time or call all the parents at one time, we save so much time from task switching, which can cost up to 20 minutes of time. It may not take you 20 minutes because you have your lesson plan written in front of you. But in offices, it does take 20 minutes for people to come back around to what they were working on. It costs us so much time.
Really having the system that allows you to delay things intentionally can keep you from feeling you have to try to remember everything or just take action right away.
Yes, and I have index cards which you know as teachers we have everywhere. They are like basically a penny for a pack in August, I buy so many of them. I have them in my car, in my purse, in my kitchen, in my office. Whenever I have an idea I write it on an index card and I drop it in the appropriate box. My big thing is books, I’m sure many people love books. Anytime I hear a podcaster talk about a book, when I get to my Sunday basket they’re usually seven book titles in there. Before this what I would do is I would go on Audible and I would buy the book.
Half the time, I didn’t actually want to read the book, but I didn’t know how else to remember the book. Now I look through it and then on Sundays I look at all of their reviews on Amazon. I’m like which one do I want to read now? I’m able to make a more thoughtful choice, but not forget about the book, and I didn’t put it on a to-do list anywhere. It’s just a note card in my Sunday basket. If reading is a big thing, which it is for me, then I just have a slash pocket called, “books I want to read someday.” If it’s one I don’t buy now, but I think I still might want it, it just goes in that pocket and stays there.
I do something sort of similar, but I keep it in a list, and I do it digitally. I use the notes app which syncs across my computer and my phone. I have a note called “books to read.” When I hear about a book, and a friend’s recommending it, I just put the title there and then next time I know that I’m looking for a new book or I’m already on Audible or I know I’ve got my new Audible credit for the month, I can go to that list and it’s already there.
I mean, there’s no one right way to do it, but I think experimenting to find something that works for you is really, really important. There’s just no way you can hold all this stuff in your head.
Are there any other mindset shifts or core beliefs that teachers need to have in order to get them to get the results that they want with organization?
Yeah, to believe that it’s progress over perfection. You’re not going to end up with a perfect system and then there’s no more work after this. Give yourself more grace and just realize that you’re doing the best you can and that organization is a lifelong skill. It’s a learnable skill and you’ll get more productive every day. I often tell people to take pictures before they start my program because they forget what it looked like, or because they’re striving for a magazine or a Pinterest image or perfection. They’re not realizing how much massive change they’re making in their functional organizing every day.
Yeah. I notice that with club members too. They’re so busy focusing on what could be possible and what they’re working towards. They don’t realize how far they’ve come. And when you really take that step back (which we try to do at the end of every month and then do a deeper dive reflection every quarter) and they think about it …”What were the changes that I implemented? I realized I did a lot on top of running a household, being a parent, being a full-time teacher. I did a lot of stuff and so much of this is going to be done in baby steps.” It doesn’t have to be this gigantic overhaul that you do all at once. It really can be spread out over time. It’s always going to be a work in progress as you said.
Yes. Definitely. Just giving yourself the credit that you give your kids in the classroom … like give yourself some of that.
That’s so good. Anyone who’s joined the club is listening to this thinking, “Oh my gosh, Lisa and Angela say the exact same thing.” We totally do! I’m so glad someone introduced us because we really are just preaching the same gospel here and it’s so fun to watch people’s lives be changed because of this. I mean, this is something that comes naturally to me like it comes naturally to you. It took me a long time to even figure out that other people didn’t know this stuff. The things that you just sort of see as solutions, and I didn’t realize that not everyone sees it. That this was actually like a gift and a talent I had to help people in this way. It’s just really cool to be able to use that and to not make every single person reinvent the wheel from scratch for themselves.
Let those of us who enjoy thinking about this stuff figure it out so that you don’t have to. You can think about all the stuff that you’re really good at.
Yeah, and I think for teachers, sometimes it’s better because you can walk around the building and find another teacher and ask them how they’re doing it and learn from them. In another way, you want to have it all together so you don’t want to necessarily let anybody know that you don’t know what’s going on or you don’t have it as together as you think other people do, which by now you’ve probably figured out they don’t either.
Then in diving into organizing the home like I do, all they see is the Instagram images that are put up or the Pinterest images or the magazine images, and they think that everyone else has it together and they don’t. It is a gift to reach women and help them realize that we’re all the same.
Often my podcast listeners, as I’m sure yours do too, will say, “It’s like you have a camera in my house, and you’re watching me.” It’s just because we are teachers and so you are our students. We watch you as much as you watch the students in your classroom and you know where they are starting to struggle. Or when you’re teaching a certain lesson, the whole class tends to struggle at this time with this concept, and we get it.
That’s right. Your podcast is really structured in that way. I’ve noticed that you do a lot of seasonal things like the topics that come up, which is exactly what people need. Tell us a little bit about the Organize 365 podcast, because I know that everyone listening to this is obviously an avid podcast fan and is looking for more great audio content. I get requests all the time for good audio podcast recommendations. If you are interested in organization, Lisa has some really great topics that she covers.
Well, thanks! It is kind of like a classroom, and I am a big thinker and a questioner like you are, Angela, and also a teacher. I find that the best lessons or the best teachers that I loved to learn from were not the ones who were just like, “Okay, do X, Y, Z,” but the ones that really made you think about it a different way, struggle with something in your mind, and then help you come to a resolution on it.
I help you with how to organize your home. You know the women’s movement is really big right now in women’s empowerment. What I think is holding us back is not men, but our homes. I know that’s kind of controversial to say that, but we have these expectations for ourselves and our homes that we will not let go of. We are trying to do all of those things and all of the work things and all of the personal things and all of the parenting things … We’re just trying to hold too tightly to all of these things.
I help you think bigger about why are you organizing your house the way you are. If you live in your house a long time like I do — I’ve lived there 22 years, bought the house before kids, then babies, grade school, middle school, high school, and college, and soon to be empty nesters — you do not organize your house the same way in all those stages of life. What stage of life are you in? What size house do you have? What are your income requirements and the amount of money you can or can’t spend on organizing your house right now? Then along those 22 years, I’ve battled with infertility, depression, and family members with ADHD. I dive into all of those different topics as they relate to how our households run.
That’s really fascinating and I’ve heard you say that before about how it’s really our households that are holding us back. Can you say more about that? It’s the expectations that we’re creating for ourselves?
Yeah, here’s a great example. Growing up and I do think it is generational — I’m Gen X and 46 years old — my parents are the oldest of the baby boomers and my dad loved that you vacuum the whole entire house. At 5 PM every night, somebody in the family would vacuum the house that my dad would come home to a perfectly vacuumed house. So I got married and thought married equals perfectly vacuumed house, right? I vacuumed the house, three or four times a week and then we had one baby. Then we had two babies and I was working from home earning a full-time paycheck. Every day at 5 PM, I was trying to vacuum the whole house and have a beautiful meal on the kitchen table, which is hilarious because I can’t cook! We were probably seven years into our marriage, the kids were toddlers and Greg would come home and I’d be like, “Do you see I’ve vacuumed? Look what I did.” He said, “Yeah.” I was like, “You know I vacuum like three to four times a week for you.” He said, “Yeah, well you know it’s nice, but it’s not necessary.” I was like, “Nice, but not necessary?” For seven years, do you know how many hours of vacuuming that is?
What are we doing because we think that it needs to be done? There is so much in our house that we are doing that completely does not need to be done, or we’re trying to please our parents or spouse, or we’re trying to prove we’re a good mother. I organized this lady who was divorced who had six children and was working full time when I was organizing for her. She had every single paper saved for every single child. Every math test, every spelling test, you guys know how much stuff this is right? It wasn’t the kids’ expectation or anybody’s expectation, but her own expectation on herself.
Okay. That’s great. Any final parting words that you want to leave teachers with? Anything that they should really remember and think about in the week ahead to sort of digest all that we’ve talked about?
What do you want to use your free time for? What’s uniquely you? What is the thing that you were uniquely gifted and created to do which is scary? Then what’s the first step you can take towards spending your time in that? It can be teaching — it doesn’t have to be something different — but maybe within teaching like creating your own curriculum, creating a blog, or coordinating an after work teacher activity once a month so that your school has better community together. It could be teaching related, but it is the burning desire you’ve always wanted to do or something you know you were created for, and then take the next step to do that.
The Truth for Teachers Podcast
Our weekly audio podcast is one of the top K-12 broadcasts in the world, featuring our writers collective and tons of practical, energizing ideas. Support our work by subscribing in your favorite podcast app–everything is free!Explore all podcast episodes
Founder and Writer
More resources on this topicExplore all podcasts
If you are a teacher who is interested in contributing to the Truth for Teachers website, please click here for more information.