052 – Think Again: A Mindset for Getting (and Staying) Organized

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Episode Summary

Being organized is not a one-off activity. It’s about maintaining a mindset and desire to be intentional about finding systems that work well for you.

More importantly, it’s about being willing to think again and regularly reconsider whether those systems are still serving you well.


Items Mentioned

Assignment Sheet Central

Lesson Planning: A King-Sized Master Spreadsheet


Digital Organization Coaching

  • Sign-Up for the Online coaching series that begins January 27, 2023 [here]
  • Join the email list for future notifications [here]


Tiny Tip

Hall’s Mini Cough Crops


You’re listening to episode #052 of The Piano Pantry Podcast. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin, an independent music teacher like you.

As you know, living the life of an independent music teacher means everyone else around you has no clue how much else goes into the job besides face-to-face time with your students. A frequent question from my own parents isn’t “are you working today, honey?” it’s “do you have students today?”

While it can be irritating if I allow it, it’s completely understandable why people view us that way. They can only understand what they know and see, right?! Plus, that’s how many of us might have imagined it would be. We just teach, right?! Wrong.

Like many things in life, things never end up exactly as we imagine. Only you and I can really know how many hats we wear.

No matter how long I’ve been doing this, I can’t tell you how many times I have moments where I stop and look up at the sky and go, “I thought I signed up to be a piano teacher, and now I find myself 50% music teacher, 10% social media content creator, 10% graphic designer, 10% marketing manager, 10% writer, and 10% business owner (percentages of which I am of course pulling out of thin air) but the point is made.

We have a lot to keep in order, which is why we’re starting at the foundation in today’s episode. That is, we’re not talking about specific organizational tactics (I’ve got a great opportunity I’ll share with you later in the episode for that), but about the mindset that will help you get and, more importantly, stay organized.

Do you use hand-written assignment sheets for your students? Do you ever get tired of using the same old sheet or wish you had something with a little more structure? Check out Assignment Sheet Central on PianoPantry.com where you can download a variety of sheets I’ve designed over the years ranging from themed sheets like Star Wars and the Piano Safari method to basic sheets for adult lessons, group classes, and more. With more than 20 free assignment sheets, you can easily switch them up to keep things fresh with each new semester or year. Find the link in the show notes.

Being an organized person has more factors that come into place than we may often think. It’s often easy to assume the only reason a person is organized is natural tendency or personality (and rightly so). It does come more easily or intuitively to some than others. That being said, being organized doesn’t have to look any one way for every person.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone say, “I’m not organized like you, but I have a method to my madness, and it works.” My reaction to that is: Great! Exactly! That’s the point! Being organized is not about organizing things in a certain way. According to the dictionary, it’s about being intentional about creating and ****maintaining some kind of structured order of a whole.

Organizational structures have to be intentionally created, but they have to be created in a way that makes sense to you and that is something that fits your brain, personality, and natural workflow.

If you’ve ever watched shows like The Home Edit, while I love seeing all their beautiful eye-candy-organizational-like structures, I often wonder how long it takes those clients to fall into disarray. You might be surprised to hear that my pantry is not full of plastic storage containers that I pour all the contents of items into and arrange by color. First, organizational structures must be practical and formed in a way that you can carry forth daily. I mean, what happens when they buy that next box of cereal and the container isn’t empty yet? They end up with the box still stored in the pantry anyway!

Besides creating the right system for you, here’s where I think it becomes easy to hit a brick wall and the big reason a lot of people don’t feel very organized or, even more so, struggle to stay organized.

There’s not enough re-consideration going on. You either get frustrated because you can’t maintain a system, or you set up a system based on what you see someone else doing, and then, when you can’t keep it up, you just feel like you’re a total mess and unorganized person when really, it just wasn’t the right system for you.

In the digital organization coaching I do, there are two phrases that I state over and over 1. “don’t let the system control you, YOU control IT” (insert anything you like: email, lesson planning, document storage, whatever), and 2. “your system requires upkeep AND regular reconsideration.”

As I was hashing out titles for this episode, one that came to mind was “Wash, Rinse, Repeat: A Mindset for Getting (and staying) Organized.” When I looked up that phrase, though, it’s known to be a sarcastic metaphor taken from the shampoo industry for following instructions or procedures slavishly without critical thought, which is the exact opposite of what I want you to understand today.

Organization requires a mindset of willingness to THINK AGAIN continually.

My systems are constantly changing, and sometimes when I’m not even expecting it. Let me share a few stories of some of the organizational struggles and paths I have worked through over the years and maybe you can relate.

One of the first I can recall early my teaching days was, as you can imagine, lesson planning. I tried things like typing out plans for all students for each day on one page using bullet points to having one per student per lesson and printing them out. I tried writing out plans for each student on a recipe card – which I’ve learned quickly – anything hand-written does not work well for me. Nothing quite nailed it on the head.

Then, about 2-3 years into my teaching, I remember seeing an article in the MTNA American Music Teacher Magazine about creating a spreadsheet, and boom, I was inspired to create this large master spreadsheet where I could easily see all my students in one document weekly for the whole year. You can read about it on the Piano Pantry blog in a post called “Lesson Planning: A King-Sized Master Spreadsheet,” which I’ll link in the show notes.

Another thing I was trying to figure out how to juggle best was tracking student assignments from week to week. For quite a few years, I simply took a photo of the student’s written assignment sheet at the end of the lesson so I could easily refer back to it as needed. The photo-taking and spreadsheet lesson planning worked brilliantly for me for about five years until, suddenly, one day; it didn’t. Sometimes organizational structures are simply part of life cycles, and I think this was one of them.

At the MTNA Conference in Spokane, Washington, in 2019, I learned about Tonara, the online lesson assignment program. I dabbled in it for a year, and then Covid hit, and boy, was I happy I already had my toes wet with the program and wasn’t thrown into the deep end like many teachers, trying to figure out both online teaching and giving lesson assignments. This is where I phased out formal lesson planning – but I still love that spreadsheet.

Here’s my second example…

When it comes to organizing hard-copy music books, I think it’s important to organize them by how you think about music or pieces. For example, you may love everything Martha Mier, and perhaps you find it easier to search for a book of hers when they’re all filed under Martha Mier rather than by level like elementary, late elementary, and so forth. Maybe some composers you tend to go directly to in that way, so you organize their music by level, but others you like keeping by name.

For years mine were all the same until one day, it dawned on me that there were some books I had organized by the composer that I never used because they weren’t a go-to composer in that way. I didn’t know their music enough that was looking for it directly, and I would be more likely to utilize that repertoire if I kept it organized under the leveled section. That day I wasn’t even planning on reorganizing my music it was just a fleeting idea I had that took me maybe an extra 10 minutes to think again and resituate.

Third example…

I’ve been working on our cabinet area, where we store glasses and coffee cups, trying to figure out how to utilize the space best. Sometimes organization comes with assumptions that have to be broken. For example, we likely assume all water drinking glasses should be stored together, coffee mugs together, water bottles together, and special glasses for alcoholic beverages together. But what if we think again and consider organizing them by height so you can better utilize your cabinet space? I realized this when I had a shelf unit adjusted like 50% higher than normal simply to accommodate a few taller items in a category on that shelf when everything else could fit in a much shorter space. I don’t know – I’m trialing this, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll rearrange it again.

Fourth and final example…

Keeping up with email has been a continual evolution. A lot of things that we do digitally these days can be simplifed. I used to keep quite a few different folders for organizing emails, but these days I have almost entirely done away with folders as the All Mail/Archive folder and powerful search function make it so easy to be able to easily retieve any email you might need to go back and find. I’ll admit, this one was a little hard to let go of at first because we have that comfort zone level where we want to control things and it can be scarry to try something in a different way. I remember one-day sorting emails into folders and suddenly stopping and thinking, why am I doing this. Do I really ever go back into most of these folders, or am I just holding onto this system because I’m scared to let go?

Being organized is not a one-off activity. It’s about maintaining a mindset and desire to be intentional about finding systems that work well for you. More importantly, it’s about being willing to think again and regularly reconsider whether those systems are still serving you well.

Thinking again doesn’t make you an organizational failure; it means you’re willing to have an open mind and not be afraid to say. I’m not sure this is working anymore; I wonder if there’s something I could tweak to make it a little easier or better. We have so many different things that we are juggling as teachers every day, from lesson plans to student assignments, games, digital resources, email communication, photos and videos of students, social media groups, and more.

Don’t tell yourself you’re not organized, just tell yourself regularly it’s time to think again.

Now that we’ve talked mindset let me tell you about an opportunity I have for you! Starting on January 27 and running for eight consecutive Fridays, you can join me for a series of small group digital management coaching sessions. Each Friday, we will meet from 12:00-1:00 pm EST via Zoom to work on getting your digital workspaces in order. I’ll walk you through clean-up, re-organizing, and rethinking future upkeep of eight major areas, including your devices, email, media, document storage, and more. Offered no more than twice a year, space is extremely limited. Start your semester off right, finally tackling all the things that are easy to brush aside.

Visit the link in the show notes for more details or to register. If you’re interested but unable to attend this session, you can place your name on a special email list to be part of the first to be notified when future dates become available before registration is open to the public.

See you there!

In this 2023 season of the podcast, I’ll be ending each episode with a tiny tip, including teaching tips, organizational advice, favorite products, and more. The cold and flu season is so prevalent right now I had to share a recent discovery. They’re mini’s cough drops! The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was under the weather – the kind that had me sleeping and reading in bed off and on all day. My husband made the trek to the store for some medicine. He couldn’t find my usual favorite cough drops – Equate sugar-free menthol, so he grabbed a small pack of Hall’s sugar-free Mini Cough drops. What a discovery! I love keeping them next to my bed as sometimes, when I wake in the middle of the night; I can pop one and have it clear my mouth more quickly (and safely). I’m not too fond of cherry or honey-flavored cough drops, so the other day, when they didn’t have the menthol, I tried a Watermelon flavored one, and yummy, yum, yum. Way better than the nasty cherry. Try them out using the link in the show notes!

Don’t forget to sign up for the digital management coaching series! See you next week!