Browsing the archives for the papers tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Organization: Useful Principles

Strategies and goals

A reader got in touch with me the other day asking about where to start with task management. While I’ve written a number of articles about different kinds of organization, I don’t believe that I’ve ever tackled the question from the basic question of where to get started with organization as a whole … so here that article is.

Five kinds of organization
At least five kinds of organization can demand our attention, and it’s helpful to separate them in our minds, because each one requires a slightly different approach. Those kinds are:

  • tasks (anything that needs to be dealt with, from a quick decision to a massive project)
  • paper (including mail, reference materials, the kids’ schoolwork, bills, receipts …)
  • e-mail
  • physical clutter
  • information (I won’t go into this in any detail in this article, but see “Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas“)

Useful principles of organization
Some approaches to organization are much more successful and rewarding than others. The following ideas can help move things along:

  • Have a clear system for decisions – It’s much easier to get through a pile or list of items if you have a strict and clear way to deal with them. A detailed working example: if you’re dealing with a stack of papers (or even boxes upon boxes of papers), take a look at the system outlined in “The 8 Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper.” Process one item, then go back to the top and repeat for the next one.
  • Don’t get bogged down when planning – One of the difficulties with, prioritizing a task list or clearing out an e-mail box, for instance, is that it’s easy to get bogged down trying to do one specific item instead of finishing the task of organizing all the items. Except for one situation I’m about to mention, it tends to work best to only organize when organizing–not getting sidetracked onto one specific item, no matter how appealing or pressing that item might be (short of an emergency).
  • Do very quick things right away – Whenever we’re organizing and we come across a form that can be filled out and readied for the mailbox in a few minutes, or a task that will take a very short time to complete, or an e-mail that can be put to rest with a two-sentence response, taking care of that task immediately shortens the to-do list or stack of papers or list of e-mails to handle, and it saves time having to organize and review the item. This is the exception to not doing tasks while planning, because these short tasks won’t bog things down.
  • Categorize & prioritize – It’s great to get down a list of everything that needs to be done, but if we don’t prioritize tasks then we’ll end up doing whatever seems most appealing, easiest, or most obvious instead of whatever will make the greatest positive impact. Categories make it easier to attend to one kind of thing at a time, and priorities are essential for repeatedly answering the question “What’s the best thing for me to be doing right now?”
  • Review regularly – When organizing tasks and e-mail,  regularly going over the lists is an important part of organization in order to remove things that have been completed, bump up the priority of items that have become more urgent, recategorize, and revisit pending items that have gotten stalled. Along with the obvious benefits of this practice, doing regular reviews also helps us have confidence in our own organizational systems. If we just sweep things into categories and never look at them again, then we’ll our system will start failing this, and knowing this, we’ll be reluctant to put important items into it. As soon as we start keeping things out of an organizational system, that system has failed: it then needs to be handled differently, re-energized, or revamped.
  • Organize items once – When an item comes into an organizational system, it’s important to make a decision where to put it then and there. If we set things aside to consider later, then later we’ll just be faced with the exact same choice. By making the choice with each item as it comes up, we can make clear forward progress.
  • All tasks should go to one place – It’s easy for tasks to start growing, like weeds, in many different places. Apart from very basic separations like “work tasks” and “home tasks,” though, that way lies confusion and failure. If I have a computerized task list, a handwritten list for some other tasks, a file on my computer for some other tasks, a few sticky notes, and some e-mails in my inbox that I want to use as reminders, then I have no way to look at all of my tasks together and prioritize them, which means that my system can’t tell me the one thing I need to do next–and a good organizational system can always answer the question “What should I do next?”

In a follow-up post, I’ll provide links to some of the most useful organizational articles on this site and talk about the one book I would recommend above all others for getting organized.

Photo by Rubbermaid Products

No Comments

Why bother organizing papers?

Strategies and goals

In my recent article The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper, I talk about some principles for taking the stress and difficulty out of organizing the piles of paper that can sometimes grow unwanted around our homes and workspaces. But that article didn’t really address the question of why someone would want to put the time and effort into organizing papers in the first place. For instance, if a person has been used to living in the midst of stacks of paper for years, why shouldn’t that person just continue doing so?

Well, certainly not everyone needs to organize papers, and even people who can benefit from it might do better to avoid it if by doing so they can get some more pressing things done. For instance, if it’s between organizing papers and working on broken ideas to address a serious problem with anxiety, I say let the papers pile up.

Still, here are some benefits of organizing papers for those of us not in that kind of position:

  • It helps you capture tasks, responsibilities, ideas, and resources that otherwise might be hidden or forgotten
  • You will probably find you can get rid of a lot of papers you don’t need, freeing up space and simplifying your environment
  • Organized papers look better and are more motivating for most people than piles, drawers, or boxes of papers
  • Things you didn’t know you had or forgot about can often surface during the organization process, not uncommonly including money
  • The wonderful feeling of “THERE that thing is!”
  • When you actually need some of the material you’ve organized, it will be easy to find it
  • You can make much better use of information you have on paper when it’s collected by subject and easy to find
  • Even a small amount of organizing work can help create a sense of satisfaction, order, and empowerment

Keep in mind that just organizing papers once in a major effort isn’t success: success is building a habit of keeping papers organized as they come in so that they are immediately available when they’re needed. Conveniently, this habit can be built up by regularly–ideally, every day–grabbing a few papers and taking care of them. You don’t have to make a massive initial effort to get things organized; it can just become a regular part of your day.

Photo by jasra

No Comments

Effective Organization and Filing Are … Fun???

Strategies and goals

Partly as a reaction to reading Dave Allen’s organization book  Getting Things Done, I’ve carved three days out of my schedule between this week and next to take care of innumerable little tasks; organize papers, projects, and records; make progress on a couple of small projects; and so on. Today was my first day, and much of it went into getting paper-based information organized. While I’ve had filing systems working in the past, in recent years my system has been “put it in a pile where I can dig through and find it if I really need to.” I had been envisioning filing papers as a Big Job that needed to be done all at once and then repeated regularly, and for me, organizing papers was wasn’t enough of a priority to put in that time at this stage.

Allen’s book has given me a newer and more pleasant perspective on the issue. He points out that papers that haven’t been dealt with, and in fact all things that haven’t been dealt with, tend to be an irritant until they’re taken care of. In other words, one of the immediate rewards of getting my files in order would be more peace of mind. He also outlines a system for keeping files always up to date, with no need to make a big filing push at any time. It was largely this system for paper files that I used to inform my recent post on keeping on top of e-mail all the time.

While it may sound bizarre, filing papers today was actually fun, because Allen’s system helped me get into flow with the filing: in other words, I was continuously involved and challenged in the task, I knew exactly what I needed to do, and I could see how well I was doing as I went.

I won’t and can’t reproduce all of Allen’s system here, although I highly recommend his book if you’re interested in getting more control over the many obligations, objects, papers, tasks, priorities, and other elements that pass through your life.

I had actually started filing using Allen’s system a week or two before I began going through large stacks of to-be-filed papers, just to handle some new papers that were coming in. In other words, I’m already treating filing like a habit instead of something to be done every once in a while in chunks. It’s important to handle these kinds of obligations that way to be able to keep up to date once things are off to a good start. Trying to do filing in a “big push” is likely to mean keeping a “to file” pile after that, which will require another “big push” in future. By contrast, Allen’s system depends on setting eyes on a piece of paper once and then trying to decide where it needs to finally go or what it needs to finally do.

I purchased (inexpensively, through eBay) a simple label maker to make the labels for my file folders. While a label maker may sound like it’s approximately as useful as a banana hammock, the difference in clarity and professional appearance of the printed labels on folders compared to the old hand-labeled folders is striking. I can much more easily find a file using these labels. I use a label maker instead of the computer to make the labels because Allen’s system depends on being able to make up a new file instantly with very little fuss, even if it’s just one folder for one piece of paper, and putting labels through a printer is usually too much of a hassle for repeated little jobs like that.

With a stack of fresh folders, the label maker, and a good system, I was able to sit and plow through piles of paper fairly efficiently, and most importantly to be able to decide then and there exactly what to do with each piece of paper–whether that meant capturing a task from it in my task management system, filing it in an existing folder, making a new folder and filing it there, recycling it, etc. Seeing chaos reduced to order step by step like this is powerfully motivating–and well worth trying if you can make the time to get started.

No Comments

%d bloggers like this: