How Stephen Covey Changed My Life Forever (Well, Sort Of) Our writer suspended disbelief and joined a Covey seminar for the perpetually cluttered. The result? He became a member of the club.
By Jeffrey L. Seglin

(FORTUNE Small Business) – My name is Jeffrey and I've had a tidy home-office space for 21 days. If you're not weeping joyfully, maybe you don't realize what a big accomplishment that is for me. See that volume of Peter Drucker's seminal The Effective Executive over there? It hasn't been visible since 1994. That's because, until three weeks ago, mountains of books--30 volumes tall--lined the front of the five already jammed bookcases against the southern wall. My desk was piled high with stacks of papers, magazines, and note pads, if you consider amoeba-like masses of pulp to be anything as orderly as a stack. To the left of where I sit, against the western wall of the office, were two (well, maybe three, since they kind of interlocked halfway up and sprouted a new shoot) piles of newspapers, each about three feet high. On top of the papers were five empty cigar boxes (you never know). A sea of books, note pads, pens, and newsletters, as well as a box of staples and a small stack of offers for no-annual-fee credit cards, was piled on the ottoman that allegedly matches the easy chair pushed up against the windows.

It sounds messy, doesn't it? Still, I was always able to find the necessary file folder in the four-foot stack of file folders behind the office door (did I mention those?). And I had my own cleaning system. I'd work like crazy on a project or two. (I'm a writer and college professor.) After letting things pile up, I'd spend a weekend purging. Then, last spring, this whole psyche-sapping way of life got to me. I decided it was time to start fresh, to adopt a better system of making my office a place I would find comforting, soothing, and inspiring.

Okay, that's not precisely how it happened. Actually one of my editors saw my office and said, "Let's get that guy some help." And Franklin Covey--the Betty Ford Clinic for the perpetually cluttered--was the first place I thought of to turn for help. I had been aware of the now-$585-million company since before it grew out of the merger of the Franklin Planner system folks and the company that guru Stephen Covey had built to train people in those seven habits of highly effective people he peddles. But I'd never been much for those time-management, self-esteem, self-help, make-myself-a-better-person-through-pricey-seminars type of people. I could never quite embrace the idea of calling a calendar a "system" and committing myself to a lifetime of expensive refills and add-ons and of greeting fellow carriers with heartfelt queries about how their "system" was working for them.

Still, I suspended all disbelief and signed up for a daylong seminar at a hotel in downtown Boston. Titled What Matters Most, this course was based on a book of the same name by Hyrum W. Smith, who co-founded the Franklin Institute in 1984. The subtitle of Smith's book is The Power of Living Your Values. I wasn't convinced that my tidiness issues had much to do with my moral fiber. But as I was about to find out, my clutter defined me.

The seminar might have been more appropriately called How to Assemble and Use Your Franklin Planner 101. The 46 of us--17 women, 29 men--spend most of the day taking out various packets of pages and dividers and clicking them into our binders. The types of businesses represented vary widely. There are a handful of sales guys from a division of Gatorade, a couple of women from Frito-Lay, a minister and his wife from Brooklyn, an account rep from Nextel, a husband and wife who are both researchers at Harvard Medical School, and a fellow who works for his family's lumber company in western Massachusetts. We sit in groups of five or six at several long tables facing the front of the room, where Mike Wuergler leads our seminar. As part of the seminar price ($279, excluding bulk discounts), we've been awarded a Franklin Planner starter kit, which is a big box with a binder and all the pages we'll need to organize our sorry selves. As we start taking out the pages and putting some in our Franklin Planner binder and some in the storage binder we keep for later use, the main thought going through my head is that I'll have yet more paper to keep in that already cluttered office of mine.

As befits someone who has incorporated the seven habits into his life, Wuergler runs a tight ship. He tells us we'll break for lunch at 12:23 or 12:24, and sure enough we break at 12:23:37. We're each here for different reasons, but that doesn't seem to matter much to Mike. To guide us--in an organized manner, of course--he uses a seminar workbook that we're each given as we arrive. In it, we work through such issues as differentiating between things we can control and things we can't control. We also spend time establishing what our values and roles are in our lives, and constructing a personal mission statement (more on mine later).

All of this is what makes the Franklin Planner more of a system than a mere calendar. We're not just jotting down daily ticklers here; we're talking apotheosis. If we do this right, we're going to be morally cleansed, spiritually clear about our raison d'etre. If we lose track of said raison, we can look it up in our cross-referenced daily task list and mark it with a big dot, which is code for "in process."

To be sure, what makes the system more than a system is Covey himself. But no matter how organized he seems, don't expect him to show up. Dr. Covey does, however, appear on video showing a woman the difference between the big issues and the small issues in her life. To pull this off, he uses an empty ice bucket and a bunch of small and big rocks with labels of things that are important to her. The message here is that we have to make room for the big rocks in our lives.

Because of the rocks and a slew of other reasons, I could gripe that this seminar has nothing to do with helping me to get my office clutter-free. But I actually understand what they're trying to tell us: We can't become organized until we have broader guiding principles. To get to where we want to go, we have to recognize the power we hold within to make it so. (Am I really saying this?)

That realization took all day. We finish up, as our guru promised, exactly at 4:30. Before we leave, Mike reminds us that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. He asks us to write him a 21-day letter to tell him about our progress. In our planners, 21 days out, is a small preprinted piece of paper with a reminder to write the letter. To reinforce the preprinted reminder, he has us write a note to ourselves on that date. Twenty-one days seems like a commitment I could keep, especially after spending the day assembling all the tools required. I left convinced it was worth a shot. On the train ride home, a young woman sees me lugging all my Franklin Covey material. She tells me how the seminar changed her life. I take it as a sign that either there's some real hope for my office or I've managed to engage myself in some cult and my life as I know it is effectively over. Which is it? I'm about to find out.

"I want to do good work and leave the world a better place."

Even as I say it, I know what I sound like: Miss America. But I'm hoping Bill, my new Covey friend, will buy it. It's my umpteenth attempt at a mission statement. And frankly (and please don't pass this article on to him) I'm getting tired of hearing how well Bill's mission statement works for him. If it's given him such a lift, I am dying to say, how come he's stuck on the phone with the likes of me? It's his job, I'm horrified to say. As part of the seminar package, you get access to a coaching hotline so that you can ask someone at Franklin Covey for advice should you somehow confuse a role with a value or a mission with a task. You can also purchase time with a personal coach who will speak with you by phone for a half-hour every week to work on a particular project. It costs an additional $1,000 to $2,500 to talk to a coach between four and 12 times.

Bill Crowther, a former athletic trainer, is my guy. Prior to our first of four 30-minute phone meetings, I spend roughly 13 hours over two days cleaning. I even take a vacuum to a room, parts of which haven't been vacuumed since before Franklin merged with Covey. We spend most of our sessions together exchanging mission statements (let's just leave his like this: Bill is one righteous people-person dude), talking about goals, discussing what roles I see myself in, and talking some about organization skills.

On its Website, Franklin Covey has a mission statement generator on which you plug in adjectives and phrases a la Mad Libs, the children's game. I tell him that I find Covey's version to be ponderous and pretentious. He asks me for mine. Each time I come up with one, he asks me if it addresses all my goals and roles. I tell him that I think it does. Well, I think it does. He grills me in a way that feels as if I'm being put through the rungs of some Rogerian client-centered therapy session. "Tell me what that would look like," he might respond to my recurring comment that not having piles really is a big pain. "It would look like piles," I say. "How does that make you feel?" he might ask. "Fine," I say. "Tell me about your 'fine.'" Bill's worried that three or four active files will turn into seven or eight and then 11 or 12 and then, before you can say "Where will all the big rocks go?" you're back in a cluttered office. Rather than bullying me, he patiently listens to me respond to his gentle probings.

Bill makes clear his desire (by repeating himself over and over and over again) to have me get rid of all the piles. I tell him that having several active piles handy so I can turn to them when a relevant call comes in is easier for me than filing them across the room in the large filing cabinet. He suggests I try an accordion file. I tell him some of the piles include materials that won't fit in an accordion file. We compromise. I use the accordion file for the paper piles and stack the books separately. I find having two piles for some projects to be counterproductive, but I do it. I sense that Bill thinks I'm in denial and already miss my cluttered ways. I think this because when I ask him whether he thinks I'm in denial, he laughs. My concern, I tell Bill, is that I straightened up the office out of guilt and that unless I knew he was going to call me every week forever, I wasn't sure this would take. Bill tells me that the goal is to have my guilt "turn to pride." Hmm, I think. I'm not sure when the last time was that I felt pride in my office. (Oh, I remember: never.)

Coach Bill, perhaps in another attempt to kill off the accordion file, calmly recommends I read chapter 5 of G. Lynne Snead's To Do, Doing, Done! (Fireside, 1997), in which such filing methods are laid out. Snead is a vice president with Franklin Covey. Chapter 5 is called "It's Hard to Manage Your Project If You Can't Find Your Desk." Snead argues that we should sort all the stuff that comes into our office into three categories: trash, fileables, and action items. More helpfully, she offers this boldface observation: "You can't prioritize a stack." And that's when it hits me like a low-flying stack of accordion files zooming across my sightline smack into my clutter-filled forehead. Of course I can prioritize a stack! If I'm working on three or four projects at once, those stacks take priority over everything else.

I finish my spiel. Quiet. I suspect Coach Bill is ruminating on how to tell me that my revelation is nothing but crumpled ruminations from a cluttered mind doomed to live a cluttered life. But Coach Bill surprises me. "What I'm hearing and what I would probably recommend at this point is, Don't feel like you have to categorize and document and reference everything," he says. "Keep your piles. Let them work for you."

"Really?" I ask, taken aback.

"Can you find something you're looking for within ten seconds?" he asks.

"I have a better shot of finding it in ten seconds if it's out in a pile than if it's not."

"Then that is your own customized filing system."

And that brings us up to today. The piles are gone from my office. As I finish projects, I have a place to store the files. My appointments are recorded in my planner and cross-referenced to the projects. More important, my sessions with Coach Bill reassured me that as long as I'm diligent about regularly filing and trashing, my modified method of piling can serve me well. In other words, what I've learned through the process is that I'm free to be long as I'm not a pig about it. Praise Covey!

Jeffrey L. Seglin ( teaches at Emerson College in Boston and is the author of The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart (Wiley, 2000).