Taming the Office/Desk/Workstation/Paper/Clutter BEAST!A proven process for turning an inefficient mess into a prioritized, organized workstation environmentBy Randy Dean, MBA, The “Totally Obsessed” Time Management Technology Guy(As featured in his June & July 2011 Timely Tips E-Newsletters – see information on how to subscribe below.)Do you have stacks, piles, and clutter in your primary workstation environment? Do you often feel like you are spinningwheels, simply because the clutter and disorganization has taken over? If so, there is no better investment of your time andeffort than an attack on your “clutter beast”. Specifically, I want you to attack the "paper clutter, stacks, & piles" in your officeenvironment, with a goal to instead create a productive, functional, and organized workspace. I learned the basics of thesepaper and information management strategies more than 20 years ago from David Allen, Mr. Getting Things Done, and theystill work great today (with some help from modern technology!)To Prepare: First, get some much needed supplies at your desk: empty manila folders, empty hanging folders, folder tabs,markers, and labels, as well as a single pad of sticky notes. Also, find some space near your desk for additional filing, if youdont have space available already. If you can, having access to a scanner and PDF printer will help too.Put Away Your Folders. Now, take any and all folders on your desk, and if any of them have an active task you need to getdone, identify the task and either add it to your softwares task manager, or simply add it to a paper task list. Then, PUTYOUR FOLDERS AWAY! (I know, Im talking crazy here, but just try this.)Make a BIG Pile of Paper. Second, grab every single loose piece of paper (including those in large stacks, articles,magazines, sticky notes, etc.), and put them ALL in the GRAND MASTER OF ALL PILES. Yes, thats right – I want you to putthem all in a single, massive, completely disorganized pile. If it touches your ceiling, that is fine. Just grab all of the loosepaper and get it together NOW!Step 3 (First Pass Through Your Pile): Now, start at the top of your pile, and take every piece of paper that you can file,shred, recycle, or toss, and JUST DO IT!! Yes, I want you to get rid of the worthless paper cluttering your desk that you nolonger need, as well as file any and all papers you need to keep for later reference. This is where the preparatory materials Imentioned above can be helpful. If you come across a piece of paper, and all you need to do with it is file it for laterreference, DO JUST THAT! And if you havent actually made a file folder for that piece of paper, MAKE A FILE FOLDER FORIT, INSERT THE PAPER, and PUT THE FILE AWAY! (I know, Im talking crazy again, but just humor me.) If you want to be"fancy", you could even scan the piece of paper, convert to PDF, and file electronically (yes, this is an even better option intodays techno-enabled world.) Then, discard the original once you have the PDF created and filed electronically.Step 4 (Second Pass Through Your Pile): Now you should be left with a significantly smaller stack of stuff that you likelystill need to either take actions on, review, or make decisions about. Heres what I want you to do with it:Get four sticky notes, and spread them across your desk, each one with a different title: 1. Active Items, 2. Deferred Items, 3.To Delegate, 4. To Review.Now, take each item in your “master” pile (individual piece of paper, article, etc.) and, one at a time, put them in one of thesefour stacks. Each item you touch now should neatly fit in one of these four stacks (unless of course you run across moreitems that really just need to be filed, deleted, shredded, or recycled.) Make your items fit into one of these four stacks, or putthem away/throw them away!Now, you should have four clean and simple stacks, with your most important stack likely being your "Active Items" stack.Lets do one more thing before moving on to Part 2:Last step for Part 1: Go through your "Active Items" stack, and any active items that will only take 2-3 minutes or less, DOTHOSE NOW! I want you to GET DONE all of the quick little things (and their related pieces of paper) that have beenstacking up in your office, and then either file the related individual pieces of paper, or get rid of them. Make the call. Fill outthe little form. Send the reply or “thank you” note. MAKE DECISIONS. Do what you need to do, and if you spend the rest ofyour day just knocking out 50-60 of these quick little things and clearing out the related clutter, AWESOME! This effort maytake most of a day if you have a large enough mess – take a break and come back tomorrow for part 2.PART 2Now, if you followed my Part 1 processes all the way to the end, you should be looking at 4 different (and MUCH smaller)piles on your desk: Active Items, Deferred Items, To Delegate, and To Review. Also, you should have gone through the"Active Items" pile and handled all quick little "3-minute or less" tasks. Thus, hopefully, you have four pretty small pilesinstead of several huge "stacks and piles". And, there really shouldnt be any loose papers in other places in your office,right? (If you are still seeing other loose papers, you need to take those papers and quickly run these items through the Part1 process above again.) Since all of the “quick little things” are now handled, lets get down to the four small piles mentionedabove. You are now really ready to take charge!
First, take your "To Review" pile, and put it in an easily-accessible but not-right-in-the-way location. Im making theassumption that all things in this pile are not "important/urgent" -- if you have any items that are truly "important/urgent",move them to your "Active Items" pile before moving the "To Review" pile out of the way. (If you are particularly anal, youcould organize the remaining items in your "To Review" pile and put them in some sort of order based onpersonal/professional interest/relevance (with most interesting/relevant on top) before finding a good resting location for thepile. AND, if you want to be really slick, this might be a GREAT time to take some of the items/individual articles, and scanthem to PDF and load onto your laptop, e-book reader, or iPad so you can get rid of more paper!) This “To Review” pile nowbecomes a permanent fixture of your office/desk area now, and whenever you get more low-importance "to review" items,you add them to this pile (if you cant scan to PDF and load onto a reader instead.) And whenever you are going anyplace,take the top one or two “To Review” items with you, so you have a chance to review them whenever you run into a“downtime” situation.Second, you have a choice: do you feel like delegating, or do you feel like attacking your own to-dos? Im betting youfeel like delegating (it is always more fun to give other people work than to do your own!), so lets talk about the "To Delegate"pile first (but if you feel like attacking your own To-Dos, skip to the "Active Items" discussion below, then jump back up to thissegment.) Take the "To Delegate" pile, and sort into order by priority/urgency, with most important/urgent items/delegationson top. Now, I have a question to ask you: do you truly need these items in paper form, or did you just keep the piece ofpaper as a reminder that you need to make this delegation? If the latter, it is time to make the delegation and get rid of thepapers. Pick up the phone and make the call. Send the needed e-mail. Walk over and find the person. Then, make thedelegation/assignment! Get your delegation resource to confirm receipt of the task, and get them to promise to meet thedesired due date.As you are doing each delegation, track each one on some form of a tracking list (I actually insert mine right into my Outlookand/or Google Tasks task lists). When I first learned this process from David Allen 20+ years ago, he recommended having a"Waiting For" list that you keep right on your desk that you reference at the start of your day every day. On this list, you track1) what the deliverable is; 2) who owes you the deliverable; 3) when they owe it to you; and 4) when YOU need to remindthem so you can get it on time. This could be a simple paper list that you check every morning right before you check your e-mail the first time, and it will hopefully REPLACE your "To Delegate" pile, as you start to make these needed delegations inREAL TIME (as they occur.)In the last few years, Ive moved away from the paper tracking list of my "Waiting ons", and have instead started trackingthem in my Outlook and/or Google task lists, with "Waiting On" marked as the status of the task. I list the deliverable, whoowes it to me, and their due date in the subject line of the task. I post my "bug date" in the actual Due Date field for thetask (because what is more important to me is the actual day I need to follow up with them to get my stuff on time vs. the realdue date of the deliverable.) Of course, with people that are trustworthy and meet deadlines, the "Bug Date" and real "DueDate" are one and the same.The goal with this pile is, as I said, to make the delegations, track the delegations, and then, if possible, either convert theoriginal document to PDF and/or file/discard/recycle/shred the piece of paper on your desk, so you ultimately replace your"To Delegate" pile on your desk with either a single-sheet-of-paper or electronic tracking option.Now, it is time to attack your “To Dos” – The Active Items Pile. This is the pile that determines much of your work,prioritization, and productivity, so handling this pile well is of utmost importance. On a first pass through this pile, once again,handle any "less than 3 minute" items you may have missed in previous passes -- GET THOSE THINGS DONE! Now,second pass, can you convert any of these pieces of paper into an item on your paper-based or electronic task list? I wouldmuch prefer you stop having so much paper, and if you can turn any of these papers into an item on your task list -- whateverformat -- that would be my strong preference! Your goal is to turn much of your office, much of your paper, and,frankly, much of your e-mail and voice communications into a single, prioritized, project-and-date-based task list.I have, over the last couple of years, converted about 80% of my task-based papers into electronic tasks, greatly reducingthe paper on my desk, and getting closer to a "single-source" task list. The problem with having an "Active Items" pile is thatyou have to reference it as well as your task list each and every time you want to figure out "what is the right next thing todo." If you can get down to a single task list – in either paper or electronic form – theoretically, your moment-by-moment andlonger-range decision making should improve, and your focus should more naturally go to either your “urgent” or “important”items and tasks. Thus, your productivity and effectiveness should jump! Im even working to take the few remaining paperitems in my "Active Items" folder, and convert them to PDFs that I can then attach to my individual electronic tasks, thusallowing me to either file or discard/recycle/shred all original pieces of paper. The goal, once again, is to GET RID OF PAPERand GET A SMART TASK LIST!Now, hopefully after making this pass and converting as many of these "Active Item" papers onto a paper-based task listand/or an electronic task list (Outlook, Google Tasks, TaskTask, Toodledo, etc.), you will have very few papers left. Those thatyou do have left, sort into order according to Priority/Urgency, with most important/urgent items on top. This pile nowbecomes a power tool for effective decision-making. Whenever you have an "open block" of time, you can reach for the topitem on the pile and GET IT DONE.
Of course, if you are also referencing a paper-based or electronic task list, you should reference that list too before takingthat action. You always want to try to choose the most important/urgent/beneficial item to work on next (or at least take actionon something for which you are motivated, so you can keep continuous "forward progress.) This “Active Items” pile should befront and center on your desk, and should be referenced every day before you check your e-mail. Also, when new paperitems come in that belong in your "Active Items" pile (and that you cannot convert to an electronic task), you simply pagethrough this pile and put that item in the exact spot where the item above is just a bit more important/urgent, and the itembelow is just a bit less important/urgent. Make sure to sort any new papers into this pile in REAL TIME as they come in --dont let them create a new stack or more clutter! (Of course, Im hoping that many of these items INSTEAD become part of asingle paper or electronic task list, so you can once again GET RID OF PAPER.)MASTERY TIP: Look very closely to the items that fell to the BOTTOM of your Active Items pile. By your own sorting, youhave determined the individual items that are the least important items in your pile. Is there any chance you could just makethe "executive decision" and move them to the "Deferred" pile (or the trash can?) About twice a year, I take my "Active Items"pile, and do just that. I pull low-level items off the bottom of my Active Items pile that Ive never gotten to, and I just convertthem into "deferred items". They never got done, and I never got in trouble for not doing them. Im good with that! Thatssimply one form of "effective procrastination." ;-)Now, it is time to handle the "Deferred Items" pile. Obviously, these are items that youve already determined arent activeright now. Can I ask a critical question? After going through all of the steps weve discussed in this two-part article, could younow make the "executive decision" that some of these things will just never get done, and that you can simplydiscard/shred/recycle the related paper? And, can some of the other items be converted into electronic tasks with far-futurereview dates (allowing you to thus get rid of even more paper???) Im hoping you have the ability to get over the "paperhoarding" syndrome many office workers seem to suffer from, and do just that for at least some of this Deferred Items pile.Those other items that "make the cut" – that you want to hang onto for at least a while longer – could be quickly sorted intosome sort of a priority/interest order, with most important/interesting on top. Then, take this pile, and put it into a drawer or filecabinet with relatively easy access near your desk, and put a label on it with "Deferred Items" prominently displayed. Thereis no reason for this pile to be out and visible and thus a possible distraction (out of sight, out of mind!)Then, put into your calendar an event 2-3 times a year to "Review/Delete items in Deferred Pile." When that review timecomes in, pull out the file, scan through the items, and either 1) make active, 2) decide to delete, or 3) defer again. If youhave a good idea, there is no reason you cant keep it for later review, but this also gets that related clutter off of your deskand out of your line of sight, so you can focus on truly active and important items. Also, if you get access to additionalresources (more budget, new staff, etc.), that is also a good time to pull out your "Deferred Items" file, as those newresources may allow you to change something from Deferred to Active (or delegated!) And if you get new items for deferral,absolutely get them into this file for planned later review.Every DayYour desk should be clean now, with an "Active" file, a "To Review" pile, and a "Waiting On/Deliverables" list and/or electronictask/tracking list. Review the "Active" file and "Waiting On" files first thing in the morning each day BEFORE checking your e-mail, and make any "follow ups" you need to make for any of your deliverables first thing if you can. During the day, you canof course also pull out active files for projects, people, clients, vendors, etc. as you need them, but when done, put those filesaway before moving on to something else (possibly after putting a new "Next Step" in your task list for that particularproject/person/client/vendor). And, try to keep your desk in its new, much-more-efficient manner for the long run.If you can keep your office/workstation clutter under control by using this proven system, youll find minutes per day andhours per week (which translates into many days of additional productivity per year), simply because you are finding stuffmore quickly, and knowing what is truly most important/urgent at any given moment of any given day. Good luck with yournew workstation and your new process!!Epilogue:So, did you actually do this? Did you go through this process and actually attack your clutter, stacks & piles? If so, Id love tohear from you. Im hoping to hear some powerful stories of increased productivity and organization, as well as reduced stressand increased office sanity. You just needed a plan – a method – to attack your office/desk/clutter beast. And with thatbeing done, what other mess can you go after now?"Every minute spent organizing gives you back an hour later."- Benjamin Franklin*****Randy Dean, MBA, The "Totally Obsessed" Time Management Technology Guy has been one of the most popular expert speakers on theconference, corporate, and university training and speaking circuit for several years. The author of the recent Amazon e-mail bestseller,Taming the E-mail Beast, Randy is a very popular and engaging time, e-mail, and technology management speaker and trainer. He brings 22years of speaking and training experience to his programs, and has been very popular with programs including Taming the E-mail Beast,
Finding an Extra Hour Every Day, Optimizing Your Outlook, Time Management in "The Cloud" Using Google and Other Online Apps, and hisnew program, Smart Phone Success & Terrific Tablets. If you have an interest in bringing Randy to one of your upcoming events, contactRandy at 517-336-8906 or email@example.com. You can also visit his web site: http://www.randalldean.com.You have permission to reuse, reprint, and/or edit this article for space if you include the paragraph above.NOTE: You can subscribe to Randys monthly Timely Tips e-newsletter – where he features one time-saving tip and one smart phone/tabletfeatured app each month – by simply sending him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and putting “Timely Tips please” in the subject line.You may also want to check out or even subscribe to Randys YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/JanaRandyDean wherehe often posts some of his favorite technology tips, snippets from program sessions, info about popular programs, and more.You can join Randy on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/randydeanYou can follow Randy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelyman