Organize Your Workspace, Tasks and Email to Get More Done

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Your time is limited. If you can get more done in a shorter amount of time, you’ll be more productive. Are the systems you use for keeping your workspace, tasks and emails organized, working for you? Get some suggestions for rethinking your methods.

Organize your workspace:

Declutter and clean. We all accumulate stuff on our desks over time. Twelve pens, 4 coffee cups, 25 sticky notes  … really? Then there’s the pile of things you’re planning to read … and the notes from your last company-wide training event … Do they really need to be out on your desk?

sticky notes at workMany of us tend to keep objects in view as a visual reminder of things we need to do. But is it working? How long have these things been sitting there? (That nice film of dust might be a clue.) If you’re really planning to/should read these things, keep them … in a file, out of view and simply add “read training material” to the bottom of your to-do list. Clean as you go.

Organize your desk drawers. When’s the last time you looked in the back of that little drawer we all use for pens, paperclips and snacks? Stop hoarding office supplies. Come on … when will you really need 200 paper clips? Leave those things in the department supply cabinet.

Front view picture of studio workplace with blank notebook, laptopOrganize your files. Set them up to save you time. Don’t save unnecessary papers. One system to help you get your files organized might be to initially separate incoming paper into “to-do,” “to file” and “to read” baskets. Empty these baskets at the end of each week.

If you need to create a filing system, start out with broad categories. “Customers – 2012” is an example of broad. Within that category, you could have individual customer files. If you have different categories of customers, try color coding, e.g., use red tabs for retail, green for health care and yellow for education. This will enable you to easily segment them later (by pulling all the green folders) if needed. Also, be consistent in the way you name your files.

For more ideas on organizing files: No More Paper Piles … How to Be a Filing Ninja


Organize your work tasks:

Use a calendar. We know you can remember you have a meeting every Thursday at 2, but why should you store that in your head? Save your brain for the big stuff. Your work email calendar is a great starting place for keeping track of events and meetings. Set up reminders for recurring events.

Make a to-do list. I like to end each week by clearing my desk and making a plan for Monday. Whether you write this on paper or use an app, prioritize your tasks with color coding or numbers. Include due dates if applicable. Cross them off as you go (rather than deleting) suggests, so you see what you’re accomplishing.

Organize your electronic files. Gain time by making it easier to find both paper and electronic files.

  • Start with a single root folder with subfolders inside. This single location makes it easier to find things or to run backups.
  • Use descriptive, clear and consistent language to name folders rather than a series of cryptic letters you won’t remember next year (or not everyone understands)
  • Nest folders within folders, with the goal of minimizing orphan files that are outside the main folder. Don’t go deeper than three clicks in your folder hierarchy.
  • Include dates in folder names
  • If files will be shared, include your initials at the end
  • File as you go, or even, as you work, by creating new files in the right place to begin with
  • Have files you access more often? Force them to the top of your list by adding “!” or “aa” to the beginning of the file name, suggests
  • Clear old files regularly. If you’re uncertain, create an “Inactive” folder and move things you don’t expect to use again. Make this easier by adding “/archive” to folders when your work on them has finished. This will enable you to more easily find them.
  • Create a records retention schedule that ensures outdated documents are disposed of
  • Back up your files regularly

Organize your email:

Magnifying glass showing a spam folder.How many emails do you get each day? How often do you check? If you’re gone for a day, what does your inbox look like? Take back this time by keeping email at bay. See some suggestions below. And remember, it usually takes a day or two to get used to a new system.

Fast company recommends a five-folder system based on deadlines rather than topics.

  • Inbox for things you need to immediately respond to or are awaiting an immediate response. Nothing else stays here.
  • Today for things that MUST have a response today. Limit this to truly urgent messages and keep it small.
  • This week for things you want to finish before close of business on Friday.
  • This month/quarter for long-term items
  • FYI to keep all the informational emails you receive and think you’ll need for later reference. Delete if you don’t need to refer back.

Additional suggestions:

  1. Separate your work-related emails from industry information. In Outlook®, you can do this by simply opening an email from the sender who you want to filter. Go to the Home tab, then select Rules and choose Always move messages from: ­­­­­­______ and select a target folder. Click OK.
  2. Unsubscribe to things you no longer find useful or interesting
  3. Curb compulsive email checking. Schedule the time you spend on email. Choose several specific times to check it and plan enough time to get all the way to the bottom of your inbox. Move emails to other folders. Turn off your alerts unless you’re in a job where senders need immediate responses, e.g. customer care.
  4. Get to the bottom of your email every day. Move things to folders, add things to calendars or to-do lists and move it out of your inbox.
  5. There are also a number of email apps to help you get control depending on your needs. offers some suggestions.Pile of documents on desk stack up high waiting to be managed.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.