Even the most efficient people can become overwhelmed when the pace of work ratchets up to high speed. Add in a sudden influx of customers or an unexpected exodus of employees, and it can feel like all your hard work is just getting harder — nevermind finding time to sleep or think.
Staying organized is a less a matter of never forgetting or misplacing anything, and more a function of committing to the same habits over time. These tips are a guide to how to keep your mind on track.
Off-load your inbox
Whether they’re emails or pieces of paper, the more your “unread” items accumulate in your inbox, the more they drain your attention bit by bit. It’s easy to want to leave an important must-do item in your inbox — that way you’ll see it and handle it soon, right? The problem is you end up with a mountain of items that are only semi-important that still aren’t finished months later.
Anyone whose email inbox is full of hundreds of “unread” messages marked “important” knows this feeling.
Believe it or not, that pile of unfinished semi-important stuff is taking up some of your brain space in tiny, incremental ways. Your awareness of the looming “to do soonish” heap can shave minutes off your day whether you’re skimming over email subject lines or just conscious of the stack. Think of an actual mailbox — you wouldn’t leave it to accumulate to the point where a postal worker couldn’t squeeze in more mail, right?
Instead, be firmer about how you prioritize inbox items. Anything that can truly be handled in two minutes should be handled right away. A quick reply to a colleague? Fire it off, and get it out of your life. Something that takes a bit more research? File it into a separate place so that it’s not in your inbox. The trick here is you must get in a habit of checking this secondary file and not ignoring it. But keeping your true inbox clear is a first step to keeping your mind clear to handle the other items.
Set your timer for 20-minute spurts
Some research suggests adult brains can hold intense attention on one task for 20 minutes at a time. Sometimes we can extend that concentration for longer — like while watching a movie — but especially in a fast-paced environment full of pings and distractions, 20 minutes of focus is a feat unto its own.
As it turns out, working in 20-minute spurts is a great way to get things done while giving yourself natural breaks. Try setting your phone timer for 20 minutes and focus only on one task. No email checking, no texting, no TV, no talking to anyone for 20 minutes while you accomplish one task. You might find that giving yourself permission to zone in for only 20 minutes frees you to actually focus. Depending on the situation, it’s also not such a large chunk of time that everything would fall apart if you were unavailable during that span.
Do the daily purge
Try clearing your workspace, whether it’s a desk or a checkout counter at the end of every day. If that’s not possible, take 20 minutes to do this at the end of every week.
Like keeping your inbox clear, having a clean workspace is important to free your mind to focus on the tasks ahead. You can become inured to the sight of a million Post-It notes urging you to do something right away. Finish those tasks, and throw the notes in the trash.
To make the purge easier, try going paperless as much as possible. The fewer physical items in your way, the less time you need to spend clearing them. Solutions like Sling make it easy to move some of your work away from the inbox, especially when it comes to scheduling and internal communication.