10 ways to tame the chaos and organize your office life

With a new year around the corner, now is the perfect time to clear the decks and develop some new habits to help you get your office life on track - and keep it that way.

With a new year around the corner, now is the perfect time to clear the decks and develop some new habits to help you get your office life on track - and keep it that way.

Do you find yourself in a shambles throughout the workday? Are deadlines impossible to meet? Is rummaging through your PC a task best left for treasure hunters? If so, you need some serious organization to get your office life on track. Some of you may think this an impossible task. It's not. All you need is a little time and effort and you can be as organized as you want. Of course, organization doesn't just mean neat and tidy. Organization covers just about anything that will keep your day-to-day needs and schedule on track. Here are various ways you can accomplish this seemingly impossible feat.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Your desk

This is where it all starts. This is also where it all fails. Most people can't seem to keep their desks from being anything but a disaster area. I have always looked at my desks as an extension of my computer screen, and therefore the only way I can work is if the space allows me to work. To this end, I keep my desk completely free of anything unnecessary. If I am constantly rearranging my desktop to make room to work, I am losing precious work time. I've removed all organizers, blotters, calendars, and just about anything on my desk that causes clutter. Minimalism is the key to the desktop. When you open that space up for that it was intended for, you will find work happens much easier and faster.

2: Your files

Once you remove everything from your desktop, you'll need some place to file paperwork and information. I can't tell you how many times this is overlooked, and it soon becomes a serious organizational nightmare. Most people don't want to wind up with an office filled with filing cabinets. But there is a solution. Request a scanner and begin scanning all documents you need filed. Unless you must have a paper copy of a document, having a digital version not only saves space, it will save time when you're trying to locate the file. Having all of your documents in digital format will also make submitting documents to others more efficient.

3: Your PC

Now we turn to the most important tool on your desk. If you don't organize your PC, you are wasting a LOT of time throughout the day. Instead of using the ad hoc method of organizing your files, take a clue from how most operating systems queue you into organization. In your home directory, you should see the equivalent of a Documents folder. Use this, but don't use ONLY that. Instead create subdirectories that will allow you to organize your files. If you have monthly needs, you can always create a new subdirectory within Documents for each month (Documents/Sept09, Documents/Oct09, Nov09, etc.). If you deal with departments, organize the Documents directory into departmental subdirectories. And when you create these subdirectories, don't forget to use them!

4: Your time

This is where most people have the most trouble. Work is an environment that is, most often, governed by time. The only problem is, most people can't seem to manage that time. Applications are available that serve as timekeepers - such as KTimeTracker (part of KDE Pim), GtimeLog, and Time Panic. You can use them to keep track of how much time you spend doing tasks. I strongly suggest you take advantage of one of these tools for a while just to see where your time is going. But to do this, you have to be vigilant about keeping track. Even keep track of the various distractions that take your attention away from work. After a week of using one of these tools, you will get a good idea of how you use your time. Once you have this data, you will be able to figure out what can be optimized, dropped, or added to.

5: Your breaks

This may sound crazy, but schedule your breaks. Set alarms so that you know when it's time for a break. And take them. Lunch break, stretch break, snack break, restroom break — all of them. And make them regular. Organizing these breaks will help regulate how your overall day is spent. If you know you have two hours in the morning before your first break, you will prioritize accordingly. This little trick will help you keep your sanity as well as keep you organized.

6: Your deadlines

How many times have you waited until the very last minute to get everything done? More often than not? I like to trick myself with deadlines by setting up multiple alarms. If I have a really important deadline to meet, I will set up an alarm a week in advance. The next alarm will come two days prior, followed by the day before. If you don't have that much time, you can adjust accordingly. What's important here is to avoid relying on mental alarms or notes. Get in the habit of scheduling these alarms and deadlines.

7: Your calendar

How can you survive without a calendar? The calendar is the ultimate tool for organizing your work life. But don't think the only commitments you need to include are meetings. If your calendar is published in your company, make sure you include your out-of-office time, your break time, and your lunch time. Otherwise, your breaks will be constantly interrupted. If your company does not have a company-wide calendar or a calendar you can access outside the office, employ something like Google Calendars so you can make changes and/or check your calendar on the go. You want to be able to update this calendar from anywhere so your office life is always in sync with your life.

8: Your office

Take a look at the big picture. If you glance around your office, is it a space that invites organization? Or is your office space something that collects clutter and keeps you from working efficiently? A well organized and clutter-free office is going to inspire everything you do. If you have piles of paperwork lying around and stacks of books piled high, you are going to have a hard time convincing yourself and others that your office life is organized. Take a day (or however much time it requires) to really clean up your office and make sure it is as neat as possible. And make your goal to keep it that way. A neat office will infect you with a neat work ethic.

9: Your books

Are you one of those workers who collects books? Do you have piles of them on your floor or taking up all of your surface space? If so, it's time to start paring them down. Or better yet, make your goal to get all of the books you need/want for work in ereader format. Imagine taking all that space (currently being used by masses of books) and cramming it all into one single, simple device. Not only will you gain space, your library will be more organized and mobile.

10: Your portable office

Many people are taking their offices on the road. And I'm not just talking laptops, I'm talking smart phones. A smart phone is one of the easiest ways to organize your life. With the smart phone, you can keep your calendar, contacts, to-do lists, and more with you at all times. And some smart phones will allow you to add applications to further enhance your organization. If a smart phone doesn't offer enough power, opt for a netbook. The size of the netbook keeps the devices almost as portable as a smart phone and almost as powerful as a standard laptop. But a word of advice: Going portable with your office is intended only to keep you organized — not to keep you working 24/7. When you are off the clock, use your portable office for organization only, not for work.

Well worth it

Being organized will keep you working as efficiently as possible. And it doesn't require great effort — just a little planning, some attention to detail, and plenty of tenacity. If you can suffer through the daily grind, you can surely suffer through the short amount of time needed to get your office life organized. Take it from someone who made the leap from chaos to order: It makes a huge difference.

How about you?

What tips do you have for wrestling office chaos into submission? Do you have trouble staying organized or do you find it doesn't really matter? Jump into the discussion and let us know.

Check out 10 Things... the newsletter

Get the key facts on a wide range of technologies, techniques, strategies, and skills with the help of the concise need-to-know lists featured in TechRepublic's 10 Things newsletter, delivered every Friday. Automatically sign up today.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

Editor's Picks