“The only difference between a mob and a trained army is organization.” ―Calvin Coolidge
Others poke fun at for my incessant organization, color-coding, and worksheet-making obsessions. I have a tendency to assign a color, number, or ranking to any given task or deadline. And while others could find it a little neurotic, I find comfort in the self-made worksheets and rainbow of colors. They’re a physical resemblance of my plan and provide a clear understanding of where I’m headed (and how many boxes I have to check to get where I’m going).
Working for clients who rely on me to hold the details together, I’ve been somewhat forced into becoming obsessed with processes, patterns, and opportunities to categorize. And in finding those patterns and implementing processes to manage each of them, I’ve linearized the way I go about completing tasks.
Here are some of my favorite ways to take advantage of patterns to automate, simplify, and increase productivity at work.
The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than the time it takes for the brain to decode text. To take advantage of this, I use a coordinating color key for various types of deadlines and projects. It gives a quick overall understanding of what’s ahead without reading a word. When quickly glancing at my to-do list, I know what I’ll be spending the most time on that week based on colors alone. For example, if I see a sea of purple, I know that I’ll be working mostly working on digital products that week.
Another way to incorporate color cues is to utilize Outlook’s ability to customize the color of incoming emails, whether based on sender or a blanket rule such as brightly coloring all unread emails. When I see a brand-new bright pink unread email in my inbox, it calls much more attention than the regular default setting.
Essential Outlook tools
Using Outlook to only check email is like using your smartphone to only make and receive phone calls. It’s capable of so much more, and to not use all the bells and whistles undermines its value. Outlook provides endless ways to track deadlines and tasks, so here are a couple simple ways to take advantage.
Reoccurring appointments: Take note of those predictable, mundane – but rather important – tasks and set a reoccurring appointment to do the remembering for you. I have some that pop up weekly reminding me to reach out to clients with timely project updates, and they’re set to start reminding me when a project begins and automatically stop once it’s complete.
Little red flags: I use them as a living, breathing, interactive to-do list. If an email comes in and I can’t tend to it at that very moment (using my favorite two-minute rule*) it gets flagged. To manage all of the flags flying about, I have it set up so the task list appears on my Outlook home screen, which gets checked multiple times a day. I made it a habit to check in the mornings so I can pick up on anything that I may have flagged the night before (when I shouldn’t have been checking email at 9:30 p.m.), and then check about an hour before the day is over so I’m aware of everything I’m leaving/pushing to the following day.
*Two-minute rule: If the email/task can’t be completed in two minutes or less, mark it for later when you have a clearing in your day. Otherwise, complete it right then and there, know it’s done, and move on.
Forget the email sorting and folders
I think most of us can agree that managing email is the dominant way we spend each of our work days. To not allow it to consume any more of my time as it should, I cut out using folders completely. If I could make one crazy suggestion, I’d tell you to forget the folders and filing. (I know, it’s seems counterintuitive because filing is an important part of being organized, right?) Instead of complicating things, keep emails in your primary inbox and become fast and effective in sorting and searching using the search bar.
Sorting each and every message into a folder takes thought and time, and it doesn’t have to. Imagine that you get 200 emails a day, and it takes about five seconds to completely file a message and put it into the right folder. So if you’re filing them all each day, you’re spending more than 15 minutes just sorting messages after you’ve probably spent another three hours responding to them all.
Instead of searching through folders, sort by conversation (subject line), sender, or time of day. And when something you’re looking for isn’t popping up, use the search bar to search everything in your inbox, including email attachments (which I find super helpful).
Another Outlook setting that I’ve recently started using is the option to “Show as Conversations.” This setting condenses emails by only showing the most recent email in the thread, with a drop-down option to view all in the conversation (including sent messages). This cuts down on clutter in your inbox and creates easy access to emails you may need to reference in any given thread.
The two-tier to-do list
Everyone uses some type of to-do list. Whether it’s super simple and straightforward, or more of a complicated process, they’re vital to getting things done. I personally like the old-school-pen-and-paper kind – there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of physically crossing through something that’s been haunting you on that list.
My to-do list morphed, over time, into a worksheet that more or less created itself through trial and error. I save it on my desktop for easy access and update it each Monday morning, carrying over the things from the previous week’s list that didn’t get done. The to-do worksheet has two sections:
First tier: The first half covers what I call umbrella responsibilities, which are those that are organized by projects, clients, etc. Think big-picture work responsibilities. For example, my list includes all of the clients I serve, regardless if they currently have an active project or not. This keeps every client top of mind on a weekly basis. Ensure this section is inclusive to everything/everyone so there’s nobody/nothing that’s out of sight and out of mind.
Second tier: The second half of the weekly to-do template includes a day-by-day list, which is assessed daily for pressing items. Things that make it onto this list are things that have (or should) to be done by the end of day. This list includes tasks that are long-term and anticipated, like hard deadlines, as well as those that are more fluid such as flagged tasks that I’ve identified in Outlook. This day-by-day calendar is filled out in advance, and I also add and take away each day depending on what pops up.
Skeletons and folders
We can organize our emails, make to-do lists, and create a system for responding to phone calls, but it’s equally as important to effectively manage and organize the actual work being done. To do this, I use a system of folders, subfolders, sub-subfolders… you get the point.
I created a ‘skeleton folder setup,’ which is essentially the consistent bones of how I like to organize files for each project. The skeleton can then easily be copy and pasted into new projects/client folders before I start saving anything in that location. This ensures consistency for each of my projects, allows me to easily find things, and saves time.
Utilizing folder systems effectively is one of the best things you can do for your productivity and efficiency. To create a system that works for you, recognize patterns in your work and create a detailed path for each project that provides structure for where to store files, track your steps, and easily find things.
To make it easier and to further declutter, create an “old” folder in each respective project/client folder, and move projects into it that are no longer considered active. This makes old files accessible, but also makes active files super easy to get to because they’re the first thing you see when you open a folder. As they say, out with the old and in with the new.
Create your happy place
Having an organized, clean, and pretty workspace makes me a happier person, more creative, and keeps me sane. I have a photo of my grandparents above my desk, a hearty indoor plant that I couldn’t kill if I tried, color-coordinated organizational trays and pen holders, and an effective but cheesy motivational quote hanging above my computer. Seeing these things every day makes me feel at home and in my element.
A pretty, comfortable, and tidy workspace can’t be underestimated. I know, for me, it contributes to better organizational habits and peace of mind, and just makes work a happier place.
Gain some organizational momentum
Being organized is about feeling in control and able to manage things as they come your way. When we’re more organized, we’re able to anticipate things more effectively, manage our time better, and see things through a big-picture lens.
So challenge yourself to implement one thing that will help you gain momentum – whether that’s sprucing up your desk, livening up the way you create your to-do list, organizing folders, or setting up reoccurring appointments. Small steps lead to big, lasting change.
Organization isn’t about perfection, it’s about efficiency, reducing stress and clutter, saving time and money, and improving your overall quality of life. ―Christina Scalise