March 15, 2018

Five Simple Steps to Organize Virtually Anything

By Barbara Bergeron

Organizing your work life needn't be complicated. In fact, it's one of the simplest tools to help you become more focused, productive and capable of managing today's information overload.

As our attention and concentration is pulled in multiple directions at any given time, agile productivity systems allow us to be more innovative, engaged and able to recognize new opportunities. Like a rubber band, we can stretch more easily in times of inevitable chaos if we achieve a calm and organized baseline. Use these five steps to develop a solid system that will help you bounce back once the turmoil has quieted.

Step 1: Minimize the obvious
Begin by removing the most obvious items that don't belong. In your office space, look for things like bulky, seldom-used office equipment, dead plants, or boxes of old files that should be archived, stored or thrown away. People frequently cart unopened boxes of files from their last job to a new office. If you think you will ever reference those old memos, letters or pleadings, put them on a thumb drive and then toss the paper. Eliminating these things will clear some space to work in, both physically and mentally, and give you an early win to motivate you through the process.

As you consider what to remove, begin to shift your thinking. Organize what you need, not what you have. This will help you determine what papers, items etc. are truly necessary for you to get your job done. This shift in thinking not only helps you to eliminate accumulated junk, but also encourages you to think about letting go of papers/projects that are dead weight, unproductive or unrealistic. The release often feels exhilarating.

Identifying the vital few versus the trivial many is known as the Pareto Principle, named after 19th century economist Vilfredo Pareto. Many know it as the 80/20 rule, which says that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your effort. You may find that 80 percent of your time goes to 20 percent of your clients, or conversely that 80 percent of your problems come from 20 percent of your clients. Professional organizers claim that we wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time and that the same holds true for the files we use. Recognizing this principle, keep those "20 percent" activities/clients within easy reach and file the "80 percent" elsewhere.

Step 2: Plan before you touch
One of the biggest mistakes people tend to make in an organizing project is to jump in and start examining the contents of all their files or drawers. People also tend to purchase lots of organizing products. This ends up being overwhelming and a huge waste of time and money. Instead, create a plan with an end result. Incorporate your existing office case management/document management system into your plan. This will aid your organization plan significantly.

There will be categories that fall outside the existing office management system. Some examples might include continuing legal education, pro bono, employee benefits or law office administration. Develop a system of categorization for those items. Use five to seven primary categories, not more, not less. This gives your system longevity and helps you avoid systems that are a mile wide and an inch thick. The human brain struggles to easily remember a break-down of more than seven items. Discipline yourself: use the necessary 2 to 3 minutes to file your documents. Those few upfront minutes will result in tremendous efficiency and time savings in the long run.

Step 3: Label the boundaries
Whether it's the time on your calendar or the drawers of a file cabinet, labeling helps to establish boundaries for yourself and others. Boundaries identify physical, mental and time spaces. Labeling makes them durable.

Once you create the primary categories referenced above, apply them to everything: physical files, digital files, flash drives, bookmarks and sometimes even email. No matter the device, the structure should be the same on your laptop as your tablet. This is how you build no-brainer systems. No one likes to file, so make it easy.

Step 4: Start sorting
If you are applying this new organization system to your computer files, begin by creating a new file folder for each of the primary categories. Add numbers at the front of the folder name (i.e. 1-CLE, 2-Employee Benefits, etc.) so that files will automatically sort to the top. You can rename them when you are finished. Then drag and drop existing files into those big buckets. Once all your files are in those folders you can create the sub-files for each, fine-tuning the layers as you go.

This allows you to work in chunks of time rather than waiting for the big stretch of time that will never come. For paper file systems, try labeling a record-keeping box for each file category and sort through one drawer or one pile at a time. Once each category is sorted and relabeled, you can simply lift the files into the proper file drawer.

Step 5: Work the system
For a productivity system to be effective, it must be trusted. To be trusted you must use it frequently. In the beginning, it is a learning process that must be practiced. By continuing to practice, you are converting it to an unconscious habit. In time it will be like an automated system, happening with very little human thought.

Back in the 1980s, researchers James Q. Wilson and George Kelling introduced the broken windows theory of crime prevention. Although it became controversial in its implementation, the theory is worth examining. It says that if you bring order to a community by fixing broken windows and painting over graffiti, you send a message that this is an area that is being looked after, and crime is more likely to be noticed. Therefore, crime is deterred.

What does this have to do with organization? I have found that when you bring order to one part of your life or one part of an office, it unconsciously spreads in concentric circles. Other parts of your life will become more organized too. And, when one person applies organizational systems, people around them tend to interact in a more organized fashion. Otherwise, their disorganization will prominently stand out. With very little effort, people begin to bring more order to their environment.

Being well organized doesn't just improve focus and efficiency, it enhances our ability to work and thrive when chaos inevitably erupts. When we are pulled in many directions, we can integrate new projects and obligations back into systems we have control over. The foundation is in place to agilely maneuver through the noise.

Barbara Bergeron is a nationally recognized productivity expert, trainer, and speaker. She is the president of SOS Organizational Services, a productivity consultancy. Contact her at This article is adapted from one that appeared in the December 2017 issue of Law Practice Today, a newsletter of the ABA Law Practice Division.