How to stay organized at work

Drowning in a deluge of deadlines and documents? Fret not with these tips on how to get organized

Author: Lauren JohnsonDecember 23rd, 2019Illustration by Robert Samuel Hanson

Being organized at work isn’t just about meeting deadlines or individual performance goals. When employees are able to manage their work efficiently, their teammates feel the benefits too.

I’ll never be the kind of person who finds joy in organizing my digital and physical spaces, though. While I’ve found that I can usually get away with a bare-minimum approach to organization, I often wonder how much time and stress I would save myself if I were a little more meticulous.

Well, ’tis the season for making resolutions and planning fresh starts. So if you’re looking for inspiration on how to stay organized at work, we’ve got you covered, with tips for tackling your messages, documents, relationships and time.

Manage the barrage of notifications, messages and emails

Even the most organized among us struggle to fight an ever rising tide of email, app and message notifications. In our recent State of Work study, we found that the most highly engaged knowledge workers receive an average of 50 to 100 emails a day.

And if that doesn’t make your jaw drop, consider this: The average working person in a developed country sifts through 174 newspapers’ worth of information on a typical workday, says Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor.

Digital communication is showing no signs of slowing down, and app usage is on the rise. So in order to stay afloat in the modern workplace, it’s more important than ever to create a system for managing our messages.

You also need to protect your organizational system with boundaries. According to Sarah K. Peck, an author and startup advisor, poor boundaries are one of the reasons we’re so digitally disorganized.

“Culturally, we are terrible about boundaries and prioritization,” Peck writes. “This is reflected in part in our consumption habits, and the wide sweeping fame of Marie Kondo’s minimal living: we are drowning in both physical and digital clutter.”

How to stay organized at work

Though you’ll never be able to completely control when someone messages you, you can set parameters around when you’ll read and respond to less-urgent missives. Peck advises talking with your teammates and manager about the best way to communicate with you during the workday. And once you’ve created your system for managing your messages, share it with your colleagues and manager so they can help you protect these boundaries.

For example, consider scheduling a 30-to-45-minute block of time as a recurring calendar event to reserve that time each day to read messages. During this time block, determine which messages are urgent and which ones you can answer later.

For messages you can’t respond to immediately, give yourself a deadline for getting back to the sender. For instance, you can make it your personal policy to answer messages within 48 hours of receiving them.

Resist the urge to schedule meetings or complete other tasks during your designated message management time. You can even create a ritual around it: Pour yourself a cup of your favorite tea or coffee, slide on some headphones, and play your favorite workday tunes.

Tame the digital document dragon

You know the nightmare—you’re working in a shared document, feeling good about the progress you’re making, until you realize you’ve logged all that time in an old version of the file. Or perhaps you’re storing documents haphazardly on your desktop or in the dreaded downloads folder.

In the online magazine Bustle, writer Carolyn Steber says these storage practices are bad habits you should try to break, because they don’t offer an intuitive system for organizing your files. As she advises, “No, you’ll never need that old concert ticket PDF, so go ahead and delete the contents of your downloads folder.”

How to stay organized at work

Creating a file naming system is one of the best ways to manage multiple versions of the same document. For example, I might share an article draft with my editor that’s named “V1_Organization101.” Using this system, I’ll name my second draft “V2_Organization101.” It doesn’t really matter how you name your files; what matters is that you name them consistently.

In a recent interview with Courtney Nolan, a strategic customer success manager at Dropbox, we found out how employees at the file-hosting company created their document management system.

“You shouldn’t have to think about, you know, what does ‘’ mean,” Nolan says, describing best practices for file naming conventions. “Give context to your files more logically. Often we’ll find that people are more likely to remember the customer, or whom the pitch was given to, or the context of the pitch. That makes it easier to sort of backtrack and search for it.”

Bustle also suggests downloading a desktop background with graphics that can help you keep files and folders organized.

Foster good relationships with colleagues

When we think about how to get organized, we often consider our workload, not our relationships. But understanding the contributions our colleagues make to our teams and companies is essential to creating alignment in the workplace.

Understanding how roles and teams fit together is also essential to getting just about anything done. If you’ve found yourself working in an organizational silo, take some time to get to know the people around you and how their work impacts yours.

How to stay organized at work

Take a look around your department and find out:

  • Everyone’s name and their role in the organization
  • What your colleagues do each day
  • Your colleagues’ schedules, so you know when they’re busiest
  • Your colleagues’ working styles—who likes to lead group initiatives and who’s an introvert who prefers to tackle problems independently
  • Their personal goals within the organization

Don’t forget to also share this information about yourself, so your colleagues are aware of the best way to work with you too.

Read more: How to pick the right means of communication and the most effective communication channels for building relationships with colleagues.

Protect your most precious resource: time

Time is arguably one of the hardest aspects of our workload to manage. Even if we’re organizational pros, someone else can create disruptions in our workday by missing a deadline or letting a meeting run overtime.

In the Harvard Business Review, organizational expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders writes, “Even if you can’t always dictate how people communicate with you, many times you can set expectations around when you respond. For example, you may get a work-related text message at 10 p.m. at night, but you can reply to it the next morning. Or you may be able to wait to respond to messages from the weekend until Monday.”

In short, managing your time while collaborating with others comes down to boundaries. Establish your boundaries and communicate them to your colleagues.

How to stay organized at work

At Slack, many of us block out “heads down” time on our calendars when we’re facing a deadline. This action sends a signal to our colleagues—as well as ourselves—that it’s time to focus.

But what if we’re easily distracted? Executive coach Monique Valcour suggests getting to the root of the problem with some daily self-reflection to understand what’s not working about your current workload.

And if you’re prone to falling down information rabbit holes in the name of research, Sheena Iyengar recommends setting boundaries around information gathering. Depending on the scope of the project, that could mean blocking out two hours—and only two hours—to gather research.

“Gone are the days where you just said, ‘Hey, let me just explore and see where I go,’ because two hours will pass and you’re going to realize you’ve gotten nothing done,” Iyengar says.

Learning how to stay organized at work means looking out for your team

Carving out some time each day to get a little more organized isn’t just busywork; it’s about creating systems and boundaries that work for you. And by exploring ways to improve your productivity, you’re sending a clear signal to your colleagues that you respect their time and contributions too.

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