A binder and a hole punch.
I am not a particularly organized person. Case and point: I recently found my sunglasses in the refrigerator. I have left important articles at people's houses so many times that now whenever I visit, we have to go through a checklist before I leave: Sunglasses? Check. Cell phone? Check. Keys? Check. Shoes? Well, you get the idea.
Needless to say, this level of disorganization does not bode well for a doctoral candidate. I doubt my adviser will patiently go through a checklist with me: research question? Check. Research participants? Check. Hypothesis? Uhhhh woops, left it in the refrigerator.
However, I have found my saving grace: a binder and a hole punch. Just give me those two things and I am an organizing machine. Color coding? Absolutely. Cross-referenced by date and subject? You got it. Glossary of keywords and assignments? Didn't even break a sweat. I can't quite wrap my head around it - how can I simultaneously leave my keys on top of the dryer on a regular basis, yet be able to find the date where a certain statistical term was covered 7 months ago in about 30 seconds? I attribute it to the binder and hole punch - the tools I need to make organization happen, and since I'm not a confident organizer, I rely on them.
Having the right tools makes any activity better though, doesn't it? But I find in areas where I am confident, I don't need the tools quite as much. I love to cook - I'm pretty good at it too. And with a great stainless steel knife and a copper coated pan, cooking is so much fun. But you know what? I could whip up something with a wooden spoon and my old scratched-up Teflon pan that I used all through college. Because I know how to adjust the intersection of ingredients, time, and temperature to fit a different kind of pan. But I'm not confident in my ability to organize sans tools. If I don't have my binder and hole punch (And it has to be both - binder without hole punch = might as well not have anything) important papers accidentally end up in the recycling bin, notes end up scattered throughout five different notebooks (and possibly the back of a few receipts from the grocery store) and assignment instructions end up in the linen closet. I'm only half kidding.
This makes me think: do we do enough in schools to teach students how to find the tools that they need personally to manage their time, store their information, and access their resources? My binder and hole punch may be another student's google docs, and yet another one's 5-subject notebook. Judging by the fact that I am now in my 20th year of school and I am just now realizing what I need to force myself to be organized, my guess is no. We are not teaching students to figure out their own system that helps them be successful. But it's hard to blame the schools. How can one justify taking the time to talk about binders when there are MCAS exams to prepare for, frameworks to cover, and 8 snow days worth of material to make up? (Hawaii, you have no excuse.) It seems like there just aren't enough hours in the day, and a hefty subject like how to seek out the right tools that can make each person successful could be a class in and of itself. But college attrition is a huge problem and while it is being studied at many angles from SAT scores to heavy drinking, I wonder if students just don't know how to look for the right tools to be successful once they enter a more independent learning environment.
My hope is that by using my binder and hole punch, I will build habits and patterns of organization that will eventually be so strong, that I could make do with any tool, like I can when I am cooking. So while tools are incredibly valuable right now, I hope their purpose will be to render themselves dispensable. That's what tools should be - an aid to building intrinsic habits. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go hunt down my shoes.