Effective, not neat. Clutter free and neat. Handle paper once. These three rules – plus 10 more on working smart – can make you more productive and effective. One more: Beware the lure of perfection. That’s not smart work.
1) Aim for effectiveness, not neatness. Neatness as an end in itself can even be risky: Putting things away just to clear off your desk can cause you to lose or forget them.
2) Clutter is rarely caused by insufficient space or time. The culprit is usually indecisiveness. So be selective about what you bring into your office and home. If you know what you value and what your goals are, being selective is not hard.
3) Have a place for everything. Open your mail in the same place everyday so it doesn’t get strewn everywhere. Put unpaid bills together, separate from paid bills. Store all office supplies together to prevent duplicate purchases.
4) Do not use your entire desk surface as a giant In-box.
Instead, determine your next action on every piece of paper and file accordingly. Tasks to be done soon (phone calls to make, questions to ask business associates) and current projects go into your “Action Files,” which should not be mixed with Reference Files. Action Files must be kept close at hand.
5) That maxim, “Handle each piece of paper only once,” is too extreme to be realistic. But it contains a grain of truth. Do try to take the next action that’s required each time you handle a piece of paper. How about that seminar advertisement you left on your desk, as a reminder to decide whether to sign up — you know, that paper you’ve shuffled ten times today already? Either call right now to get the information you need, or make a note in your appointment book to call later. Then you’re that much closer to being done with it.
6) Don’t save paper that you’re not willing to spend time filing. If you don’t file it properly, you either will forget you have it, or you won’t be able to find it when you need it. It does you no good, and the result is the same as if you’d thrown it out in the first place. If you are set up to scan information into your computer, be selective. If you cannot imagine a specific situation when you’d need to refer to the information again, don’t scan it. Most of us save a great deal of paper we’ll never use again.
7) Use your day planner to help clear your desk. If you avoid filing things out of fear you’ll forget to follow up, jot down a reminder in your appointment book or computer software.
Often we are own worst enemies, interrupting ourselves by jumping from one half-finished task to another. Stop doing “the desktop shuffle” – moving papers aimlessly around on your desk. Every time you handle an item, take an action towards completing it.
9) Learn to say “No.” You could live to be a hundred and still not have time to do everything you want—that’s the curse and blessing of being intelligent and having high expectations of yourself. The good news is you can choose what to focus on. You have far more freedom than you may realize. Aside from obligations like caring for vulnerable family members and paying taxes, very little of what you “have” to do is morally or legally mandatory. Review everything in your life and ask, “What’s the worst that can happen if I stopped doing this?” Saying “No” sometimes is the only way you can “Yes” to what you really value.
10) Beware of stuff. The more stuff you have, the more you must find a place to put, and the more you’ll have to clean, repair, and eventually replace. Stop buying things you don’t really need just because they’re on sale. You can always get more stuff, and you can always get more money. But you can never get more time.
11) Do buy more of things you use continually. Frantic last-minute shopping trips can be averted by purchasing things before your supply runs out.
12) Schedule appointments with yourself to get things done. Appointments aren’t only for business lunches or seeing your doctor. They’re for you, too. Commit to spending time on the things you keep “not getting around to.” This works for everything — from taking the next step on that back-burner project, to making sure you get yourself to the gym twice a week.
13) Beware of perfectionism. Most routine work doesn’t need to be done perfectly. Ask yourself — Is your effort disproportionate to the value of the task? Will other, more important projects be delayed as a result? Can you reduce the frequency or level of detail of this task?