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Tips for Increased Organization and Productivity

Organization is considered by many to be the single most important factor in establishing and sustaining productive work habits. Follow these tips to become and stay organized.

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When assessing organizational needs look at five functional areas before making specific recommendations:

Paper Flow: Identify the types of paperwork (bills, correspondence, contact information, etc.) that flows into your office. Divide them into categories to serve as action items, then devise a system for keeping them organized according to the categories.

Your Ability to Find Things: Consider how quickly you're currently able to locate individual documents in your office. If you spend a lot of time searching for stray papers or files, you may need to build a filing system (or revamp an existing one) to help you stay organized.

Your Working Categories: Identify and list the eight to 10 broad categories that make up the bulk of your product or service. Doing so is the first step in setting up an efficient filing system as well as a system for your computer (including databases, digitally stored files, contact manager, etc.).
Time-Management System: Decide upon a time-management system that will work for you. Some
people prefer traditional day-planners; others prefer computer-based systems, possibly linked to a PDA.

Tracking of "To-Do" Items: Decide on a system for tracking business action items. As with time-management systems, some people prefer traditional methods (such as keeping hand-written lists or memos), but software programs that help facilitate this function are becoming increasingly preferred. Often these functions are built into office software packages that also encompass e-mail, contact managers, calendars, etc.

People can sometimes start to feel paralyzed by their cluttered work environment and paper-flow that is out of control. Generally speaking, the problem often stems from too much paper flowing onto the professional's desk, with no methodical system for getting it off of the desk. To start escaping from this paralyzed state, take the following steps:

Sort: Don't be intimidated by the idea of sorting. It's simply a matter of putting like items together. For example, if your desk and computer monitor are covered by sticky-note reminders, gather them all together or consolidate the information they contain onto one sheet of paper (or in a digital text-document). Sort other papers into functional categories such as bills, banking, accounting, tax information, etc. Establish a file or office tray for documents that represent "urgent" or "immediate" action items. Discard any papers that are clearly unnecessary, such as empty envelopes. The sorted piles you end up with will later be categorized

Purge: Take a hard look at the sorted materials. Determine what papers or files no longer serve a useful purpose and dispose of them. A common and understandable frustration is the difficulty in deciding what papers to keep and what to throw away. Here are some factors to consider:
Financial or tax information: Financial statements and items that might be required by the I.R.S. should be kept on file for five to seven years. Documents older than that can generally be discarded.
Information that's available online: Newer information that's duplicated or available on the Internet may not need to be saved. Many people print out pages from Web sites for reference or convenience. (You may be reading one of those printouts at this very moment.) If the information is likely to be available on a permanent Web site (or will likely be available for at least as long as you'll need it), there's no need to hold onto paper copies forever. Also, you may be able to save information from Web sites as files onto your hard drive -- either as text files or source (html) files. A few kilobytes stored on a hard drive, floppy or CD-R takes up a lot less space than a file folder stuffed with paper printouts.
Information transferable to another venue: If the information on a sheet of paper is something like a calendar reminder or phone number, transfer it to the appropriate place such as your calendar or rolodex (whether paper or electronic), then discard the scrap.

Categorize: Once you've sorted a collection of papers and purged what you've deemed unnecessary, it's time to categorize your sorted piles into a filing system. If you're not experienced at the art and science of filing, simply think of a filing system as you were taught to think of an outline in English class: information grouped into categories and subcategories. Take the eight to 10 broad categories that you deal with in your business and break each of those down into subcategories. For example, you may want to set up a major-category file called "Financial." Within that file, you might break down the financial category into the sub-sets "Taxes," "Stocks" and "Bank Statements." The items you've placed into your "Financial" pile are simply filed appropriately within those categories. Make certain that all files are clearly and succinctly labeled. You may want to utilize a hanging-file system, using the larger hanging file-folders for broad categories and ordinary manila files for the subcategories. At the office-supply store, look for manila folders designated as "interior files." These are slightly smaller than ordinary file folders and fit neatly inside hanging files.

Maintain: Any filing system is only as good as your willingness to maintain it. Be diligent about it, and put a reminder in your calendar to prompt you to sort, purge and categorize on a daily basis.

To organize your computer, follow the same steps as with paper: sort, purge and categorize. With your computer's file management system it's easy to create folders and subfolders for keeping track of documents. (You can even create sub-sub-subfolders, if you like. In computer lingo, creating folders within folders is sometimes termed "nesting.") Typically, creating a new folder is simply a matter of selecting "File" on your menu bar; under the File-menu select "New"; then select "Folder." A new (untitled) folder should appear on your desktop. Give it an appropriate name, and determine where you want to store it on your hard drive. Just as in your paper-filing system, broad categories will be represented with digital file-folders, and those will contain subdirectories that are analogous to the subcategory files.

One effective concept for staying organized in your home office is the "On-In-and-Around" technique. In terms of paperwork, things you work on daily should be ON your desk. Things you work on weekly should be IN your desk. Things you work on monthly should be AROUND your desk.

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