Among my co-workers, I often have the reputation for being super-organized and occasionally get asked to share my tips with others. There are two underlying principles to keep in mind when getting organized:
- The best tool for organizing your world is the one that you will use. There is no point in investing time and effort into some fancy software if you don't use it. If lists work for you, then incorporate them into your organizational tool belt. If spreadsheets work, do that. The end result is what matters.
- There is no one magical solution that does everything. You will need multiple tools to use for various activities or situations. If you are able to integrate them so they work together, even better.
Understanding that everyone is different, below are the things that have worked for me. You should be able to apply the same approaches, whether or not you use the same tool.
One of the best ways to stay focused is to reduce the stress in your life. An easy but often overlooked way to do this is to take care of yourself. In the rush of meetings and deadlines, we sometimes skip important things that keep our stress levels down, causing us to feel and possibly act unorganized.
Get enough sleep. Seriously. Turn it off and go to bed. In addition to re-energizing and restoring, you can actually solve some problems while you sleep. Your subconscious keeps working even when you don't. How many times have you woken up suddenly knowing the resolution to a problem you have been mulling over for days?
Take meal breaks. I have been known to eat at my desk on occasion when I am still finishing my presentation for an upcoming meeting, but it's rare. I need that break. I would rather go to lunch with colleagues or friends and let the socialization of that period give me a boost. But even going to the deli downstairs by myself gives me a sense of restoration. And for goodness' sake, don't skip the meal altogether! You need the energy and the nutrition of the meal.
Rest your eyes. I once saw a great suggestion in a safety presentation called the "20/20/20 rule". Basically, it suggested that every 20 minutes you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to give your eyes a break. I will admit that I'm not very good at consistently following this rule, but I have tried to incorporate it into my routine.
Stand up and stretch. Get up from your desk and walk around. Most project managers do this naturally as we are constantly headed towards meetings or running to catch someone, but on those days that are dedicated to catching up, you sometimes need a reminder.
Actions and Interactions
A great way to keep everything orderly is to practice your organizational skills in real time, as events occur. Here are some ways to keep things organized as they happen.
Actively prioritize. As things come across your desk, assign a priority to them immediately, whether this means mentally ranking the item or simply putting a colored sticky note on it. And then continually review your priorities as the day progresses.
A good rule of thumb when prioritizing is to use the Urgent/Important principle. This principle ranks an issue based on how important and how urgent it is. The order in priority is as follows:
- Important and Urgent
- Important, but not Urgent
- Urgent, but not Important
- Neither Important nor Urgent
Keep in mind that the terms "Important" and "Urgent" can be subjective so you have to weigh them in relation to other factors in your organization. This article from MindTools goes into more depth on the subject: Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle.
File it immediately. I often have a folder on my computer drive for each project and sub-folders for specific activities related to that project. When information comes across my desk regarding that activity, I immediately file it in the sub-folder for that activity. Even though my email app has search capabilities and I know I could find this later if I needed to, I've already read it and recognized what it is so why not file it right away? Then, when I do need it, I know exactly where it is and don't have to do a search.
Touch it once only. This goes right along with file it immediately, but usually applies to my physical inbox on my desk. If it is in my inbox, that means it has not been looked at. Once I pick it up, I either action it or file it. Of course, this isn't always feasible because sometimes you simply can't take action yet, so you may want to refine your filing system to accommodate future actions. I have seen people who file things by day, week, and/or month. If that system works for you, those items that you can't action immediately can go into one of these bins.
Keep a scribble pad handy. Often we are interrupted with a phone call or someone dropping by with a piece of information that we need to write down. Keeping a notepad on your desk for just that purpose is invaluable. Pro tip: ALWAYS date your notes on your scribble pad. I cannot tell you how many times I have flipped back through the pages for something important and having that date has been extremely useful when reporting issues or resolutions.
Stop and regroup. Often when managing multiple projects (or even one fast-paced project), you can become overwhelmed and feel pulled in many directions at once. When this happens to me, I close my door, put my phone on do not disturb and just take a minute to regroup. If you don't have a door, use headphones or find a quiet place where you can think.
It helps me to sit down and make a list of the things I need to get done. Lists don't work for everyone, but they help me. Especially when I have lots of balls in the air that I'm trying to juggle. Again, if this works for you, use it. If not, find something that does. The goal here is to stop spinning and get your focus back. Once you have taken that fifteen minutes to recenter yourself, it usually becomes obvious what your priority is and what the next step should be.
There are a lot of applications available to help you organize. I primarily use Microsoft Outlook so most of the things that I reference here are from my experience with this app. However, other email and calendar applications have similar functionality so I'll speak to the functionality rather than how to do it in Outlook.
I use my calendar to organize my life, both for work and home. Here are some tricks that keep me straight:
Morning review.The first thing that I do every day is review what's on my calendar for today and what's coming up the rest of the week. Invariably, someone catches me away from my desk and wants some of my time. If I don't know what's lined up for the day, I might inadvertently miss an appointment or call because I got pulled into a discussion. Some of my colleagues actually print out today's agenda and have it handy when they are moving from activity to activity. In today's world, mobile apps often replace this kind of paper trail, but if paper works for you, then use it.
Use Color. Each of my projects gets their own unique color so I can see at a glance which meeting belongs to which project. I will also use color for different appointment types such as a doctor appointment or a monthly departmental meeting.
Be detailed. Include as much detail about the meeting / appointment as possible. This differs depending on what type of meeting it is. Here are the guidelines that I use:
- For a group meeting that I am organizing - Include only the details you want shared ahead of time. I usually include an agenda or at least a justification for holding the meeting so that recipients know why they should attend.
- For a personal appointment only for me - Include as much detail as I need so I have all in one place. For example, when I travel, my flight, hotel and car rental information all go into one calendar meeting for convenience.
Make appointments private. I'm not sure if this feature is available in other calendar apps, but Outlook lets you mark appointments as Private, which hides both the appointment name and any details for that appointment from others, even if your calendar is shared or public. This helps keep you organized by allowing you to book your personal appointments alongside your work meetings. The end result is that you don't accidentally double-book something when you were scheduled to be at the dentist. And you can add personal reminders like "call your mother" or "drop off the cat at the vet" that you don't necessarily want your colleagues to see.
Change the View. Most of the time, I have my calendar set to see the work week only (Monday through Friday). However, when in planning mode, it is often necessary to look at the entire month (or year even). Change the view as needed to fit what you are working on. (This one seems obvious, but I've watched people painfully scroll back and forth through their calendar when they could have simply changed the view and seen it all at once. It's embarrassing to book a meeting in the wrong week because you lost your place in your own calendar!)
Use Reminders. Every meeting invite I send out has a 30-minute reminder on it. And I either change or add a 30-minute reminder to every meeting request that I receive. Personally, I like getting that much notice just so I can begin wrapping up what I'm doing and start preparing for the meeting. And if thirty minutes is too early for the other attendees, they have the option to snooze the reminder to the time when they want to be notified.
Block out task time. I've often worked in companies where we share our calendars openly so people can see when we are available. Because of that, my day can fill up quickly with meetings invoked by others. In order to have time to complete my work, I specifically block out time on my calendar that is just for me to work on tasks that I need to finish.
Block out travel time to and from appointments. I learned this trick when working at a company that had multiple locations around the city. My colleagues would book back-to-back meetings in places that were a thirty minute drive from each other. Now when I book a meeting that is offsite (or even something like a doctor appointment), I book separate calendar items for the drive time before and after (if needed). This lets people know that I am unavailable and not to book anything during that period.
I once had a boss who treated his email inbox like a to do list and it rarely had more than eight or nine emails in it. I have no idea how he did it, but it was impressive. While I regularly clean my email inbox of unimportant emails, I tend to treat it more as an extension of my filing system. How you organize your emails will be somewhat dependent upon your company's archiving and storage policies so make sure you are familiar with them. Here are the tricks that I use:
Use the Follow-up feature. Outlook has a feature that lets you set up some rules regarding following up after you have sent an email. You can configure it to pop up a reminder for yourself or the recipient of the email. When I need a response, I will let the recipient know within the email itself what day and time I need the answer by and then will set up a follow-up to remind them before hand. Whether the reminder is a full day or just a few hours before the deadline depends on what information I need from them and how much effort needs to be done.
Use Rules. I tend to have a lot of rules set up in my Outlook. I like to keep my inbox as trim as possible so I set up rules to automatically move any regularly scheduled emails that I receive (such as monthly reports) into a separate folder designated for them. (In my home emails, this might be bank statements or Amazon book purchases.) The trick with rules is to make sure that you configure them specific enough that you don't catch any unintended emails and to regularly review your other folders in case you did. You don't want to accidentally sweep a fraud alert email into the folder with your monthly credit card statements so use both the Sender and Subject fields to craft your rule.
Use Color. Although not as easy to find as it used to be, Outlook lets you dynamically change the font color on the email list using Rules. I have used this feature in the past to change High Priority emails to a red font and to highlight any emails from any VIPs in a bright blue. Fuchsia stands out as well.
Since discovering it in the mid-2000s, I have been a proponent of Microsoft's OneNote. My enthusiasm for the product has led a couple of different companies that I've worked with to adopt is as part of their base application installation. However, Microsoft's move to push the cloud version of OneNote has been hugely disappointing for me. This version is missing most of the features that I really loved about the application. The good news is that I have since discovered Scrivener, which I'm leaning towards as a replacement on my MacBook (Mac OS). Some people I have worked with like to use a product called EverNote and others simply use MS Word.
Regardless of which application that you use, it is how you arrange your notes that help keep you organized. (I'll use the language for OneNote, but it can be translated into folders, subfolders and files.) Here are my basic rules for organizing notes:
Each project gets its own folder. While I typically have one Notebook (folder) for all project work, each individual project gets its own section group (subfolder).
Organize projects according to need. Each project has a life of its own and therefore, is uniquely structured. In one company, we organized exclusively by project phase so I had section groups (subfolders) for each phase of the project. In other projects, I have organized by team functions. It really depends on how you need to group your work for that particular project.
Single out meeting notes. One section group (folder) found in all of my projects is called Meetings. Within Meetings there is a section (subfolder) where notes are saved for each type of regular meeting: Steering Committee, PMO, Team, and Miscellaneous for any unscheduled meetings. This should be adjusted as needed. In one project we eventually separated out the application team meetings from the regular team meetings so I added a folder for those meetings. The goal is to be able to refer to those documents as quickly as possible and breaking them out by the meeting type is what worked for me.
Use date and topic for file names on meeting notes. Meeting notes are saved in the appropriate section (folder) and named by date and topic. I like to use the format YYYY-MM-DD so I can easily order them chronologically. This creates a timeline for you without having to delve into the notes themselves.
These are tips and tricks that have helped me stay organized. Perhaps you already use some of these. Hopefully you learned something new. Remember, the main thing is to do what works for you.