Skip to main content

Lisa Constanzo's quick rise to management had a significant downside: She just as quickly felt overwhelmed.

Within three years of starting in an entry-level job in Toronto at advocacy group Women of Influence, she had been promoted twice. As event and marketing director, she was shouldering a ballooning work load and sudden responsibility for four staff members.

"It was fantastic, but I was cracking under the strain of all the work and I wasn't sure I wanted to stay on in the job," Ms. Constanzo recalled. "I was working longer hours and forgetting things, because I was always disorganized and doing work in such a rush I wasn't satisfied with what I turned in."

Her boss was worried as well. Carolyn Lawrence, president and chief executive officer of Women of Influence, said she saw that Lisa had great talent, but was destined to fail if she didn't learn how to prioritize and stay organized.

"It's a particular challenge for younger employees aspiring to be managers," Ms. Lawrence said. "They've never needed to rigidly organize their days. And it's easy for them to get distracted from their work because they feel they have to respond to e-mails immediately and love to regularly check their BlackBerrys, text messages and social media."

Ms. Lawrence brought in an organizational coach who worked with Ms. Constanzo, to identify the types of work she did in a day and find ways to do them without interruption. From the coaching, Ms. Constanzo developed a discipline in her work day that was a revelation.

"I estimate I'm three times more effective now than when I was moving haphazardly through the day," Ms. Constanzo said. "I couldn't get it all done before. Now I was getting out of the office on time and feeling I had everything in hand. I was also sleeping better because I'm a worrier and thinking about unfinished work kept me from sleeping."

Others in the office were inspired as well. They asked her for advice and she eventually set up an efficiency workshop for seven co-workers.

Ultimately, Ms. Constanzo became so effective and productive that a new role beckoned. She moved to a new job with the Toronto office of Deloitte at the end of August, with the title of marketing specialist, responsible for national projects with the consultancy.

Here are her secrets, which she credits to her organizational coach, Clare Kumar, principal of Toronto based organizing company Streamlife:

Categorize your work

Instead of approaching her day as dozens of tasks competing for her attention, Ms. Constanzo identified three main categories of her job - event planning, marketing and sponsor relationship work - and divided her tasks accordingly.

Block out your time

She set aside two hours a day in which each task category was her primary focus. "That way I wasn't bouncing back and forth between them all day."

Identify priorities

For each set of tasks, she found it helpful to draw up an agenda of items to be tackled first.

Tame e-mails

She used to keep her e-mail program open and had a pop-up icon that flashed every time new mail arrived. "I was constantly distracted checking out messages while I was in the middle of something else. Just turning that notification off made a huge difference in my ability to stay on track."

Adhere to rules

Ms. Constanzo set rigid rules for when she handles e-mails, clearing them from the queue as they are read. "If I couldn't answer in less than four minutes, I sent it to a 'to do' queue for handling more complex responses."

Formalize meetings

Rather than getting up and having informal discussions with colleagues, which can end up rambling and waste time, she set aside blocks to time to meet with everyone involved. She also set aside time to prepare for the meeting, so it would stay on track.

Clear out clutter

A messy desk top is a big distraction. Banishing piles of files, books and bric-a-brac made her feel more in control of her tasks.

Educate others

Letting her co-workers know about her work routine reduced their expectations for immediate replies to e-mails and helped everyone better use their time.



It's never too late to take control of your workspace. Here are tips from Clare Kumar, principal of Toronto-based organizing company Streamlife:

Make a commitment: Set aside 30 minutes for an initial reorganization of your desk top. Once the space has been redefined, it will take much less time to clear at the end of each workday.

Sort ruthlessly: Divide the items into two groups - things such as daily calendar and personal data assistant, which will need a home on your desk and the rest that are more effectively placed elsewhere.

Clear the paper trail: Inactive files have no purpose on your desk. As tasks are completed, file documents or recycle them. Even active files are better kept in a file drawer when not in use.

File with a system: Rather than filing your records from A-Z, consider a hierarchy of subfolders related to your work tasks. For instance: categories of current business, marketing and expenses.

Hang it up: Don't devote space to decorative items on the surface of your desk. If you want to admire photos, sentimental items or awards you've won, attach them to a wall or divider.

Give the laptop a home: The centre of your desk is prime space, so consider investing in a separate laptop stand, which can also put the screen at a better height for viewing than on your desk.

Thin out supplies: You need only one pen, notepad and stapler. Backups are better kept in a cabinet.

Schedule repeats: Booking a monthly overhaul of your desk area will make it easier to clear your desk at the end of every day, enabling you to start each day with a sense of control.

Interact with The Globe