Organization isn’t complicated, but it is critical to our capacity for powerful functioning in this age of hyper connectivity. It is one of the simplest tools to become more focused, productive and capable of managing today’s digital noise.
As our attention and concentration is pulled in multiple directions at any given time, agile productivity systems allow us to be more innovative, engaged and able to recognize new opportunities. Like a rubber band, we can stretch more easily in times of chaos because we can always bounce back to more solid footing when the turmoil ends.
Whether you are organizing your junk drawer or next year’s strategic plan, the process is universal. Follow these five simple steps to organize virtually anything.
Step 1: Minimize the obvious.
Begin by removing the most obvious items that don’t belong. In your office space, look for things like bulky, seldom-used office equipment, dead plants, or boxes of old files that should be archived, stored or thrown away. People frequently cart unopened boxes of files from their last move to a new office. Getting rid of these things will clear some space to work in, both physically and mentally, and give you an early win to motivate you through the process.
As you consider what you can quickly remove, begin to shift your thinking. Organize what you need, not what you have. The shift is subtle but important in allowing you to thin out the items you need to manage. This not only allows you to get rid of accumulated junk, but also encourages you to think about letting go of projects that are dead weight, unproductive or unrealistic. The release often feels exhilarating.
Identifying the vital few v. the trivial many is known as the Pareto Principle, named after 19th century economist Vilfredo Pareto. Many know it as the 80/20 rule, which says that 80% of your results come from 20% of your activities or inputs. You may find that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients, or conversely that 80% of your problems come from 20% of your clients. Professional organizers claim that we wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time and that the same holds true for the files we use. Finding a use for an item versus needing that item is not one and the same.
Step 2: Plan before you touch.
One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make in an organizing project is to jump in and start “going through” everything. It ends up being overwhelming and a huge waste of time. So, don’t go exploring what is there and don’t go shopping for organizing products at this stage.
Instead, start with a plan for the end result. Most law firms have great case management and document management systems, but the items that fall outside of this can be poorly organized. Some examples might be business development, marketing, associations, Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits, educational materials, employee benefits or firm administration. Identify and outline the categories first.
A great filing system should have 5-7 primary categories, not more, not less. This gives your system longevity and helps you to avoid systems that are a mile wide and an inch thick or vice versa. The human brain struggles to easily remember a break-down of more than 7 items.
Five minutes of planning will typically save about an hour in execution. A well-planned day will have a dramatic impact on your productivity. Even if your plan blows up by 10 a.m., when the crisis is over you will only need to revise the original plan, not start from scratch. This is the difference between getting work done and getting your most important work done.
Step 3: Label the boundaries.
Whether it’s the time on your calendar or the drawers of a file cabinet, labeling helps to establish boundaries for yourself and others. Boundaries identify physical, mental and time spaces. Labeling makes them durable.
Once you create the primary categories, apply them to everything: physical files, digital files, flash drives, bookmarks and sometimes even email. No matter the device the structure should be the same on your laptop as your tablet. This is how you build no-brainer systems. No one likes to file, so make it easy.
Step 4: Start sorting.
If you are applying this new organization system to your computer files, begin by creating a new file folder for each of the primary categories. Add numbers at the front of the folder name (i.e. 1-Business Development, 2-Education, etc.) so that files will automatically sort to the top. You can rename them when you are finished. Then drag and drop existing files into those big buckets. Once all your files are in those folders you can create the sub-files for each, fine-tuning the layers as you go.
This allows you to work in chunks of time rather than waiting for the big stretch of time that will never come. For paper file systems, try labeling a record-keeping box for each file category and sort through one drawer or one pile at a time. Once each category is sorted and relabeled, you can simply lift the files into the proper file drawer.
Step 5: Work the system.
For a productivity system to be effective, it must be trusted. To be trusted you must use it frequently. In the beginning, it is a learning process that needs to be practiced. By continuing to practice, you are converting it to an unconscious habit. In time it will be like an automated system, happening with very little human thought.
Strive to be able to find any file on your computer in about 10 seconds and any piece of paper in your office in about a minute or less.
Back in the 1980s, researchers James Q. Wilson and George Kelling introduced the broken windows theory of crime prevention. Although it became controversial in its implementation, the theory is worth knowing. It says that if you bring order to a community through things like fixing broken windows and painting over graffiti, you send a message that this is an area that is being looked after, and crime is more likely to be noticed. Therefore, crime is deterred.
What does this have to do with organization? I have found that when you bring order to one part of your life or one part of an office, it unconsciously spreads in concentric circles. When one person applies organizational systems, people around them tend to interact in a more organized fashion. Otherwise, their disorganization will prominently stand out. With very little effort, people begin to bring more order to their environment.
Organization doesn’t just allow us to be more structured and focused, it enhances our ability to work and thrive when the chaos inevitably happens. We can be pulled in many directions because we integrate new projects and obligations back into systems we have control over. The foundation is in place to agilely maneuver through the noise.
Organization isn’t complicated, but it is critical to our ability to function at our most powerful levels and accomplish our highest priorities. It’s a skill the most successful master.
About the Author
Barbara Bergeron is a nationally recognized productivity expert, trainer, and speaker, and is the president and owner of SOS Organizational Services, a productivity and time management training consultancy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.