A busy desk is the sign of a busy mind, right? Wrong. Despite a long-standing cultural bias for constant activity, a clean desk and well-organized files usually are the mark of a well-organized mind. Taking a few minutes to get your space organized can save both time and money.
The dream of a paperless office seems to have been a mirage. Sure, today’s executive has sleek tools at his or her disposal to organize, prioritize and systematize, from desktop PCs to handheld electronic gadgets. The new age of computers has allowed the pace of business to accelerate — and brought with it burgeoning amounts of memos and mail. How do you navigate through the paper trail? Deborah Hatchell, consultant and professional organizer, offers a few suggestions for the busy executive.
“Time management can be broken down into three main areas,” says Hatchell. “Setting priorities and boundaries, organizing your physical space, and scheduling appointments. Spending a little time up front on each of these can save you money, increase your productivity, and open up more personal time. And when you are organized, calm and confident, people perceive you as a more effective leader.”
“As a society, we spend too much time on what we think is important and urgent,” Hatchell says. “We get addicted to the adrenaline.” In the past, a “to-do” list was the accepted mode of prioritizing activities, but if you’re multi-tasking, you don’t have the luxury of crossing items off a list. Instead, suggests Hatchell, use a “brain dump,” grouping items that need your attention in similar categories and tackling them in small increments.
Time wasters come in two varieties, says Hatchell, self-generated and environmental. Self-generated time wasters include:
- Physical disorientation
- Unnecessary perfectionism
- Web surfing
Environmental time wasters include:
- Phone calls, visits, e-mail and other interruptions
- Unnecessary reports
- Waiting for someone
- Unproductive meetings
Overcoming time wasters, she explains, requires a two-fold solution. “First, develop and use coping mechanisms. Then, hunker down and do what you need to do. It’s part of the conversation you have with yourself about managing your relationship with time more effectively.”Following are some scenarios Hatchell offers as illustration. Problem #1: You are frequently interrupted because you are perceived as indispensable. Solution: You may ultimately have all the answers, but you don’t have to shoulder the burden yourself. Educate and train your staff, then create a list of people you can delegate things to.
- Problem #2: Meetings are unproductive.
- Don’t allow cell phones or pagers in the meeting room.
- Make sure all the right people (and no unnecessary ones) are in attendance and on time.
- Set parameters or “games rules” for the meeting.
- Distribute a clear agenda 24 hours in advance of the meeting time.
- Define the expected outcome/objective for the meeting.
- Have a “parking lot” for issues unrelated to the agenda.
- Use a designated leader or moderator to keep the meeting on track. Problem #3: You are distracted by walk-in interruptions. Solutions:
- Position your desk to minimize contact with the flow of people outside your office.
- Establish interruption rules. Clearly define what people can bring to you and what they should handle themselves, and if you see a pattern of interruptions, create a template for training.
- When people walk into your office, stand up right away. If you remain sitting, they are more likely to take a seat themselves.
- Establish clear interruption parameters. When someone asks, “Do you have a minute?” answer very specifically: “I have five, we can talk until 10:30” or “I’m in the middle of something and will come to your desk in ten minutes.”
- Establish both a designated interruption time – a half hour when people can bring things to you – and a “golden time” when interruptions are not allowed, so you can focus on your work.
- Create a “hot box” separate from your in-box for critical, time-sensitive items.
- Encourage the use of e-mail or voice mail to minimize in-person interruptions.Clearing the Paper TrailA busy executive can easily get buried under pages of information, most of which is only momentarily useful. Hatchell offers the TRAF system as a method of dealing with whatever paper comes across your daily path.
- Refer away
“Toss as much as you possibly can,” she recommends. “Eighty percent of what winds up in permanent files never gets looked at again.” Before saving any piece of paper, she says, ask yourself how you will use it, and whether you can get it again, if needed. Refer things out as much as possible. Create a project/referral file that can hold good-sized folders, Hatchell suggests. “Making a file for people you come into contact with on a regular basis is another good idea,” she says. “Have them make a file with your name on it, too, and when you meet, bring the files along for easy exchange.” Action means doing it now. Says Hatchell: “Four out of five things that come across your desk can be handled when you receive them. When you take care of things immediately, the real priorities become apparent.”Filing is an often onerous but necessary activity in any office. To make filing easier, Hatchell recommends two basic kinds of files – permanent and temporary. Put any reference material or documentation into a well-labeled permanent file. For action items that you can’t handle right away, she says, use a temporary “tickler” file. Create a separate folder for each date of the month, and one for each month. When you identify a piece of paper as something you need to act upon at some point in the future, decide on a deadline and put it in the appropriate folder. Check the tickler file every day.
Other Time Control Tools
Setting good time-management habits may take some effort, but the payoff is worth it. Other methods Hatchell recommends are:
- Admin hour. Set aside a certain amount of time each day to organize your time, prioritize tasks and maintain your time management tools. Done regularly, it takes only 15 minutes a day, and for every minute you spend in planning, she says, you save three in execution.
Break the procrastination cycle. Hatchell identifies procrastination as a series of broken promises to yourself and to others. To break the cycle:
- Learn to say no; practice until you can do it firmly and without guilt.
- Set clear priorities, objectives and boundaries.
- Don’t rescue people when they should be responsible.
- Observe your behavior. When you know why you procrastinate, you are less inclined to do it again.
- Create standing blocks of time. On your calendar, write in all standing appointments, your admin time and lunch. “Get away from your desk for at least half an hour to recharge,” Hatchell recommends. To add balance, write in a date with your spouse to spend some quality time together. Once you have these standing blocks, you can schedule other activities around them. “Try to get at least one free day away from work each week to sharpen the saw,” she says.”Research shows that people who have an organized, clean environment work more efficiently and make better decisions,” Hatchell says. “In today’s world, it all comes down to sort, process and make a decision.”