I had an epiphany while hiking with a friend a couple weeks ago. As we huffed up the hill, I tried to explain a few personal growth concepts I thought I knew very thoroughly—after all, I’d listened to a series of lectures on the concepts for dozens of hours. Embarrassingly, I could not articulate the main points of the lectures clearly at all. I wondered if I understood them a tenth of what I thought I did, or if they were indeed as ridiculous as they sounded when I tried to explain them. Had I wasted dozens of hours listening to a bunch of pablum while believing I was making positive changes in my life?

I came home and reviewed the transcripts of the lectures, then crafted an e-mail to my friend with some of the key points I’d tried (and failed) to articulate. Doing this reinforced to me the importance of trying to explain what I am learning to another person. That way I can observe where my understanding of the material is weak, needs review and then maybe another try at articulation.

Those of us out of school don’t have the luxury of the classroom to discuss new learning with peers and teachers. We are also unlikely to have the time for in-depth discussions or to “bounce” ideas off each other. One reason book clubs are such a phenomenon is that we comprehend and remember material we discuss out loud so much better and discussion also makes the experience of reading more enjoyable, even if it is a book we don’t much like. Also, knowing we will be expected to discuss something tends to make for more careful reading.

I’ve talked many times in this column about the importance of journaling and writing down goals or action items as a major help to getting organized. This is the first time I’m writing about how necessary verbal expression—articulation—can be to achieving order. You can do this alone, by recording yourself into your phone and playing it back until you feel you have a good grip on subject at hand and can identify what next actions you might want to take. But getting feedback or seeing the expressions on another person’s face (are they bored? are they understanding?) is incredibly helpful.

Personally, I’m going to add more hikes with friends to my cardio routine to create some talking time. Lunches, coffee dates and dinners with friends—easy to put off in favor of staying at the desk or on the couch—are also great opportunities for idea exchange and tries at articulation.
If you are working on an organizing project and get stuck or don’t know where to start, try talking out loud. For example in a garage, you might say as you look around, “I see sports gear, car stuff, furniture, kitchen overflow, boxes of baby clothes, gardening stuff and tools.” Right there, you have your categories.

Keep going with things like, “I can donate the baby clothes. The party supplies need better containers. Once we sort the tools we can decide if we need a tool chest or just a couple small tool boxes. Tools are hard to sort and I need John’s help and permission. So I’m going to start by taking out all the baby clothes and putting them in the car for donation and then sort and measure the party stuff so I can buy new containers.”
If you’re working with a family member or professional organizer, dialog with them about what the purpose or vision is for the space, what is important to keep, what you might need to purchase in terms of shelving or other organizing supplies.

About 30% of the people who call me hire me just to talk through their organizing challenges and help them create a plan of action. Of course, ultimately doing the action at some point is never optional, but thinking and planning out loud will make the path clear and the actions needed more obvious.