You’re probably never going to go entirely paperless, so make peace with having your paper. Whether you have a drawer or a whole file cabinet, set up a system that you never have to re-invent again. For small businesses, pick up the FreedomFiler.com small business organizing system and apply the stickers to your folders.
If you work in a large corporate office and are likely to transition your files off to your successor sooner rather than later, keep your files simple, with simple file names that include the topic, project name, and date. (Finance-Main Street Bridge-2018). Adding the date to your file folder tabs will force you to subdivide your folders in a useful way, and will assist you in more easily purging your files when the time is right.
Every workplace desk should have a multi-page high-speed scanner in this day and age. If you don’t have one, spring for the $100-$400 device that will make your life so much easier.
If you can’t purchase a quality scanner, use your smartphone as a scanner, but stop thinking that “taking a picture” is the same thing as scanning. Scanning apps like the document scanner inside Evernote, Scannable, and many other scanner apps create clear, quality scans that eliminate blurring and background colors. This means that when you do need to print something that’s been scanned, you aren’t using expensive ink to print the background of an “off-white” document and parts of the table that you took the picture on. Scan, don’t take pictures.
Still missing deadlines and swimming in Post-it notes and forgotten to-do lists? Use a Tickler System to arrange your papers and files into 12 groups, January through December. All you need is 12 file folders labeled by month. Put new items in according to either their deadline or when you aspire to work on them (if there is no stated deadline). At least weekly, set aside 15-30 minutes to go through the current month’s tickler system folder and remove items that you can work on or complete today. If you go through the current folder weekly, missing deadlines will be a thing of the past. Pro tip: Keep your paper to-do lists in the current month’s file, so they are always on top.
Getting organized takes time. When you organize, don’t do the tasks that you come across. Move those items to your tickler system or to your stack of work for today, but keep organizing until your time is up or your desk is clear. Organizing is one thing. Doing the tasks is another.
Use Outlook? You probably already know how to set a recurring appointment for something that happens, say every Tuesday at 10 am. But there’s a hidden feature that allows you to copy a non-regular meeting. In the monthly view, ctrl+click on the appointment, and drag it to any other date on the calendar. You’ve copied the details of the appointment to a new date and time, and can edit it from there if needed.
Use your smartphone’s countdown timer to pace yourself. Sure, you think you use your timer, but are you, really? Use it for everything, from spending the planned amount of time on getting ready for that big meeting, to telling your kid, “just 5 more minutes on this email, and then I’ll play ball with you.”
Reading email takes time. It’s no longer a small part of the workday. Reading emails can take 2-4 hours in many jobs today. Are you allowing enough time to just read all the emails that land in your box?
Email…still fretting about the number of emails in your inbox? Three solutions for that. First, unsubscribe from everything. Be ruthless. Reduce the amount of information coming in, since you aren’t reading it all anyway. You can always re-subscribe if needed. (If you can’t be convinced to do that, at least set up a filter to send subscriptions straight to a folder, so they never land in your inbox.)
Second email tip, stop stressing about the total number of emails. Most people are not able to get to inbox-zero. Instead, focus on making sure that you read every new email. If you’ve read it, you are at least in the know. You may not decide right away whether something is actionable, but emails that you’ve already read can live in your inbox, thanks to sophisticated search capabilities that mean you can find it again if you need it.
Third email tip, stop using your email inbox as a to-do list. If an email does have an actionable deadline and you must act on it, immediately drag it (Outlook) or forward it (Gmail, Toodledo, Todoist) to your electronic to-do list. The original email stays put, but even if you delete it, you have all the detail from the original email in your task list.
Speaking of task lists, how do you know what do when you finally sit down at your desk? Most people say, “I work on whatever is hot, or whatever is physically on the top of my desk.” Some of us have been taught to write up a paper task list either by date or High/Med/Low priority. This just leads to more work, forcing you to make time to re-prioritize every time you look at your task list. Instead, have your electronic to-do list categorize or filter first by activity (these are called folders in Toodledo). Decide what your daily priorities are. Mine are, from highest to lowest priority: return media calls, work client issues, do administrative work, then write blog posts. Corporate employees on multiple work teams might have a priority list like this: first return calls from boss, then work project 1, then solve open client matters, then prepare for monthly finance meeting, then work project 2, and so on. Once you know what your regular work priorities are in general, add each new task to your task list with a due date and activity/folder/issue as described above. Your electronic to-do list can automatically filter by date, but show you tasks sorted by your prioritized activities. If you assign the activity to the item when you load it into your task list, your task list will always be sorted for you. So when you sit down at your desk, you don’t have to wonder, what is the first thing I should do? Your task list will already be sorted for you, based on a set of information that you’ve already set up.
Manage upwards. If you are using these and other organizing strategies, communicate to your bosses about what is falling through the cracks. They need to know what you are working on, so they can re-prioritize for you, if needed. They will appreciate the opportunity to shift work to other team members, stop work that is no longer needed, and understand when deadlines might be a problem. Also, keeping track of your strategies and your completed and open tasks allows you to build a strong case for when you need additional support or headcount on the team. By consistently presenting the facts about the tasks that go undone or the revenue that goes uncaptured, you can successfully advocate for the needed staffers.
You are probably already doing a few of these productivity-enhancing strategies. Which new ones could you add to your day? Please comment below.