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How to Be More Organized and Productive At Work

Tips on Managing Email and Pop-up Tasks using GTD

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Being productive is one of those ghosts of adulting present that haunts me all day, everyday.  When I am deliberately relaxing (as opposed to relaxing because I’m avoiding doing something I know I should be doing), I often feel like I should be doing something “more productive” with my time.  When I’m at work, I get frustrated when I feel myself moving between tasks, emails, and random conversations.  Before I know it, it’s 4:47 p.m. and I still have 4 emails open and a few tasks not quite done.

Knowing I wasn’t alone in these feelings, I posed a question on Facebook and asked people to share what they struggle with the most when it comes to being productive at work.  I got several responses, but most of them related to:

Managing Emails
Shifting and competing priorities
Feeling overwhelmed

Many of our issues with productivity start with having too much on our minds, and no systematic way to approach the things we think about and need to get done.  Many of us have 1 or more to-do lists across notebooks, apps, and post-its, and our calendars that reflect some of what we need to do.  And while we capture some of what we need to so, we leave off lots of stuff.  We are rarely systematic in our approach to organizing and tracking what we need to do.

For example, have you ever been standing somewhere and randomly remembered that you needed to respond to an email?  What did you do with that thought?  Did you write it down?  Reply to the email right away?

If you are like most people, you had the thought and went back to doing whatever you were doing.

David Allen calls this an open loop – a thought about something you need to do that has not been captured anywhere.  Without realizing, we rely on memory alone to keep track of so much of what we have to do – across all areas of our lives.  You create open loops several times a day – remember something you need to do and then don’t do anything with the information.

So let’s get back to these specific work related challenges.

Managing Emails

When a new email comes to you inbox, a few things may happen: (1) you see it, read it, and try to address it right away; (2) you see it, read it very quickly and make a mental note that you need to reply to it later; or (3) you don’t read it and just let it pile up with the others.

Our issues with email revolve around the number of emails we receive, the frequency with which new emails hit our inbox, and deciding what needs attention right now and what can to be addressed later.  Here are a few steps, using insight from David Allen’s GTD system and some of my own experience, to approach your inbox on Monday.

  • Set appointments or timers for you to review your emails at certain times throughout day. For example, every 25-30 minutes.
  • Create at least 3 new folders in your inbox:  #Action, #Reference, and #WaitingFor
    • The #Action folder is for emails that require you to do something.
    • The #Reference folder  can be for those emails that have information you will need to refer back to for some reason
    • The #WaitingFor folder is for those emails that have information or tasks that someone else is responsible for before you can take action
    • If you already have folders in your inbox, you can make these new sub-folders within each of your existing folders
  • As an email comes in, or as you read it, drag or copy the email to the appropriate folder.

I like to keep the email as “unread” in the folders until I address it – the bold status reminds me that something still needs to be done.  If the emails you read 1) don’t require any action from you now or later; 2) don’t have information you will need later; 3) do not relate to something someone else is doing that you need to keep track of, mark it as unread as soon as you read it. (Doing this has kept my inbox to a cool ZERO at the end of each day (okay, most days)for the past 2 months.)

If some of your emails that don’t quite fall into one of the 3 categories, you can create another category.  Don’t create too many though; you don’t want to overwhelm yourself as you try to get more organized.

While this will not slow down the pace that emails come into your inbox, you will be developing a systematic way to approach the emails as they come in.

Managing Tasks and Overwhelm

It is not uncommon for you to walk into work with a nicely laid out plan for how you want your day to do.  You sign in to the system, get your coffee or tea ready, and open up that spreadsheet or memo you have been living in for the last few days.  About 45 minutes into your day, someone comes to you with something that needs to be done an hour ago, and you feel your day get snatched away.

Or maybe that’s just me.

A few months ago, during my busiest season at work, I realized this happening to me almost everyday, and everyday, I felt thrown off.  The plan I had for my work day wasn’t valuable anymore because something else needed to be done sooner.  Most of the time, I would have a few things I needed to do written down, but I would also find myself randomly remembering other things I needed to do, and then jumping to get those done.

Write it Down

There is no way to avoid work emergencies or drive-by projects with tight deadlines.  That said, there is a way to manage the overwhelm that usually follows.

What if you spent about 15-20 minutes each week writing down everything you can think of that needs to be done at work?  And then organized all those things into a few categories you could use over and over again?  And then rinsed and repeated each week?

Allen calls this initial process capturing: getting all the things you can think of out of your head and on paper (or in a digital document or format).

Being able to look at everything we need to do helps close the open loops our brains create when we think about something we need to do, but 1) don’t do it right then or 2) don’t capture it somewhere we can refer to it later.  If you are having trouble getting started, you use this “trigger list” to get started:

  • Projects you’ve started
  • Projects you need to start
  • Commitments to others: your boss, colleagues, peers, departments, etc.
  • Communication: calls, emails, memos
  • Meetings: to be scheduled or coming up
  • Planning and organizing
  • Professional Development

Allen’s capturing system is meant to capture things that relate to your professional and personal life, but I kept this post focused on professional tasks

Get Organized

Now that you have your have a list of all the fun things you need to do at work, you can figure out where each task belongs.  People tend to organize their to-do list based on priority, if they organize it at all.  But if you have a list of 8 things that all feel like priorities, how do you know where to start?  If you’re anything like me, you’ll just look at the list, feel anxious, and probably try to tackle the one that feels easiest.

Allen suggests 4 main categories for organizing what you captured on your big list:

• Projects: projects you have a commitment to finish
• Calendar: actions that must happen on a specific day or time
• Next Actions: actions that need to be done as soon as possible
• Waiting For: projects and actions that someone else should be doing

Let’s work with the Next Action list, since most of the stuff on your list is probably the kind of stuff that need to be done as soon as possible. Allen suggests creating some sub-categories to get more organized.
Here are the categories I use that related to my day job: At Office, At Computer, Read/Review, Email, and Call.

Get a piece of paper (or open up your favorite program or app) and create your sections (you can download the template I created by clicking here).  Take a few minutes to review your list and start moving tasks from your big list to the categories you’ve created.

As a new task come up, refer back to your list and put the task in one of the categories.  As you move through tasks, check them off or remove them from the list. Each week, review your list.  If there are things you didn’t do, you can move those tasks to your updated list as you add new tasks.

If you keep this list updated and visible while you work, when those drive-by assignments come up, you won’t be relying on your memory or inbox to figure out what you need to do.  You have already established your priorities for yourself, and can refer back to your list to pick up where you left off.

These are just 2 ways I’ve applied GTD to my life and have seen results. To learn more about the GTD approach, please check out David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.  His website also has lots of resources to you help you apply this system to your life.

How do you stay organized at work? Share your tips and tricks below!

1 Comment
  1. Judith says:

    First, thanks for all of that valuable information, especially about the emails. To answer your question about my tips and tricks: I follow something my husband does and it has improved my GTD tremendously!! I write down everything off the top of my head that needs to get done that day, even adding to the list if I remember something else; and I put a little box beside each one, and I check the box when the task is done – prioritizing as you do, by eye-balling down the list. Whatever task does not get done during that day gets carried over to the next day’s TO DO List. I tear off the list from the day before and toss it. Works like a charm! Thanks!

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5 Ways To Intentionally Grow Your Career

Learn how to get better opportunities at work!