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Build Your Career Office Life

Clean It Up! Being Productive at Work Starts with Organization

Clean It Up! Being Productive at Work Starts with Organization
A cluttered workspace and computer can bog down your business productivity. / Credit: Cluttered desk image via Shutterstock

What's your biggest obstacle to productivity at work? For some people it's the constant buzz of smartphone notifications and emails; for others it's distracting interruptions from co-workers. But for a lot of workers, the one thing that stands in the way of efficiency is simply not being able quickly find what they need to complete a task.

"Being disorganized costs you time and money," said Donna David, the founder of organization consulting firm Donna David and Co. "[People] can spend hours looking for things in their office and on their computer."

"Too much paper, technology, emails, phone calls, faxes, etc. ... can be overwhelming and hamper productivity, which then affects other areas of your life," added John Rowley, a health and wellness entrepreneur and author.

Although a messy desk is often a sign of disorganization, your physical workspace is not the only place clutter can pile up. Jen Cohen-Crompton, a small business productivity expert and editor-in-chief at business software and services provider The Neat Company, believes many professionals today struggle with "digital hoarding," and hold onto files, photos, emails and other digital assets long after they've served their purpose.[Easy Ways to Be More Productive]

"[Digital hoarders] often have the mentality that they don't want to get rid of something they mightneed for one reason or another," Cohen-Crompton told Business News Daily. "They may review their documents with the intention of parting, but end up not deleting because they think, 'What if I need this one day?' [or] they worry that a deleted email could lead to an issue in the future when they need to retrieve specific information. Basically, they hold onto their digital documents because they assign a greater meaning to the document than actually exists."

Letting go of your clutter means spending less time searching for what you need, and therefore you can improve your efficiency at work. If you want to break your hoarding habits — both physical and digital — and become more organized and productive, here are a few tips to help get started.

Deal with papers quickly. Rowley advised following a "touch-papers-once" rule: As soon as you've reviewed a printed document, either file it away, toss it or take action on it to decrease your desk clutter. You can apply the same rule to your email inbox, he said.

For paper files like invoices and receipts that need to be stored for a while, David recommended scanning and converting them to digital files so you can shred and recycle the physical copy and save desk space.

Clear your desk. Make sure that nothing extraneous is left out on your desk at the end of the workday, David said. This means your workspace will be clean and ready for a fresh start in the morning.

Make a list. Despite the numerous note-taking apps and digital calendars available, many professionals attribute their organization skills to an old-fashioned, handwritten list of tasks. Rather than having various papers scattered across your desk because you'll need to address them during the day, writing it down on a list means you can put those papers away and bring them out only when you're ready to tackle that task.

"There is something about putting a pen to paper and writing out a to-do list that helps you stay organized," said Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at the Web design agency Blue Fountain Media. "By having a handwritten to-do list, with all tasks prioritized by number, my tasks for the day never get lost amongst all the other things happening on my computer over the course of a day. Setting up the hand-written list in the morning helps to outline what the day will look like and make it clearer at the beginning of the day what needs to get done."

Ditch unused programs and files. Just like your physical desktop, you should strive to keep your virtual desktop clear and tidy, Cohen-Crompton said. Uninstall or eliminate icons for programs you don't use, and keep your files organized based on what is needed most immediately.

Create an effective filing and file-naming system. With so many companies using cloud-based collaboration tools and working with multiple versions of the same document, it pays to come up with a teamwide system for naming, storing and accessing those digital files.

"Come up with a naming scheme for your own files, or if you can, for your organization," Lambert said. "Setting a structure for the way files are saved will save you time in the long run when you're trying to access a document you saved a few months back.

Lambert also recommended dating every version of each document you save, especially when people make updates and edits. Avoid confusion andkeep files organized by specific date within the naming scheme for your files, she said.

Use technology to your advantage. There are countless apps and software programs available for people who want to get their files and daily to-do lists in order. Not sure where to start? Look at the top-rated apps on your mobile device, or ask around your office and social circles to find out what organization apps they'd recommend. If you're looking for a professional-level document management system, check out Business News Daily's best picks list.

Regardless of whether your assets are physical or digital, the key to getting (and keeping) them organized is learning to identify what is required for your daily work and what isn't, Cohen-Crompton said. She advised conducting an audit of everything on your desk and devices and considering what purpose each item or file actually serves.

"Figure out what is necessary to keep — and make sure necessary is clearly defined —and what can go, and then actually get rid of things," Cohen-Crompton said. "Evaluate each document. Immediately eliminate duplicates, get rid of things that are outdated, and delete [files] that no longer serve you."

For digital files, archiving can be a great solution for emails or documents that you don't need right now, but will need in the near future. Cohen-Crompton advised moving files to an archive to get them "out of sight," which will create less clutter in your active inbox or documents folder. David agreed, noting that your digital filing system should mirror your paper filing system, with specific folders that are color-coded if necessary to help you find archived documents faster when you do need them.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do to stay organized is to make a habit of dealing with everything right away, as it comes up.

"Read it, then respond, delete [or] archive," Cohen-Crompton said. "Addressing the potential clutter on its way in eliminates having to deal with it later and trying to force it back out."

This story was originally published in 2014 and updated Aug. 5, 2015.

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.

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