One: Recognize and Embrace Your Personal Organizational Style
When you think of organization, you might think of a tidy desk with a place for everything and everything in its place. The truth is, that's a model that is not effective for everyone. If it works for you, then congratulations! You've found your personal key to staying in control of your life. If a tidy desk is something you've struggled with, here's the good news: you may have a different structure that's just as effective. You can be organized whether you prefer your files in file cabinets or in a stack on your desk.
How long would it take you to find something important on or in your desk? You may be surprised to learn that although you consider your desk a "nightmare" you have a sense of where everything is. If that's the case, then stop trying to force yourself into a style that doesn't feel comfortable.
Can you really be organized if everything in your office is in stacks and the surfaces are covered with papers and files? The answer is yes. Particularly if you're a creative person--or even if you're not. If you're comfortable with this style of organization, quit worrying about what you "should" be doing and look for techniques and tools that will fit for you.
If you have tried to change your style to make it more like what you think proper organization should be, then give yourself permission to run your workspace in a way that's appropriate for you. It doesn't mean you're not organized--it just means you have a different approach.
There is a difference between a loose organizational style and clutter. Clutter can slow you down by distracting you from what you want to do. Accepting that your personal style may never be featured in house beautiful doesn't mean you don't need to spend time and energy maintaining and improving your work area.
Regardless of the organizational methods you choose, almost everyone can benefit from integrating a new technique or tool that will cut down on wasted time, space and effort. As you read the next nine suggestions, choose the one that appeals to you the most and plan to implement it today. Try to keep it simple for now and only assign yourself one new task. You'll have a greater chance of succeeding in your new habits. It takes about a month to form a new habit, so when you've been successfully using the new technique for 30 days, you can think about adding another new habit.
Two: Controlling Paperwork
Is your desk turning into an avalanche of memos, reports and reading
material? These simple guidelines can help you cope with the mass of paper
that comes across your desk.
The In Box - This should be the one place that others can put material they want you to see. That's it! If you're using it as a pending file, a place to put things you want to avoid or anything else, stop right now and make a commitment to yourself to adopt a strict in-box policy. If you don't have an in-box, get one now as an important step towards getting more organized.
If you already have one, here's how you can begin to make it work for you:
1) Sort through your in-basket and handle papers only twice a day.
2) Once you've handled something in your in-basket, it should be taken out of your in-basket. Establish a "To-Do" file and a "To Read" file, and sort the things in your box accordingly.
3) Make a decision to put every piece of paper in its proper location--not at the bottom of the basket.
4) It's best to file things from your in-basket immediately, but if you find some things aren't easily to file, or require new files, it's okay to start a "To Be Filed" folder--as long as you do eventually file the things in it.
5) Don't be afraid to throw things away if you're not going to need them. A previous draft of a report, for instance, might confuse you later if you hang onto it. Ask yourself if you'll ever need it again, and if the answer is "no" or even "probably not" then feel free to toss.
6) Don't start doing the work that comes into your box while you're sorting. Stay focused on the task at hand until you've completed the sorting process and you can see the bottom of the tray.
An out-box is just as important, of course. Be sure to write the action required for each item that you put in the out-box, such as "to be filed," "fax," "copy," or "mail."
Spend 15 minutes at the end of the day clearing off your desk, even if 15 minutes is not enough time to get it completely cleared off. By spending a little time on it every day, you'll begin to make progress, but probably won't be as overwhelmed by the task as if you tried to accomplish it all at once.
Make a list of all the important documents that you use frequently throughout the day and keep them at your fingertips so you don't waste time retrieving them.
If you find yourself spending time searching for things, give yourself permission to stop what you're working on and spend some time organizing yourself. This will save you time in the long run, and the security of knowing where things are may even help you feel more motivated and efficient.
Three: Organizing Reading Materials
Now that you've established a file for things to read, remember to take them with you to appointments where you might have to wait, on airplanes and anyplace else where you won't be able to do much else but read. If there are articles or reports in your file that don't appeal to you to read, ask yourself if you really need to read them now, or if you can put it off until a later time. This is an area where it may be practical to procrastinate, because many of us are "needful learners." That is, we don't retain what we're reading until we have a need to learn it. If you find yourself unmotivated to complete a magazine or article, ask yourself if it's something you need to learn right now. If not, put it aside until you get some extra motivation, like your boss asking you to make a recommendation or write a report on the topic. As you know, some of those articles might never see the outside of your file again, which is fine. You've saved yourself time by not reading things that aren't important to your goals and objectives.
If you tend to keep magazines in your reading file that fall into the category of things you might not need to read, consider making a file folder for each subscription and keeping them on hand as a reference. Instead of lugging them with you on travel or to appointments, put the specific articles you are interested in into your reading file.
Anything that's been in your reading file for over a month should be tossed out. Keep in mind you can get most information at the library should you ever need it. Chances are, you never will.
Four: Organizing Your Time
"Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that's the stuff life is made of." -- Benjamin Franklin
Everyone gets only 24 hours in a day, including Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Thomas Edison. The key to accomplishing what's most important in those 24 hours is prioritizing the tasks and performing them in the order of importance to the best of your ability. Remember: How you spend your time is how you spend your life.
The Franklin Planner time management system suggests starting each day with a period of solitude and planning. In this effective system, you write down your goals and values so you can review them each day. Reflecting on those goals and values will help you plan your day so that you can do the most important things first. If you're already using a day-planner of some kind, then you know what a time-saver it is. If you're not using a planner, consider buying one immediately so you can begin to spend your time more productively.
Make a new "to-do" list for yourself each day. Write down all the things you would like to accomplish for the day, and then select the ones that really must be completed today. Mark those items with a letter "A." Then choose the items that you would like to complete today, but really can wait until tomorrow. Give those items a "B". Whatever is left should be marked with a "C."
To further help yourself prioritize these tasks, look just at the "A" priorities and choose the most important to accomplish for that day. Then choose the second most important, and so on until you have numbered each of the "A" priorities.
Try not to overwhelm yourself with too many "A" priorities. If you tend to try to cram too many things on your list, then make a conscious effort to scratch off three things, or at least make them "B" priorities.
Give yourself a check mark for every item that you complete as a way of recognizing your accomplishment. List solitude and planning as one of your "A" priorities, and give yourself a check mark when you've completed it. Anything you didn't complete today should be re-evaluated: either forward the item to the next day or another date in the future, or take it off your to-do list entirely.
Five: Organizing Your Values
One way of establishing your goals and values is to write an obituary.
Think about how you want people to remember you and what you hope to have
accomplished in your lifetime. This will help you get focused on how you
want to spend your time. Here are some questions to ask yourself that will
help determine your values:
1) What are the three most important things in your life?
2) During the past week, how much time did you spend on them?
3) When you look at your life thus far, what do you regret that you have spent too much time doing?
4) What would you do if you "only had more time?"
5) What do you want to spend your time doing?
Getting clear on your values can be helpful with overcoming procrastination and providing you with increased motivation. It can help you focus on the long-term results instead of wallowing in the short-term agony. Writing a report for your boss or client may not be all that exciting, but if it's an important step towards getting the promotion and the corner office, you may feel more motivated to do it. Asking your boss to let you cut your work hours from full-time to part-time may be scary, but if your primary goal is to spend time with your family, it's probably worth it.
Read your values every day, and update them once a quarter to make sure you're still focusing on the things that are important to you. Remember, we are who we are as a result of all the choices we've made up to this time. Those same choices will determine who we'll be ten years from now.
Six: Controlling Clutter
Clear your clutter and clear your mind and your time. Clutter can slow you down by distracting you from what you want to do. To take control, begin in one corner of one room and straighten it up. (No cheating! Don't just move the clutter to another corner!) Afterward, give yourself a reward for your good work. If you continue this pattern over time, you'll get the job done.
Part of the problem may be having too much stuff. Every material thing we have takes time to find, maintain and put away again. Chances are, many of the items in your home or office are not really contributing to your well-being or happiness, but are taking up space and time. Let your home or office size help you determine how much "stuff" you have. If things are too cramped and closets are overflowing, that's an indication that you need to pare down.
Get a large box and mark it "Good Will" or "Salvation Army" or whatever charity you prefer. As you go through your clutter, put things you no longer need or want in the box. When it's full, call the charity and ask them to come get the donation. Then be sure to start another box.
One of the biggest causes of clutter are items I call "memorabilia." This can include greeting cards, mementos, trinkets, postcards, letters, pictures and other precious items with sentimental value. These items don't have to be organized or filed beyond being in one box together. You'll probably never need to find anything specific in this box, but you may get lots of enjoyment from looking through it from time to time.
Use a kitchen timer to limit the time you spend decluttering an area each day. Set it to 15 minutes, and when it goes off, stop for the day. The point is to assign yourself a small enough task that you won't be overwhelmed at the idea of it. Overwhelm is one of the biggest contributing factors to procrastination. The best way to beat it is to break everything into small steps and begin. If you're reading this and thinking, "That's fine for other people, but I can do this work for 30 minutes at least," then you are probably particularly prone to giving yourself an overwhelming task. You should probably set your timer for only 10 minutes!
Finally, make sure there is someplace for everything to go. If you find yourself with a pile of clipped newspaper articles that don't seem to go anywhere, make a new file for them. If you put some of your bills on the counter and others on the desk, then get a specific box or folder for them and use it. If you've got 30 business cards piled on your desk, get a business card organizer and put them in it. Sure, it will cost you a little money to get organized, but it will save you precious time in the long run.
Seven: Communications Organization
In today's world of so-called advanced telecommunications, most people identify telephone tag as their biggest time wasters. When you leave a phone message on someone's voice mail or answering machine, remember to cover the four Ws: who called, why you called, what you'd like the receiver to do, and when you're available to receive a return call. A specific request with detailed information increases your chances of a reply. Furthermore, on the incoming message of your answering machine, direct callers to leave you answers to the four Ws. Also, it never hurts to leave your phone number in the message, even if you think the person already has it. Make it easy and efficient for them to call you back.
You can also use your outbound message to answer frequently-asked questions, like the fax number, address and hours of business.
Whether you check your e-mail manually or your computer notifies you when you receive e-mail, schedule specific times to read and process it. Instead of interrupting your work for each message you receive, read your e-mail two to four times a day, and process the requests at that time. It takes some discipline to do this, but it saves tremendous time.
Use a stacking tray or file folder for e-mail related items that you'll need to reference when you're composing e-mails. Also, don't be afraid to print out your e-mail. If it helps you to print the message and put it in the project file or to-do file, then do it. The paperless office is still a myth, so you won't be the only one.
Sort incoming e-mails by subject, key word or author so you can process related mail collectively. This prevents your brain from having to jump around from subject to subject. You can think through each subject thoroughly and increase effectiveness of your work.
File e-mail you want to keep in the appropriate e-mail subject folder when you send or receive it. Don't store everything in your in-box or sent-mail folders where it's hard to retrieve. And as always, whenever possible, throw e-mail away.
Faxes and Paper Mail
Everything that comes to you on paper should be put into your in-basket. That way, you don't stop what you're doing to read an incoming fax that may not be all that time-critical. Instead, stick to your regular schedule for checking your in-box, and sort faxes and mail just as you would anything else. With each piece of paper, ask, "What is the worst thing that could happen if I threw this away?" Unless the outcome is critical, toss it!
Eight: Controlling Procrastination
It's safe to say that everyone has struggled with procrastination at
some point, so if you're having trouble getting yourself to do something,
you have lots of company. When an unpleasant, but critical task presents
itself, try using one of the following methods to combat the urge to put
A) Ask yourself if it REALLY needs to be done. Putting things on your to-do list that aren't critical, particularly if they're unpleasant, can make you feel overwhelmed. Go through your list once more and ask yourself if anything can be crossed off altogether-- particularly items that get carried over from the previous day's to-do list and never get done.
B) Ask yourself if it's critical that YOU do it. Can you delegate the task to someone else? Can you hire someone else to do the work? There's nothing lazy about avoiding tasks you dislike if you can get away with it.
C) Break the task into several small steps and list each task separately on your to-do list. Instead of writing "journey of a thousand miles" on your list, put "take one step." By doing this, you've made an important commitment to begin, and that's an excellent way to overcome procrastination.
D) Take the "asparagus approach." A man I know hated asparagus as a child, but his mother made him eat it in order to get dessert. While his sisters left the vegetables until the end, avoiding the unpleasant for as long as possible, this man would attack the asparagus first and eat it as fast as he could to get it over with. Then he was free to enjoy the rest of his meal. Apply the same technique to your work and do the most unpleasant part of the task first. Then you'll be home free!
E) Commit yourself to someone else. Announce to your boss, co-worker or a family member that something will be complete by a certain deadline. Now you've made a commitment, and you can't just silently avoid the task anymore. To have this technique be truly effective, you should choose someone who will hold you accountable to the task.
F) Build rewards into the completion of unpleasant tasks or projects. Make a deal with yourself that after you've completed the outline for a report, you'll take a 15 minute break to read something you enjoy. After you've cleared out one corner of the garage, you'll call a friend you like talking with. It may seem feel pressured to skip the reward and just get the work done, but the truth is you'll probably accomplish far more by giving yourself rewards for completing unpleasant tasks.
Nine: Organizing Your Finances
Do you know what's in your checkbook right now? How about what you owe on credit cards, mortgages, car loans, etc.? Do you know about how much you need to earn to cover living expenses? Do you know where the $40 you took from the ATM yesterday went?
The key to organizing your finances is clarity. Just knowing what you have, what you owe and where you spend your money can go a long way towards helping you take charge of your finances.
Many people are afraid to look at the numbers because they suspect that they're running into increasing debt each month, or that they really should be saving more. Unfortunately, staying vague about what you have keeps you from being able to realize your financial goals. Until you know what you have, you'll never know how far you need to go to get what you want.
Make an appointment with yourself to determine exactly how much you spend per month, how much you earn and what your net worth is (positive or negative). You may be pleasantly surprised to find it's not as bad as you thought, or you may be horrified to learn that it's worse than you expected. Either way, it's important to know.
Many very organized people say that planning and tracking their spending is key to their prosperity. If the word "budget" is unappetizing to you, try making a "spending plan." The purpose of this is not to eliminate all the fun in your life so you can save more. Instead, a spending plan provides peace of mind by giving you awareness about what you can afford. If you typically feel guilty when you shop or go out to eat because you have that nagging feeling that you "can't afford it," a spending plan will help you tremendously. If you plan in advance to shop and eat out, then you can do so with the security of knowing that you CAN afford it, and that it's part of your plan.
Unless you keep track of your spending, you won't know if you've stuck to your plan or not. Don't worry about doing this perfectly, but do try to keep track of where you're spending your money. This information will be invaluable for helping you organize your finances.
Ten: Be Realistic about Organization
Above all else, highly organized people recognize that as human beings, things won't be done perfectly. They tend to have good habits overall, such as clearing their desk daily, carrying a day planner with them consistently, and tackling difficult tasks a little at a time. They also recognize that organization is a process, not an event, and that some days will be better than others. The point is to keep working towards organizing and controlling their lives so that clutter and events don't control them.
Be patient with yourself, and try not to feel guilty about things you
didn't do perfectly. Instead, spend your energy congratulating yourself
on the things you did do to stay organized, no matter how small. Know that
you are in control of the rest of your life.
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