If you’ve decided to get your house in order at work, then that is a major step along the way to perfecting your organisational skills in itself - the truth is, that organisation at work is not a mysterious formula, known by only a few, but a series of small decisions and little habits which add up to create an ongoing sense of order that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, too much organisation can be stifling, just as too little can result in lost efficiency, and adrenaline fuelled panic when deadlines loom too near, or important documents wander off. The perfect balance of organisation and creative chaos is different for each individual, and will be shaped by the role you do as well as your personal preferences; but if you’re looking to make a change, pick a few of the ideas below to get you started, and seek out and add in others as your organisational skills develop until you find your ideal mix.
Find your system
Clutter is the enemy of organisation, and a cluttered desk rarely belongs to an organised mind. That said, one size does not fit all in this respect. You may keep all your appointments in your online diary or smartphone, and use your online calendar religiously to track engagements and block out periods of time to work independently. You may prefer a paper system of to do lists and a Filofax; either way, keeping a note of any agenda, minutes or commitments with the original meeting booking, helps to keep tabs on what you committed to do at any given meeting.
Don’t drown in documents
When it comes to documents, it is inevitable that we will need to manage and maintain information one way or another. This may be through a series of hanging files or desk trays, using a filing cabinet or desk drawers - or you may have no paper whatsoever, choosing to read and electronically file away documents and emails as you receive them - and even scanning and destroying any paper that comes your way. Keeping track of your paperwork online should be easily done as long as you implement a virtual filing system and stick to it. Review your arrangements periodically to make sure the system still suits you, archive or delete documents that are no longer of use.
Set goals and timelines
Organisation at work owes as much to a tidy mind as it does an uncluttered desk, and organising your working day, week and month into a series of goals and timelines can help you see the wood for the trees. If you can, take time to plan the next days work at the end of the day before, which helps you to sleep better and start the day focused. Even if you can’t do this, give an appropriate amount of thought to what you’re doing that day - don’t drift, but rather set yourself a number of solid tasks to complete that day - three or five is fine, long to do lists are generally counterproductive, and there is no reason you cannot re-write your list if you have finished it by ten in the morning.
When it comes to planning tasks, try to plan the big chunks first - it helps to use the rocks, stones, pebbles, sand and water analogy (if you do not know this story, try this version here, or google for videos and other resources to demonstrate the theory in question). Think carefully about what your ’rocks’ are - the activities, tasks or roles which are most important to you, and ensure you schedule them first before arranging the smaller stuff. Think carefully (and apply whatever level of cynicism is required) if you are offered a ’development opportunity’ which seems to take you away from your core tasks, learn to say no. If a meeting does not appear fully relevant to you, can you attend only the part that you need, rather than attend an engagement that fills your day but leaves you staring out of the window and worrying about the emails that are flying into your inbox in the meantime.
Identify urgent and important
If, even after you have prioritised and stripped away the frivolous exercises, you struggle to feel organised and in control, it may help to reconsider your tasks in terms of urgent and important. Straighten out in your mind which jobs need to be done immediately, which have longer term deadlines, and what their relative levels of importance are. A key report with an imminent deadline, for example, might be both urgent and important, whilst other activities might seem on the face of it to be equally urgent, but have less importance overall, leaving you the option to renegotiate the deadline or delegate the task to others.
Work out where your time goes
A further way to put you back in control is to examine exactly where all your time goes in the course of an average day. It is a laborious (but curiously satisfying) task to complete time logs, detailing every minute of your day; but by doing this you are free to properly examine whether the time is spent wisely. Do you find yourself doing tasks which seem of limited importance, or coming up against the same deadline stresses time and time again? Take a fresh look at your tasks over the week, and look at what you might be able to ditch, what you simply have to do, and what you can delegate. Iron out habits which are unproductive, such as checking incoming mail constantly – instead setting aside several times a day to clear mail, responding, filing and deleting as you go. Think also about which ’water cooler’ conversations are adding value, and which are aimless (or procrastination). If you need more hours in your day - you can usually find them with this exercise!
Work with your body
Are you a night owl? Or a lark? Work with your body to complete the most demanding tasks at the time you are best able to focus. Think about how you can use down time, or times of day when your energy naturally falls to file documents and keep your organisation in order. Use travel time similarly, sorting out expense receipts, emails or documents, to feel lighter and more organised by the time you step off that train!
It is often said that the most difficult thing about starting a new exercise regime is getting the running shoes on for the first time - and simply starting to think about getting more organised is a step on the way to mastering a clutter free mind and desk; make the small changes that make the biggest difference to you, and see how far you can go.