When it comes to your career, productivity is crucial. If you want your dream job you need to be in the top 20% of performers in your company. Being more productive means that you stay ahead of tasks, feel less stressed and have the time to push on and impress your boss. Simply put, with better productivity you become a better employee. Youll make your own life easier but youll also be able to take on more responsibility and accelerate your career (for more on securing your promotion, try reading How To Get A Pay Rise). Some people are born with fantastic organisational skills but many find it much more difficult to pick them up on their own. So what are the main ways you can get more organised and get ahead of the game at work?
The crucial aspect to becoming more organised is learning how to prioritise different tasks as they come along. If you have two tasks and one is far more crucial than the other, you will probably be able to decide which to do first. But if you have several items that need dealing with, and new ones are emerging all the time, it can feel like a desperate juggling act that you are never quite on top of.
To start mastering that act, you need to develop a greater understanding of how to reprioritise as you are working. I always considered myself to be fairly organised but I then stumbled across a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen. This outlined ways to prioritise your workload and it really got me thinking about how I balance different tasks during my working day. I realised that you can make quick decisions in the moment that will save you time later.
Try asking yourself the three questions below and you will start to identify which tasks you need to do right now:
1. How important is your task? If it is incredibly important then obviously this item is a priority.
2. How urgent is your task? If two tasks are pretty much the same, but one is due three days earlier, then you should start with that.
3. How time-consuming is your task? It often makes sense to do quick tasks as they come up because you are more likely to forget about them. It also takes longer to get back into a task than it does to complete something when it is already on your mind.
Get into the habit of doing non-time-consuming tasks, such as emailing an acknowledgement to a colleague, as they come up as this will save you more time than you realise. These small tasks can quickly build up and form a back-log. You want to be known as someone who gets the little things right as much as the big things.
This is because of a well-known psychological trick that we make big assumptions about people based on the little information we have. If someone in a job interview gives a limp handshake (read this great new2london piece for more on interview confidence or get some more useful tips on interview basics) then the interviewer might assume they are weak in all aspects of their career and life. In the same way, if you reply to people quickly even on tasks that are minor, you build their trust disproportionately.
The three indicators above – importance, urgency and size of task – are all obvious enough in themselves; the problem is that we lose a sense for them when trying to balance several tasks at once. Taking the three into account together, you will become better at deciding what to focus on. For instance, if a task will take a while to complete but is neither important nor urgent, it would not be wise to make this your first priority. But if you have a task that is important, urgent and also time-consuming then clearly this should become a key priority. If you then receive an urgent, important task that will take very little time to do then it makes sense to get that out of the way first.
The key is to re-evaluate your priorities as you are given new tasks, so that you are always focusing your time and resources where they are most needed. If we stop to think about what the most sensible way to order our workload is, we can save hours every day. Think about how you could spend that time each day and suddenly the benefits of better organisation become clear.
Organise your space
I used to hate this one, but it is often the least glamorous changes that can be the most effective. You might not have control over the desk you are at, but you can certainly get rid of all that clutter that you dont need. The things on your desk that are within reach should be items that you use often; if not then put them away somewhere more removed. Use your shelves, draws and filing cabinets to prioritise information; the first things you encounter should be the most important.
Once you have de-cluttered and have a filing system, however basic it is, it becomes much easier to keep things tidy. If your papers are in order then you will find that all-important memo and see that post-it-note reminder while it can still help you. Plus you will save a lot of time.
A clear work space is also a great way to build up a perception amongst co-workers that you are organised; if a boss sees an organised desk then they will believe the employee sitting behind it is also organised.
Get out your diary
Using a diary may sound like a no-brainer but many people simply dont do it. A diary or planner is crucial if you want to stay organised. You can use the diary management functions on software like Microsoft Outlook to stay on top of tasks, although having something physical to look at can always be a great way to jog the memory. When I was younger I would find a new diary in my Christmas stocking, only to leave it unused and gathering dust during the year ahead. When I learnt to make a note of all the tasks I needed to complete, my productivity shot through the roof.
Having clear deadlines for yourself will make it much easier to keep track of where you are with various tasks. Youll find that in no time you are shooting ahead with your work and becoming much more successful with your own organisation. Along with your diary or calendar it is useful to create daily to-do lists to tick off, which will let you get that sense of ownership over your day.
If you can sync your calendar with your phone, even better. Then you can add tasks as you remember them, so it wont matter if you leave the office for the weekend with that slight sense that youve forgotten to note down something.
Not only should you be setting yourself deadlines, these should be pre-emptive and before the real ones wherever possible.
Imagine you have a task due in a week that is not particularly important but might take a bit of time. You might only start considering it the day before, but by this point a much more important task may have reared its ugly head, and this new one is also due the next day. Now you will struggle to get either done, even though initially you didnt miss any deadlines and it didnt seem like you had done anything wrong. You might even find yourself blaming this on bad luck, or passing one of the tasks onto someone else.
The alternative is to take the situation into your own hands. If you set yourself an early deadline, for instance to finish the first task by the end of the week or indeed whenever there is next a lull in your workload, then you wont ever get to the crisis situation described above.
As humans we are very good at working towards deadlines but sometimes we need to free ourselves from this by setting pre-emptive deadlines to ensure that we maximise our time and use it far more efficiently. Avoiding bottle-necks like this means we dont have to chase colleagues down for help at the last moment. And by getting tasks done when we have the chance, we make our work lives less stressful.
Another crucial way to improve your organisation is to make sure that colleagues are actually aware of your workload. If you realise that a task will take longer than you originally thought then be honest about it. Your colleagues will give you all the work they think you can handle, so be open about how additional tasks could affect ability to meet current deadlines. This gives your manager more of a choice and prepares them for any issues down the line.
As tempting as it is to act like a superhero and take on everything that comes your way, you will be nobodys hero if you fail to meet deadlines further down the road. So if you allow yourself to take on more work than you can do, no-one is really benefitting from this in the medium-term. But if you keep everyone well-communicated about how you are progressing then you are less likely to end up overburdened with work. Being immediately clear about your current priorities when someone is trying to give you a new task will keep everyone informed of the bigger picture. This makes far more sense than waiting until your back is against the wall and blaming missed deadlines on your undoubtedly heavy workload.
Spread the love
This final tip is especially great if you are trying to push on in your career and move into a management role. Think about how you can share your knowledge and skills with those around you. If you are already in a job where you need to manage other workers then it is crucial that you give them the skills to organise themselves. You also need to communicate expected deadlines clearly when you are assigning a task and give workers the opportunities to keep you in the loop with updates. The benefits of sharing your own organisational tips will be doubled because we remember things much better after we have explained them to someone else.
I once taught English to business leaders in Spain, and one of the books we studied together was The Goal by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. A key idea in here is the theory of constraints. This is the belief that a team is only as strong as its weakest members. I started to see this was true with the actual classes I was teaching. Four of my students might race through a particular topic only for everyone to end up waiting for the fifth student, who had become lost in the new grammar early on. So make sure you identify who is struggling early in a task and give them the skills to improve. Otherwise your whole team will be slowed down.