Once, as a young editorial assistant, I left my to-do list for the next day on my desk, in the company of numerous stacks of paper and a few used coffee cups. The next morning, the list bore a P.S. in my boss's handwriting: "CLEAN DESK." It didn't matter that I was able to keep her organized, or that I knew my way through those paper mountains like a sherpa knows the Himalayas. I had to change my ways.
Books about organization didn't help. They were written by people from another galaxy, a place where babies are born with innate knowledge of pegboards and filing cabinets instead of Babinski's reflex. Then I discovered the missing link: I couldn't have an organized desk until I got a simplified life. If you'd like one, too, try this 30-day system for simplifying office routines:
■ Start the serenity process before you leave for work. Get up earlier. Spend at least 10 minutes in quiet contemplation or writing in a journal; this is when you decide that you'll have a day divorced from chaos. Have lunches packed and kids' stuff in order the night before. Eat something that makes you feel strong and healthy. Leave for work with a little time to spare so a missed bus or a traffic jam won't raise your blood pressure.
■ Plan to get to work early (or stay a little late) one or two days a week. This way, you'll have a blissful hour or so to work on something that requires focus--an expense report, maybe-- when you know there will be no interruptions.
■ The rest of the time, expect to be interrupted. That way it won't be so frustrating. Because interruption is the norm in most offices and other people's needs make multitasking inevitable, commit to having only one project of your own going at a time. That way, you know precisely what you'll return to when your time is your own again.
■ Set certain days for certain tasks. Like the old rhyme about Tuesday being washday, you can arrange your week so you'll know, to some extent anyhow, what you'll be doing.
■ Have specific times for tending to routine business. Return voice-mail messages at the same time or times every day (you might even put this on your outgoing message). Save all nonurgent duplicating for one trip to the copier. Deal with e-mail twice a day and shut off that infernal bell the rest of the time.
■ Eat lunch every day. Ideally, you'll actually get out for lunch. It might seem that you're simplifying things to stay at your desk and keep working but your psyche (and your stomach) would disagree. Take that break.
■ Leave yourself messages. If you're at work and think of something you need to do at home, call your answering machine. Then you can forget it and focus on the business at hand. You can do the same thing in reverse: Leave yourself a message at work about something that may have slipped your mind during the day. If you can't help bringing the office home, this is a way to send some of it back.
■ Have a customized organizing system. How you keep track of things is up to you--as long as you're (a) keeping track, and (b) doing it in a way that doesn't upset those around you (like those stacks of papers that got me the note from the boss). Of the administrative professionals I polled for this story, the most popular organizing plan is a dual system involving a day planner/calendar (Franklin-Covey, At-A-Glance, or something similar) and a chrono-file: a hanging file for each month and rotating folders for each day. The planner tells them what they'll be doing, and the chrono-file contains the documentation. In addition, a chrono-file provides a place for every single piece of paper that can't be dealt with right away.
■ Delegate when you can. We're often afraid to give up even the minor details because we think no one can do them like we do. That's probably right, but that doesn't mean someone else won't do them perfectly well. If you're not able to delegate a lot of work, see what you can delegate at home to lessen the overall complexity of your life. Cleaning help, for instance, is not an indulgence. Unless you actually like to clean and find it somehow therapeutic, let that job go and don't look back.
■ Plan for times when you'll be gone. Make a clear list of all your responsibilities as well as your boss's preferences (how he likes mail opened, how she prefers to have the phone answered) and give a copy to a coworker. This way, you'll make life easier for the temp; she'll be more efficient; and your coworkers won't have to answer her questions all day long. You might also provide a special folder in which your replacement can put those papers she doesn't know what to do with so anything that wasn't taken care of will be in one place and you can deal with it first thing when you return.
■ Get along. Office politics can complicate your work day as much as filing your boss's airline tickets under "Miscellaneous." "Stop trying to fix and change other people," says office communications specialist Sarita Maybin. "Don't try to make other people over into your image." Address problems as they occur before a misunderstanding turns into a feud. In addition, avoid gossip like a door marked "Plague." It can feel satisfying to think you've got the goods on somebody but as my grandmother used to tell me, "Anyone who'll gossip with you will gossip about you"--and they probably are. If you can't avoid hearing gossip, at least abstain from contributing.
■ Make your space inviting. A cartoon about a disgruntled worker or a morbid joke may be funny but it adds to your mental workload. Replace these with relaxing or uplifting photographs--images of the ocean, your vacation, your dog. Or have plants around: they're visually appealing and they put oxygen into the air.
■ Streamline repeat tasks. Things you have to do over and over take less time and effort if you create templates for them so you don't have to start from scratch every time. If you often fax to the same person, for instance, you might make up cover sheets by the batch.
■ Meet regularly with your immediate coworkers. If it's appropriate in your organization, schedule a weekly meeting with the people with whom you work directly. If you can let someone know the three things you'll need from him this week, and someone else can tell you the three she'll need from you, you've just saved yourself half a dozen interruptions.
■ Don't answer e-mails. Well, you'll answer some of them, of course, but unless you're asked a question or there's further business to attend to, you aren't obligated to write back. You'll save yourself and others time by phasing out those e-mails that just say, "Thanks," or "Sounds good," or "Have a nice day." I know these are friendly gestures and on the phone or in person you'd use them as a matter of course, but with e-mail, each one means that somebody has to open it and will probably feel obligated to write back, "You're welcome," "I'm glad you think so," or "You have one, too."
■ Set boundaries. Start with saying no to unreasonable requests. Then politely distance yourself from negative people, the "energy vampires" who steal others' time and enthusiasm with their nonstop laments. You can also set boundaries for yourself: "I will leave work at 5 p.m. today, and all my work will be finished before I go." Sometimes emergencies intervene, but more often than not, making a commitment like that means you'll keep it.
■ Make peace with chaos. Offices can be topsy-turvy places: You're composing an important letter but the phone is ringing, the boss is buzzing, the mail was just delivered, and the guy from HR is standing at your door humming. When it seems overwhelming, breathe. One eternally calm administrative assistant I spoke with has a little sign on her desk that reads, "How Important Is It?" to help her differentiate the urgent--there's plenty of that--from the truly important, of which there is a lot less. When you have your simplifying tactics in place, you'll get more done with less effort. You'll be able to spot unnecessary complication when it's a mere dot on the horizon and deal with it before it grows into anything bigger. You'll find more to enjoy at work and you'll have more vitality to make the most of the rest of your life.
(From: : OfficePRO magazine, written by Victoria Moran)
Victoria Moran is the author of books including Creating a Charmed Life and Shelter for the Spirit. She is a national speaker and has presented at two IAAP international conventions. Learn more about Moran's work or sign up for her online newsletter by visiting her Web site, www.victoriamoran.com.