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RenÈ Jansa/Royalty Free

Your desk is a mess. You can't dig out your to-do list from the overflowing pile, never mind tick off any items on it. You have dozens of e-mails waiting to be read. And you keep getting distracted every time a co-worker stops to chat, your in-box signals another message has arrived or the phone rings.

Workers everywhere can identify with that. And it's only getting worse.

Downsizing and layoffs have resulted in fewer workers but no reduction in the workload. Those who have kept their jobs are functioning in a state of semi-chaos, scrambling to bring order to their work lives. And far from helping us stay on top of things, technology has only made things worse, says Linda Chu, founder of Out of Chaos, a professional organizing firm in Vancouver. Business has moved to a 24/7 economy and workers are now always on. We try to multi-task and it's not working, she says.

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Disorganization in the workplace can range from merely annoying to nearly paralyzing, and it costs companies both time and money in lost productivity.

"Things pile up, people feel mentally defeated and exhausted, and the task of organizing seems impossible," Ms. Chu says.

Heading into a new year may be just the time to look at order and disorder in the workplace.

You know you need help when

1 . You spend more than 15 minutes each day searching for misplaced items.

2. The pile of papers in your inbox is always more than eight inches high.

3. Your book shelves are used for storing items other than books.

4. You have more than 100 old e-mails stored in your computer's inbox.

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5. You are constantly asking people to resend their contact information to you.

Source: Professional Organizers in Canada website

Calculating the cost of chaos Your messy desk or jammed e-mail box may not seem like a big deal, but it could be costing you, big time. Find out the real cost of chaos with Tennessee-based DME Consulting & Training's "cost of disorganization" calculator (

Enter your company name, number of employees and average hourly wage to learn the amount of time lost each day to disorganization.

Three common saboteurs to workplace organization, and how to beat them

Clutter Control

PROBLEM: For many, the desktop has become a storage place. Next to the family photos, you might also find yesterday's lunch leftovers and an Aspirin bottle, not to mention overflowing piles of paper. People are still more comfortable reading physical documents, so they print every e-mail, memo and report that comes their way. Without the time or a system to deal with the material, it, too, ends up in disarrayed piles.

SOLUTION: Make it a habit to always put things away. Toss the garbage and return useful items to drawers when you're done. Create a system for dealing with paper by segmenting it into three categories: active files; archival materials, research or information on projects you might need; and reference materials, contact info, or items you may need for a future project. The only folder that should stay on your desk is the active file you need to get the job done today.

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PROBLEM: Besides the distraction of checking e-mail messages either immediately or shortly after they arrive, many people also neglect the delete button. These days it's not uncommon to see 1,000 e-mails stored in an inbox, Ms. Chu says. "It's a fear of out of sight, out of mind." But the sheer volume of messages makes it overwhelming and mentally exhausting each time we go online.

SOLUTION: Check e-mail on a schedule and stick with it. For some, that could be three times a day, for others it could mean every couple of hours. "Then get rid of the crud," Ms. Chu says. Use the functions available on your e-mail program to manage your mail. For example, set up folders and move mail you really need to keep into the appropriate location. Create a rule that sends subscriptions, such as newsletters or news alerts, directly to a folder. The key is to process as much mail as you can as it comes in.


PROBLEM: With the constant barrage of interruptions by managers and co-workers, the obsession to check e-mail and voice mail and the Web, and an overwhelming list of tasks to complete made only more onerous by belt-tightening and staff reductions, we've lost our ability to focus, Ms. Chu says. As a result, workers often reel from one task to the next without making any real progress.

SOLUTION: Develop a priority action plan each day. A to-do list is a useful way to declutter the mind and determine which items are a high priority. That means when a phone call, an e-mail or a co-worker interrupts, you can decide if the interruption is important enough to trump what you're currently doing or can wait until you finish the task at hand.

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