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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

What Interviewers Really Want to Know When They Ask “How Do You Stay Organized?”

two people sitting across a table from one another (only one person's face visible) during a job interview
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No one wants a hot mess of an employee. Missed deadlines. Stalled projects. Less-than stellar—or, let’s be honest, sub-par—work. Miscommunications. Frustration. Beyond struggling in their own role, a disorganized worker can wreak havoc on their peers, managers, and direct reports, as well as any clients or customers they interact with.

So it’s no surprise that hiring managers, recruiters, and other interviewers are looking to avoid that chaos by asking candidates about their organizational skills, systems, and strategies. Often, it comes in the form of a direct interview question like, “How do you stay organized?” or “How do you keep yourself organized at work?”

If you’ve made your way successfully through any kind of professional, academic, or extracurricular environment, you’ve surely had to take steps to keep yourself organized—whether it’s using a note-taking app or project management software to track steps and milestones on a larger project, creating a deadline calendar for every assignment on that semester’s syllabi for your four courses, or making a checklist of everything you need to pack for weekend tennis tournaments.

But you may not have spent much time imagining how you’d talk about the strategies you use. The good news is that you just need to reflect on something you already do on a regular basis and shape it into a brief, digestible response.

Why Interviews Ask About How You Stay Organized

When my team was looking for an intern to help us make significant progress on a couple of backburner projects that we lacked bandwidth to tackle, one of the most important things I wanted to hear from the candidates I interviewed was how they stay organized and manage their time. They’d be working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and I wanted to be sure—for their sake and ours—that they could handle the work from afar. It was helpful to be able to vividly imagine them taking ownership, making a step-by-step plan to complete the projects, keeping track of tasks, and reaching out when they needed help or clarity.

In that sense, the question is pretty straightforward: Interviewers want to make sure you can get the job done, says Muse career coach Kristine Knutter, the founder of communications skills training company Express to Impress, who regularly helps clients articulate answers to interview questions. “They want to hear you answer with confidence that you’re able to handle a large workload and able to organize yourself” with some kind of system, she says. The question gets at your ability to manage your time, set priorities, and meet deadlines—which will help you thrive in any kind of role.

Interviewers also want to know whether you’ll take on too much and get overwhelmed or quickly burn out, Knutter says. “Are they going to be able to communicate when they have too much?” Staying organized and managing your time requires self-awareness and the ability to judge when you need to reach out for support.

Asking about organization is a way to “at least attempt to understand how someone is emotionally aware of strengths and weaknesses,” says Muse career coach Steven Davis, founder and CEO of Renaissance Solutions, who has more than 20 years of recruiting experience. Davis regularly asks this common interview question himself, as do the many hiring managers he works with.

It’s “designed to understand how someone approaches stress,” he says, which can also give interviewers a sense of how you might deal with the unexpected—and what it might be like to be around you. “One of the byproducts of disorganization could be anxiety and even anger or irritability or creating worry or self-doubt,” Davis says. Beyond looking to hire a reliable employee, interviewers want to feel out what kind of energy you’ll bring to the team and how that might impact those around you.

At the end of the day, what system you use doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you have one that works for you. “They want to know that you’ve thought about it at all,” says Muse career coach Kelly Poulson, a former HR professional. “If you’re stopped in your tracks,” she says, the folks trying to hire you might wonder, “How do you get anything done? How do you achieve things on time?” In short, interviewers aren’t looking for you to have one right answer—there isn’t one—they just want to see if you have an answer.

8 Tips to Answer “How Do You Stay Organized?”

Use these tips to put together your answer:

1. Reassure Your Interviewer

Interviewers are looking for reassurance, Knutter says. You can provide it through what you say—in a nutshell, “Yes, I’m organized and I can get things done”—and even more through how you say it. “The communication coach in me always notices how a person delivers the answer,” Knutter says. “It’s important to answer confidently, with a positive attitude and at a normal pace.”

Showing enthusiasm and eagerness to answer the question and otherwise framing your answer in a positive light can help reassure the interviewer that you’d have things under control if they were to hire you. “Even something as small as, ‘Oh yeah, absolutely, it’s been very important in my current job,’” Knutter says, can help you start your answer off on the right note.

2. Describe Your System—and Be Specific

One of the biggest mistakes Knutter sees people make when answering this (and other) interview questions is giving a vague or general response. Interviewers really want to know the details: What exactly do you do? Which tools or software do you use? What routine do you follow? Who do you talk to?

“In any answer to any interview question, the how is most important,” Davis says. Do you keep a meticulous paper planner or to-do list? Do you swear by the Kanban view and commenting functions on Trello to track your own tasks or collaborate with your team? Do you use your Google Calendar to plan and block off time for various recurring responsibilities throughout the week? Do you spend 30 minutes every Friday afternoon or Monday morning reviewing your schedule and workload for the week and managing your priorities?

Whatever it is that works for you, make sure you walk the interviewer through it in enough detail that they can envision the process.

3. Attach It to the Underlying Why

Covering the how is important, but explaining why can help you showcase other skills and qualities and tie your organization system to impact and results. Your answer should cover, “How has your system helped you and benefitted your team?” Davis says.

For example, if you use Trello or Slack to share updates with your team regarding an ongoing project, you might talk about how this transparency ensures everyone has the information they need to complete their portion and allows you to troubleshoot and make alternate plans for any unforeseen delays, ultimately keeping you on track to finish projects on time and within budget.

4. Mention Communication and Collaboration

If your goal is to paint a realistic picture of how you’d operate in your job, you have to take into account your context and surroundings. “Most people’s jobs are not in silos—they’re working with others,” Knutter says. “You can’t organize your tasks unless you have communicated well with others to understand what their needs and expectations are.” So it’s important to acknowledge where communication fits into your organization system and strategies.

Perhaps you have a standing agenda item for your weekly one-on-one meetings with your manager to check in about priorities and discuss which pending tasks are most urgent. Or maybe you collaborate with colleagues in another department on a monthly report and have set up a workflow using Airtable that allows you to update the status of various components and ping things back and forth at different stages of the process using comments and tagging.

5. Don’t Be Too Rigid

Interviewers want to know you’ve thought about organization and time management strategies and that you have a system in place that works for you. However, they might also want to see if you’re flexible enough to adapt to a new team and to unforeseen circumstances. “It’s important not to be too pigeonholed or too rigid,” Davis says.

What if your manager suddenly needs something urgent completed by the end of the day? Or what if your coworker has a family emergency and needs to be out for a few days while you’re working on a big project together? “If you’re organized, you’re usually building a foundation to deal with unexpected occurrences,” Davis says. So acknowledging that things come up and indicating that there’s room in your system to adjust can help, again, reassure your interviewer.

It may be as simple as adding something like, “When an unanticipated task or project comes up, I typically take a few minutes to step back, evaluate what it would require of me, and rework my daily to-do list to accommodate. In some cases, that means checking in with my manager to ensure we’re on the same page about the relative priority levels and timelines.”

6. Consider the Role You’re Interviewing For

As with any interview question, you’ll want to take the specifics of the role into consideration.

If you’re interviewing for a management position where you’d be leading a small team, for example, you might want to address how you break down larger projects into smaller components, delegate tasks, and communicate with your direct reports as well as company leaders throughout the process, rather than speaking only about how you track your own work.

The same goes for specific tools or methodologies. If you’re hoping to step into a sales role and the job description mentioned a certain customer relationship management (CRM) program you’ve used before, you can weave that into your answer to help the interviewer see how you’d hit the ground running. Or if you’re a software engineer or product manager, you might talk about how you’ve stayed organized and met deadlines while using specific Agile methodologies mentioned in the job posting.

7. Make Sure Your Answer Is, Well, Organized

You can talk all you want about staying organized, but if your answer comes out as an incoherent jumble, it won’t inspire the kind of confidence you’re going for. In order to stay organized in any job, you need to be able to organize your thinking, too, and you can demonstrate this ability in how you structure your answer.

“Interviewers love organized answers with numbers,” Knutter says. So you might say, “First, every week, I…” then “Second, each morning I…” then “Third, when it comes to collaborating on larger, ongoing projects, I…” then “Lastly, when an unexpected or urgent task comes up, I…” You could break it up into chronological steps you take, talk about a few different tools or strategies you use, or walk the interviewer through how you approach different scenarios. “It’s impressive to interviewers when you can organize that on the spot,” Knutter says.

8. Keep It Succinct

If giving a messy answer would cast doubt on your organizational skills, so would rambling for five minutes and losing the thread of the question. While you want to be specific enough that the interviewer can get a clear grasp of your system and imagine how you’d use it in the open role they’re trying to fill, you don’t need to talk through every single strategy you’ve ever tried or offer a million examples of what each one looked like in practice.

Your answer can be “short, sweet, and to the point,” Poulson says. And if the interviewer wants to know more about how you’ve used a certain tool or is eager to have you walk them through a specific project you led using some of these strategies, they’ll ask a follow-up question.

Example Answers for “How Do You Stay Organized?”

Let’s say you’re applying for a social media coordinator position. You might answer with:

“I take pride in my ability to stay organized, and it’s really come in handy in my past roles and especially the social media assistant job I’m in now. First, I keep a really meticulous calendar for each of the platforms I’m responsible for using Hootsuite—which I noticed you use here as well—and I try to block off time twice a week to get ahead on creating and slotting in posts. 

Second, I’m a big fan of Trello, where I have one personal board I use as a to-do list color-coded by type of task and marked with priority level and one shared marketing team board that we use to coordinate campaigns launching across social, email, and other channels. We pay very close attention to the news in case we need to pause a campaign to avoid launching any insensitive content. If needed, I’d tag all the relevant stakeholders on Trello, immediately suspend all scheduled content in Hootsuite, and, depending on the scale of the situation, start a discussion on Slack or suggest a meeting to reassess strategy. 

Finally, I created a shared folder on Google Drive with subfolders by campaign that I update with one-pagers on goals and strategies, assets, a record of the actual posts deployed, the performance analysis I conduct after each one, and notes from our team retros. That way, there’s a go-to place for anyone on the team to refer back to past projects, which I’ve found really helps us learn from every campaign and incorporate those learnings into what we’re working on next.”

If you’re interviewing for a sales manager position, you might say:

“Great question! As a manager, my ability to stay organized is key for me and my team. I have to say I’m totally a paper-and-pen devotee for to-do lists. Every Monday morning, I create a weekly to-do list in the notebook I keep with me at all times at work, separated into sections, including one for each of my direct reports, with checkboxes I can easily mark as completed. That really helps me get an aerial view of the coming week. But then each morning, I like to grab a sticky note and write down the most important items I need to tackle that day in priority order to help me focus. Of course, that’s always subject to change if someone on my team comes to me with an urgent question or problem, and I try to build in some buffer to account for that—whether they need help talking through a tricky script or could use some backup on a call. 

Every month and quarter I set up a tracker for individual and team sales goals in Google Sheets and update it when any deal is closed. I have a reminder on my calendar to spend some time reviewing the tracker every Friday and making notes on steps to take the following week—whether it’s checking in with an account executive who’s behind on their individual goal to strategize or taking time to recognize an SDR for how thoughtfully and effectively they’re teeing up AEs to succeed with new prospects.”

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