Organizing our work lives is simultaneously easier and more difficult than ever. Digital tools provide assistance for almost every task, but they also lead to more systems and workflows that have to be monitored and maintained.
When people’s work life is disorganized, “they don’t know where to begin, so it takes them longer to accomplish a task,” says Deb Lee, a digital productivity coach and certified professional organizer who works with small businesses.
But once you’ve put in the effort, “you’ll have a clear space in which to think, process and work.”
Get organized with these strategies.
Organizing strategy: Whether you’re organizing your physical or digital desktop, be deliberate about where you keep things. Is everything present worth its real estate?
“Keep the things you tend to use within arm’s reach,” Lee says. For your physical desktop, that might mean your pen cup stays while the stapler and scissors go in the drawer. On your computer, create shortcuts to the software and server you use daily or weekly; file the photo-editing app you employ only once a year.
Lee does much of her work on her phone, where her home screen contains only essential apps — text, phone, email and home alarm system. The rest are sorted into folders on the second screen and beyond. She uses “search” when she needs to find something.
Organizing strategy: Experiment to find out what works for you, whether it’s paper notes, a note-taking app or a hybrid approach.
Each has its benefits. Digital notes are searchable and mobile; you can pull them up anywhere. But studies have shown that we process more of what we physically write down.
Lee combines paper and technology. She absorbs more information when she puts pen to paper, so she takes notes that way. When she’s done, she takes a photo of the notes and uploads them to folders using Evernote. Then, she can search those files for keywords when she needs to recall something.
Organizing strategy: Ditch the files you no longer use. For physical files you need to keep, use labels and a color-coding system to keep them straight.
On your computer, develop a file structure that makes sense for you. Start by deciding what your highest-level folders are, placing everything where it should go and then creating subfolders — but not too many.
Deciding on a naming convention is key, Lee says. There are countless ways to name files, but what matters is that the method is easy to recall and can be used by others.
“If we have a naming convention and I follow it and you don’t, and I need something you’ve been working on, I probably won’t be able to find it, and that’s going to create a roadblock to productivity,” she says.
Organizing strategy: Determine your most effective calendar system. Digital methods come with the benefit of reminders and allow you to sync calendars and task management functions. But in recent years, paper planners have enjoyed a renaissance as people look for a chance to take a break from their screens.
Whatever you use, be consistent and work off one master calendar. Keeping multiple schedules is a recipe for missing something critical.
Lee says that creating a workflow around the tool you’re using is important. For her, that means looking at her calendar each night before bed to make sure she’s up to speed on the next day’s appointments.
Mail and Email
Organizing strategy: Deal with each piece of mail immediately. If it’s junk mail, toss it. If it’s spam, unsubscribe. If you need to keep it, file it.
You can designate a to-do file for things you need to handle but don’t have the time for now and archive files for documents you’ll need to reference later.
Lee doesn’t recommend obsessing over emptying your email inbox. “Inbox zero is a nice thought if it doesn’t take up a lot of time,” she says, “but the most important question is, where does it go, and what’s the easiest way for me to retrieve it?”
After all, she adds, the goal is efficiency, not perfection. “If you spend all your time organizing, that means you spend less time working.”