Some people I meet think that they are going to improve their structure later, when they have time.
Perhaps they have tried sorting out the piles, but gotten stuck after a few minutes of organizing and come to the conclusion that it simply takes too long to make their situation and themselves more structured and efficient. “Especially if you have as many piles as I do.”
The purpose of structuring what is otherwise left in piles (of papers or of e-mails) is that we get a grip on what they contain and what we need to do with whatever is in them (if action is needed).
In order to get this type of control it isn’t necessary that we do all the to-do-tasks the piles of papers or e-mails suggest we need to do.
This is where we tend to bite our own tail.
Not the same
You see, there is a significant difference between structuring and doing. You might even say that “there is a time for structuring and a time for doing”.
- “Structuring” here implies to take the top leaf from the pile, look it over and think about what it means to us, that is to say, determine if something needs to be done, if it needs to be saved, if you will need it at some point or if you can throw it away. You then create to-do-tasks (without completing them), save the material where you keep your reference-material, et c.
- “Doing” means completing the to-do-task we identified when going through the pile. “Oh that’s right, I need to write that report.” or “Ops! Here it was. I need to schedule that meeting right away.” or ”OK, and here is that material. The next step here might be to follow up the quotation we sent them last week.”. It is when we confuse “doing” and “structuring” what structuring takes so long.
Doesn’t this just mean more work?
Now the part of us that prefers mess might ask but why spend time structuring first and then doing? Isn’t it better to do right away and just be done with it? No, there is a value to structuring first.
We are naturally striving towards doing the right thing right now, so that we won’t have to discover later that we should have been completing something else while there was still time.
This is why we need to get an overview of all the things we need to do quickly and easily, hence enabling ourselves to choose the right thing to do right now. This is the purpose of structuring first.
If we were to simply get on to work with whatever the first leaf in the pile suggests we need to do, it might take a very long time to get a complete overview of our situation (if we ever get one at all).
In other words, we would be prioritizing randomly rather than consciously.
Try these steps if you wish to process the paper- or e-mail-piles you have in an organized manner:
- Set the countdown timer on your phone (or an egg timer if you happen to have one at your office) to 2 minutes.
- Start with the first paper or e-mail. Ask yourself what it implies or means to you.
- If you conclude that the first item entails doing something that probably will not take long to do, do it right away.
(If you on the other hand conclude that it will take longer than just a few minutes, make a to-do-task out of it and move on to the next item, paper or e-mail. If you find something that can be thrown away, you will of course throw it away, and if it needs to be saved, you file it away where it belongs.)
- If the countdown timer alerts you that the two minutes are up and you still have work to do to finish the task, abort what you are doing and create a to-do-task out of what remains to be done and add it to your to-do-list.
- If you complete the task before the two minutes are up, continue processing the next paper or e-mail and set the timer for another 2 minutes.
- Continue doing this until you have processed the entire pile, e-mail inbox or you need to stop what you are doing and go to a meeting.
This way there is time to be structured
If you stick to just structuring when you intend to just organize and structure your work (and do not fall for the temptation to start doing), you will have time to process the piles; perhaps not all at once, but at least one item at a time. I promise.
What is your way?
How do you make sure you keep improving in your way of working even though you are busy and have a lot on your plate? Leave a comment to share your insights.