Work Organization: 30 Tips to Take You From Mess to Master
Do you feel like your work organization is a mess of lost information and undefined expectations, spiraling slowly but surely out of control?
If so, you're not alone. Most office workers feel like their work organization is not where it should be. Unfortunately, this lack of organization has real consequences for both them and their employers. Fortunately, research makes it clear that small changes in how we approach our work organization can go a long way to restoring order, whether it’s honing your mind and removing mental clutter or establishing processes that turn your team into a multi-tool of precision.
Here are 30 tips to take you from work organization mess to work organization master:
Organize Your Brain
Everest College’s 2013 Work Stress Survey found that 83% of office workers feel stressed out at work. A Workfront survey found that 51% of marketers attributed their work stress to trying to juggle their work in its myriad forms.
Before you can organize your tasks, however, experts say you must first organize your thoughts. We’re not saying that you should start every morning with transcendental meditation, but you can try this simple breathing exercise to get clear and start fresh.
2. Eat brain foods
Your ability to organize is only as good as the fuel you put into your brain. You can’t think clearly through the day’s challenges without the right diet and this starts with the first meal of the day. For breakfast, try eating whole grains, blueberries, tomatoes, and nuts to give yourself a scientifically-proven brain boost before you tackle your work.
3. Start with just one goal
You read that right. One. We’ve all had the importance of setting goals pounded into us since the start of our careers. But most people fall short not in goal setting, but in reaching goals. Why? Because we try to do all of them at once.
Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, authors of The One Thing, suggest that we pick one thing to do that year—launch a new website, for example—then break that down into one thing to reach that goal for that month, that week, that day, and that hour. If we pick the most critical thing to get done and do it in that hour, it leads to the larger goals being accomplished over time. It’s compartmentalized success!
Of course, the more complex your organization becomes, the harder it becomes to choose just one goal. The answer to this problem is forcing leaders to name their top strategic goals. This will allow you and your team to narrow down your goals from the 25 or more that tend to float around larger organization and focus on three or four.
4. Focus in bursts
Once you have your brain cleared out and your daily goals set, it’s time to work. But what about all the distractions? “Your day is your week is your month is your year,” says Chris Brogan, speaker and CEO of Owner Media Group. His tip is that picking one topic and staying on it for just 20 minutes will help you establish a pattern of focus and leads to getting more done over time.
5. Block out distractions
For those quick 20-30 minute bursts of productivity, turn off notifications on your phone and computer to stay in the zone. Consider using a “busy” light and communicating to your team that, when your Beats headphones are on your ears, it means no interruptions.
Organize the Clock
6. Estimate and then track your time
Now, we don’t mean tracking every second of every day or punching a time clock. A recent study showed 51% of marketers dread their jobs because they feel they have to get everything done in the 40-hour work week. Tracking and knowing how much time you actually spend doing your activities will help you set a baseline for future commitments and productivity, which will, in turn, empower you to better organize your work going forward.
7. Pencil organization into your calendar
Sure, you’re using a calendar for meetings or lunch appointments. Take it a step further and enter a calendar item at the beginning and/or end of every day to review your schedule. Making time to review it can help you stay more aware of the time you have to get things done.
8. Activate notifications
When you’re not in the zone, consider strategic use of notifications. Most calendar software solutions allow you to set reminders for a time before the event occurs. Speaker and digital strategist Jason Falls recommends:
"Learning to manage and program your notifications—even those from apps on your phone—to remind you the doctor’s appointment is in an hour or the TPS report is due Friday helps the disorganized mind remember those tasks are coming and they should do something about it."
9. No multitasking
By now you know that multitasking at work is arguably the most unorganized and unproductive thing you can do. So don’t do it. Remember your one goal for that hour, stick to it, finish it, and move on. Just in case you forgot the damning statistics, here’s one, courtesy of Peter Bregman at the Harvard Business Review, to put the fear back in you:
"Our productivity goes down by as much as 40%. We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process."
10. Prioritize your work and say no to other things
We all feel like we have a million things to do. Start by putting your goal (see #3) at the top of the list. From there, go prioritize. As Stephen Covey said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ‘no’ to other things.”
11. Use a scorecard to decide what the next priority is
Remember that stat about juggling work and stress? Thirty-six percent of those same workers said putting out fires was what made them dread their jobs most.
Rather than trying to put out the fire that’s burning the hottest, use a prioritization scorecard to more strategically work on your projects.
12. Avoid a standard to-do list
If you're like most workers, the to-do list is likely your go-to when things get hairy—making a list is a common gut reaction to overload. But the to-do list can come with some heavy negative consequences. Most to‐do lists are tied to “things that need doing today,” rather than to “things that will advance my stated goals.” Most lists are usually just things to do rather than prioritized goals that will help your team and company.
13. Set deadlines and be accountable
Content marketing guru Ann Handley says that accountability helps prevent you from falling into the pit of procrastination. She recommends that you find “someone else” to help you meet your deadlines:
"Tell them your plan. Give them your timeline. Let them be your beacon on the beachhead, guiding you home. (And be that for them, if you can. Because you aren’t selfish.)"
14. Set aside email time and stick to it
Checking and answering an email every time you hear a notification isn’t effective and makes you more like Pavlov’s dog than the brilliant, get-it-done colleague you are. Instead of panting every time you hear that ding, set aside email-only blocks of time during your day. Our most recent State of Enterprise Work Report found that, after email, meetings, and interruptions, office workers have only 46% of their time for the work they were hired to do. This makes it critical to organize a time to respond to email and then sticking to it.
15. Take breaks
Take breaks and make them count. Take a walk, grab a coffee, or play some foosball. It’ll help. University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras’ research suggested that:
"when faced with long tasks ... it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"
16. Create and maintain boundaries
Boundaries could be between you and your self-inflicted need to be working constantly. Or it could be a boundary between one higher-priority project and another lesser-priority (but more fun) one. Or it could be a temporary boundary between you and the project or work requestor.
To make any boundaries last, you have to communicate and maintain them. Let your stakeholders know where their project is on the timeline and in your list of priorities. That way they can have a clear expectation of when their request will be finished.
17. Be social but communicate your limits
Similar to work boundaries, it’s important to communicate with your coworkers about how you like (or don’t like) to be social at work. Make sure they know that you’re good to chat for a few minutes at your desk every once in awhile. Or maybe you only want to joke in the break room. Whatever it is, your team won’t know what’s cool and what isn’t unless you set expectations.
Organize your workspaces
18. Declutter your desk
People are judging you. They see that beyond-ripe banana. Not only is it important to be organized mentally, but in your physical space as well. A 2011 report by OfficeMax that found that office clutter undermines productivity and motivation. “Your performance coincides with your workspace,” says Jennie Dede, vice president of recruiting for staffing firm Adecco. “When it’s organized and precise, you have the mindset and motivation to work.”
19. Use a notebook
Take your thoughts offline. Carry a journal and pen with you. For some of us, the act of note-taking is therapeutic and helps our thoughts stick. Bright new idea? Write it down. Co-worker went to the bathroom 12 times? Write it down. We kid. But seriously, logging your ideas, notes, and other thoughts will help you know exactly where to find them when you need them.
Of course, there are more hi-tech versions of the notebook that can serve as an accessible repository for your thoughts, ideas, discussions, etc., and store them all in the context of the work itself.
20. Ditch the Sticky Notes
Since you’re now writing your thoughts in a journal, you don’t need the sticky notes anymore. They’re one of the worst ways to request work, and they're really only useful for covering your co-worker’s cubicle on April Fool’s day anyway. Ok, there are benefits to using sticky notes, but only if you’re using a very specific process, like Kanban boards for example.
21. Spring clean your inbox
We’ve all wanted to click select all and delete every email in our inbox at some point, right? Well, since that’s not an option, try giving it a good cleaning a few times a year. This could entail unsubscribing from newsletters that have worn out their welcome, setting up a priority inbox to filter urgent inbound mail, learning to use the mute function, or installing Boomerang (in Gmail). Once you’ve got that inbox clean, you’ll feel unburdened and ready to rock.
22. Use a shared space for work requests
Centralize your request process. Create an email alias dedicated to requests or get a work management solution that has a request intake feature. Make sure that people’s requests to your team go through your intake process. If they come any other way, tell the requester you won’t consider their request until it’s gone through your decided request path. This will reduce the number of emails coming into your main account. It will also reduce ad hoc projects and fire drills.
Assuming you’ve set up a project request form or some way of standardizing how you’re receiving project requests, you might have a shared folder where all requests are submitted before getting reviewed. Instead of having a number of different ways that you’re receiving requests, make sure everything is going to that shared folder.
23. File sharing
“Dropbox is another excellent tool to allow you to keep the files safe between you and a client," says Tara Mulhern at Webtek. "These files can be accessed anywhere versus just on the network in your office, will always be synchronized, and you can easily share documents, photos, and videos.”
Organize your processes
24. Standardize your processes
The Project Management Institute (PMI) reports that organizations with successful work performance measures (on time, on budget, and goals met) are almost three times more likely than organizations with poor work performance to use standardized practices throughout the organization, and have better outcomes as a result.
25. Choose a PM methodology and communicate it
Agile. Waterfall. Whatever methodology you decide is right for your team, spread the word about what the process is—or what the process changes are that you intend to make. You can adopt any process you want, but the only way it’s going to work is if you and everybody else on your team are on the same page. You want to make sure to educate your requestors on your process, why you’re changing it, and how it works.
26. Stick to your guns on process
It's one thing to decide on a work methodology, but another to actually get your organization to buy into it. As with most changes, there will people who like things they way they were. They knew what was going on there. They'd traversed the learning curve. Now your new-fangled methodology is forcing them back to square one.
This constant negative pressure can get tiring and even make you wonder if you've made a terrible mistake. But this is when you need to hold firm. When angry requestors, for instance, want you to let them bypass your system just one time, push back. Tell them, “I’m sorry, but I can’t work on that unless you go through the process the way that we agreed on it.”
No, this isn't fun. But the alternative is that you give in, erase what progress you've made, and plunge your team into a state of confusion where multiple systems are in play at the same time.
27. Use templates
Templates are a perfect way to standardize how you and your team get work done. This cuts down mistakes, missteps, and time wasted trying to figure out just how to do things. They keep you from having to reinvent the wheel every project. Templates are so useful in boosting work organization that businesses that fail to use them typically see failure rates of 10 to 30 errors per hundred opportunities.
If you're in marketing, for example, this means you should be using creative briefs. They force requestors to:
- explain why you should be working on their project
- flesh out exactly what they want it to look and feel like
- define where the project should be prioritized next to other projects, and
- agree on delivery dates
As a result of going through a template like a creative brief, work is shown to be completed faster, while reviews and approvals become shorter.
Strangely, studies of in-house creative teams have found that only 16% actually use creative briefs. And even among the ones that do, 60% whip out creative briefs only for their top-tier projects. On projects that don't use creative briefs, the resulting rework can end up equaling 40-60% of total project spend.
28. Beware of spreadsheets
What makes spreadsheets great is that everyone has them and they're a flexible tool for storing and organizing data and making calculations. The problem is, too many people use them to organize their work—and spreadsheets just can't keep up.
The one exception to this is on very small teams (1-3 people). Once you start trying to organize work in spreadsheets for teams larger than this, you might spend more time trying to keep your spreadsheet current than you do on actual work. Some teams have reported that their department status-update spreadsheets - after creating dozens of sheets and endless rows - will simply start crashing every time they're opened.
29. Build workflows
Once you get beyond organizing your personal work, you move into organizing how work moves from one person to the next, looking for unnecessary points of friction, and streamlining them out. This might start as a simple flowchart on the whiteboard, but very soon, it will inform how you create your templates (see #27).
30. Use the right tools
I've already mentioned spreadsheets and email, but there is an ever-growing horde of solutions out there that are built to help you organize your work better. Reporting tools. Time tracking tools. Task management tools. Ticketing solutions. Some of these work better than others, while others will actually hurt your overall organization efforts. So how do you sift out the bad from the good?
Here's a good general rule of thumb: choose solutions and tools that will make it easier to see what you're working on. For example, a collaboration software that allows your team members to communicate quickly via instant messaging might seem great, but because it locks away crucial pieces of work information in isolated conversations, this tool might actually create blindspots in your overall visibility.
On the other hand, solutions and tools that think holistically about your work, that gather information together from different areas into one place, are going to improve your work organization - and save you a ton of time.
In the end, organization is not just having everything in the right place, but seeing where it is and how it's working with everything else.