Everyone thinks they’re busy. Most people really are, as workloads increase, and the demands on our time become ever more diverse.
Many of us suspect that we might be able to do more if we were just a bit more organised. Some of this may be paranoia, and an understandable level of insecurity in the face of rising expectations. However, gaining an appropriate degree of control over our workload and time is a sensible decision.
Let’s look at the best ways to stay organised at work, and get more out of your time.
Ensuring demands are clear and reasonable
Any role carries with it a set of expectations. Many of these will be dictated by the nature of the job and the network of responsibilities and relationships that form a key part of it. A good place to begin, therefore, is to consider whether each expectation you face is both clearly understood and reasonable.
You may need to negotiate with peers, customers, and your manager to ensure that demands on your time are appropriate, and can be met within your current resources. If they are not, you will either need to discuss what you need in order to be able to complete the task at hand, or explain that this is something best suited to another time or person.
Once you’ve gained a clear understanding of a task, and thought about whether it is reasonably within the scope of your role, try to categorise it in terms of the following.
Dump: can the demand be removed?
Delegate: can it be achieved to greater effect by someone else?
Diary: can you handle it more effectively at a later date?
Do: is it something that can and should be addressed now?
Another tool you can use for categorising tasks is the urgent vs. important quadrant, also known as the “Eisenhower Matrix” (see to the right). This can be useful in deciding whether something can reasonably be dumped, delegated, postponed, or done immediately.
When workload is challenging, any demands on your time must be met in an efficient and effective manner, and these tools can help you achieve this.
By far the most significant impact on your ability to organise and manage your time is your own mindset. Consider your attitude to meeting demands and getting things done, and whether it’s working for you.
Do you spend time doing things that aren’t necessary? Are you responding to demands that aren’t within your scope? Are you doing too many favours at the expense of your own plans and needs? I’m not suggesting you should be unhelpful or awkward, but you need to get the balance right between meeting your highest-priority demands, and allowing your time to be taken by unplanned requests.
You aren’t helping the organisation by missing your own deadlines or targets to help others with theirs. Be professional and value your own time, allocating it first to the activities that your job role and goals tell you are the most significant.
Using the tools available
Make use of organisation-related tools where possible. I freely admit that I would be in big trouble, productivity-wise, without tools such as Outlook, Microsoft Office, and voicemail.
Outlook allows me to plan and schedule tasks and projects in the calendar, allocating sufficient time, and placing reminders at appropriate points. Once I add in meetings and appointments (including travelling time), this shows me what ‘free’ time I have available and enables me, politely, to decline inappropriate or irrelevant requests.
Many people complain about the volume of emails they receive… but imagine if each of those was a phone call, or someone arriving at your desk. Email enables us to decide when we address the need, and therefore allows us to manage and allocate our time more efficiently.
I can organise emails by setting preferences about spam, filtering for high and low priority, and using automatic replies to allow me ‘protected time’. Learn what it (or whatever equivalent you use) can do, and exploit the potential. Someone you know will probably be a power-user, so get them to help you.
Use folders, shortcuts, and naming conventions to make it easy to find your files. You wouldn’t just throw all your files into a cabinet (I hope), so don’t do it with your electronic documents. Design your file structures and stick to them. If a commonly used file is ‘buried’ several levels down, create a shortcut to it at the top level or on the desktop.
Voicemail enables you to make yourself unavailable when you need protected time. Negotiate with colleagues to handle your calls and messages when you can’t be contacted. Change your voicemail accordingly, so the caller knows what to do and when they will get a response. Just because the phone is ringing, you don’t have to answer it. Set it to silent, and deal with the messages at a time convenient to you (unless your job is to provide an immediate response… I wouldn’t want to get a voicemail message if I dialed 999).
This is just a short skip through a big subject. Effective organisation takes thought and practice. If you lead or manage others, it’s part of a broader set of leadership and management skills, which can be developed through dedicated mentoring.