Organizing for the Fall – Part 1

October 6, 2006

One of the issues that constantly frustrates me is the amount of work that appears in my office, via email, memos, voice mails, telephone calls, notes and tasks from meetings, needs of other people, or work that I generate. It seems at times as if I have too many masters and I feel the slave to all of them. At the end of the spring term I told my Dean that I had spent the last two years knee-jerking responses for the campus administration and it was at the expense of what I was paid to do (I realize that may be a perspective of only one person). While I appreciated the administration’s need to deal with some difficult issues, I was beginning to see the work we had spent years building beginning to slip. We were so busy responding to external requests and demands for information that we weren’t taking care of our primary business. I resolved at that point to make significant changes in my commitment levels and work habits. I have toyed with David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” for a couple of years now. I have read various blogs including 43 folders, hawk wings, and kinkless along with many others. I probably have 50 plus articles I have copied and organized over that period. Some are good, most all are instructive, and many are repetitive. They all get down to personal commitment. I was ready and anxious for a change.

My personal perspective is that I’m pretty well organized, but I do know that I work best from a to-do list and not off-the cuff. I keep note-cards in a special holder so I can write quick notes and to-dos. I keep a moderate in-box and I try to use the 2-minute rule effectively. However as the semester wears on I usually fall behind on my commitment to staying well organized. I have always used the excuse, “I’m too busy, I haven’t got time.” I knew that excuse would no longer work.

So during the course of the summer I spent time evaluating my commitments and realized I really did have too many masters. I was spreading myself too thin and trying to do to many things for too many people. As result of my evaluation I began to do several things and the first and most important was to get organized. I had purchased new furniture for my office to replace the 25-year old couch and chairs (I visit with a lot of prospective students and parents and need a comfortable place to meet) with newer and larger furniture. The two chairs and couch took up 30 percent more space than the old ones did. By early August I knew I had to bite the bullet. It wasn’t just that I needed more space for the furniture, but I needed more organization. I started by setting a goal of consolidating 11 file drawers into 4 drawers. That involved throwing away 30 years of combined materials I have toted around from job to job. I ended up with 3.5 partially full drawers. I removed the old vertical files cabinets and replaced them with two 2-drawer and one 4-drawer lateral file cabinets which fit across the back of my office and under my window. Next I needed to attack the books. I had 5 book cases crammed with books, plus another 4 at home. This was painful, as an academic I love my books – even if I haven’t opened them up in 20 years. I eliminated one floor to ceiling bookcase and over 100 books. Once I got started throwing away the books was not uncomfortable at all. My faculty were happy with the new finds I provided them and what was left went to the library book sale.

I had an old wooden executive desk pushed up against the back of the office (looking out the window at the trash cans of the student union). It was no more than a large open filing space with drawers that contained little of value. I gave it to the associate dean and kept only my computer desk. I had two small rolling file holders and one of them I retained for my “right now” projects the second is still empty and may go home (but where would I put it?). And I took one of my now empty file drawers and turned that into my “projects” file. In addition, by removing the desk and the vertical file cabinets for lateral file cabinets the files were now just a turn around away from my desk, rather than a walk across the room.

All this gave me about 30 percent more space and I used that to open up the visiting space. I purposely focused on minimizing and increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the workspace to create a people-space. On a good day I probably have 20-30 interruptions by faculty, students, and staff. On a bad day it might be double that. I need an area where I can encourage people to sit and visit. If I don’t have time to sit and visit I stand up and don’t offer a seat, or there is a chair next to my desk where they can sit, but it’s not as comfortable as the couch. When we need to get something done the wint-o-greens come out and we sit on the new furniture. I find these very productive moments. Between the couch and my workspace (the filing cabinets, server, and storage space) I have a portable divider (screen) that works great for creating space and hiding what I consider clutter.

As a side note, in an academic culture where the closed door seems to becoming more and more common mine rarely gets closed. If a faculty member comes in and closes it I usually open it right back up indicating unless it is a personal issue or a need-to-know issue the door can stay open. I know that violates lots of GTD principles, but one of my primary expectations is to be available and I will do that. I have learned how to focus on single tasks and set them aside when interrupted and return to them with limited rethink time.

I have the office organized, but I still need to get myself organized. That will be part 2.

By the way, I’m just beginning to try out the focused 50 and I accomplished this with 4 minutes to spare.

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