I'm one of those people who believes that being organized is the key to success. My mother is probably one of my biggest role models in this. My mom is the kind of person who does not have an encyclopedic memory for facts, but she always knows exactly where she put her notes on whatever subject you are asking about. She could be in the middle of a complicated project 200 miles away from home, but if we asked her where a specific piece of mail we were looking for was, she could tell you exactly which folder in which drawer you could find it in. Growing up, I was the opposite. I could not for the life of me remember or keep track of anything. I would often not do homework, not because I hated school, but because I would literally forget about it. I would lose things all the time. I would not write down my assignments, or I would write them in such vague terms that I would get home, look at what I had written, and have no idea what I was supposed to do. I rarely did my homework, and yet I'd get As on all my tests! What a waste to have known all the information and gotten zeroes on most of the homework!
See, you can be the most intelligent person in the world, but if you can't find stuff or keep track of it, there is no way you will be able to effectively and efficiently use your gifts. That's why I really like looking into how people stay on top of their work flow. Human error is always in the equation, but having a system in place for keeping on task helps you minimize those errors, and catch them early when they arise.
I employ a bunch of different systems in tandem to stay organized at work. Results may vary, since everyone's brains work differently-- something that totally clicks for me might not make any sense for you, but nonetheless, I'll tell you what I use and how/why it works for me! My job might also be totally different that the kind of work (or schoolwork) you do, so there may not be a brilliant 1:1 correspondence between my needs and yours-- but you might grab a helpful tidbit here or there that you can modify for your needs. Anyway, here we go!
What does my job look like?I typically work on 3-7 separate projects a week with different, sometimes overlapping deadlines. I help manage communications between multiple teams and I create collateral that explains our proposals in slides or in a text document. That means that I've got multiple email chains, with different mixes of sometimes a few of the same people for multiple separate projects.
How does my brain work?In general, I like analog systems of keeping track of tasks and deliverables, but I like digital methods of time management, especially those that will send an interrupting reminder to go to a meeting or move onto a different task, since I can get "caught up" working on something and lose track of time. Timing makes the most sense to me when laid out in a visual, spatial way. I prefer things that are colorful, because the aesthetics of things deeply impact my mood and how often I will use or look at something. I'm also an "out of sight, out of mind" person, so things that I need to "stay on top of" need to literally be within my line of sight.
EmailsEmails are where most of the critical information I get comes in. I don't work at the main headquarters of my company (in Los Angeles), I work in the New York City office, so much communication is done (or later summarized and circulated) over email. I get around a couple hundred emails a week, and each week I might handle between 3 and 7 separate projects. That's a lot going on! So how do I stay on top of all these emails?
Unread on Top
I use Gmail (I love Gmail) for work and in Gmail you can change the settings so instead of having the "Newest on Top" you have your "Unread on Top." This is life changing, people. Everything you've read can stay in your inbox for easy search and access, but the things you haven't gotten to yet stay above everything you've already seen! No more losing track of that email you read but didn't immediately respond to-- just mark it as unread and it'll stay on top so you can see that you still need to handle that conversation and follow up or get answers to people. I delete newsletters and things that I don't think I'll need later, but everything else I save. That way I can search for things later if I need to dig up stuff on what I've already worked on (and can't for the life of me remember).
In Gmail you can also use tag and/or folders to organize your emails. I create a tag for each of my long-term projects (ex. things that will take more than two weeks) as well as tags for information that may need to be referenced later (ex. particular policies for a certain kind of project that I don't need all the time, but REALLY need when the occasion arises). Tags are located in the sidebar, which is super helpful so that I can reference things quickly.
SchedulingAs I mentioned before, I work in an office in a different timezone than many of my colleagues, so I've got to always be conscious of that when I work. I prefer systems that will interrupt what I'm doing and send me an alert when something is happening soon, since I can get caught up in whatever I'm working on and lose track of time.
Google Calendar + Apple Calendar
Since my company works on Gmail and the Google suite of products, we all send each other Google Calendar invites, and these automatically sync across timezones and are easily updated with alerts about the updates sent straight to your email inbox. The calendar also syncs with your iPhone in exactly the same way as your inbox does, which means I can elect to have alerts come up on my phone, in addition to the pop-up alerts I get when I have Google Calendar open in a browser window. This is great because you can customize when and how alerts for things get sent to you-- for example, how many minutes beforehand you want the reminder, and how many reminders you want. I have one at 10 minutes and one at 5 minutes as my default at work, which represent a soft warning and a hard warning before I have to get to a conference room or hop on a call. I should mention that while I will put in specific date-and-time based meetings in here, I do not use this to track due dates. Listing due dates in here places an urgency on them that I do not appreciate, and also visually clutters a calendar, when I would prefer to cross tasks off or move them to a "done" list-- which I will cover in the next section.
Task ManagementSince I often have overlapping projects, and I depend on input from multiple teams to complete each of them, keeping track of my tasks is essential. For task management, I prefer to use an analog system, because physically moving tasks is really good for making my brain feel like work is getting done-- in addition, it means that I don't have another tab to have to click over to, just to see what I'm doing.
Kanban Task Management
This system uses Post-it Notes and a board broken into columns. To-Do (long term or not time-bounded), Queue (Waiting on something to come to you so you can continue work on that thing), Next Up, Doing, and Done. As things move along in the process, you move them to the appropriate column on the board. This forces you to minimize the amount of things you are "Doing" because if you try to multitask too much, you can immediately see that some things should move to "Next Up" or "To Do" instead. On each Task Post-It, I write the name of the project, the due date, and who I am delivering collateral to. You can also use the Kanban Task Management system digitally on many different web- or app-based task management systems (like Trello) but as I mentioned, I prefer analog for this specific need. I don't have a cubicle, so I don't have walls to hang a board on, but I also didn't want to lay my Kanban board out flat on my desk (although I did do that for a while) because it took up too much workspace. I ended up getting a plate holder from The Container Store (which is basically a little stand for you to put a plate on at about a 60 degree angle to display it) to use as a stand for a half of a foam-core board. This is a great system for me because it frees up the horizontal space, Keeps my task manager constantly within my line of sight, and it's not so tall that I can't see the colleague across from me if she's trying to get my attention.
When I was transitioning to handling projects on my own, instead of just assisting someone else on my team (which was what I did as an intern) I started running into problems keeping track of which deliverables did and didn't get to me, especially since I had overlapping projects and sometimes I'd get mixed up between two projects. The teams that need to deliver to me also work on many overlapping projects at once, so sometimes things would fall through the cracks and I needed to be there to catch it so that the process kept moving forward. To help me stay on top of this, I made a deliverables tracker that uses the same moveable Post It strategy I love about my Kanban system. In the left I have a column that just lists out all the deliverables I could possibly need from each team, as well as a note reminding me what elements need to go out with every assignment overview email. The remaining space is broken into a top box where I put a Post It for each project listing the due dates and who from each team was assigned to work on it, and then underneath that box are two columns: Waiting On and Delivered. I write multiple Post It notes for each project, with the Project title at the top, then all the deliverables I need from a single team on each sticky. I only move the sticky to Delivered once I receive all the deliverables listed on that sticky, and if I get some of them, but not all of them from that team, I mark which ones I've already received so that I know exactly what I need to follow up on. My deliverables tracker lives as a long piece of paper on my desk, just under and in front of my Kanban.
Day Designer + Blue Sky Planner
My Kanban and Deliverables tracker list due dates, but they do not visually or spatially show the relative amounts of time associated with a project. This is a problem for me because, once again, I am very visual and tend to lose track of time. This planner, which I got from Target, used to be my planner for my whole life, and has since become a work-only planner. I put in all my due dates in the proper day and this allows me to see my week at a glance and see the timing of things spatially. The Day Designer + Blue Sky planned is laid out the have a section for general notes (events and due dates for me) and tasks that need checking off. In addition to work related deadlines, I'll put in information about off-site events, work holidays, after-hours social events with coworkers, team lunches, and information about VoluntEARing projects I'm working over the weekend.
NotesI often take notes during meetings by hand, which helps me get notes down quickly and draw out concepts in a visual-spatial way where necessary. Analog notes are important for me because not only do I keep track of lots of little details, but I try to come to meetings prepared with some ideas and creative thought starters.
Pen & Paper
I use a notebook that I think I was gifted with a little ribbon page marker. This Busy Bee notebook is a nod to my love of bees, and it's the second notebook I've started since beginning work at DCPI. I use this to take notes during meetings, as well as write ideas, thought starters, and generally work info out. Some times ideas, layouts, and other data are just easier for me to wrap my head around on paper so this is really important for me. It should be noted that often when I take notes during meetings, I will type them up in a more coherent way to be shared via email to ensure everyone is on the same page (and so that I have a searchable record of my notes).
Corporate Policy ReferenceSince I work for Disney, there are a lot of different benefits and policies that I try to stay up-to-date with. We are a large and old company, so sometimes finding information that is accurate or relevant can be difficult or time-consuming so I built a system that would serve as a fast reference.
A Good, Old-Fashioned Binder
Using section dividers to help organize everything, I print and hole punch any documents I get regarding "how to be an employee of the company" and "what our benefits are" since the website can get a little labyrinthine. Things I keep in this binder include information on using our Disney discounts, the instructions on how to record sick days, and the general info pamphlet on company benefits, etc. Sometimes these documents are many pages long, in which case I use a paperclip or binder clip to indicate a cluster of papers that are all part of one large document. Important to note is that I do NOT keep personal information (ex. info on my personal health care plan etc.) in here. That is stuff I keep at home. This binder is good for quick reference regarding things that are likely to affect me and anyone else in the office as an employee of the company and is not specific to the work we do or me and my personal business.
General Tips for Getting Organized
- Be real about your needs, both in terms of the work you do, and in terms of your personal preferences and proclivities.
- Don't be afraid to mix digital and analog. Different needs often translate to different solutions.
- If how something looks is important to you, then put time into it! It's personally important to me that things are colorful and pleasant-- otherwise it becomes a pain point or something I ignore instead of something I consistently use.
- If something is not working, be thoughtful about how to fix it. Add a new thing to your current system, or try a new one completely-- but make sure you've thought through why your new plan will solve the problem you are having with your current set up.
- Be consistent. There's no point in setting a system up if you are not going to use it.