What “organizational bootcamp” taught me about tidying up

We tend to think of neatness as an ingrained character trait, but it’s really just a series of habits you can practice

 
Woman sitting at neat desk sipping coffee

(PeopleImages/Getty)

Susan Pons didn’t blink when I told her how many emails I had in my inbox (let’s just say the number was in the healthy five-figures). She nodded understandingly when I said I could never find time to work on big, high-impact projects. And she didn’t say a word when I opened my desk drawers and revealed balled-up plastic bags sitting next to notebooks and teabags. She told me she’d seen worse, and from that moment on, I was putty in her hands.

Pons, a productivity specialist with Toronto-based Clear Concept, put me through an organizational “bootcamp” that’s left me with a tidy inbox, a pristine desk, more productive days and a calmer mind for the new year. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Multi-tasking is a myth

We think we’re more efficient when we’re juggling several tasks at once, so of course during my first session with Pons—a webinar—I toggled between Twitter, Outlook and a magazine while answering questions about my work habits. Then she grabbed my attention with a simple exercise that demonstrated the downside of multi-tasking: Pons showed me a row of letters and a row of numbers and asked me to transcribe them twice: the first time, row by row as they appeared, and the second time, alternating between letters and numbers. Try it yourself–and time your efforts.

If you’re like me and all of Pons’ previous clients, you’ll find that skipping back and forth between letters and numbers (or webinars and email) requires more concentration and slows down your processing time. “That multi-tasking may only be costing you a few seconds,” Pons said, “but think about how many times a day you do that, and do the math.” It was all she needed to say to convince me to stick with one task at a time from now on.

Stop interrupting yourself

To help assess why my workday often seemed to disappear, Pons asked me to identify the interruptions that typically derail me. I quickly pointed at my colleagues, my boss, meetings–scheduled and impromptu­–and email as the worst offenders, but Pons wasn’t convinced the list was complete. “Do you ever stop what you’re working on to check Facebook or Twitter?” she asked. “Or send an email to someone that maybe isn’t so urgent?” Yes, and yes. Plus, I’d just spent 25 minutes watching Martin Shkreli livestream his life on Youtube. I was my own worst time-waster.

 

But no more. Pons helped me develop a new habit: shutting down my browser, email and phone during periods I’ve set aside to focus on a task. Digital distractions no longer interrupt my work. Intead, I reward myself with email and social media check-ins when I’ve finished a decent-sized task. (Okay, I’m lying—after typing that last sentence I tried to check my gmail. But waiting for my phone to boot up again gave me time to feel guilty. I powered it off without looking.)

Email should only be read once

Pons may not have blanched when she saw my overstuffed inbox, but she did help me organize it into manageable folders and taught me a few techniques for ensuring my messages don’t pile up again. The most important was the one-touch technique. If you open an email, deal with it, Pons instructed, either by answering immediately if it can be quickly addressed (and then deleting it), or by moving it into another folder. Don’t waste time opening a message and not dealing with it. “What’s the point of reading an email while you’re standing in an elevator and you can’t do anything about it?” Pons points out. Set aside dedicated time a few times a day to read and respond to email. Beyond those times, don’t let it interrupt your work. “Most emails are about other people’s priorities,” Pons says. “Not yours.”

You can trick your mind into doing stuff

When I started Pons’s bootcamp, my to-do list was sagging with the weight of intimidating tasks: “Plan that innovation series!” “Assign the MBA package!” (I thought exclamation points might motivate me. They didn’t.) Pons helped me tackle these challenges mentally by asking what the first step was for each project. Then she asked me to replace the giant to-dos on my list with these new bite-sized items. “Ask Joe for a list of innovative companies” was a much more manageable way to approach working on the innovation series. Over time, I found that when I broke down big projects into less formidable pieces and put them on my to-do list, the work actually got done–no exclamation marks required.

Routines help

If you really want to get work done, you need to be intentional about it, Pons says. She helped me set aside a chunk of time each day for high-priority, big impact tasks (not routine stuff like answering email or booking meetings) and suggested sticking to that timeslot throughout the work week so that it became part of my regular routine. We chose 10-11:30 a.m.—most of us are fresher in the morning, and an a.m. session helps establish a productive pattern for the day. The strategy worked. Establishing a set time to dig into meaty projects helped take the guesswork out of my day, and as I became accustomed to my new schedule, settling into tasks became easier. Pons even helped me carve out times during my weekend when I could focus on personal goals like writing projects and gym time. She also recommended putting on headphones or retreating into a private space during my focus times so I wouldn’t be interrupted. “Treat those times just like you would a doctor’s appointment or a really important meeting,” she said. “If you protect them, and make sure nothing can touch them, you’ll get what you want done.”

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