‘Robyn, can you come and help me sort out my office. I don’t know where to start. It’s so bad that I get a pressure headache when I walk in each morning, just looking at it!’
Her assistant overheard the comment. ‘She’s impossible to help’, she blurted out. ‘I’ve tried, and she’s hopeless!’
Suzanne laughed wryly but ignored her assistant. I laughed too, and accepted the challenge.
I arrived the next week to find a frazzled woman and a spacious but incredibly cluttered office – with not a clear space on table, desk or chairs, an overloaded filing cabinet that couldn’t shut, piles of paperwork all over the floor and messy shelves with contents cascading to the floor.
‘I’ve decided if I’m going to work for another 10 – 15 years I’ve just got to get this issue handled,’ she said in despair as we viewed her imitation of a town tip. ‘I’m frustrated and bogged down by it all.’
So where to start, when everything is chaos?
It became abundantly clear, as we started on her large and overloaded desk, that Suzanne had been deferring everything except Mission Critical decisions for years. (I have developed a phrase for this condition: ‘Every piece of paper, information or equipment lying around is a symptom of a decision not made or an action not completed.’)
The First Two Principles for an Efficient Office
#1. Put Like With Like. To do this you have to …
#2. Touch Everything and Sort – no exceptions.
We piled everything on her desk into two or three huge piles and I stood her in front of the first heap. Only she could make the category decision. My role was to encourage her to make each decision, and then, in order to keep her focused, to be the assistant who placed each item into categories – on the floor.
At first she tried to handle everything in her old way, pushing everything to the ‘I’ll think about that later’ pile. As I insisted that she make a quick category decision on each item (without getting sidetracked), she became more and more cranky. She wanted to divert down all manner of interesting rabbit holes. Suddenly, about 10 minutes into the process, her thinking changed gear. Decisions poured out so fast I could barely keep up.
3½ hours later she was almost jumping out of her skin with energy! As I left she stood in her sorted and efficient-looking space with a look of ecstasy, excitedly planning the next day’s projects. I heard her say to one of her staff, ‘I can’t believe what I see. I never thought I could get this handled. It’s so easy.’
She’d been worried that if she spent time in what she’d seen as an administration function, she wouldn’t be putting time into the high-level work her position required. Once it became clear that a better decision-making process and a few simple changes in her working methods would reduce her stress and improve her productivity, she was a convert!
(More detail on the process, and the follow-on steps, are expanded in ‘Getting A Grip On The Paper War’
Two years later Suzanne rang from Sydney just to tell me that she was still using the simple decision-making process and maintenance techniques she learnt that day, and how it had changed her life.
The good news is, the benefits are well worth the effort to learn better information management techniques. It doesn’t take long to either set up, or maintain, once you know how. You’re better able to keep on top of your workload. Time is not wasted in unproductive searches. Quality time is not spent on unnecessary desk clean-ups, because the maintenance of the system has become intuitive and invisible. And you feel in control. You also feel good about yourself. Your self-esteem lifts and therefore all parts of your life are positively impacted.
A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular NZ Herald Online column