Organized at work
September 22, 2013 8:20 AM   Subscribe

What are your best tips and tricks for being organized and efficient at work? I’ve read books and taken a webinar on time management/productivity in the last few months, but I found them less than helpful because they seemed to assume that: a) I can make the decision to eliminate certain tasks and b) I can delegate tasks to someone. Neither of these things is true. I am the low person on the totem pole here.

Some of the things I am struggling with:

1. Managing tasks – Some of my regular tasks (daily, weekly, monthly) have a bit of flexibility as to when and how often they need to be done. Because of this, they often get put off longer than they should while I attend to more urgent projects. But it seems like there is always an urgent project and it is hard to find time to do the important/non-urgent stuff, which has now built to epic proportions due to being neglected for so long.

My boss is partial to Outlook for assigning and tracking my tasks. I find it confusing (admittedly I have had no training in Outlook so everything is trial and error.) It just feels like everything is in a jumble (maybe I’ve got 15 things “due next week”… but when next week?)and of course I’ve got too many things “due today” not to mention a couple things in the red. I’m sure there are some Outlook Tasks best practices, but damned if I know what they are.

2. Email – I’ve got a lot of “in process” stuff in my inbox. User emails me with an issue, I have to forward it to Support Person 1 for the solution, and then get back to User with the answer. (Yes, I am required to be the middleman for the time being.) So there is a point in time when I’ve got User’s email hanging around waiting for an answer, and then another point where I get an email from SP1 with an answer, but it's not quite right so we have to go back and forth a few times (often getting SP2 and SP3 involved in the conversation) and meanwhile all this stuff is just getting buried in my inbox as new stuff comes in.

3. Organizing files on the computer – how to make sure I can find what I need later on? It always seems to make sense to name the notes from the CRM meeting “CRM Meeting Notes 09.16.13” but then the other day I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the answer to a question that I knew had been answered in a weekly CRM meeting sometime in the last 4 months but had no idea which one.

4. Processes – Developing, documenting, and updating processes for multi-step tasks (and how to store this information so I can find it when I need it?)

5. Tracking bits of information through a process – dear God.

I need to know how busy people who are holding it all together on the job manage to do that. What are your tips, tricks, hacks, etc. that keep you on top of everything?

Also, any recommendations for organization books that give clear, practical and specific advice for getting and staying organized in the office, that don’t assume I can delete or delegate? I started reading GTD but found it somewhat overwhelming (the book itself… I never even got to the point of trying to implement the techniques.) I’d be willing to look at it again if there is a way around the delete/delegate portion, but would still like to know if there is anything else good out there.

Organized office drones of Metafilter, please share your wisdom!
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Work & Money (13 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
For me, it helps to not only assign due dates, but "ticklers" in Outlook to remind me what is due in the next couple of days. Also, to set a schedule--today I am going to work on X from 8-10, Y from 10-1, and Z from 2-5. Just keeping a list of tasks helps me from forgetting to do something (I use a whiteboard--divided into priorities and later--but whatever works for you).

Also, if you are routinely overwhelmed, ask your boss for help prioritizing. It's very possible that your boss has no idea how much work you have, or how long it can take.
posted by elizeh at 8:36 AM on September 22, 2013

Best answer: I deal with a lot of "in process" stuff too, and almost everything is done through Outlook. I'm not sure I can be much help regarding filing, because at my job, our computer filing system is all kinds of messed up. But with Outlook, I find that what helps me most is a slavish dedication to the concept of "Inbox Zero."

Basically, I try to keep my inbox as clear as possible, eliminating everything except what I'm currently working on. I do this by creating an elaborate folder system under my inbox called "Task list." Every folder is the name of a task I'm currently working on, and at the bottom of the task list there's a folder called "X - Completed" (the X keeps it at the bottom). All email for an in-process task, except for the MOST RECENT email, goes into a folder named for that particular task. The most recent email regarding that task stays in my inbox to remind me it is still in process. This basically turns my inbox into a tickler file.

When everything related to a task has been completed - when I know I will no longer have to touch that task at all - I put the final email in that task folder, along with the email I sent that acknowledges for my boss or whoever I'm working with that the task is complete to the best of my knowledge. Then I put that task folder into the Completed folder.

When I do, on extremely rare occasions, empty my inbox out completely, it feels awesome. The rest of the time, I just try really hard to keep my inbox down to less than one page (no scroll bar). If I find that I'm running to two pages regularly, I talk to my boss about my bandwidth and we brainstorm solutions.
posted by kythuen at 8:41 AM on September 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: For issue #1 - I found the thing that works best for me (YMMV) is getting some things off of the computer and into a physical/tactile format. I have a checklist of the tasks that I need to do daily, weekly, and monthly. I print out one checklist per month, post it to my cubicle wall, and check things off as they get done. This gives me a visual for where I am and lets me know what I'm falling behind in, which convinces me to allocate my time better.

This doesn't directly apply to the email/digital clutter issues, but I've also found that Post-Its are the best way for me to handle the little daily requests (people walking up and saying "Hey.. can you email me a sales report for this customer?") and ideas for improvement that pop up. I have sections for 'To-Do', 'In Process', and 'Done' taped on my overhead storage bin. I jot down a note, slap it up in the 'To-Do' area, and it moves from left to right as I work on it. Since some of these are longer or low-priority issues, they might stay up there for months, but since they are right in front of me, I won't forget about them. I review/update it at the end of each day, and it is extremely satisfying to crumple up and recycle the 'Done' ones before I go home.

You might want to look into Lean principles, and how they can be applied to office work.
posted by Fig at 8:45 AM on September 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I used to be guilty of thinking that everything was an emergency (having an extremely disorganized and less-than-productive boss didn't help), and had trouble getting my long-term projects done in a reasonable manner due to always having to help the boss meet her own deadlines. One thing I did was change my work schedule so that I came in at 7:30am so that I could start clearing my task list before my boss and co-workers came in demanding I drop everything and put out their fires. That might not be feasible for you, but can you do something like put up a sign on your door like "Do Not Disturb" or maybe an "Away" notice in your Outlook, for a set period of time each day? You might need to discuss that with your boss, of course, but it can signal to others that you are setting work priorities and new tasks need to get in line. If someone emails you while you are "Away," they can't reasonably expect an immediate response.

I also figured out that sometimes a phone call will clear things up a lot faster than an email thread, but I empathize strongly with the school of thought that considers phone calls intrusive. I made this work by emailing someone saying "I'm having an issue with [X]. Can I give you a call at 9:35 with some questions? It's for a client." Or something like that.

As far as the CRM meetings, is there a way you can take your own notes, organized in a way that helps you, perhaps by topic/project? Under each topic heading, add decision updates with the date and name of person to follow up with? That way you only have one file to consult and it's in a place you put it, where you can find it. It also keeps you actively engaged in the meetings, so you might be able to better remember what went down in a particular meeting.

Also, my very final task every day before leaving the office was to hand-write tomorrow's "To Do" list on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere prominent, like on my keyboard or monitor, so that I could remember where I left off and it was the first thing I saw when I came in the next day. I'm back in school now, and this is a habit that I have kept up to keep track of all my academic and extracurricular activities every day.

Hopefully your boss can also help! Good luck.
posted by Schielisque at 9:04 AM on September 22, 2013

I found a site,, that helped me a lot. At my current work, I found I was getting snowed with myriads of details, exceptions, bits and pieces of physical stuff to handle or organize, paper and so on and so forth. My productivity started to get hammered just trying to keep all my ducks in a row.

They have a course that teaches you in succinct and precise manner how to take all the data and stuff you are managing and handle it in a way that keeps it organized. It's based on GTD (Getting Things Done) system but goes beyond it to implement this in a way that you successively get your time and your bits of stuff into a system that you can handle and manage.

They have a plug-in for Outlook so that is completely supported. I use a web site called Toodledo to manage my task list, also part of their course if you want to use that, or other sites, alternatively to using Outlook.

The main problem I had with GTD was it all seemed to be paper based, and paper does not update itself based on criteria like dates or priority. My Toodledo task list updates the most important stuff based on these criteria so I can quickly find the next step for any particular thread as long as I keep putting things into the system properly.

Check it out. Very reasonable price for what you get. And they have never spammed me even once with a plug for some other service.
posted by diode at 9:46 AM on September 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer:
Also, my very final task every day before leaving the office was to hand-write tomorrow's "To Do" list on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere prominent, like on my keyboard or monitor, so that I could remember where I left off and it was the first thing I saw when I came in the next day.

Seconding this. Even if you do with go with one of the technology-based systems mentioned above (the one mentioned by diode actually sounds pretty good) I recommend also getting something on paper. What I used to do was have 1 piece of looseleaf for each day with 1 line for everything that had to be done in the order of importance. I used a checkmark for things I finished, a line through for things that got cancelled, and a little arrow for things that got put off to the next day. Then at the end of the day, or the start of the next day I'd take that list and copy over everything that was still open and add in anything else that had to happen. New stuff went on the bottom of the list. This way my entire universe was all in one place, in order.

You might also look into a free online "ticketing" system that lets you enter tasks as tickets and track their completion that way. Or get them to shell out for Basecamp or something similar. We use Unfuddle at my job, which would let you open, track and close individual support requests as well as set up a "notebook" for CRM notes and then a new page for each meeting, so they would all be in one place. I use the "messages" feature (which is basically like a blog) to keep track of how-to's.

And finally if your boss isn't putting firm due dates into Outlook I would just ask politely if he could start doing that, if he's that kind of boss.
posted by bleep at 10:22 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a notebook at my desk. Every morning, first thing (with the coffee or whatever) is to write down all the tasks that are floating around in my head. Compare with yesterday's list to make sure I didn't miss anything.

Then number them: first come the small easy things like messages to leave, calls to send etc. Next come the most urgent. Enter time blocks on Outlook calendar to do them so that people don't schedule meetings over your task time. (If they are recurring tasks, useful to do this in advance, like Tues and Thurs from 2-3:30 is always Research Time, to be allocated as you require, etc.)

Do the one-offs first, then the rest in order.

Low tech, but for me works way better than anything on the computer.

As far as due dates go, if your boss doesn't clarify when he assigns, you can add a task to your to-do list of emailing him a clarify email. "Boss, with regard to items due next week, will this work for you: A by EOD Monday, B by EOD Tuesday, C by EOD Friday?"
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:13 AM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Accidentally erased my detailed first post, but here are a few things that help me:


* I don't spend time filing - I use Outlook's search function and search by recipient, conversation details, or title. Mileage may vary for your situation, because it sounds like you spend a lot of time tracking service issues through mail. But this does save me the time I would spend filing and sifting through email folders.

* Is there any chance someone could install and maintain a bug tracker for you so that you can trace service requests more easily?

* Email is a great reputation management tool. More than getting their problem solved at that very minute, most people simply want to know that someone is on the other end of their short fuse. If you can be that person who combines responsiveness with warmth, brevity, and clarity, you'll go far.

Multi-Part Tasks

* I schedule all parts of a task in Outlook in one go, even if they're a month apart. That way, I don't worry about what's next because I know the reminder is going to pop up at the right time.

* Also, shared calendars are great. Last time I checked, the American Marketing Association had a free 2012 marketing calendar template on their site. If you're comfortable with basic Excel, you can create the same kind of calendar for other projects.

Paper and Pens

* My day-to-day task list for the week starts on Monday morning on a sheet of plain, unlined printer paper. As urgent tasks come in, I list them. The list usually covers the sheet by the end of the week. I check them off in a different color (partial to color 4-packs of Pilot V5s). Something about writing the task out helps me focus and remember more clearly.


* Don't forget to take a few minutes every hour to get up, walk down the hall, have a drink of water, and breathe deeply. You say you're low on the totem pole, but I suspect that a lot of things would grind to a halt it weren't for you.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 3:16 PM on September 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I used to be a big Outlook fan, then MS changed Task list and I didn't like it.

I have this to-do pad which cost me $1.00. My department's weekly meetings are Tuesday mornings, so I consider Tuesday - Monday my workweek. During the weekly meeting, I write under "do it now" everything I want to do this week. If they are multi-part projects, I break them down into steps. Long term projects are put under "do it later." Not the best detail but this is the pad in action. In the 'check box' area of the list, I write letters A-?? to organize what needs to come first.

So it might look like:

(do it now)
Demo report due 9/25 [C]
Write summary of AMS conf call & send to EFG [A]
Record cleaning: [B]
> Download fresh member list
> Isolate addresses w/o zipcodes
> Send list to (dude) to flag in DB

(do it later)
November Trip to New Orleans
> Book Flight
> Book Room
> Make sure we have enough applications
> Pack exhibit box

And I'll add tasks as the week progresses. I usually end up with more things than I can do, which is natural. If I get overwhelmed, I write my "A" and "B" tasks on a post-it note, stick it to my monitor, and just work those tasks. The last thing I do on Monday afternoon is to take everything I've completed, and type it into Outlook's task list along with the date I completed it. This keeps a digital record of accomplishments for me to look at when my year-end review pops up.

The next Tuesday morning, during the meeting, I start a new sheet, copying over what I didn't do and the new tasks to "do it now" and moving over the "do it later" tasks when it's time. Now when it's my turn to talk, I have the list of things I completed last week, and the list of what I'm working on.
posted by kimberussell at 4:32 PM on September 22, 2013

I hate email and Outlook in particular.

I think that you need to adopt a methodology. Look into Kanban (; I think it'd be really useful for you. Basically, it's a way to keep track of a lot of tasks or projects and always be working on the things that are the most important. This doesn't mean what you're getting pushed on your right now. Use a combination of due date, urgency, and business value to assign a priority and work on items that are the highest priority.

It also sounds like you need a ticketing system. Are you allowed to install stuff on your own computer? Perhaps IT has a system that they can create a separate "project" in for you. Basecamp is ok; it might fit your needs, but perhaps not. Here are some things you can look into:

More like to do lists:

Bug trackers:

In terms of keeping meeting notes and such, I would use Evernote. It allows you to tag documents and if you cut and paste content in there, it's very searchable as well. You could create a separate notebook for each project you're working on. There's rudimentary task lists, but I wouldn't bother.
posted by reddot at 5:24 PM on September 22, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all for the great ideas. I appreciate them all, but I have marked a few "best answers" for things I think will be most helpful for my immediate problems.

Several people suggested that I ask my boss for help in prioritizing my tasks. She and I actually addressed this last week, and agreed to meet daily for 10 minutes or so to go over my to do list, so I can update her on what I've done and what I still need to work on. Then she can prioritize my tasks on a daily basis so I'm always working on the thing she is feeling most urgent about. It seems to have helped my stress level immensely and probably hers too.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:02 PM on September 22, 2013

If you're going to do the Inbox Zero thing, think about how to build your structure of folders underneath your inbox. kythuen suggests a new folder for every task/project you are working on, and that might work. Another idea is to actually build a folder structure under your Inbox so it looks just like the old accordian tickler files: one folder for each numbered date of the month (so, folders named Day 1 through Day 30), and then one for each month of the year*(see note).

Today is the 22nd, so any task or email you get today look at the due date for it and move it to that day's folder - due tomorrow gets moved to Day 23. If it's due today, Day 22. You work your tasks from today's folder, and as they are finished, you either delete them or move them to a "Completed" folder or a project-type folder structure (Help Desk, CRM, Boss1Tasks, etc, which I recommend you build in a separate .pst file to keep your Inbox file size down). At the end of the day, if you still have emails in today's folder, you need to move them to tomorrow's folder and flag them as urgent.

If a task is large and due several days/weeks/months out, you need to break it into smaller tasks and put those in the schedule, even if the first breakout task is just "figure out how to break up XYZ large task" and you put THAT in today's folder.

* (Note) Although many experts use it, I have to say that I am not a fan of the "one folder for each month of the year" method. I do like to use folders Day 1 to 30, then I have just one more folder labeled Next Month. And I don't wait until the end of the month to parcel out the tasks for that month - I start filing them in their numbered folders as soon as today's number is cleared out, for example, if today you received a task which is due Oct 10th, there is no reason not to put it directly into the Day 10 folder, since Sep 10 is already over and the next Day 10 would naturally be in Oct.

If it is due farther out than Oct 21 (the Day for yesterday), then I put it into Next Month (regardless how far it actually is) and yes, I do clean that out but I don't wait to the end of the month...I usually try to do it every week or two and file things into any days which have passed since I put the item there. If something is due 6 months out, it stays in the Next Month folder until the due date is part of the current Day 1 to Day 30 structure, and it helps my memory because now I have looked at that task every few weeks over the past 6 months (and hopefully you have already broken it into smaller tasks and put THOSE tasks into the intervening 6 months of work. Just to clarify - just because it's due that far in advance doesn't mean it needs to be broken up - we actually have small tasks that need to be done every quarter: Sarbanes-Oxley testing, for example, has no partial tasks to be done between now and then).
posted by CathyG at 9:40 PM on September 22, 2013

Part of the question has to be to ask what the problem is. Are you forgetting to do things that need to be done because they are getting lost in the shuffle? Or are you having organization problems, in that you are spending too much time looking for stuff to get things done? Or do you just seem to not have enough time to get everything done?

The right answer will depend on what (combination of those) problem(s) you have.

For time efficiency, I've found that I work best by prioritizing what the most important thing of the day is, and developing a plan to get that done as early as possible. Reprioritize as necessary, but at least once a day.

The other thing that works for me if I follow my own rules is to try my best to do things in batches. IE, sort and then process.

For data organization, the only thing that works for me is brutal adherence to a directory tree structure. It feels like it takes forever to sort down to the correct directory when saving something, but that time pays back when I am trying to find something and drilling down through the directories leads me to exactly what I want. Think of a kingdom-phylum-order-class kind of thing.

But a lot of it is discovering how your own personal mindspace works. Procedures that make sense for you might not make sense for me. There needs to be a comfortable balance between how much effort is spent on organizing versus how much productivity you get out of it. (IE, If I have to file 1000 sheets of assorted paper, I'll probably sort them into piles that correspond to the filing cabinets they belong to. If I have 10 things, I'll just brute-force them and file them directly.)
posted by gjc at 1:01 AM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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