How to Organize
Highly effective people are organized people. They seemingly
handle many tasks at the same time and do not lose track of
their progress. They don't miss appointments or lose things as
often as the rest of us do. They always have their work done on
time or early and they have more free time. Organization is the
key to productivity. It allows us to keep an eye on things and
instantly recognize when something is wrong.
Picture in your mind the ideal organized mechanic's workshop.
There is no grease or oil on the floor, all the tools are
organized and hung on peg boards with an outline painted behind
each tool. The only vehicles in the shop are the ones actively
being worked on. Each mechanic follows a scientific method for
analyzing the problem and then goes about replacing or repairing
the defective parts. They carefully disassemble all parts
necessary to get to their target and label the things they have
to disconnect. They put the reusable parts into a bin and they
throw away or separate the non-reusable parts so that they don't
put them back in. After they have reached the target and
replaced the defective parts, they carefully reassemble the
vehicle and check that everything is tight and working. At the
end, they test drive the vehicle and fill out all the invoice
The benefits of this organization are enormous. Since each tool
is put away in its place at all times, it easy to find any
necessary tool. If a tool is missing, it is easy to spot which
tool is missing and find it. Having no grease or oil on the
floor helps ensure the safety of the mechanics and customers.
Only taking out the tools they need minimizes the risk of
tripping on a tool and gives the mechanics more room to work.
Having a clean and organized work area keeps the mechanic's mind
focused on the task at hand. I could go on but I think you can
see how much better off the organized workshop is than the
Organizing our environment keeps our brains from overloading and
allows us to focus on our work. When some of us are surrounded
by a mess, we tend to despair and feel overwhelmed and
distracted. Ironically, not everyone feels this way. If you've
spent any time around kids, you know what I mean. The problem
with clutter is that it distracts our attention. When we are
surrounded by extra stuff, our eye seems to catch them and
distract us. You can almost hear the clutter screaming "Do me,
take care of me."
OK, so how do you get organized? First of all you need the right
tools, then you need the time and commitment. Let's start with
the tools. First of all you need plenty of appropriate storage.
If you deal in plenty of small parts, bins may be ideal for you.
If you work in an office you need file cabinets. If you work in
a kitchen, perhaps drawers and cabinets are more appropriate.
Whatever the working environment, make sure you have plenty of
storage space. Keep in mind that there are actually three ways
of obtaining space. You can increase the amount of storage space
(e.g. build a garage), use the space you have more efficiently
(by adding a bookshelf or overhead cabinets) or reduce the
amount of things you store.
Whatever the work environment, you must analyze your storage
needs first and have the proper tools and storage available.
That will probably mean a trip to the local mega home center for
cabinets and peg boards or the mega office supply shop for file
organizers. This step is critical. Without proper storage, you
will be locked in your tracks with nowhere to put away the stuff
you want to keep. It will sit out in the open and you won't
really be able to organize it.
Once you have the proper storage, you will also need the right
tools and accessories. If you are organizing a garage or
warehouse, that probably means bins, dividers, Velcro straps,
peg board accessories and stackable boxes. If you are cleaning
up an office that means file folders, hanging folders, book
ends, drawer organizers and labels. Here's a tip: buy more than
you need. Buy every little interesting accessory you can find at
the store and bring it back with you. Use the ones that work and
return the ones that don't. It is better to have extra storage
materials on hand and not need them than vice versa.
Now you are ready to begin the clean up effort. The first thing
you need to do is clear everything out of the area. That means
you need to empty out all your drawers, desktop, file cabinets,
bookshelves, etc. On an initial clean up, everything must
temporarily be moved out of the area. Don't panic, we'll put it
back; but for now, it must go. Next, you need to setup your
cabinets and files or add your additional storage.
At this point, you should have an clean work area with storage
space available and no clutter. Now comes the fun part. You need
to bring in everything you took out and think about each thing
There are only four basic things you can do with any given item:
1. Handle it 2. File it 3. Delegate it 4. Get rid of it
It doesn't sound like a lot of options does it? However, these
are your only options. By limiting your choices, it will help
you focus without spinning your wheels. I'll go through the list
and explain each one:
Handle it - This is the preferred thing to do with most stuff.
For example, if the item in your hand is a registration form
you've been meaning to fill out, take the 2 minutes and fill out
the form, attach a check, record the check, put it in an
envelope and drop it in the mail box. I say this is the best
option because it does two great things, 1) it eliminates the
item, giving you one less thing to worry about and it gives you
an immediate sense of satisfaction. If you have an item that
needs your attention, you need to determine if you can handle it
quickly or if you need to file it. Obviously, handling it, is
the best approach because then you only have to touch it once;
however, you will find some items in your stack that would take
too long to handle on the spot. For instance, you may find notes
and an introduction to a book you've been meaning to write. It
would clearly take more than five minutes to write your book so
your next choice would be to file it.
File it - This is the choice many people resist. They reason
that out of site means out of mind. This is true but there are
ways to organize yourself so that you don't forget things. One
of the best options is to keep a to-do list. Before you file
your manuscript, you should make a notation on your to-do list
that says "finish manuscript." Then you should file your
manuscript and go on to the next item. Filing things does not
necessarily mean that it will sit in a file permanently. In
fact, it's the opposite. If you are planning on filing something
indefinitely, you should consider boxing it up and moving it to
storage or throwing it away.
So how long should you keep things? This issue keeps many
individuals and businesses from cleaning out their files. I
don't have the expertise to answer every question but if you do
a search on the Internet for "record retention", you may be able
to answer those questions yourself. When it comes to tax
returns, the IRS has 3 - 6 years to investigate your returns;
therefore, you are probably safe throwing out your 1973 tax
returns. On the other hand, if you've kept them that long, you
may want to give them to a museum.
The only things you should file are the things you could
reasonably be expected to look at again within the next few
years. Otherwise, what's the point in keeping it? Filing
something could also mean putting it in a temporary file.
However, be careful about this. It is too easy to fill your
temporary file and then it becomes a mess itself.
When you file things, you don't just stuff the item into a file
and put it in the file cabinet. I recommend you label the file
properly. The easiest way to do this is to buy a label maker.
They run from $25 - $50.00 and are very neat and practical. Then
you should sort your files alphabetically. Make sure your file
cabinet doesn't get too stuffed. If it does, it will discourage
you from filing additional items.
Delegate it - Option three is to delegate your item. If you have
staff who report to you, this is often easier than if you are
the "low man on the totem pole." However, even if no one reports
to you, you can still delegate things to others. Perhaps the
item doesn't belong to you - return it. If your lawnmower is
sitting in a state of disrepair, hand it over to the mechanic to
fix. In other words, if you don't have the time to handle
something or don't have the ability to handle it, consider
giving the item to someone else who can help you. Of course, you
may also need to make a notation on your to-do list such as
"pick up lawn mower." However, delegation can be a great way to
get things done.
Get rid of it - There are three basic ways to get rid of
something. You can give it away, sell it, or throw it away.
Giving something away or throwing it away are the easiest things
to do and should be done generously. If you have a four month
old stack of newspapers, throw them away. You have to face
reality here. If you haven't read the newspaper in four months,
you aren't ever likely to read them. Simply throw them away and
be done with it. If the item in question has some value, then
you can give it away or sell it.
These days it is easier than ever to sell things. Simply visit
ebay.com and list your item. Of course, you have now moved the
category to the "handle it" category but, at least, you are on
your way to getting rid of it.
The clean up process can take a lot of time. Obviously, the
bigger the mess, the more effort will be involved in removing
the items and applying the four options to each item. However,
the reward at the end is well worth it.
At the end of the process, you should be left with a clean work
area. The only things that should be left out are the things you
are immediately working on. This is very important. At the end
of the day, there should be nothing on the top of your desk
except your monitor, telephone and minimal accessories such as
two pens and two pencils in a holder. If you are cleaning up a
shop area, there should be nothing left on the work surfaces.
The only thing that should ever be on top of a work space should
be the one thing you are actively engaged in. Everything else
that you are currently working on should be filed or delegated
to someone else.