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

Posted 21st October 2021 • Written by Stav Ziv on •

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?”

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.

Staying organized and managing your time requires self-awareness and the ability to judge when you need to reach out for support.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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