Guest Author - Kathy Fleming
No matter how fancy of an office you have or how much high-tech equipment you use, you can get bogged down with your work because of something very simple: lack of organization. This is particularly true of those with a home office, since you donít have an administrative assistant to help you or a boss to keep an eye on you. Itís up to you to keep organized. If you donít, you could find yourself in trouble. Here are some tips to keep you organized and working smoothly in any office.
Keep a Calendar - and USE it!
Itís one thing to have a nice calendar sitting on your desk, but itís no good if you donít use it. A simple calendar can be your best friend. You have a lot to remember, much of it on some kind of deadline, so why not write it down? Use your calendar to remind yourself of not just appointments and events but when to do important tasks.
These days there are a great many calendars and planners out there. Take a few minutes to think about what you like to have on a calendar and how you use it, then purchase one to meet your needs. Ring binder planners are great because they come in a variety of sizes and you can customize them to meet your changing needs.
A lot of people have tried making To Do lists but given up, usually because they either forget to write things down on them, or more likely, they end up forgetting about them. However, if you are going to be organized, especially if you have a lot of different tasks to do at different times, a To Do list is a great tool. The trick to keeping successful To Do lists is to know how to put them together and what to put on them.
First, your list should be easy to read and access. Like a calendar, if you donít look at it, it is of no use. You might use the Task section in Outlook, a PDA, or another list program for your computer. Personally, I use a simple Word document. Each day I print it out and cross of what Iíve done and jot down new items. I can make a revised, cleaner copy in the computer any time I like. They key is to be able to make regular changes to it without making it impossible to read. If you have more than a few items on your list, keeping them on a handwritten tablet may get messy. Ultimately, of course, you should do what works for your.
If you have many items on your list, you may find it getting out of hand or causing you to feel overwhelmed by looking at it. Your list should work for you, not against you. So there are two things you can do to make your list a useful tool: prioritize and categorize.
Obviously, keeping the most important tasks at the top will help keep you on track of what you really have to do that day. At the very least, use a highlighter to mark those items you should handle first. Having the list somewhere on the computer is helpful because you can easily move items around.
You might also consider categories. For example, I have a list I keep in my home office which pertains to only those things I would do in the office. But I have a separate list that I keep for things to do around the rest of the house. I also keep a separate list for things that need to be done online and things to be done at my desk, like phone calls. I found that I was less likely to follow my lists if I had to jump around. So now I can do a clump of tasks at a time.
Something you may discover after keeping lists a while is that you might find some items that you have never done and never really intend to do. Take them off your list. Eventually, youíll see what is really important to you and what you can let go. And, as you can see from my personal example, keeping lists isnít just good for the office. You can keep up with household chores, shopping, home repairs, whatever. So write up a list or two and experiment for a while to see what works for you.
Jot It Ė Or Say It Ė Down
Similar to keeping a list is having a way to make notes to yourself. Again, this applies to helping you organize not just your office but your whole life. How many times have you been driving along or dropping the kids off at school or in the middle of a meeting when you think of something very important? It could be as simple as picking up milk at the grocery store or as urgent as paying a forgotten electric bill. Even when weíre not busy itís easy to forget something if you donít have a place to write it down.
Some people put a rubber band on their wrists to remind them they have something important to do, only to forget what that important thing was later. Others write on their hands or jot on napkins and stuff them in pockets, only to find the note illegible or lost later. So why not give yourself something to put notes in no matter where you are?
I keep a small spiral notebook in my purse. If I think of something important I can write it down and know where it is. My other favorite method is to use a voice recorder, which I liked because I could use it while I drove, walked, or couldnít otherwise stop and write something down. A voice recorder is great for men who donít have purses they can quickly reach into. Whatís even better is that these days you donít need a separate device for voice recording. Many cell phones have a voice recording mode, as do some MP3 players. I use my cell phone almost every day to record a quick note. Now, if you record long notes or dictate, youíll want a separate device because the memory on a cell phone or other device may not work for you. But if you just want to remember to grab some milk, a cell phone is perfect.
Regardless of how you keep your reminder notes, just remember to look/listen to them at the end of the day (which could be a permanent reminder on a list).
Organize Your Office Regularly
Even if youíre extremely organized, paperwork can bog you down and even shut you down if youíre not careful. As soon as some piece of paperwork comes in, have a place for it. If you donít have a place for it, make one. If it requires attention, you donít have to file it away yet, but have a ďto doĒ box or folder for urgent items, in order to keep them from getting mixed in with not-so-urgent items Ė or worse Ė something you throw out. You might organize your paperwork the way you organize your lists, by urgency or by grouping items that require similar tasks.
If you regularly have overflowing file boxes and experience paper avalanches, you need to take time out to figure out how you might better set up your files (I will discuss rescuing yourself from an out-of-control office in a later article). And even if your desk is relatively neat, take time once a week to go through anything that has stacked up to see if you can file something away, toss something, or maybe come across something important you forgot to do.
Organize Your E-mail Folders
If you find that you not only get a lot of business-related e-mail but you want to keep much of it (always a good idea for a lot of reasons), take time to organize the folders in your e-mail program. This should cut down on the time it takes to find a message. Depending on what you use for e-mail, youíll want to consider how long before your program auto-deletes old messages, when and if it archives, and how much memory you have (memory is usually only a concern for we-based e-mail being stored on a server and not your computer).
Sticky notes are among the greatest advances in office technology in my experience. Keep a pad around to jot a reminder note on and stick it to your monitor (if you find your monitor is completely covered in sticky notes, you need a new method). A dry erase-board is also handy. You might keep a small one on your desk or a large one on the wall for notes, planning, whatever you need. A bulletin board can help to keep paperwork in your line of site, or just get some things off your desk. And finally, keep your office well stocked. Itís easy to get sidetracked if you suddenly run out of something and have to go find a replacement, especially if replacing it means a trip to the office supply store. Replace items when they run low, not when they run out.
Technology vs. Old School
I am a gadget addict who revels in the advances in technology which have made my life easier, especially when it comes to my office. However, there are times when I prefer not to use, or at least rely on, technology. For example, anything on a computer (or PDA, Smartphone, etc.) is susceptible to data loss, power loss, etc. Perhaps more importantly, it requires you to have hardware to view it. Sometimes using the hardware can get in the way of getting to the information. For example, if you keep your calendar in Outlook, youíll need a way to look at when youíre not in your office. A PDA is a good answer to that, but you still have to keep it synched up, backed up and charged. I keep a regular spiral bound calendar that can go anywhere with me.
I also make good use of index cards, ring binders and note pads. This isnít to say that using computer programs isnít extremely useful. I use Outlook to remind me of appointments and things I have to do. However, there are just times when good old fashioned paper works better. So if you find that you love making lists on your computer but donít follow them because you donít always have them on hand, you might want to switch to something more low-tech.
Itís Up to You
The bottom line in keeping organized is finding a system that works for you and sticking to it. You might have to revise it here and there until you have refined your workspace to enable your work flow to go smoothly. But once you find what works, youíll find your work easier, faster and less stressful. Oh, and have fun with it!