Five tips to get organized and get happier

Organizing is what you do before you do it, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up. ~Winnie the Pooh, aka A.A. Milne

Ever wonder if organized people are happier?  They are.

I am speaking here from personal experience.

If there was ever a time to get serious about getting organized to help yourself thrive instead of merely survive the next few months, it’s the beginning of the new school year. Before you feel behind in all the demands made on your time.

It used to be a frantic time of year for me, getting kids back to school, getting my own work plan rearranged, figuring out the after-school activities schedule not to mention juggling transportation with only one car in the household. I used to find myself near madness living with the chaos and the clutter. Then I figured out 5 ways for handling the physical spaces to reduce the insanity.

Why get organized?

Here’s why: Organized people feel more in control, especially of their time. Did you know the word “clutter” comes from the old English word “to clot?” As in “clotted cream” or “blood clots.” The word literally means “to stop the flow.” Unlike people in a jumbled, cluttered, messy environment, the organized people have created a system to find what they need. Their work flows smoothly, like water around stones.

Organized people can set goals and break them into manageable tasks. It’s like the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, “One bite at a time.” With a system to help you stay organized, you can feel challenged and stimulated, but not overwhelmed. You can experience what Kelly McGonigal refers to as “the upside of stress.” It turns out that a little bit of “good stress” can motivate you and improve brain function.

Information Overload

In his classic work, David Shenk Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (1997) reported 60% of the average office worker’s time is still spent processing paper documents. That number has not lessened in the decades since. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average office worker in the US uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year. The Paperless Project says any given document in an office will be copied and distributed between 9 to 12 times. No wonder we all feel smothered in paper. And if your job entails wading through massive numbers of documents to produce a written product of any sort be it an amicus brief to a zoology curriculum, you may feel even more buried.

You may also be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of available data. Professionals of every sort, including academics, are estimated to spend 15% of their time actually reading pertinent material but spend 50% of their time looking for it. And that is the case even with electronic files and key word recognition. Additionally, it is estimated that at least 20% of a professional’s day is spent on email since that is still the most widely used form of electronic communication. I know I spend closer to 40% of my day answering emails, including scheduling (and rescheduling) appointments, or exchanging information. When I am particularly busy files and projects get dropped on the floor rather than put away.

Some things you might currently be experiencing due to a chaotic environment:

  • Confusion, frustration, and trouble focusing;
  • Bad stress causing your body to react to the point of dysfunction; and
  • Difficulty determining what is really important, and being unable to prioritize tasks.

Five steps to help you get organized

1) Clear the clutter

Begin by having a serious “throw away session” in your office space. Get rid of all the stuff that’s outdated, too messy to read, the knick-knacks that make the work space hard to see. It’s like organizing a closet: if you take everything out first, and throw away what you do not need, you can see more clearly where you have space for your things.

2) Like goes with like

The first principle of organizing is that “like goes with like.” Think about your kitchen: don’t you keep your plates with other plates, forks and knives with other eating utensils? Why do you do this?  Because it saves a lot of time when you are getting ready to have a meal. Do the same thing in your office. Put all your extra office supplies in one place, put your reference materials (books, conference materials, rules and regulations) together, put files of the same type together. No filing cabinets? Largish plastic boxes can be labeled and stacked, containing files or even objects, then organized as “projects.” Just make sure you label the boxes in a way that you can see the designation once you stack them up. I like see-through boxes to you can easily tell if you are looking at paper files or “things.” And you get to pick the color box you like.

3) Imagine your office in concentric circles

The innermost circle is your workspace, with items needed for active work within arm’s reach (telephone, computer, basic desk supplies, wastebasket). The next, wider circle should be the items you do not need immediately, or very often. This could include “permanent action files” like database information, expense reimbursements, bills to be paid, regular committee meeting information, current writing material or statistics. Further from your active work area are files you are not using or books that you want to keep, but do not refer to regularly. In the next circle out, are the things you use rarely, such as files ready to be archived, past tax filings or books you have finished. You can expand these circles beyond your own office to “archive” areas. For instance, I archive old files in the garage.

4) Technology

There are also a few simple things you can do to help organize the technological components of your life.

Start by taking an inventory of your existing equipment at home and at your office to determine what is usable and what needs to be replaced. Replace only what you truly need. Go through that box or drawer of old cables, modems, firewall and telephone cables and toss out the stuff you can determine no use for. No matter how often I do this, I always discover out-of-date accessories for technology I no longer use or even own.

Consider purchasing an all-in-one printer, scanner, and copier machine capable of connecting to the internet if you don’t already have one. You will save yourself an amazing amount of time when you need to produce documents quickly.

Make sure your work computer is yours and yours alone. In other words, don’t share it with colleagues or members of your family, as you may find things you really need get accidentally messed up.

If you don’t already have a separate email for work, get one, and use the software rules to color code work emails to differentiate between personal emails. I also recommend doing the same for “junk mail.” I have any email address for commercial transactions, such as buying things over the internet. It’s easy then to figure out who is selling your address and delete it, and you don’t have to look at any of those emails, like confirmation of an order, right away. You will be amazed at how much more quickly you can determine the importance of the email.

Last but not least, if you haven’t already, invest in a smart phone. The amount of computing power you can get is phenomenal. And you can access the internet from just about anywhere these days. Using a service like Dropbox or Google Docs can help you access your own materials when you are not in front of a computer.

5) File instead of pile

Even if you only spend a designated 15 minutes per week to take a look at those piles and file what you can somewhere in those concentric circles describes above, you will go a long way to keeping a handle on the paper chaos. Brain studies indicate that once a pile exceeds a quarter of an inch, your eyes will transmit the message “this is too overwhelming to deal with.

Make sure you give yourself credit for every small step you take in getting more organized. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m so disorganized,” say “I’m learning how to be more organized.” After all, organizing is an art and not a science. You have to figure out which pieces work for you, and which ones do not. Know that by getting organized, you can be more energized and get things done more quickly. You will feel more confident that you can find the information you need when you need it. You will have freed up space in your brain to devote to thinking strategically, writing persuasively, or analyzing that puzzling anomaly in your data.

With a more productive work environment, you are well on your way to creating a happier self.

Still need help getting organized?

In addition to the tips I offer here, you can learn a system for handling every incoming item, whether paper, email voice mail, text or something you are asked personally to do. For those of you who simply can’t wait to get a little help, and feel more in control as you start the new school year, Hillary can help.


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