Order from Chaos


Air Traffic Control






By Nancy Salem
of the Albuquerque Tribune

The most valuable real estate in town isn’t in High Desert or along Rio Grande. It’s on your desk.

In a standard cubicle, it’s roughly 20 square feet. It’s your workday stage: your phone, Rolodex, coffee mug, books, pencils, plants, calendar, in box, files, memos, projects.

And, if you’re like most people, it’s a mess. “Any system will break down under sheer volume,” says Liz Davenport, the Albuquerque author of “Order From Chaos.” “And most of us have not designed a system to deal with the amount of stuff we face.” The average businessperson gets 190 requests for his or her time each day, Davenport says. That includes e-mail, snail mail, voice mail, phone calls, cell calls, pages and face-to-face dialogue. Those interactions leave trails of paper because there’s too much to remember.

“What it looks like is you get a memo and need to do something about it but not now. So you set it here,” says Davenport, a national speaker and instructor on organization. "Then you get an e-mail but have to ask a question. So you print it and set it there. Then somebody brings you something you should read but you don’t have time. So you set it down. Then you grab something from your in box, glance at it and set it aside. Then you write a Post-it note and stick it on your computer. Then you get a phone message and jot that down.

"You wind up with all these bits of paper, piled up — all reminders to do something that you’re not doing right now.”

And that’s on top of the actual work related to your job, which, one hopes, is also taking place on the desk.

“If you have a method of dealing with all that stuff, then by the end of the day it can all go someplace else,” Davenport says. “But if at the end of the day, all that stuff is still there, then you’ve got a problem, because the same amount, if not more, will come in the next day and the day after that. The piles keep growing, and you lose track of what’s in them.”

Some people say a worker with a neat desk lacks activity and creativity. But Davenport says a messy desk, in the age of information overload, is no small problem.

The average businessperson wastes 150 hours a year looking for things, she says. “Add 10 more hours, and that’s an entire work month,” she says.

A disorganized desk also is depressing, stressful and distracting, she says.

“Having little or no free space on the desk -— some people barely have a dear 8½-by-11 spot to Work on, and some work on top of piles -— decreases productivity,” she says.

“It takes longer to do a job because you’re working on something, you glance up, see something else, shove over what you’re doing, address the other thing, glance up again, see something else that needs to get done. We’re like magpies, drawn to the nearest shiny object and, every time, our attention shifts.

"The project that would have taken an hour, takes four because we keep interrupting us.”

A messy desk also can create a bad impression and has been known to impede promotions and raises, Davenport says.

"The bosses notice,” she says. They make snap judgments just as we do. They assume if your desk is out of control, you’re out of control. You could be missing things, and the odds are good that you are.” If you’re feeling like a failure whose work life is about to go down the tubes, don’t, Davenport says. Most people are disorganized, and the problem can be solved, she says.

But before getting started, you’ll need to create some space to organize into. Throw out anything you haven’t used in the past six months or don’t know exactly how you’ll use in the next six months, Davenport says.

“People hang onto to stuff by saying, ‘I’ll need this some day,”’ she says. “Ninety-five percent of anything you’ve saved over six months is trash. Let it go. We fear not having what we need. But we don’t count the physical and psychological cost of having a whole truckload of stuff we never use. And in this day and age, anything you don’t have you could probably recreate off the Internet or someplace else.”

On to Davenport’s method:

Step 1:

Create a “cockpit” at your desk.

Set up the tools in your physical space based on frequency of use. The things you use daily should be within hand’s reach. The things you use weekly should be within arm’s reach. “For neither situation does your butt leave the chair,” she says. “When it does, you’ll be gone an average of 20 minutes. And chances are you won’t return with what you went to get.”

Items you use once a month can be in the office space. “It’s now legal to get up,” Davenport says. “But if you use something less than once a month, consider putting it someplace else. You want to create for yourself your own uninterruptible space.”

Step 2:

Create an “air traffic control system.”

Davenport says every worker needs four key tools: an in box, a to-read file, a to-file file and a hot file.

The in box should be emptied and reviewed at least once every 24 hours. ‘That doesn’t mean you do everything. But you have to be reviewing to know which things you’re going to do,” Davenport says.

The to-read file holds noncritical material you’d like to read at some point. “We all get more reading material that we can manage,” she says. “When the file is full, fan it out, pull out the three to five most important things, put those back and throw the rest away. You’re not reading it anyway. It’s just a huge pile of guilt.”

The to-file file is for things that are going out of the cockpit.

And the hot file holds “the files you touch every day or every other day: current clients, current projects or frequently repeated tasks,” Davenport says.

"These four files will solve a lot of the paper mess on people’s desks,” she says.

Another recommendation is stacking trays up to eight high for various piles of papers, such as expense slips, things to take home, things to be copied, future projects and the key files. “Think vertical,” Davenport says.

She recommends a time planner like a Day-Timer to keep track of appointments and to-dos. ‘The method Benjamin Franklin invented 200 years ago is still the best,” she says. “He took a blank diary open to two pages with a place to write things to do and places to go, and a blank page for notes specific to things that will happen or have happened that day.”

Reminders scattered over the desk should go into the time planner, Davenport says.

"The average businessperson has eight systems of keeping track of what they’re doing,” she says. “Some of it’s on the computer, some on the desk, Post-its, phone messages, on the refrigerator, the sun visor. Get it into one place.”

Step 3:

Create a pending file to hold the odd bits, the memos, surveys, dry cleaner slips and other things you plan to deal with at a later date and that don’t have another home. "The trick to the pending file is you never put anything in it that you don’t first write in the planner as a to-do,” she says.

Davenport says she often thinks about Franklin, who wrote that of the 13 virtues he believed were most important in life, being organized (third on the list) was the one he almost couldn’t accomplish.

“For some of us, this is not an easy thing,” she says. ‘The worst part is that most of us can remember a time when leaving something out to remind us worked. But the volume was a 10th of what it is now. We developed patterns and habits and work ethics from the time when it was different, and now we’re insane because we keep doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.”

She says that on the office desk, “every square inch is priceless.” "You’ve got to treasure it; you’ve got to respect it. Every square inch is costing you in productivity. Every desk is messy when you’re working, but it should be clear at the end of the day. The question is, when the lights are out and you go home at night, what does it look like?”


Implement[ed] a number of features that really made a difference...
Between the seminar, the book and your splendid, concise reminders, I have been able to implement a number of features that really made a difference for me. My techniques are still imperfect, but since the natural consequence of following your steps is always successful and satisfying, I am gradually and naturally getting more consistent. The book has been a wonderful resource and we are implementing your system at home as well as in my office.

Thank you so much!

~ Gaia Rose McNeil, University of New Mexico Research and Study Council, Albuquerque NM


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