As a busy school senior leader by day and coach outside of work hours, I have to be super organised. Fortunately, I’ve learnt effective strategies and tips from the many people I’ve worked with over the years and through trial and error of my own. Organisation and order are vital to my ability to function effectively in my role. Getting organised improves your work flow, your sense of control and your energy. Here are 12 tips to help you set priorities, complete your to-do list and thrive in your work.
With so much work to get through and not enough time, we have to learn how to prioritise our endless to-do’s. I suggest always working from a list.
I typically use two lists for work: a master list and a daily to-do list.
A master list is a document where you write down all of your ideas, tasks and responsibilities. At the end of every work day, peruse your master list and ask yourself this question.
What are my highest priorities?
Select your three highest priority items and write them on your daily to-do list. Be sure to place the list somewhere you can see it throughout the day. These three items are the first thing you want to see when you arrive at work in the morning, focused and ready to start.
Tips for Your Daily To-Do List
- Start on your list in the morning – you’ll gather momentum and it will propel you to keep going.
- Add anything new that comes along to the master list.
- When someone asks you to do something verbally, ask them to email the request or write it on a post-it note. Transfer the task to your master list as soon as you receive the note.
- As you complete your tasks, cross them off your daily to-do list.
- At the end of each day, review your list. What hasn’t been completed gets put on tomorrow’s daily to-do list.
- Before you leave work, write your daily to-do list for the next day.
2. Your Big Rock
Your big rock is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.
Here are my tips for getting a big rock completed:
- Make it your first task of the day, even before emails.
- Start as early in the day as you can.
- Clear your desk to limit distractions.
- Prepare well – make sure you have everything you need.
- Race against yourself or set a time limit. It will propel you forward!
- Discipline yourself to do nothing else except get that task done.
- Set aside a block of uninterrupted time. This could be a half hour or more. Your door could be shut, your phone set to vibrate and you can tell your colleagues not to disturb you for an hour while you complete an important task.
Here’s the thing about our big rocks –
- Avoiding a difficult task drains much more energy than we realise.
- It usually takes far less time to complete a task than we imagine it will.
- The idea of completing a task is almost always more daunting in our heads than in reality.
- We usually start to feel better the moment we begin.
- Inactivity breeds anxiety but action builds momentum. Just begin!
3. Managing Interruptions
Interruptions can arrive anytime throughout the day and without notice. They can come in the form of phone calls, texts, emails or in person. They can be questions, requests or announcements. Often, we’re interrupted to make a decision or to solve a problem.
Interruptions can be frustrating as they almost always occur when you are in the middle of a task. However, they are part of the job. Our perception of interruptions needs to change from being annoyed to realising it’s part of our role.
Five Tips to Handle Interruptions
- Schedule time in your diary for interruptions, since they are inevitable.
- Be available for questions, requests or problems at a certain time of the day.
- In the event that someone interrupts you and you think it requires a lengthy discussion, arrange a time to meet so that you can sit down together with your full attention on the issue.
- When someone interrupts you, swivel away from your laptop or desk so that you give the person your full attention.
- When you’re in the middle of a task, such as finishing an email, if you could finish it in a minute, ask the person interrupting you to wait while you finish.
The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.
4. Avoiding Distractions
Whether it’s social media, notifications on your phone, text messages or people, distractions take you away from what you’re meant to be doing. Getting back on task can be challenging. Distractions reduce our ‘flow state.’ When our attention is lost, we lose our productivity.
Consider what usually distracts you. Is it your phone, people interrupting you or email notifications on your laptop?
Six Tips to Reducing Distractions
- Provide a mechanism, such as earphones, for indicating ‘do not disturb.’
- Switch your phone to ‘airplane’ mode.
- Move to a different, quiet location.
- If you have a door, use it. Yes, we all know open doors are great, but sometimes you need to shut them.
- Establish boundaries with colleagues who frequently interrupt you. Let them know you are busy and you will get back to them when you are free.
Email is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that email makes communication possible at any time with anyone at home or at work. What is the curse? Everyone else can do the same with you.
The key is to manage email, not let it manage you. Because we take our work home in our back pockets, it’s important to have clear boundaries in place with emails.
5 Tips for Email
- You decide when you read your emails. It might be the first thing you do when you arrive at work or a scheduled task you do once or twice a day. (Like at 10am and 2pm.)
- Read your emails in blocks rather than as they arrive in your inbox.
- If you receive an email, don’t feel pressured to reply right away. If you always respond immediately, it sends a message that you are always available.
- Get into the habit of filing emails. Create folders and then file or delete as you read them. Don’t let your inbox turn into another to-do list.
- If a call to action takes no more than 60 seconds, do it. Otherwise add the task to your master list, then file the email.
File, don’t pile!
Initially it can be time consuming to create a filing system, but long term, it will save you time. Despite living in a world of technology, we still receive paper. The key to managing incoming paper is to have an effective filing system.
The rules for paper are as follows:
- Touch it.
- Read it.
- File it or bin it.
Be prepared – create files and label them clearly.
In the event that you want to keep a piece of paper and it does not have a place to be filed in, create one on the spot. Files and labels should always be close at hand.
Work in Progress Documents
Make a file titled ‘This Week.’ In this you can store any documents you are currently working on or need to access quickly in the upcoming week or two. You can easily access it and take it home if needed. Instead of keeping articles and readings, scan them and save them in a file on your computer. Use upright files as this keeps paper off your desk space.
Start each day with a tidy workspace.
- Have minimal items on your work desk. In addition to creating a sense of space, it will also decrease distractions.
- If you have a pen holder, limit the amount of pens you have. Do you need 20?
- It’s worth considering the upright version of filing if you need to keep files close to you as you work. This frees up space on your desk.
- Know where everything in your workspace belongs. (Paperclips, rubberbands, etc.)
- Pick up each item on your desk and ask yourself if you need it. Over the years, we accumulate items that we no longer see. This applies to your notice board, the prints on the wall and items such as ornaments and plants. What kind of inspiration do you get from them? Do they bring you joy when you look at them? If not, pass them on.
- Keep your desktop on your computer clean, too. Digital clutter has the same effect as physical clutter.
- Today, resolve to clean up your desk so that you can sit down and feel ready to work without distractions.
- Wipe your desk down at the end of every week. I keep a packet of wet wipes in my top drawer for this purpose.
The more stuff we have around us, the more overloaded the brain becomes.
8. Your Schedule
Managing your schedule effectively will determine what gets done and what doesn’t. When it comes to your diary, you’re in the driver’s seat. Schedule uninterrupted blocks of time to complete your priority tasks.
- Highlight your weekly meetings and commitments. By doing so, they will stand out to you and are instantly non-negotiable.
- Appointments should be scheduled by you, not the other way around.
- Allow time between appointments, especially if you are driving. Make sure to allot enough time to comfortably drive and arrive with time to spare.
- Plan your appointments around an event, such as a morning tea or lunch, so they end naturally.
- Always provide a timeframe when someone requests a meeting with you.
- Allow time in your schedule for interruptions – they are inevitable.
Either run the day or the day runs you
Why do we have meetings? Meetings create open, clear communication and smooth systems and organisation. An effective meeting must be a time for team members to communicate openly and get clarity on goals and how to proceed.
Questions to consider when thinking about the meetings you attend or facilitate:
- Is the day of the week and time of the day ideal?
- Are the right people in the meeting?
- Where is the location? Is there the right amount of physical space? Does it convey casual or professional?
- What is the name of the gathering? Does it reflect what you’re there for and who you are as a group?
- What is the time frame for the meeting? How long does it need to be to accomplish the goals set for the meeting? Does the meeting start on time or when the last person arrives? Does it end on time?
- The agenda: is it crowd sourced? Who decides on the agenda items? Not all agenda items need to be discussed at a team level. Review the agenda and see if any items could be one-to-one discussions instead.
- Do people come prepared?
- Who records the minutes? Are follow-up actions recorded and when are they re-addressed?
- What happens to the items on the agenda that we don’t get to?
Check out Priya Parker’s work. Her book, The Art of Gathering, has so much useful content about meetings.
The truth is…without delegating a leader burns out very quickly.
How should we delegate?
- Make a list of all of the tasks you do in your job.
- Highlight the tasks that someone else could do for you.
- Create a quick system whereby you teach someone how to do that task. This could be a verbal recording, written instructions or a video.
- Train them to do the task. You are going to have to take the time here. Think big picture. Think long term investment.
- Give them feedback and praise as they progress with the task.
- Set clear expectations. For example, by the end of the month it needs to be completed.
When you delegate, however, keep these points in mind:
- Do not delegate only the unpleasant tasks.
- Hold back from commenting if they do the job differently than you – if they also have the same positive result.
- Don’t leap in at the first sign of trouble. Support them with effective questions to steer them back on track.
11. Information Overload
Information creeps into our lives from many different sources, texts, emails, television, radio, podcasts, books, social media and many more. Too much information is overwhelming and stressful. It also takes up a lot of our time. An organised person limits the amount of information coming in, otherwise, it becomes a major distraction from our priorities.
- Start by taking a mental inventory of what information you receive
- Ask yourself, “What could I remove?” By cutting back on some sources, you can claim back time for yourself to focus on your priorities.
- Set limits on the time you invest in watching Netflix or scrolling through social media.
- Could you turn off notifications on your phone? That way you are not in reaction mode each time a news bulletin is announced.
- Disconnect – see if you can go for a walk without your phone.
12. Organising Books and Articles
It’s not uncommon to hold on to books with the hope of reading them again or starting to read them someday. Here are six questions to ask yourself when culling your bookshelf. Pick each one up and ask:
- When did I buy this?
- How many times have I read it?
- What role does the book play in my life now?
- Would I still buy it now if I saw it in a bookshop?
- When did I last pick it up?
- Am I going to ever read or need it again?
Articles and Readings
- Scan a magazine or journal quickly for any interesting articles you may be interested in reading.
- If you see an article you want to keep, scan it and save it in a folder on your computer, then pass the magazine on.
- To save time at work, create a hard copy folder called “Readings,” and each time you see an article or a journal you want to peruse, place it in the folder and take it home on the weekend. When you’re relaxed at home with a cup of tea or coffee, work your way through the folder.
- Photograph snippets of articles you like and think you will need for reference.