Organizing Your Office to Improve Productivity
by Liz Franklin
It was only when I decided to become a publisher—after 25-plus years of organizational consulting for businesses large and small, and a few glasses of red wine—that I saw the mind-boggling complications inherent in our chosen field.
Allow me to offer some solutions to the organizing problems we publishers face.
Too much paperwork? Verbs are the antidote here. Put a sticky on each piece of paper, and on it write the verb describing the action to be taken. Use the sticky upside down, so it stands above the paper like a flag. This turns a pile of paper into a pile of instructions, which makes the work move much faster. And when you’re so tired you feel brain dead, it’s very reassuring to see step-by-step advice in your own handwriting.
Procrastinating? On those same stickies, note the due dates for each task. Put the due date above the verb, because it is even more important. What good is it to complete the task but miss the deadline? Besides, keeping the date prominent will allow you to organize your paperwork by due date. It’s also calming to realize that, yes, you have to do all this work; but no, you don’t have to do it all today.
A day late and a buck short? Buy date stamps and have everyone use them on everything, even the manual for the new printer (some days, only the date stamp helps identify the most recent one).
Create another stamp for book orders. This shows everybody where the last person left off and what still has to be done. Here is the stamp we use:
We use a small date stamp on each row as each step is completed.
Too many printouts? Eschew the myth that says you must “handle paper once.” There’s only one kind of paper to handle once, and that’s Kleenex. OK, and one other kind.
Do a gross sort of your paper first and a fine sort later. Use stickies, as above, to label each paper with the verb and date.
Buy fairly large bins (bigger than shoebox size and smaller than bathe-two-children size) and label each bin with the appropriate verb (Read, Sort, Input to Computer, Upload to Website, etc.).
Whenever you print out hard copy, label each set of papers by circumstance. Ask yourself, “When will I want this?” The answer is your label. Examples: “When I update the Web site,” “When I want to improve our search results,” “When I do another seasonal PR push.” (“When’s,” or actual dates, move things along even better than verbs.)
Then create bins for each circumstance and fill them accordingly. Example: We often get “Come by and see us when you’re in Denver/Dallas/Des Moines” emails. We file them in a bin called Cities. Before each trip to, say, Denver, we pull the Denver folder out of the Cities bin and make calls, send emails, set up interviews, and so on.
A disorganized office is full of stagnant paper; an organized office is one in which paper flows. Your new mantra: “Cash flows like paper flows—or not.”
Too many emails? Sort them, right there in your electronic inbox, by date if they’re not already sorted that way. Review and answer them as necessary, deleting what you can. Then sort them again, this time by sender’s name. Review, answer, and delete. This gives you a double-check and a fresh perspective.
Print out as many as you want. Paper is cheaper than brain cells. And yes, please recycle. The paper, not the brain cells.
Ask as many people as you can (let’s start a fad!) to use the first words in the subject line of every email to describe the essence: “Good joke,” or “This can wait,” or “John’s contact info,” for example.
Have emails that still need action? Forward them to yourself, changing the subject line. We retitle them starting with the word “Use,” which tells us that they have been viewed. Examples: “Use when looking for X,” or “Use to find Y,” or “Use when trying to access Z.” This also allows us to sort by subject.
Back up your mail folder when you back up everything else. You can now get very small backup drives with 60, 80, or more gigabytes for $200 or less. They can handle absolutely everything on our computers: programs, movies, documents, joke emails we haven’t had time to delete, and on and on. We have two backup drives and alternate them. Be sure to keep one off site.
Never enough time? After almost 30 years and hundreds of people asking me, I’ve defined “disorganization” as “an inappropriate estimate of the time and resources available.” Ouch.
To solve the problem of manic optimism, we use a Project Management Chart. You can use a huge whiteboard for this, but they get expensive. Instead, we tack science presentation boards to our largest wall (you know, the bi-fold poster boards your kids use for science exhibits). On a large wall and/or for a large project you might need eight to ten boards, but they’re cheap—try your local dollar store; we found them for a buck a pop. And stickies (see below) hold tight to them.
Start by putting 3? stickies naming each of your project categories vertically down the left-hand side (Editing, Finance, Marketing, Production, etc.; we like ours alphabetical, but some people prefer to put them in chronological order). You can color-code stickies by category, by the name of the person who will do the task, by date, or any other way you want.
Then put up more 3? stickies horizontally, with “week of” dates: Oct. 1–7, Oct. 8–14, Oct. 15–21, etc.
Third, write your benchmarks or tasks on smaller stickies. Place these by category, starting with the goal at the far right end. As you place them in the appropriate week’s column, work backward, asking, What will it take to accomplish that step? And before that? Before that? You’ll end up with your first task on the left. Now, by simply following the steps and tasks you’ve set up, working toward the right, you’ll achieve your goal—and of course you’ll be moving some stickies, but you can do that later.
Remember, plan backward from right to left, and execute your tasks left to right.
Once you’ve placed all your stickies on the board, check to make sure they’re in chronological order and underneath the correct dates.
If you don’t get things done on time, just move the stickies. No guilt, mates.
Refresh your board every three months or so. And don’t worry if you forget about it entirely; when you get back to it, you’ll be surprised to see how much you’ve been on target .
People often ask me, “Why don’t we do this chart in Excel so we can share it?” For several important reasons, including these:
Small computer screens are antithetical to the main objective, which is getting people to gather (weekly is good) and confer around this huge board.
When people share an Excel spreadsheet, it gets very difficult to know which is the current chart.
If you are all on the same server, it’s too easy for people to move dates they just didn’t like.
When people move stickies in front of an audience, they get to explain their reasons, and other people get to explain the consequences.
Bonus hint. Set benchmarks for one category at a time, working horizontally. Use past-tense phrases and superlatives. Example: For “Production,” some of your small stickies might say:
Decided on ideal final size
Selected best paper
Finished spine measurement perfectly
Selected best cover art
Finalized ideal cover colors
Drafted best order to go to printer
Decided on ideal quantity
Sent order to printer on time
You get the idea.
I’ve pulled many a 25-plus-person office together in terms of motivation, reaching goals, and improving finances by using the village-square concept this wall chart promotes. And it works quickly, too—in three or four weeks of meeting regularly at the chart, you’ll have cohesion you never had before, and probably improved income as well.
Liz Franklin is the author of How to Get Organized Without Resorting to Arson. For more information on organizing, or to sign up for Funny ‘n’ Free Weekly Organizing Tips, go to MizLizOnBiz.com.