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Six Ways To Improve Your Office Organizing Skills
by Barbara Hemphill

If you discovered your job security depended upon how organized your work
area was, your reaction could range from complete composure to sheer terror.
Few business professionals have not uttered, “One day I really need to get

Purging files, choosing computer software, evaluating systems, updating a
Rolodex or tackling piles of unread journals frequently gets pushed to the
bottom of your list of priorities while you handle today’s crisis.

Many times people confuse organization with neatness. My definition of
“organized” is very simple: “Does it work?” and “Do I like it?” If what you
do affects other people, ask a third question, “Does it work for everyone?”

If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” here are six suggestions to
help you get organized:

1. Use your wastebasket frequently.
Research shows we use only 20 percent of what we keep, but how do you decide what is the 80 percent you can throw?

For each piece of paper ask these questions: Does this require action, or was
it only “For my information?” Does it exist elsewhere? How difficult would
it be to get again? Is it recent enough to be useful?

Finally, ask “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t have this
piece of paper?” If you can live with the results - toss it.

2. Learn to manage your “to do” list effectively.
Often people think that if they just took a speed reading course, learned another computer program or spent more hours in the office, they could get it all done. Most of us are trying to do more with less, and working harder is not the answer.

The real issue is “Does anyone really need to do this task?” “If so, am I
the most appropriate person to do it?” “Is there a shorter or simpler way to
do this?”

Some people spend more time deciding what to eat for breakfast than they do
deciding what to do with the 16 waking hours they have that day. Start each
day by asking, “What is the most important thing for me to accomplish today?”
Then do it before you do anything else. If you get interrupted, go back to

All “To do’s” can be divided into two major categories: 1) those that have to
be done at a specific time, such as filing a quarterly report, and 2) those
that are open-ended, such as reorganizing your filing system. Enter the ones
you need to complete on a specific day in your calendar. Enter the remaining
ones in a separate place, such as a section of your calendar, or in a
separate notebook or in your computer. Check your list on a regular basis,
perhaps weekly, and then re-enter the items in your calendar on the day you
plan to do them.

3. Implement a system for keeping track of names and telephone numbers.
Most of my clients agree that their best source of business is networking. In one of my training sessions with 30 people, a survey identified 10 ways of keeping business cards. Choose a system and use it consistently.

My own system combines four methods: 1) Contact management software program for all past, present and potential clients. 2) Rolodex to enter business cards for all services such as computer repair, graphics, etc.; most frequent clients (for easy access), and my colleagues. 3) Address book for family and friends. 4) Pocket address book to carry in my briefcase with most
frequently used numbers-business and personal.

If you have a system, a Rolodex for example, which you need to organize, it
is easier to ignore the old system and start over. This means you will run
two systems at once. Begin a new system you understand with the new contacts you make. Keep the old one, and as you pull information out, merge it into the new system. Eventually the two systems will become one, or the old one will become old enough you will feel comfortable throwing it away, or at
least putting it in less accessible space-just in case!

4. Create a filing system that works -- easily and consistently!
If you find that your filing system is not working, don’t fix it-start over. File information according to how you will use it, not where you got it. For example, if I receive a letter from someone in Wisconsin who has read my book, I file that letter in my “Wisconsin” file, or if I read about a great restaurant in New York, I file that in my “New York” file. The next time I go there, I can pull the file to remind me of the possibilities. Some of my most interesting experience have resulted from that technique.

To determine the title for a file, ask yourself: If I need this again, what
work will I think of? Then develop a file index by listing the words
alphabetically. (Use it just as you would a “chart of accounts” to determine
which account to charge an expense.)

Even with the most efficient filing system, you can’t be expected to remember
where everything is. Keep a master copy near the filing cabinets and see
that co-workers have a copy. Be sure to keep it updated. This not only
helps you locate a particular document but will avoid your creating a file
for “Car” when you already have “Auto.”

5. Improve how you manage your time in meetings and on the telephone.
One of my clients keeps an egg timer on his desk, which he turns over every time the phone rings, to remind him of how quickly time passes! If you are making the call or expecting a return call, make an agenda so you will be sure to cover everything. Sometimes I make a call standing up so I won’t get too
comfortable and talk too long! Begin a conversation with “I only have a
couple of minutes before...”

Frequently I have clients who have legal-sized pads with notes from many
phone conversations. I find it helpful to use one page per call. Then when
the call is complete, I ask myself, “What is the next action I need to take
on this call?” Often I can make a note in my calendar and throw the paper
away-or place it in an appropriate file.

Meetings frequently consume time, create paper and accomplish few results.
If you are planning a meeting, create an agenda with a start and end time.
Stick to it! One executive I know replaced a three-hour weekly staff meeting
with a 20-minute stand-up meeting. If you are going to a meeting, make sure
you know what it is about and how long it will last. If not all of the
meeting applies to you, see if you can arrange to attend the part of the
meeting that does.

6. Manage your paper on the road as well as you do in the office.
Every piece of paper you collect can be divided into three categories: Toss, file or act. Play a game with yourself to see how much you can get into the
wastebasket before you get back to the office!

In my briefcase, I have a folder entitled “file” with a copy of my file
index. As I collect papers along the way that simply need to be filed, I can
check the index to see what I have called them and mark the subjects in the
upper right-hand corners. Filing will be easy when I return to the office.
Another file entitled “Act” hold those papers that require actions when I
return. Write a reminder in the corner, or carry a pad of Post-Its.
Finally, a “Call” file makes it easy to use the 15 minutes before a flight to
make one or two quick calls.

So, you want to get organized. “Where do you start?” “How long will it take?”
The answer to both is “It doesn’t matter.”

Some people prefer to start with the most difficult tasks and some with the
easiest tasks. Just start! The longer you wait to begin, the more time it
will take and the more difficult it will be.

Remember that in any organizing process, you may feel worse before you feel
better. To change is difficult-even when you want to. It takes time to
learn new behavior patterns. Don’t try to tackle too many new things at once.

Organization is like any other skill. If you want to play tennis, you can
read books, look at videos, get the best coach and go to the best court, but
after a week you still won’t be a great tennis player. It takes practice.
So does organizing.

Barbara Hemphill, President of Hemphill & Associates, Raleigh, N.C., is a professional speaker, consultant and author of Kiplinger’s "Taming the Paper Tiger." Copyright© 1999, Barbara Hemphill. All rights reserved. For information about Barbara’s keynote presentations, please contact The Frog Pond Group at 800-704-FROG (3764) or email


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