Moving into a full-time career, there were a lot of skills I needed to pick up quickly or I’de find myself in quicksand. What I had learned about organizations is that for every full-time employee’s workload, it seemed there could always be two people doing that job. The first practical skill that had jumped out of the magician’s hat, was time management and what it really meant to be organized…and disorganized.
For most of my life, there were two types of people in this world:
For 22+ years, I had found myself exclusively in category B. I had never owned, nor written in an agenda book, planner, cookbook, or calendar. When I would come home from classes, I would systematically run through each class and each assignment per class in my head. It was in chronological order in regards to my week starting Monday. I can righteously and pretentiously say, as when people brag about their ACT scores well into their 30’s, I didn’t turn a single college assignment in late or missing. It worked for me, although how I managed to survive without writing things down, using Google calendar, binders, or really any form or organization made me think there may have been a tiny screw(s) loose. I could remember my assignments by the day and time but had to replace my house keys 3 times and somehow lose my car in the Mall of America parking lot every single time I go. I never got the memo to take pictures of the West Pineapple sign.
When it came to Category (A) people, I was at a loss. I truly believed that people who had those beautiful agendas, with their multi-colored gel pens and highlighters, per what class, what day of the week, and when the assignment was due, found happiness in coloring and not actually “doing” their to-do list. I distinctly remember looking over at a girl on her laptop and, with mouth gaping in disbelief, watched her online shop for a $50 agenda book that even tracked weekend activities. I heard horror stories of a girl tracking her calendar so severely that she would schedule in when she was going to do her makeup. My current roommate even uses the Whiteout gel when she makes a mistake in her agenda book. To Sara, this was a foreign concept. If I did really feel the need to write something down, it is with a sharpie and the back of my hand.
Fast forward again to Work Sara, a week after she tosses up her graduation cap into the air, she walks into her first job. The first lesson she realizes is that her tiny loose screw doesn’t cut it anymore. There are tasks, within subtasks, within micro-tasks, umbrella-ed by a macro-task. Projects within those tasks, and meetings and conference calls adjunct to the projects. Sara’s way of life, the “wing it and somehow it worked for 22 years,” was not going to cut it. She slowly realized that being organized and managing her time were not just “preferred qualifications,” it was essential to survival.
My first performance meeting went a little bit like… “I had always prided myself on being self-aware with a high EQ… but it took me this long to realize I am not detail oriented, nor am I organized. Please help.” Lucky as I am to have had amazing managers, the advice I was given was to use the tools that are already integrated into my day-to-day work life: Outlook, Excel, OneNote, etc. She understood I was not familiar with to-do lists, or agendas, and she gave the advice that altered the course of my disorganized universe: Block off your calendar by the tasks that you have. You may laugh and say “wow, how revolutionary,” or “No shit,” well guess what, Sara was starting at blank zero, so not only did she take this advice, she RAN with it. Sprinted. A Phoenix reborn from the ashes. In other words, she took it much too literally.
This is what my outlook calendar began to look like.
I literally blocked off my day by the EMAIL. The call. The time to get up and pee. Work Sara was so new to the game that she micro-tasked her whole day by the minutes she would be spending. It’s could be comparable if you were to introduce a vegan to a Juicy Lucy for the first time, and they love it so much, never having tasted the mouthwatering recipe of cheese cooked INTO a burger, they end up eating a Juicy Lucy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon snack, after dinner snack, 3am, get up and eat snack, and eventually dies of… cholesterol. Obesity? Except I didn’t love micro-tasking, it was just the first thing I knew how to do. I took the information “Block off your calendar” and merged it with my lack of experience with to-do lists, and created the monstrosity that is above. I think my manager had a heart attack when I explained my new method.
However, the great part about humanity, is we are gifted with the ability to evolve and grow. And I happily grew out of this phase. I started using both OneNote (a great online application through Microsoft) for my to-do list for the day, and only blocked off general tasks that needed my undivided attention (e.g. Interviewing, Plan Intern Event, Create Strategy Presentation). This gave me the satisfaction of checking off boxes in my OneNote, but also facilitated my time management for the day or setting weekly goals. I am still learning how to be effective in the workplace, but for those of you that are also extremely disorganized: you are not alone and we can evolve together.
I used to be in Category B, and I can safely say that I am now a whole new non-binary category. Category B, meet Category C:
But it’s not the destination (organizational efficiency) that matters, it’s the journey…right?
Since this is supposed to be the “practical” article, here are a few more tips and lessons from someone who is constantly grasping methods to be more efficient while going through a horrible conversion therapy of organization.
Using the “Category” feature in Outlook
Google definition of Categories: Color categories allow you to easily identify and group associated items in Microsoft Outlook. Assign a color category to a group of interrelated items—such as notes, contacts, appointments, and email messages—so that you can quickly track and organize them.
My definition: Categories are similar to folders, but act more as “labels.” For example, you can only put a single email into a single folder. However, with categories, you can assign multiple categories to a single email (see example below) and if you filter by either label, it will pop up. For example, if that random tweet spam email was labeled both “my survival guide” and “personal development” I could search either category or both, and that email would appear. It is helpful when an email fits multiple different purposes. I only use folders for archiving, and I use categories for search and project purposes. Very handy!
Do. Delegate. Delete.
If you have mastered the art of email, that is, consistently sending timely and intelligently replies, while also managing your day job, I applaud you. It is a skill that is integral to any 8-5. The classic mantra that I have learned, as cheesy and as cliche as it is, is the 3D’s — Do, Delegate, or Delete. You block off time for emails, or as received throughout the day, and while reading through, you have to do one of the 3D’s in order to avoid a pileup. The greatest fault of any working professional is casually skimming emails and leaving them in the inbox to do later but then forgetting about it because it says it is read. I write not as a person giving advice, but as a person who has made this mistake for a good, solid amount of time. You either do the action item, delete the email, or delegate it to someone else who is the SME or correct stakeholder.
Okay, wow, this is just turning into a general email advice blog.
This is a give-or-take method depending on your career and how you interact with stakeholders. In my role, I have a high volume of people who are going through a similar process, so I encounter a lot of the same emails asking the same questions. To save myself from typing my fingers off, I draft a very professional and helpful email that answers the common email, I keep it in my OneNote, and when I get repeat questions, I just copy and paste the helpful email and tweak per the person that emailed me. You would be surprised how much time you can save by not typing the same thing over and over again. Again, the little bit of customization is key, and also just a nice thing to do.