Anyone can appreciate the sight of a busy, high-level executive, seated behind a large desk without so much as a piece of paper – let alone a speck of dust – in sight. Appearances belie reality, for that executive is probably just as busy as you are but he has found a way to organize his office workload. You can, too, as long as you develop a system that works for you. This might mean employing some “tried-and-true” techniques while dismissing others. Like that high-level executive, remember that you’re in charge and that it behooves you to seize control of your workload before it seizes control of you.
Establish a filing system – electronic and paper – so that you can promptly dispense with information once you are done reviewing it. Many business professionals are “master stackers,” meaning that they tend to accumulate piles of paper that eventually overwhelm them. Make a commitment to work on a project and then, when you’re done, promptly file it away. For paper files, establish a color-coded file system, with each color denoting a message meaningful to you. For example, implement a three-color hierarchy system in which green means “high priority,” yellow means “moderate priority” and red means “low priority. Or, to reduce the number of files on your desk, use a two-color system. Follow the same logic to create a computer filing system.
Create a daily to-do list and keep it with you at all times to keep you focused and on track. Cross off tasks as you complete them. Likewise, keep a calendar with you at all times, cross-referencing the two as necessary. Review your to-do list at the end of each day and the beginning of every new day to cement your daily obligations in your mind.
Establish time limits and deadlines for each of these tasks, being optimistic but also realistic. Be particularly vigilant about the time you allot to reading and replying to emails, as it is incredibly easy to get sucked into the time-consuming "email vortex.” Tag your emails with “high priority” messages to help focus your efforts -- and then decide whether or not to respond accordingly.
Begin phone calls and meetings with an estimate of their duration -- and then watch the clock and stick to the plan. People will respect your discipline if you say something like: “As I know we are all busy, let’s try our best to keep this phone call or meeting to 30 minutes.”
Set boundaries for coworkers who may try to ensnare you in a prolonged lunch or a protracted conversation about their awful blind date the night before. While some social interaction is important to building relationships among coworkers, be careful that it doesn’t get out of hand and throw a curveball into your otherwise well-structured workday.
Reconsider multitasking. You may think that talking on the phone, writing an email and reviewing a marketing proposal makes you a super employee but, in fact, you may be diffusing your attention and are instead being counterproductive. If you must, force yourself to focus your attention on one task at a time and compare the results to the multitasking mode of organizing your workload.
Assess your present workload before agreeing to assume new responsibilities. Although many employees assume that they should step up and never say no to such requests, carefully consider whether you have time to complete the tasks and if they can be accomplished according to your own high standards.
Consult with your supervisor to ensure that you are on the right track with your plan to organize your office workload. Review your “plan of action” and ask for feedback.