6 minute read

The Purposeful Workday

You, Too, Can Be The “organized One”

Thanks to good old Microsoft, I became a pro at scheduling meetings for my team, which was dispersed across the country in four different offices. Somehow I thought that a meeting equaled progress on a project. It took me about five meetings to realize that we were always discussing the same topics, but never making decisions or creating action plans around any of them. It was like the clock had stopped. No matter how much we talked, we never accomplished anything. The meetings were actually a huge productivity drain because they took up so much time that they prevented us from getting our individual work done.

Seth, 27, Texas

Have you ever noticed that the most stressed-out folks at work are habitually disorganized? In their defense, it's easy to lose track of an important document, project, or deadline when your Blackberry is beeping every second. However, there are only so many things in corporate business that you can control, and the way you organize is one of them. When you're organized, you're more confident, efficient, and dependable. You're also much less likely to be forced into early retirement by a heart attack or a nervous breakdown.

Before I launch into a discussion of ways to preserve your sanity by incorporating organization into your daily routine, let me admit something. I do tend to believe that organization is one of those pesky inherited traits. If you have it, it's likely that you've had it all along, and you probably skipped ahead the second you saw this section's header. If you don't, these suggestions might not be as easy to implement as they sound. Take heart, though. If you can take one thing away from this section and use it to become more effective at work, reading it will have been worthwhile.

In Chapter 2, I talked about utilizing good organizational skills as you begin a new job, and I recommended starting at home base—your desk. To briefly recap, please do not buy into the misconception that an Armageddon of a cubicle makes you look super busy and hardworking. Remember that the corporate world judges performance by results, not effort, and your managers will doubt that you can achieve such results in the midst of total chaos. For those of us in a constant state of information overload, keeping a neat workspace requires vigilance. I suggest thinking of every new item arriving on your desk as an insect that is infiltrating your territory. Your job is to dispose of it as quickly as possible, either by chucking it in the nearest recycling bin or putting it in its proper place. The only material on your desk should pertain to the task you're working on at that very minute. Everything else should be labeled and filed for easy access.

Treat your e-mail inbox the same way. Delete spam and other messages you don't need as soon as they pop in, and if you know you have to respond, get in the habit of doing so immediately. When you receive a new task via e-mail, don't let it linger. Add it to your master “to do” list. Should a message require follow-up at a later time, flag it, and place it in a subfolder that you review on a daily basis.

I'm frustrated with a few people I work with who don't read their e-mail and always seem to be unavailable. I've tried everything from tagging messages with read receipts, to automatically resending messages that bounce back with one of those cheerful “Out of the Office” replies. I'm sure these e-mail neglecters have their reasons, but think about this: if I know they're not staying on top of their mail, other people, including their managers, must know it too. Even if these people haven't been seriously burned yet, their reputation is being compromised as we speak. Don't get tripped up by this one. During the business week, unless you're on vacation or physically unable to get to your laptop or Blackberry, make it your business to read and respond to e-mail several times a day.

Digital organizers, software tools, and online content management systems can also enhance how you organize. Microsoft Outlook, for instance, allows you to set automatic task reminders to alert you to upcoming deadlines. Don't want to drag your laptop to every meeting? You should still keep all of your notes in one location (such as a three-ring notebook or legal pad) rather than relying on a combination of loose sheets of paper and yellow Post-its. The key to making a routine stick is to find a system that works for you—the simpler the better!

Project Management

Several twenty-somethings have told me that they have difficulty coordinating projects with multiple tasks and individuals involved. Learning to do this well is a prerequisite for getting ahead in the corporate world. I have a few years of project management experience under my belt, and here's my strategy:

Step One: Outline

As soon as I leave my boss's office with a new mission, I consider the scope of the project and the general approach I want to take. I then create a rough outline that breaks the project down into smaller component parts.

Step Two: Initial Project Meeting

Conducting an initial project meeting allows me to turn the assignment of tasks into a team activity. By brainstorming with my teammates about the best way to accomplish various phases of a project, I encourage them to approach the work with enthusiasm and commitment. Note that team meetings should not be called indiscriminately. As much as I love the people I work with, if I want to hang out and chitchat, we'll go to happy hour. Remember that the real project work gets done outside the conference room and that, most of the time, you do not accomplish things simply by talking about them. In general, I don't usurp an hour of my colleagues’ time unless the meeting will serve a combination of the following purposes:

  • • Generates ideas that will result in appropriate project strategy.
  • • Delegates each required task so that every member of the team is personally accountable for something.
  • • Provides status updates so that one hand always knows what the other is doing, and so that problems and delays can be flagged before they get out of hand.

Step Three: Project Chart

After an initial project meeting, I use Microsoft Project to develop a horizontal bar chart that displays timelines, the interrelationships of the various tasks, and the people responsible for each project component. I check the chart once a day to monitor our progress and keep track of pending deadlines.

Step Four: Communication

In order to organize a project successfully, you must make it easy for your team members to communicate with each other. My chart, which sits on a shared server, is a living document. Everyone on the team, including my supervisor, has access to view and modify the chart as we move forward on various tasks. The chart, along with ongoing status reviews, ensures that every team member understands not just his or her own responsibilities, but everyone else's as well.

Whether you're an experienced project manager leading a huge team or an entry-level assistant in charge of a single intern, look for ways to implement and showcase your own organizational strategies and tools. By inspiring trust, confidence, and cooperation, you'll emerge as an effective leader poised for even greater things.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareer Advice: Career 101 for Recent Graduates, New Hires, and Would-be Corporate ClimbersThe Purposeful Workday - Where Has All The Time Gone?, Saying No, Battling Procrastination, You, Too, Can Be The “organized One”