EVERYONE KNOWS A MESSY WORKSPACE is a nagging distraction; but what about a chaotic computer desktop? Or an e-mail inbox jammed with 5,000 messages? “You don’t see the clutter, so it just builds and builds,” says Ken Diebold, president of the Long Island, N.Y., Corporate Learning Group, which helps clients organize both paper and electronic files. And the trouble this mess causes is not just cosmetic: A glut of files, folders, and applications can slow your system and waste your precious time by making it difficult to find anything when you need it.
If you’re an electronic pack rat, the good news is that you can create work-friendly order from unruly overflow. Follow this three-week plan to find your way out of the maze.
Establish a Simple Filing System Kerry Gleeson, president of the Boca Raton, Fla., Institute for Business Technology, which creates personal efficiency solutions for individual and corporate clients, recommends setting up three main document folders–working files, reference materials, and archives–and then appropriate subfolders as required. For example, you could subdivide working files by client or by project.
Once you’ve completed a project, move it from “working” to “archive.” The trick is to use broad categories so you don’t have to hunt in many places to find anything. “Ask yourself: What is the easiest way to retrieve something?” Diebold suggests. To make your life even simpler, use the same filing method for all your documents, whether they’re paper or electronic.
Organize Electronic Files Once you’ve established your system, put electronic files in order. Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Work ($15; Kiplinger Books, 1998), advises purging drafts or working versions of documents from completed projects (saving only the final versions), as well as any files that contain duplicate information or are too old to reuse. Decide what to keep, and whether electronically or on paper, but don’t save any file in both formats.
Do you need help figuring out what’s buried on your hard disk? Symantec’s Norton CleanSweep 4.5 ($40; www.symantec.com, 800-441-7234) uncovers redundant documents, cleans up extraneous Internet files such as cookies and browser plug-ins, removes outdated applications, and allows you to schedule future disk cleanups.
Get Acquainted With Your Software It would take a lifetime to master all the features of all your programs, but it’s worth spending an hour or two to seek out the ones that will keep you organized and save you time. “People don’t know what their software can do, or they’re afraid it will be hard to learn,” says Diebold.
Set aside some time to scan your manuals. You may discover that your contact management software has a handy calendar function, or that your word processor has sophisticated search tools you haven’t been using.
Set Up E-Mail Folders Tired of hunting for old e-mail? Create folders that mirror the system you use for paper, and be diligent about routing incoming messages to proper folders. Start organizing current mail first, says Hemphill, then sort through old mail whenever you have some spare time.
Establish a Routine Virtual clutter piles up when you check e-mail frequently but don’t deal with it immediately. “We suggest people check e-mail [only] two to three times a day and process it,” says Gleeson. “If you look at it, you do it.”
Dispatch with each piece as you look at it. Add items that require an involved response to your to-do list. “A lot of people don’t want to admit they print out e-mail,” says Hemphill. “But if you print it out, delete it from the computer.”
Purge Old Mail After you’ve set up folders and established an e-mail routine, attack the message backlog. Start with your oldest e-mail and work your way up, tossing and filing as you go. Remember, file things either electronically or on paper–but not both. “Begin taking the risk of deleting things,” Hemphill urges. “Learn to practice the art of wastebasketry. What’s the worst that can happen if you toss something?”
Reroute Traffic When it comes to computer clutter, “e-mail is the biggest culprit, especially for telecommuters,” says Diebold. “People end up with all these e-mails that they don’t need to read.” His recommendation: Set up filters to screen out junk, whether stupid jokes or unneeded courtesy copies. If an employer’s e-mail system doesn’t allow you to create filters, politely ask colleagues to remove you from unnecessary routing lists, such as after-hours activity updates if you, say, telecommute from another state.
Do you prefer to communicate by e-mail, voice mail, or cell phone? Choose the mode that works best for you and divert traffic to it, suggests Stephanie Denton, president of Denton & Co., an organizing consultancy in Cincinnati: “Maybe you want to be more judicious about giving out your e-mail address, cell phone, and pager numbers.” Consider using a universal messaging service such as Onebox.com (free; www. onebox.com), which funnels voice, e-mail, pager, and fax communications through one local phone number (currently available in Northern California, New Jersey, New York, and Texas).
Delete Programs You Don’t Use Is outdated software dogging your hard disk? Dump it–but to avoid a mess, use the program’s own uninstall routine or a utility such as UnInstaller 5.1 ($40; McAfee, a division of Network Associates, www.networkassociates.com, 800-338-8754), rather than deleting files yourself. While you’re at it, trash the boxes and manuals, too.
Choose a Personal Information Management System This serves as your main to-do list, contact manager, and scheduling tool. If you rely on a handwritten system, it’s time to upgrade to an electronic one, especially if colleagues need access to your schedule, says Denton.
You may already have what you need as part of an office software suite. Diebold favors Microsoft’s Outlook ($109; www.microsoft.com; 800-426-9400). Another oft-recommended tool is Lotus Organizer 5.0 ($74; www. lotus.com; 800-343-5414). For maximum mobility, Consider a PDA such as one from 3Com’s Palm series ($249 to $599; www.palm.com; 800-881-7256).
Set Up an Automatic Backup System The more you rely on electronic filing, the more important it is to protect data with regular backups. You can use a high-capacity disk or tape system, but Diebold favors off-site backup via the Internet. For example, Safeguard Interactive Inc. (www.sgii.com; 412-415-5200) offers unlimited off-site storage for about $10 a month, with a 30-day free trial.
Give It Time You’ve spent three weeks purging electronic junk and organizing what’s left. Now allow yourself a month to adapt to using your new system full-time before you can expect it to become second nature, says Diebold.
WEEK AFTER WEEK
Keep Up the Good Work Once you’ve cleared out virtual debris and arranged your files, you’ll feel pretty good. But don’t stop now, or you’ll wind up in the same mess a few months down the road.
“People think organizing is a onetime event, but it’s an ongoing process,” says Denton. Fortunately, she adds, “as long as you have an underlying system in place that works for you, it’s very easy to get back on track if things pile up.”
In addition to maintaining good daily habits, experts recommend clearing out old documents for completed projects every six months and archiving stuff you don’t need every week or month. And continue to fine-tune your system, urges Denton, until staying organized is a seamless process.