Order from Chaos


Air Traffic Control





Efficiency Begins With a Clean Desk

By Lynn Ruth Miller

Eight a.m. Monday morning. You arrive early at the office so you can get that letter out to the big account in Denver. That’s the one you meant to do on Friday but the telephone rang off the hook and then you had that big presentation to send to the client in Monterey that couldn’t wait any longer. You grab a cup of coffee and sit down at your desk. The folder with all the information in it was right next to your in- box when you finally got out of the office at seven o’clock Friday night.

You reach for it, but it isn’t there. It must be under all those papers you ran off from the web for the Monterey event. No. It isn’t there. Well, maybe it slipped behind the basket and is under that other pile; the one with the envelopes; and the solicitations from the non-profits. No. It isn’t there, either.

You don’t remember filing it but maybe you did. You yank open the file drawer but just as you suspected the Denver folder isn’t there. It isn’t behind the file cabinet either or next to the water cooler. Maybe you took it with you when you went to the bathroom . . .

 OH, NO! If you did THAT, the custodian would have thrown it away by now. You shuffle through every paper on your desk, look on the floor under it, run out to the kitchen where you made your make shift dinner last Friday and then began going through every paper in the file cabinet. It is now 10:30 a.m. and you still haven’t found the folder. Now, what do you do?

YOU STOP. You look at the chaos on your desk and you decide that NOW has to be the time to get organized. In fact, you should have done this months ago but so many new projects came pouring into your in box, pushed at you on your e-mail, jangled your nerves on the telephone, that you just never got around to it. It’s too late now for Denver.

You actually made a mess of Monterey as well because you had lost half the file. “The average business person receives 190 pieces of information each day . . . and wastes 150 hours just looking for stuff,” said Liz Davenport, author of ORDER FROM CHAOS: Six Steps to Organizing Yourself and Your Business, published last year by Random House. “Add ten hours to that and it equals an entire month’s work hours. Just think how much more you could get done if you got organized.”

We all know that we could work more efficiently if our desks were in order, but very few of us are willing to take the time to get it that way. Instead, we have many organizing systems going on at once: one for our computer material, one for dealing with the mail, one in our calendar and one for meetings and conferences. The problem is that these systems don’t always work as well as they should and they often overlap.

There are categories that either fit in several slots or none at all. “What everyone needs is one, simple easy to maintain system, “ said Davenport. “Until you have that, attempting to clean off your desk will only thwart, exhaust and annoy you.”

If you have only one system of organization, you don’t have to make thousands of decisions every time a paper crosses your desk. Instead, the minute you get record a call or receive a letter you know just where to file it. It has only one home in only one place and that home is NOT on your desk blotter.

“You need to change the way you think about those 190 pieces of incoming information" said Davenport. “The biggest mistake disorganized folks make is believing there is a later. All the things we optimistically put off till later end up just laying there for days, weeks, months or years.”

All right. If there is no later, you need to start figuring out a good system right NOW. Where do you begin?

You begin by organizing what Davenport has labeled THE COCKPIT OFFICE. “I recommend spending at least one week accomplishing each step in my six step plan, but I don’t care how long it takes to do them,” said Davenport. “This is a very simple system for business people that works for everyone.“

No one in business will disagree with Davenport’s theory. But few are willing to force themselves to implement it. “We get so caught up in the feeding frenzy of other people‘s emergencies that we don’t take the time needed to create an effective workspace for ourselves,” said Davenport. “If people follow my plan, I guarantee they will save an hour EVERY SINGLE DAY and will alleviate much of the stress caused by always searching for things they cannot find.”

The whole idea of the cockpit office is to keep the things you need immediately at your fingertips and get rid of all the material you do not use. “Consider your desk your cockpit,” said Davenport. “Inside your cockpit, you want only “now” kinds of things, not old, moldy objects that have not seen light for several years.”

Once your get rid of the obsolete files and put your information in logical order, what is next?

Next, according to Davenport is to establish Air Traffic Control. You need to route your papers to their logical homes immediately. You must establish a separate section for appointments, one for to-dos and a third for important notes relevant to the day you are in.

Schedule all your activities ONE DAY AT A TIME. You only have to address them when you need to act on them instead of letting them clutter your desk and remind you of all the work that will be driving you up the wall tomorrow.

Once these two basic steps are achieved its time to create a pending file where you can see at a glance what needs to be accomplished the next day or by the end of the week. “After step three is completed, you will have one simple, all encompassing system for all your papers, appointments and to-do’s in your life.” said Davenport. “Then it is time to deal with your attitudes about those 190 pieces of information that come in each day.”

Sounds sensible doesn’t it? You can read about how to accomplish the first thee steps of Davenport’s plan in her book ORDER FROM CHAOS. Then you will be ready to reorganize your decision-making abilities and constantly revise your priorities daily to meet your current needs.


There you have it. When your desk is organized logically and you can find the projects you need to address when you need them, you will be organized. You will have saved one month of fruitless searching and you can actually begin thinking about that vacation you have never had time to take before.


I love your system and am in the middle of 'creating a vacuum'...
Your tips are great. I recently 'discovered' you while doing a web search looking for ideas for the perfect planner. After decades, I finally found someone who designed a planner that makes sense! Then I bought your book 'Order from Chaos.' Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your ideas. In my working days I was known as Ms. Efficiency--which was great at the time, but I discovered thru your book that I was SO trying to over-organize every piece of paper and note. Consequently I got overwhelmed, and frozen in inactivity. I love your system and am in the middle of 'creating a vacuum.'

I'm very grateful for, and want to thank you for, making your planners available as a download on your website. I'm disabled and on an extremely limited budget. I look forward to using it in 2010 when it's available.

Wishing you much success!

 ~ Jillian Holston, North Dakota


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