You know who you are. You’re well-intentioned and perhaps even quite ambitious.  On the outside, you may seem to “have it all together” – at least to those who don’t have to work closely with you.  Those in your inner circle know, however, that as wonderful as you otherwise are, you frequently operate in a very disorganized mode.  When you work, you leave a swath of chaotic destruction in your wake – and may not even realize the havoc you wreak.

What havoc, you ask?  If you’re disorganized, you may be so focused on muddling your way through the day that you truly don’t notice the wreckage it causes: hurt feelings, frustrated friends and co-workers, incorrectly or partially completed tasks and messes left for others to clean up.  In fact, you might feel quite overwhelmed and busy every day, yet not have a good handle on your highest priorities or how to accomplish them.

Don’t despair.  Help is available!  If you’re among the ranks of the perpetually scatterbrained, or if your desk drawers look like they should appear on an episode of Hoarders, this article is for you.  It contains some great tips to help you get and stay more organized:

Create and Manage Goals

  1. Clarify your top personal and professional goals. Getting started on the path to organization can be overwhelming.  Create a written list of your top true priorities (not just crises which are calling for your attention at the moment).  Once you’ve articulated these priorities, you can use the following tips to achieve them.
  2. Create a mental game plan. Spend a few minutes at the start of each day – before you actually start doing any of them – to sit quietly, take a few slow, deep breaths and reflect on what you need to accomplish.  Ask yourself, “What activities and priorities have the most heart and meaning for me today?  What do I need to accomplish, to stay on track with my top priorities?”
  3. Write down a daily to-do list. Start with the “have to’s” (tasks that are essential to accomplish) and work down to the “like to’s” (things that would be nice to get done, but aren’t a true priority).  Incorporate weekly priorities (see below) that will help you accomplish your top goals.  Use this to-do list as a guide for your daily activities, referring back to it as you check off tasks.
  4. Create a weekly a priority review. To-do lists are great for daily activities, but many of your priorities may be mid- to long-term goals.  Each week, review your key responsibilities and goals (including personal, home, business, recreational, spiritual, etc.).  Identify what you must accomplish each week to attain those goals and transfer those to-do’s to your daily lists throughout the week.

Organize Your Space

  1. Clean out the clutter. Set small, attainable goals for cleaning out every room in your house, every drawer in your cabinets, every shelf in your bookcases, etc.  Make clean-out time a part of your daily ritual (add it to your daily to-do list) to ensure it gets done.  Don’t let the prospect of cleaning out years of clutter overwhelm you.  Take it one drawer, one shelf, one closet at a time.  With a few days of focused effort you’ll start to make real progress.
  2. Analyze how you use your space.  For each room in your home or office, ask, “How do I use this space?  What do I need to keep in here?  How can I best use the storage I have?”  Create a plan for each room that includes how you’d like to use the space, what you need to store in there and what additional storage you may need.
  3. Get rid of space wasters. Do you have over-sized items that you don’t use for their intended purposes?  Ask yourself if you really need these items, or will in the near future.  If not, and the items are fairly easily to replace (i.e., not family heirlooms or one-of-a-kind items), consider selling or donating them.
  4. Visit stores for inspiration. Not sure how to organize your stuff?  Stop by home improvement, office supply and/or department stores for great ideas.  Manufacturers keep pace with people’s changing organizational needs and continually bring new products and organization systems to market to help you keep your space clean and functional.
  5. Buy the organization you need. If your home or office doesn’t have the storage you need, get it.  Getting and staying organized is vastly easier when you have the right stuff to do it.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money – clear storage totes, cardboard file boxes and, yes, Ziploc storage bags are all inexpensive options for keeping things neat and handy, especially in areas that are concealed.

Create a Home for Everything

  1. Incoming and outgoing mail. Designate an area near your phone and/or PC for both incoming and outgoing mail.  Sort through your stack each day and either act on, file or trash every piece of mail that comes in.
  2. Charging station. Reserve a spot near an electrical outlet for your cell phone, camera and other small electronics.  Store extra batteries, adapters, storage cards and cases in an adjacent drawer.
  3. Keys. Place a hook on the wall by your door, or a small dish on a nearby table, for your keys.
  4. Put things back where you found them. Commit to the habit of always plugging in your cell phone to charge when you get home.  Hang your keys on the hook instead of tucking them in your pocket.  Simple acts of discipline like these can save you vast amounts of time looking for misplaced items.

Use Organizational Tools

  1. Manage your Inbox and voice mail. Take two to three minutes at the end of each day to clean out your e-mail Inbox and voice mail messages.  When you need to find a message, you won’t have to wade through mounds of useless information to retrieve it.
  2. Create contact and distribution lists. If you frequently send e-mails to the same person (or groups of people), use shortcuts to avoid re-typing the same info over and over, and to prevent typos that can lead to undelivered e-mail.
  3. Use a calendar. Choose what type of calendar suits your needs best (e.g., cell phone, Outlook, desk blotter, wall calendar, etc.) and then use it!  Make sure it’s handy whenever you’re scheduling appointments, planning your day or sorting through papers.  You’ll be surprised at how much paper you can eliminate by simply transferring important dates directly to your calendar.
  4. Consider a smartphone. If you’re even the slightest bit tech-friendly, a smartphone can be better than paper-and-pen organization systems – especially if it has a network-based personal information manager that synchronizes with software running on your other computers.  Data entered on your smartphone is searchable, and you can easily program reminders for important items.

Manage Your Time

  1. Combine similar activities.  Increase your efficiency by grouping like tasks.  Make your phone calls in groups; set aside time at two or three points in the day to send and answer e-mails; pay all your bills at the same time; plan outings so that you can accomplish two or three errands on the same side of town.
  2. Delegate. You can’t do it all.  When you assign a task (be it to a spouse, a co-worker, a child or a friend) make sure that the person you appoint has all the tools necessary to complete it.

More Organizational Tips

  1. Write it down. A short pencil is better than a long memory.  If you need to remember it, write it down.  Let’s face it – we’re all human and nobody should be expected to remember every birthday, appointment or item on a shopping list.  Don’t have a pencil?  Leave yourself a voice mail, or use your phone’s notepad feature to record important details.
  2. Organize receipts. Keep an envelope in your desk drawer to store receipts for each month.  Store the monthly receipt envelopes for a year in a single folder, or keep a receipt filing system by item category (i.e., appliances, clothes, office equipment/supplies, electronics, etc.).
  3. Follow through. There’s no point in making to-do lists if you’re not going to complete the tasks you’ve assigned yourself.  At the end of the day, take a look at what you’ve accomplished vs. what you’ve put off or were unable to complete.  If something is continually left undone, take a good look at it.  Is it really important to your top priorities?  If so, bite the bullet and get started on it.  The task may be unpleasant, but you’ll feel so much better once it’s completed.
  4. Use simple organizational aids. Ziploc bags, rubber bands and drawer organizers are your friends.  Get into the habit of using these to keep items neat, visible and handy.
  5. Use Post-it notes. These self-adhesive gems are perfect for reminding yourself (and others) of easy-to-forget details.
  6. Accomplish your most unpleasant tasks first. Avoid the procrastination trap by tackling the tough stuff first, so the rest of the day will be easier.
  7. Check to make sure you have everything you need before you head out the door. Spend just 30 seconds reviewing where you need to go, and what you need to do there, so that you don’t leave behind important items.
  8. Start meetings and phone conversations by setting time limits. Let people know how much time you have, so you have a better chance of addressing everything you need to cover in the allotted time.
  9. Keep your work surfaces clear. Before you leave your desk, room, kitchen counter or work station, put it back like you found it.  You’ll be much more productive the next time you sit down to work in this area if it’s clean and organized, with ample space to work.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t expect to completely organize your life in one day, either.  When attempting to get organized, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  Don’t set the bar so high that you set yourself up for failure.  Start with one habit, one goal, one change.  Implement just one of the suggestions listed above each week, and you’ll be well on your way to a more organized life.