by Ronnie Eisenberg
For many people, their desks are where they live most of the day. And many of these environments are overwhelming disasters. I'm often hired to be a "desk doctor," and I can't tell you the number of times I've walked in and seen a desk that easily could have been mistaken for the home of a pack rat, yet the client assures me that he or she has cleaned up for my arrival. With dedication, a hopeless mess can become a model of efficiency. I find most people's problems generally fall into one of three categories:
- Poor space planning. They have to keep jumping up and down to get the items they need.
- Poor work habits. Each day a few more papers become permanent residents of the to-do stack.
- Indecision. They have no idea what to do with the stacks of paper on their desks.
Here are some ways to get your desk under control:
- Whether you spend one hour or eight at your desk every day, careful thought should go into how you use it. Make it functional.
- At home, try to establish a place that is solely for paperwork. Though a storage unit on wheels can make working at the kitchen table bearable, it is not ideal to have to clean your work surface each time the family wants to eat.
- It's preferable to have a desk of your own rather than sharing.
- Know your work habits. If you like to spread out material as you work, provide yourself with enough space (such as a large desk surface or a long countertop).
- A good chair is as important as a functional desk. Invest in one that is right for you. A chair on wheels is particularly handy.
Organizing Your Desk Area
- You must be able to find what you're looking for quickly. "A place for everything and everything in its place" is an important principle to keep in mind.
- To avoid having to jump up and down as you work, plan space nearby for address book, birthday book, planner, computer, dictionary, files, reference books, telephone answering machine and trash can.
- Materials to have on hand: calculator, canceled checks folder, checkbook, clock, eraser, envelopes, labels, letter opener, notepads, paper clips, pens and pencils, rubber bands, ruler, scissors, stapler, stamps, stationary and tape.
Establishing Better Desk Work Habits
When it comes to desk organization, stacks of paper are the single biggest problem I see. You don't have time to finish a project, so you leave it until morning ... You're expecting an answer from XYZ Company by the end of the week, so you'll leave the file out until then ... You didn't finish reading the mail, so you'll leave it until Monday. And the only problem is that by the time Monday comes, it's too late because there is pile after pile, and it seems it would take two weeks to ever untangle the mess.
Here are some tips to help you work better:
- The key is to not let paper and piles keep multiplying. Process each paper as it comes in, and get it off your desk.
- Make it a rule to always refile things. You can establish a special place (such as a desktop standing file) for current projects, but otherwise put everything away.
- Keep your desk free of clutter. It may tempt your eyes to roam, making time at your desk less effective. Put loose papers in clearly labeled files ("Tasks," "To Read," etc.) or color-coded ones (purple = medical, green = legal matter).
- If you're concerned about remembering where you are going to put some notes you'll need for an upcoming project, note the location in your planner on the day or month the project is due.
- If you have taken files out of dead storage for a specific project, gather them up when the project is completed and take the time to put them back where they belong.
- Use your planner. It is invaluable for recording ideas in the working/developing stage. Instead of jotting down notes on scraps of paper and never knowing where to find them, you'll have one place to look when you want to refer back to that million-dollar idea, a clever paragraph for a sales letter, a new marketing idea, anecdotes or the details of a telephone conversation.
- Set aside time daily for doing paperwork. Choose an hour when there are few distractionsif at home, in the early morning before the family gets up or if at work, before the staff comes in. During this time, use an answering machine or your voice mail system to screen calls, have your secretary hold calls or have a co-worker answer your phone (you can return the favor at another time).
- Use the desk clock as an important ally. If you're procrastinating about something, tell yourself you'll work on it for "just 15 minutes." And use the clock to help you stop early enough so you will have time to put things away at the end of the day.
- Clean up your desk every night so there's no chaos when you begin the next morning.
What to Do When Your Desk Is a Disaster
Many of my clients are truly frantic because their desks are such a mess. They can't find slips of paper on which they wrote important phone numbers; they know they received information they sent for, but it's buried in a pile of paper; they were working on a chapter of a novel, but the notes for the next chapter are gone. Here's how I counsel them when I make a house call:
- Address your desk problems in blocks of time. You may be able to straighten out the clutter in a few hours, or you may need a weekend. Sometimes it's better to devote a couple of hours a day to the job until you're done.
- Have on hand a trash can, a pen, file folders, labels and the other desk organizational aids mentioned above that suit your needs.
- Clear the space you want to organize (the desk surface, one of the drawers, etc.). Then make a big pile of all the paper.
- Evaluate each item, categorize it and put it away (in the desk drawer, in a file, in one of the desk organizers, etc.), throwing out as much as possible.
- Even when you are feeling overwhelmed, just keep sorting and categorizing. If you devote the necessary time, your desk can be cleared.
- Enlist the help of a partnera spouse, a secretary, someone who can help you keep going.
Organization is a skill that can be learned. The most difficult part is breaking your lifelong bad habits (like letting your paperwork pile up). The key to getting better organized is to start with one small step and then take others one at a time. You may find that what you've put off for years takes only an hour to do. And once you see the benefits in one part of your life, you'll be motivated to go on.
If you implement the ideas given here, you'll be free from chaos and feel in charge of your life. Once you've started, stick with it. Getting organized is the first step; persistence and follow-through will keep you that way. Now, go get started.
Ronnie Eisenberg is a nationally recognized time-management and organizational expert. She lives in Westport, Connecticut.
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