Keeping work organized is a fool’s task in today’s world.
The win-at-all-cost mentality of most businesses forces us to have too much to do and too little time to do it in so we sacrifice seemingly non-essential tasks (like the 10 to 15 minutes each morning to get organized for the day).
See our post, "3 Ways to Reclaim Your Agency's Time," to find new ways to make time to be more productive.
Add to that the never-ending stream of news, information, messages, and content coming at us from email, social media, text messages, DMs, and more and our lives are a junkyard of lost tasks and missed deadlines.
Wasn’t technology supposed to make things better? It can, but technology alone is just technology.
People who rely on software or apps but don’t have a better experience are suffering from PEBKAC—the Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. A hammer doesn’t nail things. You nail things with a hammer.
How you use the technology dictates how much it solves your problem. Keeping your work organized is not a technology issue. It’s a user issue.
So how do you stay organized despite climbing up a waterfall of never-ending new work and information? You get your tools aligned—your calendar, to-do lists, inbox, and folder—then you lay on the right mindset to be organized.
The Calendar of the Organized
Your calendar should be the hub of your organization. Everything you do for work should be accounted for in your schedule for each day.
It may seem ridiculous to put “check email” on your calendar, but the reason you’re having a hard time staying organized is that you aren’t accounting for those little, but important things in your schedule for the day.
Using your determined mindset and the information from your inboxes, populate your calendar to build a chronological list of things to do each day, then stick to it.
As long as you’re properly placing to-dos and tasks on your calendar—so that you eventually have time to do them—the only reason you won’t stay organized is that you didn’t stick to the plan.
Some ideas to keep your calendar working for you include:
- Schedule three 10-minute appointments to check your inboxes. (See more in our "Inbox" section below.)
- Take tasks that can’t be accounted for in your inbox time and find openings on your calendar to assign yourself time to complete those tasks.
- Schedule time for lunch and breaks. Without proper time to walk away from the computer, desk, or task during the day, you’ll lose energy and not be as efficient as possible.
- Schedule travel time to appointments so you don’t have to clutter your commute with a conference call from the car.
- Stand firm on keeping the appointments you make with yourself. If coworkers ask you to move a “meeting” to accommodate a time for whatever they’re inviting you to, it’s perfectly okay to say, “I’m sorry. I’ve got a firm commitment then.”
The Lists of the Organized
As you might gather, I like to use my calendar as my to-do list. That’s why I’m insane about scheduling time to do the little things like check email. If your calendar style is more broad, that’s okay. But you’re going to need to keep a list.
The most successful taskmasters I know keep a daily to-do list in a journal or legal pad. They check off or mark out tasks as they accomplish them, add new tasks that arise through the day to the bottom, and always have a handy instruction sheet on what to do next.
The critical thing they all do, however, is sit down with their lists at the beginning and end of each day to review, prioritize, reorganize, and refresh.
For the electronically inclined, there are typically task applications integrated with your email or work suite software.
Apple users have Reminders. Google has Tasks. Both integrate with your calendars and contacts for convenience. I use the free version of an app called Wunderlist on my phone. It also has a desktop interface and group/contact functionality to share task lists with coworkers.
Regardless of what method you use to create your list, to stay organized you have to continually prioritize your list.
Most people do it daily. If your work is more fluid with lots of new daily tasks, perhaps you need to prioritize on the fly. But you can make a big dent in efficiency by using some methods to ensure you’re always moving tasks off your list.
One approach I like is the 1-3-5 Rule espoused by The Daily Muse founder Alex Cavoulacos.
The premise is you only have time in a day to accomplish one big thing, three medium things and five little things. Pare your task list down to those nine entries and do them by the end of the day. Anything left over can move to tomorrow’s list.
For more list geekery, get Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto.
The Inbox of the Organized
Perhaps the bane of any organized person’s existence, the email inbox (or most frequent messaging inbox, depending on your organization) is often the most important place to be organized.
But the inbox is not an effective place to get work done, so fighting the temptation to live there is a challenge.
This is where simple and cheap technology can be a big help. Using email for big stuff (project requests, external communications) is fine, but get yourself out of never-ending email threads around projects and tasks through messaging.
Let’s say you get a project request from a coworker via email.
Instead of replying with questions and clarification in email, walk down the hall and talk to them in person. Want it in writing? Okay. Message them via Skype, Slack, Messenger, or whatever internal messaging platform your company might use.
This leaves your inbox for more important matters and external communications. Manage that with some simple productivity tips:
- Only check email for 10 minutes at a time, three times per day (beginning, after lunch, and end are my suggestions).
- If you can reply in less than one minute and resolve the email, do it. If you need more time to investigate, consider, produce a response, etc., put that task on your calendar and list (more below). If the issue is resolved, delete the message.
- If it’s a minor communication and from an internal source, tell them you’ll respond via your messaging software. This encourages them to ask the frivolous, minor things there, uncluttering both of your inboxes.
The Folders of the Organized
Whether on your desk, your computer’s hard drive, or your company’s server, folders remain the ultimate weapon in the war against disorganization. Why? If you keep things in folders, divided by project, process, or topic, you don’t waste valuable work time finding things.
That said, your folders need to be labeled so others can use them, too. Use clear labels and even dates in filenames so it’s easy for you (and others) to find and put files. My folder labels are typically something like:
Business> Clients> Workfront> Guest Posts
Even a child can see that my guest post for Workfront is filed under "Guest Posts" in the "Workfront" folder, which is a "Client" for my "Business."
To get even more granular, I might file images under the client in an images folder, then within a sub-folder either by the topic (press conference pictures, head shots, etc.) or the date with a reminder of the location or event of the image.
This structure works for paper folders, too. Whether you print off your contracts, presentation slides, work orders, or other hard copies, putting them in clearly labeled (or try color coded) folders in a file rack on your desk or wall helps you get what you need quickly and efficiently.
And here’s a pro tip: as the paper you have in the folder is used or is no longer needed, throw it out or file it away in a separate folder in an archive drawer. That way you keep the current folder pared down to only what you need.
The Mindset of the Organized
So, we’ve talked about the hammer, but remember: the hammer doesn’t nail anything. All these tools are moot if you’re not using them with the right mindset and intention.
You won’t find an organizational system, from David Allen’s Getting Things Done to the Eisenhower Method and Pomodoro Technique, that works without the user changing behavior and mindset to implement it consistently.
If you wish to be more organized, you have to establish new ground rules for your work behavior, and stick to them until you have a new, more productive habit, or you decide it’s not working for you.
With the above explanations of the tools in mind:
- Stick to your calendar.
- Say “no” to requests not on your list, or at least “I’ll put it on my list and address it when I can.”
- Write things down. Especially tasks. Put them on your list!
- Ask someone else to help hold you accountable. A friend, coworker, or spouse can ask daily, “How’s today’s list going?” Even that can kick you in the pants enough to stay on task.
- Always use software or apps for certain tasks. If that’s your style.
- Never use software or apps for certain tasks. If that is.
The rules you establish have to fit your approach and lifestyle, but be prepared to integrate a new habit or two and mentally enforce the use of those habits just like learning to go to the gym each day for a workout.
Being Organized on The Fly
The tools and mindset you need to be organized do not change to help keep your work organized as it happens. You just have to be flexible enough to adapt to the workflow and funnel it into your system.
For example, if you go to a staff meeting and get three new projects or tasks from your boss, when you get back to your desk, add them to your list.
Re-prioritize the list based on the new deadlines and needs. Communicate new expectations to anyone affected by the shift of old tasks you hadn’t yet completed.
Get a random phone call or email with a new task? Same thing: add it to the list, quickly re-prioritize, and move forward.
If you do this and maintain a determined mindset of staying organized and scheduling time to get the required work done to accomplish everything on your list, you’ll find yourself not just being organized, but staying that way.
Check out "Get Organized: 4 Simple Ways to Keep Creative Projects on Track" for more tips for staying organized.