Organized in the office--NOT!!

alisandeMarch 23, 2005

I need advice, please, on keeping track of tasks at work. I had my first evaluation from my boss today, and it wasn't all that great. Apparently my stellar personality, high I.Q. and enchanting phone manner aren't making up for my inability to prioritize and follow up. :-/

This is my first experience with a job where organization is essential. We know it doesn't come naturally with me, but surely there are some steps I can take to make certain everything gets done, and done on time.

Ideas? Thanks so much--I need this job!


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I had this problem when I started working. In school, they prioritize assignments for you by telling you how much they're worth and when they're due, so no problem. At work, they expect you to do it yourself, and I'm not naturally inclined, either.

You need a master list of tasks, along with priority (I use three categories) and final due date. When something new comes in, you assign these values and enter the assignment on your master list. I use this list only for assignments that last more than one day. Other things go into a box to be done on a first in/first out basis.

At the end of each day, look at your list and mentally plan - or write out - what you're going to do the next day. Obviously, you'll need to subtract the time it takes to do ordinary things like type letters, return phone calls, etc. So, depending on your type of work, you'll have maybe 4-5 hours left to work on your projects.

The idea is to get the top priority things done quickly, but not so quickly that you do nothing on the lower-priority things. Perhaps you set aside one hour each day to work on projects with a far-away due date or a lower priority, but you must build it in or these will never get done. Obviously, as these projects progress, you'll be spending more time on them as they're now higher priority because of the nearer due date.

On any long-term projects, consider sending periodic memos to your boss to let him or her know that you're making progress. They can be single paragraph memos, just highlighting one new thing of interest or asking an opinion on how you're approaching a certain aspect of the assignment. Or, more informally, just mention something you've done on the file when you're speaking about other things. The idea is to let your boss know you're on top of things.

Because I feel supremely unorganized, I take the additional step of going through every file once a month, just to see that everything that needs to be done is noted on my master list. It takes about two hours, but I find things I've missed often enough that it seems worth it to me.

Best of luck on this. I have such a problem with this sort of thing, too, so I know how it is.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2005 at 11:32PM
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Thanks so much, Joann! You sure don't sound supremely unorganized, which shows just how far you've come. I'm printing out your advice to take to work with me, where I know I'll refer to it often.

One more thing: follow-up. This job involves such a multitude of tasks of different kinds, some requiring tracking after I do my part. (Did the newspaper print the press release I wrote? Did the supplies I ordered ever arrive?) This is somewhat complicated by the fact that I'm there only three days a week. What's the best way to follow upÂsimply noting the item a few days ahead on my calendar?

Thanks again!


    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 7:16AM
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Just a thought on the last post - I made up a sheet during the holidays last year that I keep in a binder with other "important" household info. It is very simple - a column for what was ordered, where it was ordered from, telephone #, order # and date ordered, and a box to check off when it arrived. I ordered a lot of things online, and this made it so much easier to track this stuff! You could do a similar sheet for press releases, or other things that you will need to check on, but not right away. Just be sure to have all the important info. right there on the sheet - phone #s, contacts, DATES!!. And most important (and what usually is hardest for me) remember to check the list :) Good luck

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 9:49AM
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I mentioned this on someone else's thread today.

I was running into trouble forgetting to do stuff. My job has lots of things flying around--my boss calls and wants a copy of Darcy's letter, I need to ask the Art Dept to redo a file, etc. Usually stuff for THAT DAY.

So I grabbed this smallish notebook--7 3/4" x 5"--and keep it on my desk. I open it double (that's where the size comes in handy--big enough to actually write on, but small enough not to take up the whole desk)

Anything that comes up, I jot down. Just a key word, that's all I need "darcy's letter to MM," or "pediatr" or "sched at 3". I draw a line across the page below it, to keep them separate.

Once I finish it, I cross it off. Once the spread is mostly full, I flip the page, and rewrite anything that didn't get crossed off, and then I have room to jot new things.

I need to get back to this plan, bcs I'm having the same problem again.

Youv'e got all those "forward" things--I think a calendar would be a great solution for them.

The other thing that might help w/ that "late follow-up" might be to pick one time period each week when you check up on ALL of them (if you can). Every Wed a.m, that's the first thing you do.

(I find that I'm smartest when i do the troublesome stuff FIRST THING in the day. The stuff that I might forget, or get easily sidetracked from, I do first thing in the morning. Other stuff, I can't forget because it's actively happening.)

Because I feel supremely unorganized, I take the additional step of going through every file once a month, just to see that everything that needs to be done is noted on my master list. It takes about two hours, but I find things I've missed often enough that it seems worth it to me.

I was a waitress for three weeks. I found that I'd forget somebody's salad, etc. So every time I returned to the counter, I looked at every table and mentally ran over their orders, what they needed, etc. I do similar things at work--run down the story lineup, and mentally check where things are.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 11:26AM
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For follow-up things, I just make a note in my daily calendar. Glad to hear I *sound* organized! You know, I once taught a seminar for new criminal defense lawyers on how to organize their files and billing. The handouts from the seminar are now included in an orientation package put out by the local bar association. I can't tell you how many new lawyers have met me and said, "Oh, you're the organized one!" Always makes me laugh, and makes my sister, who is truly and naturally organized howl.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 12:17PM
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Susan, do you have a desk calendar? When I do something that needs a follow up, I make a note *right then* on the day I need to follow up with it, and an approx. time. Even if it's a few weeks out. Every morning, the first thing I do is go over my calendar, so all my follow-ups for that day are right there. It gets tricky with my home business, since I carry that planner with me, but I make it a habit of checking *that* planner every morning before I leave the house, so it works out pretty well.

Another way of doing this (or just doubling up on reminders) is to use your email program. If you have outlook at work, that's the easiest way - create a reminder for follow-up tasks that will "pop-up" on the screen when you need to deal with it. Just use the calendar in outlook if you have it - very handy program. Between that and your desk calendar, you should be all set as far as staying on top of current projects goes. :-)

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 1:30PM
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I used Talley_Sue's notebook method until I went completely electronic (good as the notebook was, it could never beep at me to remind me of something I had to do, nor could I schedule a year out). The notebook method worked quite well for me, though. Now I use my Palm handheld for pretty much the same thing.

Whatever you use, make sure it is small enough that it can be with you almost always and it's not a hassle to take along. Sometimes I'll have a great idea or I'll be someplace I need to take a note and it's very useful to have a place to do that.

Other thoughts that might help:

- When you are given a new task that has follow-ups, when you note the initial task, note the follow-ups. If you have a press release due next Wednesday, put it in your calendar right then to check to see if it appeared. If you find that you are running low on postage or FedEx envelopes, mark it on a to-do list (your notebook, Palm, whatever) that you need to get more before the next time you're likely to need them. If you need to, put it on a calendar to make sure you have time to meet the deadline.

- If the task involves working around other people's schedules, note that somehow for yourself so you know to give them enough lead time to do their predecessor task or to work with you. Make sure your boss knows, too, that achieving this goal depends on the work of other people.

- I gave up long ago on the notion of knowing what I'll be doing at work when I walk in that day. My job just isn't like that: I can be swamped and then have all the planned work disappear, all in the space of an hour! I have settled for maintaining a prioritized to-do list I can refer to at all times so I know what I can do if my work is delayed and (this is almost as important) you and those you work with know what has to slip if something is added in at the last minute.

- Like they always say, handle it once. I try to keep stuff electronically if possible -- it avoids the clutter of piles of paper which all look alike, and I can let the computer search for it rather than have to do that manually. I do not keep paper copies of anything I have on the computer, and vice versa. I do make backup copies of what's on the computer, but I only keep the backups so long before they're destroyed.

If someone hands me an article to read, I look at it and either 1) pitch it/recycle it if it does not appeal or apply to me; 2) read it just then if it's brief and note what I need from it; or 3) put it in one special pile in an in-basket. That's what I read when I'm waiting for conferences to begin, etc. Every few months, I go through the in-basket and pitch/recycle everything that's older than 2-3 months old. Doesn't matter if I want to read it; if I needed to read it, I should have read it by now and if I haven't yet, obviously I'm getting along okay without it and I don't need to clutter my desk and life with it.

Hope this helps!

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 2:00PM
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As someone who loves tracking, I hope I can offer some advice. Are there certain things that you must always keep track of? For instance, must you track all the press releases? I would make excel spreadsheets on the computer for each thing that needs tracking. I would then track everything on the computer and hilite those items that are completed and moving them to a completed section at the bottom of the excel spreadsheet. If you don't like using the computer to keep track of things, then you could make copies of all the spreadsheets you have created and write on them in pen or pencil. I would keep all these in one small binder.

For those items that you are waiting for responses on, I would make a file folder for each one, using a post-it label that you would write the subject on. You can either file these alphabetically or chronologically if they are time sensitive. I would look at these each day to see if I am waiting on answers and get on the phone or e-mail immediately if I hadn't heard back in a reasonable time. I don't enjoy "bugging" people but in my last job, I actually had them thank me for reminding them to do something. They knew they could count on me to remind them and I guess for those who were disorganized, I helped them to get on the ball.

I hope this helps. If I need to be clearer, please let me know. By the way, people told me that I should go into business creating systems for companies. I wish I knew how to get into that. DH never understood how I would say that I was so organized at work but couldn't find a paper in the house. But I'm getting better at home. My excuse was that after being organized at work, I had no more energy to do it at home, too.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 11:27PM
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My excuse was that after being organized at work, I had no more energy to do it at home, too.

I've said that. But I've also tried to learn things at work, and apply them at home.

I tend to have a messy desk. I've found that if I create a place to file stuff BEFORE I need to file it (setting up all the files at the start of an issue, instead of making them as I go along), I actually file stuff.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2005 at 9:44AM
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Thank you, everyone! I feel better now (really), and look forward to taking these ideas to work--and working on them.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2005 at 2:17PM
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I've noticed that unorganized people haven't adopted a "first-things-first" approach to tasks. Whatever task is presented to them at that moment becomes the most important thing. Which means a less important task is often done before a more important task. So try adopting a first-things-first approach. I guess I'm echoing Steve - prioritize. I write down every task assigned to me in one place (a Word document), then I do them in first-things-first order - based on the severity of not getting it done. Like Jaime, I jot down reminder notes on my desk calendar on the day I need to do it - "update xxx" ; "call yyy", "check zzz". Every few weeks or as needed I organize my papers, files. I always leave an organized desk at week end. I take the time to organize and mark it in my status to my superiors. I use folders and descriptive tabs. I've called my work v-mail when I think of something at home. I call my home v-mail when I think of something at work. No one has made a point of calling me organized, but I've been on this job for 9 months now, and two co-workers who have been here for years recently decided they should organize their own offices, and one of them has begun to write things down, so maybe I'm leading by example. It just helps to know where things are, get rid of the clutter.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2005 at 4:03PM
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Just thought I'd report back. I've been following your suggestions, and I feel better alreadyÂa lot less of that "I forgot my homework" panicky feeling. I'm logging my tasks into a notebook on my desk as I know that as much as I like my computer, a Word or Excel file would be out of sight and out of mind in no time.

Today my boss put on my desk a brochure for a one-day seminar on organization and meeting deadlines, and asked if I'd like to attend. YES!

Thanks again, everyone. If I pick up anything new and exciting at the seminar (note that I said anything, not anyone), I'll be sure to let you know. :-)


    Bookmark   March 30, 2005 at 10:13PM
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