How to get organized at work

How to get organized at work

I’ve probably worked with 1,500 different people in various jobs I’ve had. I could count maybe 4 that ever spent a second thinking about how to get organized at work.

The common way most people approach the concept of ‘how to get organized at work’ is to hit the office around 9am — OK, 9:17am — after checking/responding to a few e-mails from home before that. Typically the first few elements of a workday for a person tend to be:

  • Getting settled
  • Gossip and small talk with co-workers
  • Checking e-mail
  • Diving into meetings

Of course, this varies by person — but again, out of those 1,500, this is over 70 percent of what I’ve seen. But is this really the best way?

How To Get Organized At Work, Part 1: The First Morning Steps

I only start writing this post because I just came across a post on Fast Company entitled ‘The First Four Things You Should Do Every Workday,’ which is conservatively probably the 77,937th article ever written with that title. (“I know, let’s blog about productivity!” — some middle manager everywhere).

Here are their four suggestions:

That’s an OK list — but not a great one. It whiffs on basic human psychology about work.


Here’s the problem most of these articles gloss over: very few people — probably less than 10 percent — actually try to think critically about questions like:

  • What is work?
  • Why am I here?
  • What are my priorities?
  • What is this organization trying to accomplish and how do I fit in?

Instead, most people think like this:

  • I’m awesome at the thing I do and I own that thing
  • I have a boss who will direct my priorities
  • The company will pay me every two weeks
  • So long as the higher-ups are happy at the all-hands meetings, I guess we’re good

The second set of four bullet points is a very logical, common, and easy way to think — and again, it’s most people. It’s incredibly fraught, though, when you consider that most managers have no baseline idea what the organizational priorities even are. And because ‘C-Suite alignment’ is Buzzword City, what probably happens is this:

  • Each department head has a specific set of stuff that’s important to him/her
  • That stuff is barely in alignment with any other departments/divisions
  • Because collaboration is the new black, work projects collapse all the time because the goals don’t align

Phrased another way: if you’re chasing Target A and suddenly you have to collaborate with someone whose boss is chasing Target B, the rubber eventually meets the road there and the project collapses.

So this is why the question of ‘how to get organized at work’ is hard: people don’t really know, or think, about what the priorities and ideas behind ‘work’ are. They just hit the ground running and go on their tasks/deliverables.

You know what happens when you hit the ground running? You smash your face up something proper.

How To Get Organized At Work, Part 2: Five Key Questions

I stole this from Laura Vanderkam, but essentially, ask yourself these five questions:

  • Does it take a step towards a big professional goal?
  • Does your boss say it’s top priority?
  • Does it make you money?
  • Does it lighten your mental load?
  • Can it only be done today?

This whole list is fraught, but it’s still a good framework for most people. Why fraught, you ask?

  • “Step” implies it’s all about chasing personal targets, which is probably true for many — but a generation of narcissists is still a bad thing
  • “Top priority” implies you have a manager who can prioritize, which is rare
  • “Make you money” is the central way most people — especially execs — conceptualize importance at work, totally missing Peter Drucker’s idea about profits and organizational actions
  • “Lighten mental load” basically explains BuzzFeed and Facebook in one sentence
  • “Only be done today” makes logical sense as a question, but again … you need to have a manager that understands how to correctly assign and contextualize due dates and deadlines

Still, those five questions make sense — you should really only do something at work, or only make something an organizational priority, if it:

  • Makes the company (or you) money
  • Your boss said so
  • It needs to be done sooner rather than later

How To Get Organized At Work, Part 3: The day-by-day

A big thing we often miss is that work is really about energy; it’s not even about performance, honestly. (If it was about performance, we would have better processes for promotion and performance reviews; the reason we don’t is because secretly no one has any clue about any of that stuff and is just hoping no one calls them on it and no core processes ever change.)

Because work is about energy, you need to remember that each day is going to be different in terms of energy. Mondays and Fridays are way different than Tuesdays and Thursdays in terms of your attitude, your mental capacity, what you can take on, how many fires you’ll tolerate, etc.

There’s a layout for managing your time at work, though!

Click that link for more, but basically Monday is an organizational day, Friday is a people and low-key day, and the real work gets done on the other three days.

I shifted to mostly freelance/contract work about 75 days ago, right? I can tell you that as a freelancer, literally nothing new happens on Mondays and Fridays — because the people you need to be chasing are holed up screeching about other deliverables and worried about their own bottom line. So you use those days to move other things forward or think about personal branding, etc. You hit the real work on the middle three days.

I’m just one man, but I’ve felt that way at Fortune 500 companies and doing it by myself, so there must be something to this.

How To Get Organized At Work, Part 4: Meetings And E-Mails

Important idea to understand: meetings and e-mails are not actually work. They are a way of talking about and (hopefully) advancing work, yes. But they’re not work. No one is judging your career by how many meetings you dominated or your e-mail response rate, although many people seem to think your career is somewhat judged by e-mail response rate.

If you want to get organized at work, I’d argue the No. 1 most important concept is reducing meetings and e-mails. That’s hard to do because oftentimes those are set or pushed upon you by other people, but there are some tactics:

A lot of the rub with meetings and e-mails in terms of how to get organized at work comes back to basic human respect and decency. People up a chain typically want to control your time in some way — that proves their value back to them, in some fucked-up fashion — so they toss meetings and e-mails around when it’s absolutely unnecessary to do so, which in turns buries productivity and organization about 22 feet below the surface of any organization.

So the simplest way to get organized around e-mails and meetings is to have a spine. If a meeting is obviously an exercise in stroking the meeting-caller’s ego, push back on it. Like I said above, that’s honestly 7 of 10 meetings most people attend. “Well, we’re here to discuss Q2 deliverables for the McLemore campaign…” No we’re not, Bob. We’re here to discuss your feelings of inadequacy at home, so you dragged us all to this room for 1 hour to talk in circles. And since everyone in the room will still leave between 5 and 6pm and only claim to be “on e-mail all night,” that’s 1 hour of productivity lost.

How To Get Organized At Work Part 5: Understanding ‘Busy’

‘The Temple of Busy’ is very important to most people — in large part because we often mistake quantity of work done for quality of work done or relevance. People often bellow about how it’s impossible to get organized at work because they’re “so busy” or have “so much on their plate.”

Here’s the harsh reality: you’re not really that busy, and yelping about how busy you are basically just shows you off as a person with limited time management skills and/or ability to conceptualize priorities. It doesn’t make you more valuable to the firm, no.

How To Get Organized At Work Part 6: Putting Out Fires

In a utopia, we’d all use a mise-en-place approach at work: get organized and settled, line up what you need for the day, and then get going. Of course, that can’t happen — because by 10:01am, your manager is bellowing about some Chinese fire drill that someone kicked down to them. “This is a customer issue, Robert! We’ve got to get in front of this!”

In reality, it’s probably a low-level customer issue — and a high-level quest for relevance issue by some manager. At my last job, I got told approximately 19,822 times (in 17 months) that some topic was “the CEO’s No. 1 priority.” I don’t think it’s possible for one human being to have that many priorities, but I might be wrong.

Most managers set fires all the time to showcase their own importance and relevance, and so — in a question to get organized at work — you need to deal with those fires. The quickest ways are:

  • Ask questions about how, what, who, why, where, and …
  • When, namely ‘when does this need to be resolved by’
  • ‘Where does this fit in with the other stuff we’re working on?’
  • ‘Is there anyone else with bandwidth for this right now?’

Most managers simply douse themselves in gasoline and yelp at you about how everything is a priority and now now now the CEO needs this OMG he’s waiting for it, but in reality that’s usually not the case.

If you talk to them in calm, measured tones and ask questions about what and the whole process … usually you can turn a fire drill into something that doesn’t need to be resolved for three hours or more.

At my last job, I got a turd bomb at 6pm on a Friday to do some slides for the CEO that he apparently needed ASAP, immediately, hair ablaze, etc. I talked to 2-3 people as I was beginning to do the slides. Turns out he needed them 11am Tuesday. Monday would be fine for review. That’s a true story, and stories like that happen all the time. It’s usually much less of a fire than you think if you just talk to people and seek clarity, instead of diving head-first into every e-mail and directive you receive.

Any other ideas for how to get organized at work? Leave ’em.

Ted Bauer

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