I used to have a dining room table, at least I recall having one, but now it’s a mountain made up of hundreds of pieces of paper. This week I “lost” one of the three laptops that regularly occupy the table under the tsunami of items I must accomplish and then file away.
This lack of organization extends to my computer screen, which includes so many open windows that I regularly forget what I am working on.
I used to laugh at hyper-efficient people, categorizing them as pitiful sufferers of some obsessive compulsive disorder, but frankly the chaos produced by my personal lack of organization threatens regularly to undermine my productivity.
Disorganization sounds trivial, but when you weigh the business case for order, it’s clear why being orderly is a necessity. One U.S. study found that employees lose 76 hours per year as a result of disorganization.
Jane Southren, director of professional business development at Lerners LLP in Toronto, always felt like she was “bobbing, weaving and dodging to try to keep all the balls in the air.”
She turned to a professional organizer for support and offers some hard metrics to quantify the benefits of getting organized: She said she spent significantly fewer hours in the office, working fewer nights and almost never on weekends.
Additionally, she billed about 20 per cent more in fees in her job, then as a commercial litigator, because she was actually tracking her time properly.
“I realized that having those piles of paper visible and touchable in my office were not helping me be efficient and keeping me calm and ready, but rather increasing my stress levels every time I walked into my office,” said Ms. Southren (who arrived at this epiphany after cleaning her office so well that people thought she had quit).
After gaining control of her paperwork, she felt calmer when entering her work space: “It was like my office had become a haven, and I was happy to be in it.”
Ms. Southren’s support came from Ann Gomez of Clear Concept Inc., who believes that organization is a critical, if often under-valued, driver of productivity and that disorganized people can lose three to five hours a week looking for things.
The secrets to an organized office life need not be complicated, Ms. Gomez said, suggesting three ways to take control over the disorder threatening to engulf your work space.
Her first suggestion is to know what is the important “real estate” in your space.
“There are prime locations and less-prime locations. The top spot in our office is our desk top; it should be reserved for the one thing that we are focusing on at this moment. No other work or piles should be taking up space in this prime real estate,” she said.
Once the prime space is designated, establish a “staging area” close by to store other work that needs to be tackled today. When the current task is completed, reach over to the staging area to grab the next item.
“Our office should function like a well-oiled assembly line. Work transitions throughout it in a logical fashion, with no room for inertia-like piles to settle in,” Ms. Gomez said.
Her final tip is to create a home for everything.
“Set up files for each project. Set aside a shelf for reading material. Banish the miscellaneous drawer … We want to commit to putting things away as soon as we are done with them. No more ‘to be filed’ piles – who has time for that anyway?” she asked.
Most importantly, Ms. Gomez emphasizes the “touch it once” principle, meaning, open a document and immediately deal with it. Open an e-mail and respond to it.
Getting yourself organized can also pay off in keeping your emotional health strong.
Kathleen Maura Pye, a doctoral student in interdisciplinary studies at the University of New Brunswick, turned to organization out of necessity, believing that order was required to secure the grades needed for graduate school.
Despite the tradeoffs – such as losing a sense of spontaneity – she said it has turned her life around.
“I struggle with anxiety,” Ms. Pye added, “so a personalized system allows me to maintain control and an overall sense of calm when I’m tackling my excess workload.”
Andrea Wahbe, a freelance business-to-business marketing strategist in Toronto, takes the middle road.
“I think a little bit of chaos is okay,” she said, noting that although she has a messy desk, she organizes it periodically.
And while she blocks off time to accomplish each task, she acknowledges that her calendar is “often like a game of Tetris. If something comes up unexpectedly, I move things around until it works out.”