Saturday, September 28, 2013

Five Steps To A More Organized Desk - Steps One And Two

Somewhere under the paper, the letters, and the electronic accessories there’s a desktop just earning to be productive.  In five steps you can be reunited with your desktop and be a whole lot more productive and focused. Although there aren’t many steps, this project will take time – the amount of time depends on the depth of your stacks. It’s time well invested because not only will you have a lovely vista for cranking out work, but also you’ll be developing habits that will have you increasingly more organized.
Step 1: Evaluate and plan. Although it might be tempting to just start sorting paper, do not skip this step. To paraphrase Einstein: you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. Take some time – less than an hour will probably do it – and think about why the stacks are there. What isn’t working? What do you hate? Then what can you do to make it work?
Step 2: Set up an action system. I bet you thought I would go straight to sorting through the paper stacks, didn’t you? I like setting up the action system right away because it puts the focus on the present and action. The action system has two components: an action file and a way to capture to-dos. An action file provides a way to keep everything that you’re working on organized in a very accessible way. The operative words here are “working on.” The action file is not the long-tem storage solution – that would be a reference file or an archive file, and I’ll discuss those in a moment.
Action System =
Action File + A Tool To Capture To-Dos
There are two categories of things that go in an action file: tasks and current projects. One of the most popular ways to organize tasks is by the action: “to pay,” “to call,” and “to research,” for example. I like to add “pending” and “upcoming events” too. I use the “pending” category when I’m at a waiting point on a task.  Usually this is when I’m waiting for someone to get back with me with information before I proceed to the next step.  The “upcoming events” category is where I stash anything to do with an event in the future – concert tickets, for example.
A word of caution: be sensitive to the number of categories you create. Too many categories and the system will implode by the amount of effort needed to use it. If you’re not sure what will work for you try these three categories: “to pay, “ “to do,” and “future events.” If the “to do” category becomes too bulky you can divide it up later. Which brings me to a point. Don’t get caught up in creating the perfect system. Some things will need to be figured out and tweaked as you work with them – and that’s OK because you are moving forward.
To assemble your action file you need folders and something to keep the action file in. That something could be an organizer that sits atop your desk or it might be a desk file drawer. File boxes and file collators organize files nicely atop the desktop. I like hanging files because they make removing and returning files very easy. If your desk drawer in not equipped for hanging files, a file frame can be purchased for about $20 at an office store. Remember to label the folders with your action category names.
As for as projects go, I like to keep everything related to one project in a folder. If the project is complex, I might use folders that have sections built in. At any given time you are likely to be working on several projects. Project folders store nicely in the action file.  If a project is very complex I might use a binder with subject dividers and store that binder next to or close to the action file.
Write It Down!
Now that you have a way to store your papers how are you going to keep track of what it is you have to do? After all, for many people papers are left out so you can remember to take action. It’s a strategy that fails because the needed actions become indistinguishable in a stack and deadlines even more so. The important becomes mixed up with the unimportant. The trick to remembering what needs to be done is to write it down. Writing things down also puts you in a position of separating the important from the unimportant.
Write down everything that needs to be done on a list that will serve as your master list. Master lists capture everything: the stuff that needs to be done soon and the “maybe someday” ideas (as in maybe someday I’ll read that book my friend raved about). The master list is the repository of tasks and projects. The master list is like an extra brain. It remembers everything so you don’t have to. I have a special notebook for my master list. I open the notebook often to add to it and to pull tasks from it to work on. For many people, task management stops at the master list. They use the master list everyday as their to-do list. But there are several reasons why this strategy is inefficient.

The Master List Is The Repository Of Tasks And Projects
The Daily To-Do List Keeps Your Priorities In Action
Master lists do not prioritize. Prioritization allows you to get what is important and urgent done before what is unimportant and not urgent. Master lists are long. Working directly from it means you don’t get the satisfaction of crossing everything off of your list. I would also argue that working from a master list results in taking fewer breaks because you get into the “there’s so much to do” mentality. Breaks are important and essential because they recharge us.
Rather than work from a master list, write down one to six items on a daily to-do list. What goes on the daily to-do list is in part due to the importance and urgency of the task and in part due to what is already scheduled on your calendar. If your day is filled with appointments you may not have time for six tasks but you may have time for one or two tasks. Assuming you haven’t decided to delegate or delete a task you can only work on it if there is time to do it. And the task may warrant blocking out time on your calendar to do it. This brings me to an important point: creating your daily to-do list must be done with your calendar at hand.
Even if there are stacks of paper on your desk, your action system is ready to use. The one item you can add is an in-basket to hold new papers until you sort them at some point each day. I encourage you to start using your action system and practice your organizing skills as you develop them.

You can see some of the tools discussed in this post on my Pinterest Board: "There's A Desk Under There Somewhere."
Stay tuned for next week when we'll cover step 3 - Gather Your Tools and Sort!
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