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Open Your Mind by Organizing Your Life

Productivity expert and trainer Peggy Duncan is well acquainted with disorganization, the culprit that can keep us at our desks long after everyone else has gone home.

Having too much stuff and no organizational system makes us less effective, like the guy Duncan met who spun his wheels looking for messages among the 40,000 emails he kept or the client Duncan was coaching who, along with an assistant, spent three hours searching for files on computers and in file drawers.

The damage disorganization does to our work days has made Get Organized So You Can Think! one of Duncan’s most popular topics for the professional training she offers.

Duncan has organized every aspect of her life, from her kitchen junk drawer to her computer files. “Everything I touch has some sort of organization system to it,” she said.

Here are four steps she says are critical to organizing, not just your office but your entire environment, because if you can’t find your keys in the morning, you’ve started your day on a disorganized trajectory.

Step 1: Scuttle the Superfluous Stuff

“The first step toward getting organized is to purge,” Duncan said. Clearing stuff out opens not only physical space but also the mind. “Ask ‘When was the last time I referred to this or I wore this?’” Duncan said. “Use the same principles in your office that you would use in your clothes closet.” Be firm, and if you have emotional ties to an item, break them by “taking a picture of it, then blessing someone else with the item,” Duncan said. Another trick is to use opaque garbage bags so you aren’t reminded of what you are getting rid of.

In the office, the purge must include email. Duncan gets more requests to talk about managing email than any other topic. She recommends asking these questions: “Do I need it for legal reasons?” “Is the information available elsewhere?” and “If I delete this and by some miracle someone needs it, can I live with the consequences?” Remember that searching through virtual piles is hard on your computer and on you.

Step 2: Start Small

The thought of organizing your whole life at once can be paralyzing, so break the task into manageable bits. Start with your desk drawer, Duncan suggests. Dump everything out, buy some organizing bins and use them to lump like things together. Biting off small chunks makes it easier to find a few minutes for an organizing blitz. “One of the big issues about organization is stopping long enough to do it,” Duncan said. Getting started can make you want to do more, she said. “The results are immediate. It’s not like dieting or exercising; as soon as you organize your desk drawer or closet, you see the result.”

Step 3: Create Sensible Systems

“People will say to me, ‘I have all these folders on my desktop,’” Duncan said, but, she pointed out, those folders aren’t meaningful if they aren’t part of a logical system. Duncan uses a grocery store layout to illustrate how a good organizational system works. Grocery stores group goods under broad categories of similar products. For example, there’s a meat department, and within the meat department, sections for chicken, beef, pork, lamb and other meats. Within each section, meats are grouped by cut or type: ground beef, steaks, roasts, for example.

“You start with broad categories, then break that down,” Duncan said. “And you don’t put Cheetos next to chicken” just because the products both start with “c.” “You don’t want to put stuff together that has nothing to do with each other,” she said.

Step 4: Maintain It

Hours you’ll save are the motivation for maintaining an organizational system. For example, simply designating a place for your keys will save tons of time — if you always put the keys in that place. “Do you have the hours to spend to find what you would be looking for?” Duncan said. “Getting organized is going to clear your time so you can think about other things you can improve.”

For more information, visit Duncan’s website