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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.


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About

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.

11 comments
Alan Henderson
Alan Henderson

1. I'm in the process of scanning all my documents as you advise. I find Evernote to be the perfect repository for them: using tags and Evernote's instant searchability - even for text in jpg and other image files - makes everything easily catalogued and located. 2. Dropbox synched across your PCs, Macs and the cloud is outstanding for portability of important files. 3. Even though I prefer Windows 7 to OS X, I use a 13" MacBook for portability. They're great for those who find netbooks a little too restrictive and they run well with W7 for those who hate OS X.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

First is that us old folks find reading on-line much more difficult than reading paper :D (So does everyone else which is why paper books start at 100 pgs for an executive summary, and target 300 for a standard text BUT eBooks top out at about 60 pages (recommended). They're just too hard to read and most people won't read anything longer than that.) Second complaint is that studies have shown that people fit into two extremes - organized and chaotic. If you are organized, you require organization to function. Everything has a place and everything in its place. If you are chaotic, you do not (some say that you actually require chaos). Generally you function better if everything you need is visible (buried still counts). Place an organized person in chaos and they will go crazy circling from one place to another. Place a chaotic in an organized space and they will freeze. Each group tends to think the other is slightly nuts. (Of course, they're both right ]:) ) Obviously the author is in the first group. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca http://www.LearningCreators.com http://www.LearningCreators.com/blog

gcdimarketing
gcdimarketing

If you want to see chaos reign, just remove all the junk from my desk. Oddly enough, when something is required, I can pick it neatly from my disorganized stacks. I look upon neatniks with suspicion. Maybe there is something compulsive about all that cleaning. Anyway, that's me and whatever others do is of no concern since I don't usually have to work in anyone's office other than my own. The president of the co. is a neat freak who frequently throws away stuff that I have to duplicate later. The VP has a desk three times as bad as mine(he isn't nearly as good at finding stuff as I am). Neither of them use a calender other than a flip page one hanging on the wall. Since I am the DB Admin, mine is on my page in the DB and where I log in each day. When I mentioned date based filing of invoices to the pres. and showed him what they could do he informed me that he is 20th century guy and didn't need that new-fangled stuff. I love my job, somewhat like a "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". The Pres & VP know what they are doing, at least as far as the business goes, but sometimes I wonder if an info update and some organizing might help and then I look at my disorganized pile and say wth & go back to reading Tech Republic.

RayG314
RayG314

Jack, and other commenters, Any tools or recommendations to support these objectives? I have one - Outlook Mobile Manager. It's free, from Microsoft, and forwards selected emails and calendar events from my Outlook to my cellphone.

gdixon
gdixon

If you use the dating format as suggested by Jack you will end up having July after December, but before Jun, March and May. This is because they end up being sorted alpabetically. To keep them in calendar order, I suggest using numerics. IE: Jan09 becomes 200901, Feb09 becomes 200902, Mar09 becomes 200903, etc. This will keep January at the front and December at the end. If you struggle to remeber which month is tenth then you can still name the month with an abbreviation at the end of the numerics(eg: 200910 Oct) and it will keep it in the right order. I have been using this method for several years very successfully. It can also be used for naming files if you need to keep various versions which have been updated on particular dates. Just put the date at the beginning of the file name (including the day eg: 20091218 is 18th Dec 2009) and it will always be ordered by the date it was changed or created. Hope this helps.

Dee
Dee

By the time you have scanned / filed your files, entered and set three alarms for each task, logged the time for each task, taken all your breaks, organised your desk / desktop, I'm amazed you can find time to do any work. As for scheduling restroom breaks .....

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I am by nature a disorganized person. I always tell my kids that I have to work at being organized. I do feel that it is important to gear your method of organization to you. I am a visual person. I write reminders on post it notes. My calendar is always in sight so that I can make notes to myself like "grades due" and "syllabus due" on specific dates. I use Outlook to send me reminders. I think that it just depends on you. I think another important key is acceptance of yourself for a lack of a better way of saying it. I accept that I am unorganized. Many people deny that they are unorganized and don't take the time to think about how they can be more organized. What is the old saying "the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have one."

dwmiddletn
dwmiddletn

Finally, someone who uses a logical date format for sorting. Using the Year/Month/Day format keeps things logical for a sort and certainly provides a quick way to view file/directory order. Good suggestion. Now if we can just convince the folks using Month/Day/Year.

michelle.morris
michelle.morris

I admit to being an Outlook abuser...I find the Advanced Find the best and easiest way for me to find documents. The Exchange Admin isn't happy with me though. Has anyone found a good way to organize files in Windows (we still have XP) with similar search capabilities as Outlook? I'm a chaotic person who really believes I would do better to be organized. But having to look in three places for stuff annoys me. Is it in the file drawer or in "My documents" or in Outlook. I welcome any ideas on consolidating.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The bad news is that Month,day,year was never an acceptable format in Canada. So if you have people who are using American format, then they've never been right so why would you expect them to change now? :D (FYI -- Canadian standard/official date format was World format and then changed to ISO format in the mid-90s with Y2K [ i.e. DD/MM/YY then YYYY.MM.DD ] MM/DD/YY was only acceptable in the U.S. which is why it's called American format).

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I have a flash drive that I keep most of my pertinent documents on my flash drive. I regularly have to go through and organize it because I have a folder on the root called Documents that in theory I should have all of my word, excel and powerpoint files in but I am always saving document on the root. At least we are aware of the fact that we do it. The first step to fixing the problem is admitting that there is one.