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The world is run by people who follow up.

That’s a maxim of Toronto-based management consultant Donald Cooper.

He urges that every time you assign a project or task to someone on your team, ask yourself: “By when can we agree that this will be completed?” Then, after you reach an agreement, document the commitment and always follow up.

“Businesses don’t die from a single shot to the head. They die, slowly but surely, from a thousand uncompleted tasks,” he writes in his newsletter.

When he sends an e-mail through his Outlook system to someone that will require follow-up, he blind copies himself with the Bcc function. When that e-mail returns, he uses the red flag “follow-up” function in the header ribbon to pick a month, day and time for a reminder to pop up on his screen. For him, that’s 9 a.m.

He keeps a folder titled “aaa Monthly Follow-Ups” on his Outlook sidebar with subfolders for each month. The designation “aaa” keeps that folder near the top of the menu, so he can find it easily. He drags and drops the e-mails he has tagged for follow-up – they will have a yellow flag – into the follow-up month, and at 9 a.m. on the assigned day a box pops up listing the e-mails needing attention.

If you’re looking for more tips on being organized, behavioural science consultant Amantha Imber has four from her interviews with top authors, musicians, entertainers, entrepreneurs and business leaders:

  • Batch your meetings: Research shows you are less productive when you know a meeting is coming up in an hour or two. You probably unconsciously spin your wheels. It’s better to hold them consecutively or close together.
  • Don’t use your mouse: “A study by Brainscape found that most people lose an average of two seconds per minute of work by using their mouse instead of keyboard shortcuts. That’s eight days a year!” she writes in Harvard Business Review.
  • Nudge your way to better behaviour: Consider what habits you want to change and think about how you can alter your environment to influence those behaviours. For example, putting your phone on airplane mode helps you cope with a tendency to get distracted when you are working on something that needs your undivided attention.
  • Read your work out loud: We’re all writers today and you’ll be a better one by listening to whether it sounds right.

Entrepreneur Seth Godin warns us, however, to be wary about elaborate organizing systems. “You don’t get points for making it fancy, you get points for doing the work,” he said in an interview on the Superorganizers website.

Two questions are essential: Who’s the organizing tactic for and what’s it for? The first question is easy: It should be for you. The second question also appears easy: It’s to lower the noise level in your head. But Mr. Godin disagrees with that common instinct – at least as it applies in his own situation, as someone who grew up with undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. “I need the noise. If there isn’t noise, I make some,” he says.

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He prefers to call the noise “froth.” “Froth is the foam on top of the thing. It’s all the stuff that’s in the corner of your eye, that’s peripheral. I think there’s great value in that stuff,” he says. Froth leads to hunches you follow, he adds.

And he doesn’t seek the perfect organizational set-up. It will never be found, and while waiting you could wind up just having clung to an excuse to not be fully productive, he says. He has, for example, written a number of his best-selling books on airplanes. “Don’t ask: ‘Am I organized enough?’ Instead, you might ask: ‘Am I shipping work in sufficient quality and quantity to cause the changes I seek to make?’ If not, ‘what’s stopping me?’’’ he says.

Consider organizing ideas that other people use, but only make changes to your approach when they work for you.

Quick hits

  • Some guidance from Atomic Habits author James Clear: “Competence over credentials.”
  • And from One-Minute Manager co-author Ken Blanchard: “Start the day slowly.” Carve out a little time for self-reflection.
  • Don’t say you are offended if the financial compensation a proposed employer offers is too low. It’s best to leave that feeling unsaid, advises executive recruiter Gerald Walsh, because the best move is to decline an offer without burning bridges. If the reason you are turning them down is you found the personality of your potential boss to be off-putting, he suggests diplomatically saying you “did not feel the fit was right.”
  • Don’t let your boss call all the shots for your one-on-one meetings, says content strategist Jennifer V. Miller. Take the initiative to set them up regularly. And don’t be afraid to ask his or her expectations or preferred frequency for such meetings, stressing that you want to be as productive as possible.
  • Check to make sure you don’t get “happy feet” when making a presentation, wandering or nervously bouncing about, speaker coach Nick Morgan says. Other common mistakes are the tendency to throw out meaningless filler words – “like,” “you know,” or “actually” – or to dump more information on your audience than is needed.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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