Are you drowning in paperwork at the office? Spending more time hunting than doing? The grand vision of a “paperless office” has yet to become universal. Until it does, here are 7 fast and effective ways to eliminate the disarray, get organized and become more efficient at work.
The first order of business is to clear off your desk. Grab several empty boxes (copier paper boxes work great) and a marker. You’ll also need a stack of manila or colored file folders. This is a great time to re-use old file folders you have taking up space in your desk drawer or filing cabinet, or that are piled up in the office supply closet.
Start gathering items on your desk, in drawers, step files, trays, shelves, bookcases and cabinets that can either be tossed, recycled or shredded. Many companies have confidential shred & recycle containers or bins for paper, light cardboard and CDs. If anything is remotely confidential (or if in doubt), toss it in the box marked “Shred.” If you’ve got empty water bottles or soda cans on your desk, pour any remaining liquid in an old coffee cup and dispose in the company kitchen or bathroom sink when you head that way. Then throw the bottles and cans in a box marked “Recycle” or directly into a recycle bin, if handy. If you have time, this is a great opportunity to get rid of bulky old catalogs and phone books, outdated sales brochures and manuals too. Now start pitching anything that can’t be recycled or shredded into your trash can, and have a extra box on hand for overflow should you need it. Set these boxes near the door.
2) No Deadline/When Have Time
This box will be for anything that needs to get done, eventually, but that is a low priority. Whether it’s a list of office phone numbers that could use some reformatting, a binder that is missing a spine label before you put it on the shelf, or a stack of documents that need to be hole punched, it can all wait. This is a good box to keep around for slow days (when you need to look busy), are in the mood for something mindless (stressful or emotional day), or if you’re just waiting for corporate to hire that temp they keep promising.
3) Misc/The Question Mark
This is the box for items that don’t fit into any particular category. You don’t even know where to begin. Perhaps you don’t know why it landed on your desk in the first place (or who put it there), or it’s missing a case or file number, date, or name. Or maybe info doesn’t match up. Jot down anything you can remember about it on a sticky note (“I think Sally left this on my desk before Christmas…why?”) or any info you managed to find (“checked this in system. File number and name don’t match.”) It could be as simple as someone putting the wrong piece of paper in your inbox, or a co-worker misdirecting an ambiguous fax to your desk. If in total doubt, put a big question mark on it for later investigation.
4) To File
Now begin putting any items that are completed and can be filed away in a separate box marked “To File.” If it’s only a matter of filing a few folders right there in your office, by all means, go ahead and get it done. But if you have have to rearrange a bunch of files in the cabinet to make space, or if they need to be taken to a certain person or another area in the building, just place it in the box out of the way for the time being. If you happen to be meeting that person or heading that direction later, set these items aside near the door to take with you.
Write “Pending” on the next box and add the date as a reference. Begin gathering any files and loose papers that fit this this category. If you’re in a hurry, the quickest method is to place items with less importance on the bottom or towards the back of the box, working up to the most important. If you have a bit more time to spend, place sticky notes on each file and/or piece of paper with a brief summary about the pending issue (e.g. “waiting to hear back from Jim in Marketing,” “client hasn’t returned calls,” “to be discussed at March meeting,” etc). Add relevant dates and deadlines whenever possible. Loose papers can also be organized into temporary manila or colored files and grouped by subject (e.g. “waiting on approval,” “needs signatures,” “waiting on remaining paperwork from client,” “need to investigate,” etc). The topics can be handwritten on file folders labels or written in bold letters on the front of the folder. Once completed, move the pending box(es) to a location in your office that is within easy view, but out of your way.
6) Soon (High Priority)
Begin sorting out items that need to be reviewed, updated or dealt with in the near future. Use the sticky note summary method described above for files and loose docs. Loose papers can be placed into “Today,” “This Week,” “This Month” files with the relevant dates listed. Set these items inside a box marked “Soon” and set it close to your desk.
7) Urgent (Top Priority)
The only paperwork and files left on your desk at this point should be absolutely urgent — issues that must be taken care of as soon as possible. If they aren’t, reassess and sort as needed. Personal business (e.g. bills, pay stubs) should be put away and removed for safe keeping. If you find your work space is overrun with trinkets, photo frames, plants, collectibles, and knick-knacks, you may need to scale back. A few “homey” touches are wonderful, but your Pez dispensers or Star Wars figurine collections should be kept at home. Ditto for every award you received in the last 20 years (take down the old ones, leave up the current ones). As the old adage says “Less is more.”
Taking a few hours to organize your office will save you hundreds of hours in the future. Now that you’ve unburdened yourself, take a deep cleansing breath, pat yourself on the back, and get to work on those urgent issues. You’ll come home feeling satisfied and ready for a much-deserved relaxing evening.