Organizing Your Workplace

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Organizing Your Workspace
Many people fall prey to the false notion that a messy work area means you’re busy because you look busy. The reasoning is that if you look busy, you’re productive. We recommend that you don’t confuse activity with productivity. If your workspace (or computer!) is messy and disorganized, it’s more likely that we’ll think you are wasting a lot of time looking for things.
Clean your workspace by:

  • Getting rid of clutter
  • Dumping trash
  • Sorting and filing papers

Setting up a Daily System
Now that we have a clear, functional working area, let’s set up a daily system. We need something that will:

  • Remind us when a task is due
  • Save us from hunting for documents when we need them
  • Allow us to focus on daily tasks and not worry about things slipping through the cracks

Priority Tray
The first element to this system is the priority tray. This should be a shallow tray in a corner of your work area. It will contain whatever you are currently working on at the moment, plus any emergency items.
Typically, you will work on one item at a time. If someone rushes in with something that must be done right away, you can place your current project in the priority box, switch to the emergency task, and then go back to your project right away.
The priority tray must be empty at the beginning and end of every day. Don’t let it become a black hole!
The Incubator
Also known as a pending file system or a tickler file, the incubator will keep all documents that require follow-up in one place. This file should be placed within easy reach but out of sight. A good place might be the top of a filing cabinet, or, if space is short, on a windowsill.
Here is what you will need:

  • A hanging file holder
  • 12 hanging folders
  • 31 manila folders
  • Felt-tip marker and a pen

First, label the hanging folders with each month in the year. Arrange them chronologically with the current month in front. Then, label the manila folders from 1 to 31. Put the folders for today until the end of the month in this month’s folder. Put the remainder of the folders in next month’s folder.
So, if today is March 12, my incubator will look like this:
March 12

  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • Through to 31


  • 1
  • 2
  • Through to 12

Now, file any items according to when you need to access it in order to complete it on time. So:

  • A brochure that you need to review for a conference in June would be placed in the June folder.
  • An invoice that needs to be paid by March 15 would be placed in the March 1 folder.
  • A ticket for a concert on April 12 would be placed in the April 12 folder.

At the beginning of each day, take the folder for that day. Review its contents. Handle anything that you can right away, and place remaining items in your priority tray. Place the date folder in the next month. At the end of the day, if there is anything left in your priority tray, re-file it in the incubator. When the month ends, check the main folder for the next month and file any stray items by date.
If you don’t have a lot of follow-up tasks, one hanging file folder might do the trick. However, we strongly recommend the incubator system. Try it for 30 days!
Being Proactive
One day a doctor realized she kept having a long line of patients waiting to see her—a line extending far out of her office and into the street. She already knew what was wrong with each patient. Each patient had a sprained ankle from stepping into the deep hole in the sidewalk out in front of the office. The doctor knew the source of her own dilemma. She was just too busy seeing patients in pain with sprained ankles. She never could take time to get someone in to repair the sidewalk.
Ultimately, of course, the doctor’s real problem was her lack of planning. We can’t just keep reacting. We have to be proactive.
If we don’t plan, nothing is likely to change for the better, and we are likely to be stressed out. Then we just keep making the same mistakes over and over, without looking for solutions and planning our strategy.
What are some guidelines to keep in mind when we think about planning?

  • Once a plan has been made, schedule it.
  • Know how much you can realistically accomplish in a day.
  • Schedule your most difficult tasks for high-energy times of day.
  • Check your to-do list three times a day to see if you are on schedule.
  • Reward yourself when you accomplish a significant activity.
  • Don’t book 100% of your time. Leave a reserve for emergencies.
  • If you have to travel across town to get to a meeting, make sure you schedule in travel time so that you can get there on time.

We plan, we put plans in place, we check to see if they worked, and if they don’t work, we adjust or take further action. Tasks need to be done, and planning alone won’t do it. Acting without planning will be less productive. Taking time to check to see whether we have done the right things will prevent us from having to learn from our mistakes.