In a busy office you may feel that you are continuously under attack by an army of ‘stuff’ that marches into your office and decides to squat right there in your inbox, e-mail or on your filing cabinet. Remember the first step to addressing a problem is admitting you have one and this could go something like this: “My name is *Susan and I am overwhelmed right now”. There now, that wasn’t so bad and help is on the way.
The good news is that you already have the most powerful organizing and planning tool in the world at your disposal. Your brain. One of the challenges is, that like your office, your powerful planning tool is also full of stuff that it doesn’t know where to put. Hence, the anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach and the tension headaches.
A first step to gaining control would be to clear the mind. The process starts with a To Do List where you write down absolutely everything you need and want to do until you can’t think of anything else that could steal your attention. This list should also include those things that weren’t urgent and that you placed in a bottom drawer of your office filing cabinet, the dentist appointment that you haven’t scheduled for your ten-year old, thank-you cards you wanted to send to your friends for last year’s Christmas presents. In the end you may be faced with 30 to a 100 activities on your list. A very scary thought and at this stage in the game you may be tempted to add this list to the growing pile of filing you’ve had under your desk for the past five months. But before you do this, keep in mind that you now have access to clear thinking because you’ve moved all the ‘stuff’ to paper.
Now it is time to use that powerful tool for a search and destroy mission. Go through your list carefully and decide what items should be deleted. There will definitely be activities that are simply no longer relevant for example the Thank-You Cards are not necessary 8 months after Christmas. You should be able to cut your list by about a third which will already give you a sense of achievement.
Batching is the next step. This is a sorting process where you place similar items in groups. For instance, all meetings you need to arrange should be put in your “arrange meeting” group. The phone calls you need to make, including the phone call to your dentist to set up an appointment, should be in the “phone call” group.
Seen as you have batched items, you need to focus on one activity area at a time. Making decisions on when you would like to handle certain activities is a very important part of taking control. Let’s say you have decided that you are going to work on clearing out your e-mails. You need to decide what time of the day you will be dealing with e-mails. Remember the idea behind clearing your mind is also to make sure that you are fully focused on the task at hand. Instead of handling e-mails as they come in you will schedule e-mail-handling sessions. Depending on the amount of e-mails you receive you may want to have a morning session from 08:30 to 10:00, a pre-lunch session from 12:30 to 13:00 and then another session at 15:30 before you go home. After one of your scheduled sessions, it is time to focus your attention on something else and it is very important to close your e-mail. This may be hard to do at first but when your e-mail is continuously open, notifications of incoming mail will distract you.
You are now in the perfect position to start taking action. Now you apply the two-minute rule. If you can complete a task in two-minutes or less then you tackle and complete it. Again when dealing with e-mail, open one e-mail at a time, read and if the two-minute rule applies you will be able to respond, or forward to the appropriate person or delete in less than two minutes. The trick here is to avoid reading e-mails more than twice because this is simply a waste of your valuable time. Unfortunately most of us have a number of open e-mails in our inbox which most likely belong in the trash. Most phone calls can also be handled in less than two minutes. In fact you may be pleasantly surprised how many tasks can be completed in two-minutes or less.
The two-minute rule will obviously not apply to everything and there will be certain tasks that will take more mental energy, time and a series of actions to complete. Perhaps you have to set up the next management meeting for your team. Besides getting a suitable date you will need to find a venue, arrange catering, circulate an agenda and maybe even complete the minutes from the previous meeting. Here you will put together a small project schedule for each complex task. The project, setting up the management meeting, should be broken up into small actionable steps with deadlines. When handling projects you will also use batching and the two-minute rule. Sending out an e-mail notification of the meeting and scheduling the meeting in the electronic calendar are activities that can be batched together and will take less than two-minutes. However, completing the previous minutes may take an hour or two. Schedule a date and time in your diary when you will focus on the minutes and move onto the next task on your project list.
Moving from feeling overwhelmed to being effective and in control in the office will take a number of decisive actions on your part. It may even be frowned upon by your colleagues when you tell them you can’t chat because you have a scheduled e-mail-handling session. Now you could spend some time thinking whether you are ready to implement some of the steps or make the changes. Just remember, if you already have an overflowing inbox and several unfinished projects, this may not be the best way to spend your time. Take the leap, and take back control!