When I took full ownership of my business, I had absolutely no clue how many projects and tasks would require my attention. I am only beginning to get a clue now, and I often feel overwhelmed and stressed by all the things I feel the need to keep track of.
I have never been very good at remembering things like phone numbers and anniversaries, so I write things down. I use a simple journal I purchased at a local bookstore for about $7 and write everything in it. Lists of things to do this week, ideas, poetry, introspection — they all go in my journal. I am on my seventh one now, and the journals work well for me, but they do have limitations — like finding something I wrote down a while ago. So I am constantly inventing new systems.
One I have used quite well for years is the “clean up your desk in five minutes flat” system. My desk will tend to get cluttered with piles of paper. When it gets to the point where I have difficulty finding something, it never takes me more than five minutes to clean it up.
Here’s the system:
• Rapidly stack all the papers in a single pile. No reading; just pile everything into a single pile and declare psychological victory over the space. I now have a mostly clean desk and one gnarly pile of papers. Gloating is permissible for a few seconds as you actually see the top of your desk for what may be the first time in years for some of you. If you have too much paper to fit into a single pile, multiple piles are allowed. The key here is to smash everything into a single heap without looking at any of the papers. That comes next.
• Process the pile one item at a time and put each item into one of five piles. I’m a simple guy with only five fingers, hence five piles. The key to this step is to make your decision quickly. Don’t process the item beyond the simple decision of which pile it goes into:
1) Read – Stuff I want to read but haven’t gotten around to.
2) File – Stuff I want to keep, but don’t need to do anything with.
3) Do – Stuff that requires action by me.
4) Trash – Stuff I can let go of (recycling works well with this pile).
5) Hand off – Items I can dump on someone else to handle.
• I now take the Read pile and stick it in with all the other articles I have deluded myself into thinking I will actually read. I have a basket in the bathroom for this pile. If you are an inveterate reader, here’s your homework.
• The File Pile goes into a banker box along with the other papers I would really like to keep, but don’t know what to do with. Once the box is full, put the lid on, mark the date and seal it. If it is still sealed a year later, recycle the whole box. After years of using this process, I have learned that “File” is a different way to spell “Trash.”
• The “Trash” and “Hand-off” piles are pretty self-evident. If something really needs to be filed, the hand-off method works well, but it requires someone who will actually file it. My wife and I have been handing off papers at home for years because neither of us has the patience to file things.
• The “Do” pile is now a fraction of the mess that used to take up my whole desk, but it occupies the rest of this treatise on organizational self-discipline.
Although it takes me only a few minutes to get to the heart of the do-do, I found that I keep seeing the same darn papers over and over again. The “Getting Things Done” folks offer the rule-of-thumb, “If it will take less than two minutes to do this, do it now.” That actually works pretty well. But what about the rest of the stuff?
One thing I have learned about myself is that if I put something into a file and stick the file into a drawer, I will never see it again. It must stay on top of my desk for it to remain in my life. I know that some of you will think this is a profound character defect, but as my hero, Dirty Harry, once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and that’s one of mine.
So I started putting things into binders and keeping an increasing number of binders on my desktop. I have a binder for Goals, Plans, Marketing, Sales, Financials, Infrastructure, Contact Lists, People I Know in Bellingham (is your card in this one?) and a bunch more.
Inside the cover of many of them, there is a simple form I devised with three columns:
The Domain is the name of the binder (Marketing, Financials, etc.) Contrary to the example above, I don’t type the action items in – I write them so I am free to scribble whatever I want on the page. And it’s quicker.
Now, if I have to do something Sales related, I open the sales binder, write in the action item, and if there is some associated paperwork, I file it in the binder. In the Sales binder, I don’t use tabs. In the Financials binder, I have tabs for each month. In the People binder, the tabs are A-Z.
How well does this work? I’ll know better in six months. In the mean-time, what systems do you use to manage the chaos in your life? E-mail me your “Chaos Killer System” and let me share it with others. Maybe some other old dogs can learn some new tricks!