Have you heard? The fourth quarter is here. Gulp!
If that makes you feel overwhelmed, you’re in good company. As we continue to move through fall, panic is crowding out that carefree feeling that we have all the time in the world.
With too much to do and not enough time, how would you like to feel like you’ve got it all under control?
The most important thing you can do today is create a system to get (and stay) organized.
Organize for Success
Productivity in almost any job requires some level of organizational skill. But if you’re a manager or supervisor who is responsible for not only your work but also the work of others, you must be a star organizer!
Being organized reduces stress, increases productivity, and frees your mind for more creativity. If you can master it, you’ll be on your way to faster career growth.
Over the years, colleagues have asked how I stay so organized. I usually respond that it’s just an illusion because I’m constantly working at staying consistently organized. It’s definitely a moving target. So, I’ve become obsessed with collecting every organization trick and tip I can find to squeeze one more task in my jam-packed days.
Below are 5 of the top organization tips I’ve discovered in my career that I’ve stuck with over time – because they work!
Five to Thrive!
I created a snazzy acronym to help you remember these 5 organizing tactics: PEPSI. (Nope, I don’t work for the cola company and am not receiving any kickback marketing dollars for this plug. It’s the only word I could come up with!)
- Power of one
Before any organizing of papers, emails, and tasks can be done, you need a way to see everything together. I’ve found that the best way to do this is one–and only one–to-do list and one–and only one–calendar.
I use MS Outlook for my calendar. It has work, volunteer, and personal time commitments on it. If you try to use multiple calendars, the likelihood of you double booking or missing an appointment increase significantly. Keep it simple.
The same goes for your to-do list. Create one master list and put everything on it. You’ll really feel a sense of peace when you know everything you have to do is in one place and no item is lost! Yep, that means get rid of all those sticky note reminders and little pieces of paper in your pocket or purse.
If something will take 2 minutes or less to do it, just do it. It’ll take two minutes to put it on your list and then find it and cross it off when you’ve done it, so just take care of it now.
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your supercomputer subconscious mind is capable of taking in 400 billion bits of information per second. It’s processing all those little pieces of paper and working hard to keep track of all of them.
That causes an underlying level of stress. Consolidate it all to one list, and your subconscious mind will breathe a sigh of relief!
I use Doit.com for my to-do list. It’s online and has a smartphone app. I can check things off and add tasks to it any time of day or night–whenever they occur to me.
I used to use a legal pad, and that worked, but I moved to a digital list when I found myself having to rewrite the list after checking off a lot of items. Whatever works for you is fine; just make that list!
- Everything in its place
A neat and tidy work area is a productive one. You should only have the tools and documents that you’re currently working with in your area at any given moment. Although being out of sight isn’t completely off your mind, it reduces the chance of distraction.
Rather than a file sorter or piles on your desk staring you in the face, set up hanging folders in a nearby drawer. As you’re cleaning your office (#1 above), before you put something away, add it to your to-do list. This will end the anxiety that it’ll be forgotten in a drawer.
If you don’t need a document for a project but want to keep it, quickly scan it, file it electronically, and toss it. Running an electronic search of your documents is much faster than rummaging through paper files.
These days, I only keep a handful of paper files on active projects. It’s a considerable time saver, and I can access my electronic documents remotely if needed.
Put books on shelves, supplies in a cabinet, and infrequently used items like staplers, hole punchers, etc. out of sight.
Ahhhh…. You’ve created a serene and peaceful workspace. Doesn’t your mind feel calmer already?
- Plan your day the day before
Now you’re ready to take the bull by the horns and make a plan! Before you leave for the day, review your upcoming day’s calendar and your to-do list. Prioritize what you need to do the next day based on your primary goals as well as looming deadlines.
By doing this, you arrive at work knowing exactly where to start. You avoid spending the first 30 minutes of the day trying to decide what you need to work on first.
It’s also satisfying to be able to mentally close the book on today knowing you have a sharp vision of what you’ll do tomorrow.
- Schedule your tasks on your calendar
Do this the day before during planning time (#3 above). Block time on your calendar for work just like you do for appointments.
This is helpful for two reasons. First, you can figure out how much you can fit into your day. This enables you to set realistic project timelines for yourself and with the people for whom you are producing work.
The second advantage is that you can move quickly from task to task during your day without spending time pondering what to do next. Even as unexpected things come up during the day, it allows you to quickly get back on track.
If you eliminate two minutes of indecision between each task and you have 15 tasks to do in a day, you just found 30 minutes! Woo-hoo! Who doesn’t want an extra 30 minutes in their day?
For this to be successful, you need to be realistic about how much time tasks take. Most tasks take at least twice as long as we think they will.
I’ve heard it said that we tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-term–like a day–and underestimate what we can do in the long-term–like a year or a lifetime. To guard against this tendency, double the time you think it’ll take you to do familiar tasks and triple, or even quadruple, your estimate on new tasks.
It can be surprising to have only 3 items slotted into your calendar, but if that’s what’s doable, you’ll significantly reduce your frustration and stress by coming to that conclusion in advance rather than at the end of the day. Also, this level of self-honesty opens your mind for creative solutions to getting things done because you can clearly see, you can’t get 20 hours of work done in an 8-hour day. Can you delegate? Automate? Outsource?
One last tip on scheduling your tasks. Be sure to block time for interruptions, emails, voicemails, mail, and phone calls. This can take up 90 minutes to 2 hours every day, so don’t leave this out or you’ll be frustrated that you repeatedly fail to meet your daily plan.
- Inbox Zero
I thought this was an urban myth until I dedicated a few hours and got to the elusive “inbox zero!” Now that I’m there and have blocked time daily to process new emails, it’s a breeze to keep it up.
I think this feels so good because of the Zeigarnik Effect. Discovered by a Lithuanian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, at the University of Berlin, it’s the mind’s need for closure. It turns out, our mind doesn’t like unfinished work any more than we do.
When something is left undone, it creates “psychic tension” in which the conscious mind spends mental energy keeping track of those open items. This explains why unfinished tasks tend to keep coming up in our minds, even waking us up at night!
Don’t fall into the trap of jumping in and out of your inbox all day in an effort to keep it clean. Stick to 2-3 scheduled times per day.
If email is a distraction for you, only open it during your email processing times. If you have the self-control to keep it open, at least do yourself the favor of turning off those pesky popups letting you know whenever a message arrives. Most things are not truly urgent and can wait a couple of hours until your next email block.
If a building is on fire, you don’t email 911. Be sure to let people know that if they have an issue that is indeed urgent, they can call you.
Here are three tried and true steps to quickly processing emails: scan, decide, and process. This process applies to not only email but snail mail and voicemail as well.
1. Scan the email to quickly figure out its contents.
2. Make a decision to either:
- Delete it
- Delegate it
- Do it (if it can be done in 2 minutes or less)
- Defer it
3. Process by deleting, forwarding, doing the task, or adding it to your to-do list, and then electronically file it in OneNote or a similar program.
Done and done!
Now that I’m addicted to a clean inbox, I time myself to see how fast I can get down to zero!
If I can do it, so can you. Schedule an hour (or three, depending on how big your inbox is!) and you’ll be amazed at how much lighter you feel!
The Good News
This article opened with bad news: the year is going by quickly. But we still have 50% of the year left–plenty of time to get it all done!
Common sense tells us that we can’t add more time into the day. But you can find time hidden under disorganized work habits. Give these 5 strategies a try; it feels like magic!
As you begin to form these new habits, be sure to take a moment to think about everything you’ve done today, this week, this month, or since the first of the year. Take a couple of deep breaths and bask in your accomplishments! It will accelerate you forward on your days when you don’t want to stick to your own plan!
Share your favorite organization tips or your experience with the ones above in a comment below.
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