Learning how to be organized at work can skyrocket your productivity and performance. When you’re disorganized, your desk and mind are cluttered, causing you to miss deadlines, waste time trying to find things and feel frazzled almost constantly.
If you’re struggling to get your work life together, below, we’ll go over some tips to calm the chaos.
When dipping your toes into the productivity pool, it’s easy to get in over your head. One person will swear by bullet journaling, while another will say that GTD is the best. Another person will thrive using the Pomodoro Technique, while another will find it too restrictive. Not everyone’s brain works the same. Find what works best for you by testing different methods and then going with the one that gives you the best results.
Systems are the processes you use day in and day out in your work, whether you realize you’re using them or not. For example, if you’re a freelancer, you might have a system in place for onboarding new clients. If you’re an employer, you might have a system for reviewing employee performance each year. Systems make work more efficient and less stressful.
If you’re still struggling with getting organized at work, did you know there are coaches who help specifically with that? They’re often called systems coaches or productivity coaches. I hired one once for my business when I felt completely overwhelmed as it scaled. These types of coaches will take a look at your current systems and organization methods, find out what you’re struggling with and what you desire and then help you create and implement a plan.
On a daily basis, there are a few methods you can try for tackling your work schedule.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: You get to work, make a to-do list of all the tasks you intend to complete that day, sit at your desk feeling overwhelmed with your workload, open your inbox and react to whatever arrived and then at the end of the day, wonder why you never got to everything on your to-do list.
Well, the ALPEN method is the solution you need. It’s basically a to-do list with much better features. The ALPEN method is an acronym for German words, but I’ll write the steps out below in English, of course:
The genius of the ALPEN method is two-fold:
Time blocking is when you designate chunks of time throughout the day to specific or similar tasks. Task batching is when you complete related tasks all in one session. For example, you might write all your social media posts between 2 to 2:30 every day. Or you might reply to all your emails every morning for 30 minutes. The idea here is that by doing all the related tasks at a given time, you minimize the amount of task-switching you do (which depletes energy and takes up more time).
Using the ALPEN method above, you could block out time on your calendar—including the buffer time we talked about to account for disruptions. That way, every minute of your workday is accounted for and “budgeted” so you know how to spend it.
Day theming is a more loose way to organize your workday because it designates a general theme of tasks for each day of the week. Here’s an example of a business owner who organizes their workweek by day theming:
Day theming is useful because you always know what you’re supposed to be doing (at least in a general way!) depending on what day of the week it is. It’s also great for those who don’t like feeling too restricted.
If you’re reading all of this and feeling overwhelmed: Breathe. Pause. You don’t have to get everything set up right now.
For those who find the prospect of “getting your work life together” monumental, here’s a seven-step process to regain focus and control.
If you’re mired in overwhelm right now, you’ve got a million to-do list items flying around your brain and no idea where to start. So start here: Brain dump. Everything. Every little task, reminder and project you’ve been meaning to tackle needs to go into one big list.
My favorite tool for doing this is Todoist. That’s because it’s a to-do list app with an inbox (the brain dump area) where you can throw every task for safekeeping until you can organize it later. You can add it to projects as well as add labels and due dates.
But we’re not worrying about organizing right now. For now, just find a single place where you will capture everything that’s bouncing around in your brain—whether that’s Todoist, your Notes app on your iPhone or a sheet of paper on your desk.
Did you finish your brain dump? Let out that big breath you’ve been holding and go for a walk. Why? When you’re overwhelmed, your stress response (fight or flight) is activated, making it difficult to see the big picture, plan and organize. In fact, the stress response narrows your thinking, giving you tunnel vision—terrible for long-term planning!
In a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. MaryCarol Hunter and colleagues found that walking just 20 to 30 minutes in nature lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
So going for a stroll will help calm your body so you can focus on getting organized—don’t skip this!
Now that you’re back at your desk after a nice walk, you can start the process of getting organized. But before diving into the details, take a step back and look at the big picture.
Big picture thinking stops the overwhelm because it encourages you to zoom out and look at the overarching goals one month, three months or one year out. If you don’t know why you’re doing certain tasks, it’s easy to get overwhelmed because you’ll take on work that isn’t aligned with your goals.
Once you know what your why is, you’ll be able to eliminate clutter—the tasks that don’t really matter.
Now, remember the brain dump we did earlier? Go find that list. It’s time to start picking each task apart and deciding if it’s aligned with your big picture goals, and if so, where it needs to go in your categories and timeline.
Start from the end and work your way backward. I find it easiest to start with one-year goals. One year from now, what are the big goals you want to have accomplished? It helps to look at your company roadmap and organizational goals as well as team-specific goals and individual ones.
Create categories that make sense for your work. You can create categories by time:
And you can also create categories by topic:
Again, this is why I enjoy using Todoist for this because you can label each task or categorize it into a project and attach dates to it.
Take each item from your brain dump list and move them to a category. If you know that specific tasks already have due dates attached to them, write those due dates next to each task and then move them to the appropriate category.
Now that you’ve got your work tasks organized, there’s still one more step to take to cut the overwhelm: ask for support.
If you’re overwhelmed with your workload and struggling to get organized, it’s time to admit that you need extra support—and that’s okay! While you may have gotten your work tasks organized for now, that’s just one step in the right direction. Overwhelm is a sign that you’ve taken on more than you can handle, and you need reinforcement.
Schedule a one-on-one with your manager, and if you feel comfortable, share your struggle and show them the work tasks you’ve organized. Work with them on a plan to help you feel less overwhelmed.
If you don’t feel you can speak to your manager about this, what about a mentor or a coach? Both can help you pinpoint the source of the overwhelm and serve as a sounding board as you navigate your path to organization.
My guess is that you work with a team of people. They’re there for a reason. Find the tasks on your list that don’t make sense for you and see if you can delegate them to someone else. Of course, make sure they’re not also overwhelmed at the moment!
The beauty of the brain dump is that it can be done as often as needed. Anytime a new task or worry pops into my head, but I’m too overwhelmed to figure out what to do about it at the moment, I add it to my Todoist inbox and sort it later. It guarantees that I don’t forget about the task or concern, but it prevents me from feeling stressed about it because I know I can come back to it later when I’m in a better frame of mind.
When organizing tasks at work, I highly recommend setting yourself up with a project management tool. You don’t even have to pay! Many PM software options come with a free tier. Rather than go into specific software, I’ll go over some of the different ways you can view and organize tasks.
Simple and to the point, the classic to-do list makes it clear which tasks you need to do. However, its simplicity brings many limitations, such as a lack of deadlines, categorization and prioritization.
As a visual learner, the Kanban board is my favorite way to organize tasks at work. Made popular by Trello, a Kanban board consists of boards, lists and cards that can be moved around. A typical Kanban board will have “To Do,” “In Progress” and “Done” columns. It’s great for showing tasks in a workflow.
A calendar is a quick way to get an overview of tasks for the day, week and month. It’s helpful for staying on top of deadlines.
Gantt charts are great because they show dependencies; for example, what task is being held up by someone who hasn’t completed their work? Many productivity junkies love this way of visualizing a project, but it can be overwhelming if you’re not accustomed to it.
To improve efficiency at work, you need to find ways to cut down on wasting both time and energy.
You can’t minimize the time it takes to complete tasks if you don’t first know how long tasks are taking you. Rather than setting a timer all day before each task, a much easier way is to use an app like RescueTime. It’ll automatically track how much time you spend on certain websites and apps and deliver a report at the end of the day. This gives you a wonderful baseline to start with.
The Pomodoro Technique is 25 minutes of focused work on a specific task followed by a five-minute break, but you can switch up the timing however you want (20 minutes on, five minutes off, 30 minutes on, 10 minutes off, etc.). This method promotes efficiency because it forces you to do as much as you can before that timer goes off.
Optimize efficiency by automating everything you can. Tools like IFTTT help you create automations for almost anything. For example, I set up IFTTT to email me every time a new gig is posted to a freelance job board; it saves me so much time compared to manually scanning that job board every day.
If organization and systems aren’t things that come easily to you, learning how to be organized at work can be frustrating. Yes, it’s important to learn the basic principles of productivity and organization, but if you’re still struggling, it’s time to reach out for assistance. As mentioned above, talk to your manager or mentor or enlist the help of a productivity coach. In the end, the boost in performance and productivity will be worth it!
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