How to Improve Your Organizational Skills in 2023
Our busy lives make it easy to lose track of things, whether it’s that zoom meeting you joined ten minutes late or the IRS letter you need to respond to by tomorrow but suddenly can’t find. Lack of organization can hinder our productivity and our sanity, causing us to underperform and feel frazzled, overwhelmed, and burned out.
And it’s even been documented that physical clutter in your space can be bad for your mental health. Organization, and its BFF time management, are crucial things to master if we want to move through our responsibilities (and our lives) with ease.
But a lot of us have trouble staying organized, and once things go awry the chaos has a way of ballooning – which can make getting back on track seem even more overwhelming.
So whether you need to keep on top of your calendar, prioritize what seems like a million personal and professional tasks, or get your home (or office) in order so you can find that IRS letter, here are 9 tips to help you get organized so you can get things done and stay sane while doing them.
Prioritize and set goals
What do you need to deal with now, and what can wait, and specifically how long can it wait?
Being able to prioritize everything on your to-do list is the key to managing your life on a day-to-day (and even hour-to-hour) basis.
Knowing what’s essential, both to yourself but also to the people around you (like say your boss) is a huge part of being able to organize not only your time, but also your mental resources. Knowing what you can put off, and having a system to keep track of those things so they aren’t forgotten completely, will prevent you from being overwhelmed and distracted as you deal with the top-tier tasks.
Similarly, setting goals can give you a structure for the longer term. Maybe your goal is a specific target that you have to meet at work, or maybe it’s a side project for your own personal or professional development. Once you have a sense of what will be involved you can set a due date, or even several due dates to mark your progress through multiple steps.
At a new job, learning what the priorities and targets are is part of learning about the organization and your role within it. So don’t be afraid to talk to your supervisor about what’s important, or what goals you should be setting – it’s definitely better to ask in advance than find yourself scrambling later on.
Consider how much time something will take
Sometimes this is fairly straightforward: you read an email, and you know it’ll take you about 15 minutes to respond thoroughly. For a task that is unfamiliar or that you’re dealing with for the first time, it’s better to overestimate how long it might take.
For a complex task or goal, you may want to break down the steps involved and think about how much time each individual step will take.
Break complex projects down into pieces
Breaking projects into steps, and giving each step an individual deadline, is a crucial way to track your progress and make sure you don’t find yourself scrambling at the last minute. Also consider what resources you’ll need to complete every step of the project, and make sure you know how to find them.
If you’ll need to consult with a collaborator or interview someone, make sure you request a meeting or phone call well in advance of your deadline. If you’re going to need materials or technological resources, again, don’t wait until the last minute.
Do they need to be purchased or rented? Will you need to put in a support request from another department in your company?
Get serious about your calendar
When a new meeting, event, deadline – literally anything time-specific at all – comes to your attention, enter it into your calendar immediately. Do not assume you’ll remember to do it later!
Then, set useful reminders. Do you want a notification to make sure you’re on track for a meeting a day ahead of time?
Do you need to start getting ready for an event an hour ahead, and then leave fifteen minutes ahead? Many calendar apps will let you set multiple reminders for a single event, or you can set a first reminder and then reset the alert to a later time when the first reminder goes off.
If you want, you can also use a calendar app to keep track of documents (such as e-tickets or instructions) that you will need on hand for a specific event. You can do this by attaching documents to an event, which is a feature most apps allow.
Create organizational systems
Organizational systems are a huge topic because there’s no one-size-fits all solution to them – different people have different needs and preferences in how they like to sort and visualize information.
Some people like to physically write things down in notebooks, some people use their calendars to take notes about everything, some people use their email inbox as a to-do list or send themselves text messages with info they want to remember. There are about a million note-taking and planner apps out there, with all kinds of features and integrations.
What works for you is going to be personal and may take some trial-and-error, and many people combine a few different tools into one master system. However if you implemented a system and then instantly abandoned it, because it felt somehow troublesome or inconvenient, that means it probably wasn’t right for you and you should experiment with something else.
Keep your physical space tidy
While the world is becoming increasingly digitized, your life still exists in physical space – and clutter is the enemy of both organization and peace of mind. Routinely take a bit of time to organize your space, whether that’s sorting things into boxes and drawers, maintaining a file system, or going through old files to throw out paperwork that you no longer need.
Stay on top of paperwork
Keep all paperwork that needs your attention in one place – ideally a space on your desk that’s visually prominent – and make yourself look through the pile at least once per day. If something is fast and easy and can be dealt with immediately, then do it immediately and file it away.
If a letter comes with a deadline for response, put the deadline in your calendar with a reminder. When you are done with a piece of paperwork, file it away or recycle it as soon as you’re done with it, so it doesn’t become clutter for other papers to get lost in.
If documents and notes can be scanned and saved electronically, that’s a great way to reduce clutter build up (but don’t throw out originals unless you’re sure it’s ok).
Communicate with your collaborators
In this case, a collaborator can be anyone you coordinate with about anything: your romantic partner and/or co-parent, your bandmates, your colleagues at work. Talk regularly to stay in sync about what the priorities are and what needs to get done, and to make sure that nobody feels overwhelmed.
If you feel under-resourced, say that – ideally, along with specific ideas or “asks” for what you need to manage your task load. If you’re in a position of leadership, think about what you can delegate – especially if those tasks correspond to another person’s strengths or area of expertise, or might help them grow their skills.
If you’re working on a long-term project (or running a household), setting a schedule of regular check-ins will be essential.
Track your progress
At the end of each day, and especially at the end of each week, assess what you’ve accomplished and still need to accomplish. Hide any finished do-tos, file away emails you’ve dealt with, and clear out any physical clutter that’s built up.
Then look at your calendar and all of your unfinished tasks, and use them to plot the day and week ahead. Recognize what’s time-sensitive and needs to be moved up, and what can be deprioritized and pushed back.
If you’re maintaining the strategies and systems we’ve discussed in this post, you’ll easily be able to find the information you need for these daily check-ins – and you’ll stay on top of everything in your life, sanity intact.