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Easy Ways to Get Organized

Clutter and time-wasters can leave you chronically behind schedule. Take these organizing tips from the pros - and watch your productivity soar. Is your to-do list never getting done? Upgrade your organizational skills.

Ask any company to name its top concerns, and you're bound to hear something about efficiency. In a 2014 CareerBuilder survey of more than 2,200 hiring managers, a quarter of participants named "maintaining productivity levels" as a pressing challenge for their organization, ranking it among their top five problems.

For all the worry, though, many businesses - and their employees - have a tough time coming up with ways to plug their productivity drains. "On average, workers can waste anywhere from 2 to up to 6 hours of an 8-hour workday. This is pretty evident from the number of people who tell me that they spend their day being busy, but getting nothing done," says Kathryn McKinnon, a Harvard Business School executive coach, productivity expert, speaker, and author of the Amazon category bestseller Triple Your Time Today! (CreateSpace).

It's not that these workers are intentionally frittering away their day; it's that their schedules and their physical space aren't organized in a way that helps them make the most of every minute. The result goes beyond its effect on their companies: it also creates profound stress for these individuals. When people feel chronically behind schedule, "It makes them work later," McKinnon explains. "Their work migrates into their personal lives, so their lives aren't their own. They end up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed." This can damage both their health and morale, which in turn can further hamper their productivity, or even make them leave for another job.

It's a shame that any worker - and, by extension, his or her company - suffers, especially when there are strategies proven to tame paper monsters, time-sucking tasks, and other obstacles to a truly productive work environment. Try organizing your own workday, and see the enormous difference it can make. Here, some suggestions from McKinnon and other pros:

Keep a detailed calendar for several days.

Using a desk journal, pocket calendar, or similar tool, track how you spend each minute on the job for about 3 days, says Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Penguin) and other books on time management and organization. "If you want to spend your time better, figure out exactly how you're spending it now," she says. "Most of us tell us stories about our lives that are not necessarily true." For instance, do you set out to dash off a memo, but actually spend a half-hour agonizing over every word of it? Does it take you an extra five minutes each time you need to scan a document, because you've never written down the instructions and to do it by trial and error? Once you see which tasks take up most of your attention, you can begin to find ways to pare them down.

Going forward, assign each daily task an estimated time limit on your calendar.

If you're supposed to have a phone call with a coworker or tackle a project, write down when you'll aim to start and finish. "Let your calendar run your day, rather than letting your day run your calendar," McKinnon recommends. You'll wrap up calls and put the finishing touches on projects more readily when you have concrete reminders that you need to move on.

Keep everyone in the loop about your commitments.

Post your daily schedule on your door or use a scheduling app such as TimeTrade to show coworkers when and for how long you're free to meet. It's a polite way to set some much-needed limits: "If you let other people to dictate how your day goes, they will," warns Karen Sladick, owner of Organize 4 Results, a company in Birmingham, AL that provides productivity training.

Institute a 6-12-6 e-mail rule.

According to a Bain & Company study of CEOs, executives spend so much time managing their electronic communications that it may soon cost them more than one day per week. To avoid falling down the rabbit hole, "resolve to check your e-mail three times a day, at 6 AM, noon, and 6 PM, allocating about 20 minutes at each check-in to manage your e-mail, work on what needs to be done, file e-mail for future reference, and to delete what you don't need," McKinnon says. [Adjust your check-in hours according to your schedule.] "You'll get your correspondence done but it won't be the center of your schedule."

Put paper in its place.

Juggling several different projects? "Decide what's urgent and important, or what has to be done today; what's urgent to someone else but not to you; what's important but not urgent and can be done later in the week, and what's not urgent or important and can be deleted from your list," says McKinnon. Keeping the documents for each project in a color-coded folder (say, red for urgent, yellow for important, and green for "I'll get to it when I can"), or putting each group in a designated slot within a multilevel in-box, will clean up the clutter. It will also spare you from sifting through every paper each time you're ready to tackle something new.

Downsize your supplies.

"Each spring and fall, when it's time to reset your clocks, also take a few minutes to look over what's on your desk," advises Sladick. "If you haven't used an office tool in six months, it's time to toss it or at least put it somewhere else." The only things that truly belong in plain sight are items you use daily. Things used weekly (say, a calculator or ruler) should go in a desk drawer, while supplies you only need every couple of weeks or months (extra folders and your scissors, perhaps) can go in a separate cabinet. You'll gain a cleaner desktop and office, and spend less time accessing the supplies you need most. Look for supplies that do double duty as well - a pen/highlighter, for example, takes less room than one of each.

Keep basic supplies on your dominant side.

Put your stapler, phone, pens, and whatever else you use throughout the day right by the hand you use most, so you won't have to reach across for them. All that fumbling adds up in the course of months. More importantly, it can interrupt your concentration as you work, and even small disruptions can cost you valuable time.

Use sticky notes only for the most important reminders.

Creating a collage of colorful squares around your computer monitor makes you stop noticing them, and turns them into clutter. Instead, try a trip from Vanderkam: Each morning, write a list of the top 3 to 5 things you'd like to get through, even if they haven't been scheduled on your calendar, and keep it on your desk or a nearby bulletin board. "Then, if a spot of time opens up, you'll know exactly what to do with it," she says.

Take 5 to 10 minutes to triage your calendar at the close of each week.

Writing down your commitments has a side benefit: You can assess them at a glance and decide what to unload. Can you delegate a research project? Ask someone else to take a meeting? A few easy wins can free up some major time.

Net Effects

Disorganization isn't the only reason workers can be inefficient. Sneaky web surfing is another big way they squander their time. What are the sites that siphon off employees' attention?

Source: Salary.com 2014 Wasting Time at Work Survey Source: OfficeMax national survey, 2011

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