#72 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 12          December 1993

Three Simple Steps to Organizing Your Office
by Susan A. Rich

Ms. Rich is a national speaker, consultant, writer and owner of Get Organized, Get Rich!, a consulting firm specializing in office efficiency and strategy, in Playa del Rey, California.

Is a line of bosses, staff and researchers, each with a sense of urgency written across his or her face, waiting just outside your office?  Are you ready to pursue the continued business and new projects they want to discuss?  In more concrete terms:  Do you have room in your office for the new memos and reports which will need action? 

Or are your filing cabinets bulging and disorganized, crammed with everything except the papers you need?  Are reports from last year spilling off your desk?

Organizing an office takes three steps:  shedding, shifting, and sorting.  First, get rid of the stuff you don't want or need or that belongs to someone else.  Second, rearrange the furniture and equipment to suit your particular needs and purposes.  Third, sort the papers you are working on into a priority system and create a streamlined filing system.

Sound daunting?  It could be.  You'll need a marathon effort to finish this process.  But the effort will show you enough dramatic change that you will be unshackled and excited about your new possibilities.  It will also spark compliments that will reinforce some of your new habits.

The Plan

People don't get organized until they're ready and the issue becomes emotionally charged.  Your motivation may be strong when you start work, but it helps to hold out a reward--perhaps something you hope to find or achieve, or a treat you'll give yourself when you finish.  Also, try not to work alone--other people can keep you on course at a steady pace.

As you work, keep in mind the expected benefits—increased productivity and efficiency--which are excellent motivators. 

Set aside a block of time to reorganize--it took more than a day to make your problem, and you'll be getting off easy if you can fix it in just one day.  Saturdays or Sundays may be the best days, as you won't be interrupted.  Or choose the day before a holiday, when activity is generally slow. 

Plan the outcome--know before you start what your issues are and what you want to achieve.  Your goals for the day might be:  tossing or storing materials you never acted on this year; creating space in your file cabinets by purging out-dated or useless papers; reducing the number of hanging files and categories; or replenishing supplies near your desk.

Now you're ready to start.  I suggest tackling the oldest or most cluttered corner of the room first, where you'll find buried files and musty books.  Here, decisions will be easiest, and once you start filling the recycling and trash bins, you'll gain momentum.  Throughout the day, your decisions will get progressively more sensitive but not more difficult as you move closer to your desk; these papers deal with more current issues, but they're not necessarily more complex or of greater importance.  Use labels to mark the new categories--otherwise, there's no chance you'll remember which shelf is which.

Be flexible.  For example, if you want to substitute a high-tech look for “out-of-date drab” on your desk, and decide to use black, vertical file dividers instead of gray metal trays, you may need to put the files in a box until you find precisely the right organizers.

Get next year’s calendar and write down all planned trips, conferences, regular meetings, and deadlines.  Be sure to make appointments with yourself to re-organize quarterly or semi-annually. 

Organizing, unfortunately, is not over when you finish the initial effort.  Zealously adhere to your new methods.  If you're like most people, you'll need about 21 days until the new methods are automatic and you aren't tempted to backslide. 

A Table from Nowhere

Take the case of Martin D., a bright but disorganized researcher at a California aerospace company.  His desk was messy, and the office had too many visual distractions for anyone who had to think for a living.  And because he had too much furniture in his office, he was forced to use the conference room for meetings.

Martin had so many "boobytraps" (computer printouts, project files, and company memos) in the file drawers that he couldn't locate important information.  The broken door on his storage cabinet prevented him from using it; when he opened it, he was surprised to find a hidden crate of reference books.

Martin began getting organized by removing a metal storage unit and drafting table, two bookcases, a stool, and three file organizers.  He then asked me where the six-foot table and four chairs came from, and could hardly believe that they had been there the whole time (in the corner beneath mounds of papers).  He had stopped seeing them years ago.

We removed most of the hanging files because they clogged the deep drawer of Martin's desk.  (If the predominant color you see inside a file drawer is green, it means you are storing too much office paraphernalia, and too little information.)  We used about a dozen new labels to organize all the action items and reference material into manila files, then placed them in the deep drawer.  We sorted the project reports and grouped them with labeled binder clips, then stored them in heavy-duty file pockets. 

When it was all over, Martin could manage his paper more efficiently, and he reported a lasting improvement in his work productivity: "I can find what I need for short-notice meetings--even in the midst of a phone conversation."  His success was due to two things:  recovering important documents--and creating an efficient work place.

Though anyone can get organized, it won't happen in a minute--more likely the better part of a day or two, but it's always worth the effort.  An organized office means increased productivity, and that translates into success.

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