Anyone can get organized. It’s true: while some people genuinely enjoy color-coding every file and others don’t mind a more haphazard system, organization is a set of behaviors—not a personality trait. If you’re struggling to stay on top of the daily chaos in your professional life, small changes can make a big difference.
We may intend to keep every piece of paper, email, or digital file in its place. But then we get busy, and our system falls by the wayside.
Periodic "decluttering," both physical and digital, is a good practice to adopt every few months. If you have a dedicated workspace, your goal is to clear the surface of everything but your priority jobs at that moment.
The same rule applies to your inbox. You might have to get used to hitting the "delete" button if you’re an email hoarder. If you do end up needing a document later, you can search through trash folders. Once you’re used to instant filing, you’ll have a better sense of which documents really need to stick around.
Find everything a home
Afterward, get into the habit of immediately finding a place for every new "action item" you receive. Most email providers let you set up and label folders—so take advantage of them. Google and Microsoft Outlook both have lots of storage options that allow you to sort or mark items by priority.
Put hard-copy items in dedicated file folders as soon as they come across your desk. And when you're finished with a to-do action item, file it away. Often the absence of physical clutter is enough to clear your head and cut down on stress.
One trick that might help is to take a picture of your work area and study it. This will clue you in on how you work best. Is the computer crowded with sticky notes? Don’t trash them; get a board for the notes so they’re all in one place. Do you have a general idea where everything is, but still have to hunt for things when you need them? Write some clearly recognizable labels.
Make a list
You might have heard this advice before; for many people, the to-do list works when all else fails.
Whether you use a whiteboard, a live Google doc, an app on your phone, or a pen and notebook, the important part is to write down everything you want to get done. Cross off completed items, and add new items as they come up.
Since one long list can be overwhelming, you’ll want to prioritize. What needs to happen ASAP? Write it in red, put it at the top of the list, highlight it … whatever you need to do. Break larger projects down into smaller, actionable items so you can feel empowered by crossing them off as you go. A prioritized list can also keep you focused on what’s really important about your work.
And think of the to-do list as a living, breathing document. If something doesn’t get done today, it’s already on the docket for tomorrow.
Keep on schedule
No one has a perfect memory. For upcoming events and deadlines, this is where calendars come in handy. If you have multiple calendars (between social media apps, email, and jotted-down notes) try consolidating them all into the one you use most often.
Working on a big project with a lot of "moving parts"? Figure out when each smaller item on the larger agenda needs to be completed, write the date down, and work with that in mind. The dates might change later; life throws lots of curveballs, and many of us have worked at an organization that’s perpetually behind schedule. The point is to keep track of what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be done.
Organization is one of those skills that seems more intimidating than it really is. The key is to find a system that works for you and your natural tendencies—just with a little more order.
Do you have some organization tips to share with us? Let us know on Twitter.
Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.