Broom of the system
January 25, 2008 3:13 PM   Subscribe

Giant, multi-faceted, possibly-career-making project about to begin. How to reorganize my workspace so I completely kick ass, take names?

Big project. Answering to a well-respected semi-famous Canadian with my deliverables over the next three months, unmoveable final deadline at the end of April. Good fit for my skills and background, I'm confident that I'll do great. If! ...If I'm organized.

I work from home, I have a reasonably-sized bedroom as my office. I need a plan for overhauling my work space and paperwork and mindset, even a bandaid solution/approach. This office is organized-looking, but really, it's an illusion.

I am the sort of person who has approximately 3 zillion pro bono projects on the go at any given time. Some generate work for me in the long- and medium-term, though some of them just keep relatives happy (sending photos, thank you cards). Maybe I just need to be told to ignore these for three months, but I feel like I should stay on top of this category of stuff.

As a freelancer I also have clients always looking for re-sends of old work, follow-ups, logistics organization, and all kinds of niggly details coming and going from my email inbox every day. Husband's biz also tied into mine, we handle requests for his stuff together, too. They come up with short timeframes for completion - ex. confirm attendance at X conference, be available for Y interview, etc. These can't be ignored.

Hence: many interruptions. Lots of distractions.

Also, I feel this is relevant, we are pack rats. Someone, please come over and rob me of all the ancient textbooks, boxes of old clothes, and outdated video game consoles we have in the basement.

It spills upwards to the rest of the house. Everywhere I look there are half-completed tasks and cleaning projects. Around me on the desk I have mail projects in process, magazines which need cateloguing and sorting, portfolio pieces in rambly piles. Books I think I need to read. Old letters from my grandmother who died last year. I feel like I'm drowning in the nostalgia and good intentions represented by all this stuff.

(However, about twice a year I find myself digging around for some essential old note or photograph or trinket from India and when I find it the endorphen rush of being so damn prescient as to have hung onto these things is thrilling, and the things themselves are periodically fabulously useful for work projects.)

Tell me I don't need to burn my house down to start fresh. I promise to sweep all this shit into a box and forget about it until May, but even after I clear the immediate clutter the underlying challenge of prioritization is obviously something with which I could use some assistance.

I seek those in possession of "those" brains - those organization-y, efficient, knows-just-where-stuff-goes, knows-exactly-how-to-determine-work-priority type brains. I want a step by step breakdown of how to organize myself so I'm ready to go full throttle on this project next week. A description of what should be on my desk, how you organize your files (general suggestions or concrete labelling ideas welcome), how you prioritize your time & commitments. The things I should say "no" to (I work for myself: I work from the assumption that I shouldn't say no to anything). I'm also open to book suggestions, i.e. "Organize Yourself" or somesuch.

Thanks, y'all!
posted by Mrs Hilksom to Work & Money (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Categorise. One of the most helpful recent things I learned (and it may have even been here) is setting up a default system when you have multiple clients. For example, if you know that with each client, you're likely to keep files on correspondence, images and contacts, then pre-prepare your (electronic) filing system with blanks for this. I find a filing cabinet system too narrow, often, for what I want to keep and if money was no object, I'd buy archive boxes like this, and prep them with manila folders within.

I'd file my notes and photos in similar boxes, using maybe an excel spreadsheet to index them so I could find them again, or better yet, scan them all, and tag them, so they're electronic.

Big calendars are great for planning. I love this one. However, I currently use a whiteboard to get down all my to-dos before they hit a structured list, and I use Outlook for scheduling. (I even invited husband to celebrate our anniversary from there, and it put a note in his schedule).

Workspace (according to Julie Morgenstern of Organizing from the Inside Out) should be done in zones. Eg, you have your phone book near your phone, you have your stamps, envelopes, rubber bands, all in a mail box. That sort of thing.

Getting Things Done talks about writing down EVERYTHING you have to do, so it's out of your brain and not causing you anxiety. Once you write it all down, sort it into categories (job type, priority) and schedule it (or not, as you see fit).

posted by b33j at 3:33 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get rid of all your paper. Nothing to do about your trinkets and such, but the easiest way to get rid of information clutter is to consolidate location and format - meaning put it all in one place, and store it electronically. Scan paperwork you receive into your computer, and save files instead of printing things out.

Even if you can't get an organization/indexing scheme together for what you're putting in there, it's easier to have a computer search through itself looking for something you know is on there somewhere, instead of "Are the mortgage papers upstairs, with the financial stuff, or downstairs, with the homeowner stuff, or in the basement with the stuff I put away cause I never looked at it?" Electronic storage is so cheap & compact you could store an entire lifetime of paperwork in something the size of a toaster that cost a couple hundred dollars. If you need to be able to spread out to do your thing, you can get multiple monitors for a few hundred more. Get several "toasters" and give them different names, and you'll know the difference between your stuff, your husband's stuff, and the stuff you have in common. In a house fire, you just have to grab the toasters (and the cat) and you've preserved all your work, records, etc.

An organizational system is only ever going to be as efficient as you make it, and stay strict about following your own rules. But if you put everything in one "bucket" on a computer, you at least know where it is. Depending on your OS (Windows/Mac), there are many products out there that will help you to organize your information. But the first step is to take anything that's information of whatever sort and store/organize it electronically and stop storing it as physical objects on dead trees. You'll be amazed at how much more organized you'll feel when you can find anything you've ever done, half-done,sent, received, or put away for "someday" without getting up from your chair.

Unless you're Amish. If that's the case, try putting the incoming papers above you, the current work in front of you, and the finished work below you. The teetering inbox pile over your head will warn you when you have to buckle down and get through some of it, and when your floorspace gets full, you can more easily move/store all the things you've finished somewhere else. You could do the same right-to-left, but that's cheating.
posted by bartleby at 3:46 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

You seem to be asking two questions here: how to get organized in general, and how to get organized to take on this one project.

The two are not the same thing, and you perhaps shouldn't take on a general reorg at the same time you're ramping up for this project. Especially if it sounds like your immediately diving into this project, and going to be in crunch-mode for 3 months solid.

So what you need to do is clear away distractions that get in the way of this job. If you've got detritus from your other projects on your desk, get rid of them. Stop answering the phone. Permit yourself a small window of time every day for checking your messages and attending to your side projects. Find ways to increase your timeā€”if you can overpay for takeout but work an extra 30 minutes that you would otherwise spend cooking and cleaning up, that might be worth it. Likewise with other chores.
posted by adamrice at 3:47 PM on January 25, 2008

Take everything that's in your office that isn't directly related to your current project, put it into boxes, and stack those boxes somewhere out of the way. Anything that's still in a box six months later, sell or throw away.

Set aside one day every two weeks to keep a handle on your pro bono stuff, if you really feel you can't put those on hold completely. Any time you find yourself turning to one of those other projects, if it's the wrong day, just write a note or something to remind you about it on the right day and get back to the big job. Set aside one hour every two days to keep track of the freelance emails; not everything needs your attention the instant it lands in your email box. (I don't know what line of freelancing you're in, but I rarely need to micromanage my clients after the job's done the way you describe. Are you billing them for that time? Because you should be. And if you do, you'll probably end up having a lot less after-the-fact logistics and followups to deal with.)

Alternatively, ignore everything I just said, and recognize that you're the type of person who thrives on clutter and distractions and nostalgia and having lots of things going on at once. There's nothing wrong with that at all; not everybody has to be a super-organized clean-desk hospital-corners GTD addict.

(One thing, though, either way you go: you don't seem to differentiate at all between work projects and what most people would consider household chores. That's an important distinction, and you might find yourself feeling a bit less frantic if you separated those out in your mind.)
posted by ook at 4:02 PM on January 25, 2008

2nd ook. Act like you just moved in and haven't unpacked yet. For the future, it may be useful to keep either a hard drive with client work organized on it so that you can resend easily (possibly zipped up by project), or create CDROM/DVDs of this work, cataloged into a binder.
posted by rhizome at 4:49 PM on January 25, 2008

Murrr! Thanks all! More! More please!
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 4:53 PM on January 25, 2008

The book I'd recommend is It's All Too Much, by Peter Walsh. It'll help you put things in perspective and force you to reevaluate your relationship with stuff.
posted by O9scar at 5:21 PM on January 25, 2008

With clients looking for re-sends, if you're not charging for it, how about setting up a password protected website with their stuff in it and hanging off it. Next time the client goes, "where's my widget", send them the URL.

Lifehack and lifehacker, two excellent sites for organisational ideas.

Set up processes. Emails answered (and looked at) only twice a day. Emails from friends and family directed into folders for answering at night and not cluttering up in box. Mail sorted immediately received, over a bin - junk mail and promotional stuff straight in. Don't ever feel like you should hang on to unsolicited catalogues, you know you'll browse the web whenever you want whatever it is they're selling. Landing zone for when you leave to meet clients and and come back again - briefcase, keys, umbrella, recording device, notepade, that sort of thing.

File regularly. It's less painful and you spend less time sorting through the stuff waiting to be filed to find what you need that you could find in 3 seconds if you'd filed it. You can file while on the phone to a friend or listening to music.

If you're not already, use two monitors. I couldn't go back. I'd like a phone headset, too, so I can type and talk at the same time, but I just don't make enough business calls to justify it.

Log your hours. I do it in a spreadsheet. I keep track of who, when, and what exactly I was doing. Not only do my invoices look more professional because of my notes, but I have a very good idea now of how long it takes me to do X and Y.

Track your clients. Again, you can use outlook - contacts. Put in all their contact details, their dog's birthday, whatever. Apparently you can use something called Journal to track the job, but I never found intuitive enough for my liking.
posted by b33j at 5:27 PM on January 25, 2008

Plus Askme knows.
posted by b33j at 5:30 PM on January 25, 2008

I've heard of effective people using stand-up workspaces. Quite often radio disc jockeys work standing up, and so did Don Rumsfeld. (Love him or hate him.) Sleep when you're dead, etc. Read 7 Habits of Highly Effective people. I know it's old and passe, but I like it.
posted by gjc at 8:30 PM on January 25, 2008

When I'm trying to stay on task for a high priority project, I find it useful to make a priority list - A B C priorities - for the day. Focus on the A's. Only. In your case, perhaps anything that's not related to monster-project gets a B or C no matter what?

If there are a lot of time-sensitive things in the B/C category, perhaps you allow yourself 30 minutes a day to do B tasks? C tasks, in theory, may never get done but that's ok cuz they're not that important. Accept that.

Taking 5 minutes to organize things first thing when you sit down to work is priceless.

Another idea, if it's appropriate/possible, is send an email to relatives/friends. "Hey, I've got a really huge, important, exciting work project on my plate until May. I'm letting you know now, since I am hoping to stay quite focused. I may be less responsive to emails, calls, etc. Please don't take it personally. Thanks in advance for your support as I do my best to stay organized and focused."

You can also have smililar text (pre-written & saved for easy copy&paste) if old clients ask you for things. "Sorry, but it may take me longer than usual to get to this. I have a major project, with tight deadlines, that's occupying a lot of my time and energy right now. I have set aside time every Friday to respond to requests like this, and so I'll take a look at this next Friday, and hopefully have a response for you then. Thanks for your understanding!" Can you set an Out-Of-Office to send this automatically if the email comes from any of your former clients' email addresses? Or, just make subject "Out of Office Reply:their subject. Put the emails (B or C priority) in a different folder and respond to them for real only on your Fridays.

Good luck. Second the turning off email and phone while working. Try doing it for 2-hour periods at a time. Whatever it is, they can wait 2 hours. Giving yourself 2 hours uninterrupted work, if you're easily distracted, will likely do lots for your productivity.

Also, break your monster project into small steps and tasks. Make a plan and task list for that project. Checking things off your list as you move forward will help you feel/see that you're making progress, and will remove the "what do I do next?" element - if you know what you need to be doing, it's easier to choose to do that instead of the distractions.

Can you clear just your office area of the clutter? Box it up till May?
posted by quinoa at 12:05 AM on January 26, 2008

Congratulations on this exciting assignment! Is your room big enough to accomodate a special table or desk devoted to this project? Maybe it's worth a trip to IKEA? It might help you avoid the distractions associated with your regular work space as well as the siren song of "productive procrastination" that can come when you're both excited and scared about a project, e.g., excessive filing and tidying. Don't fall into the perfectionist/procratination trap! Nth to plans, lists and segregating the old client flotsam and husband's job jetsam into regular time slots. BTW, love the David Foster Wallace reference...
posted by carmicha at 4:02 PM on January 26, 2008

« Older Quote about pointless struggle against...   |   Books for beginning woodworking Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.