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Why Clutter Hurts Your Leadership and What You Can Do About It


By: Barbara Hemphill


It's a simple fact: Clutter is postponed decisions®. Many managers have cluttered offices—unless they have an organized assistant. If you don't believe it, start looking around you! Begin in your organization, and then look in places like the manager's office of your local retail store.  

Managers think "big picture," but following through on details can be a struggle. They like to start things, but finishing them can be a challenge. Often the more brilliant a person is the messier their office. Sorting and filing seem like a lower priority than creating a new product or serving your customer. However, is it? It's easy for observers to wonder, "If someone can't manage their own office, how can they manage a department or a company?"  

According to a study by Brother International, the cost of messy desks and time spent looking for misplaced items in corporate America is about $177 billion annually. That price tag, figuring the time spent daily hunting for lost files, staples or documents, added up to 76 hours—or nearly two workweeks—a year. According to the same study, it is also taking a toll on your personal income, since almost one-third of those surveyed failed to get reimbursed for a business or travel expense because they misplaced or lost a receipt.  

What is the Problem? 

Getting and staying organized is not easy—if it were, there wouldn't be so many highly successful, intelligent, creative people who struggle with it.   Unfortunately, schools do not teach organization skills, so unless you were born organized or had a good role model for organization when you were growing up or in a job situation, you're out of luck.  

The combination of computers and a desire to reduce overhead expenses means fewer administrative assistants, and as a result, messier offices.  

Solving the Problem

There are numerous ways to organize an office, but statistically, most offices have too much stuff. Look at each item in your office and ask the question, "Does this help me accomplish my work or enjoy my life?" If the answer is "No," but you're still reluctant to get rid of something, ask, "What's the worst possible thing that would happen if I didn't have this?" If you can live with your answer, "donate, recycle, or toss it"—and work happily ever after.  

If organizing doesn't come naturally to you, it's unlikely that with even the best system you will have a continuously neat desk, but cleaning it off at the end of the day, or at the very least, the end of the week, will be a cinch if you simply have a SYSTEM (Saving You Space Time Energy Money). 

Designing Your SYSTEM: The Magic 6

Half of any job is using the right tool.  Here are six tools you can use to eliminate the clutter in your office, and accomplish your work and enjoy your life: 

  1. In/Out/File

Place three containers on your desk within reach of your chair.  

1) One for the items you have not yet read.  

2) One for items you need to take someplace else—another person's office, the post office, etc. 

3) One for items you need to file in a location within your own office that you can't reach from your chair.

  1. Wastebasket/Recycle/Shred

Make it easy to get rid of what you don't need.  For example, if you have a shredder, but you can't reach it from your chair, use a desk drawer, or a small box under your desk. Then develop a system for actually getting the paper shredded—whether you do it yourself or hire your child to do it! 

  1. Calendar

One of the most significant contributors to a messy desk is papers that serve as reminders to do something.  Keeping an open schedule on your desk for making direct entries can help eliminate this issue. While most of us are great at making appointments with other people, we're not so good at making appointments with ourselves. We need to care for ourselves to meet the needs of others.

  1. Contact Management System 

Another significant source of office clutter is papers (and electronic files!) with contact information– names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mails, etc.  

  1. Action Files

Place these files within reach of your desk.  They contain the papers you need to work on your current projects.  Sort in three different ways:

 1)  By date (files labeled 1-31 for the current month, and Jan – Dec) for papers you need on a specific day. 

 2)  By type of action 

(e.g., "Data Entry" "Expense Reimbursement," "Waiting for Response"

 3) By name of project, client, or event

Most people have a combination of the three.  For example, the August 15 file might remind you to write a new blog, while the project file labeled
“Blog Ideas" would contain the information you need actually to write it. 

  1. Reference Files

These files contain all the papers you may not often -- or ever-- need, but don't want to throw away.  Locate them in or outside your office. Your "To File" box will serve as a place to hold the papers you need to file. 

Some projects may have both an Action File and a Reference File.  The Action File will contain the papers you are currently using on a project, while the Reference File will contain the completed papers that you want to retain for historical or legal purposes. 

Today’s mail is tomorrow’s pile!  So here's your challenge: Set aside four hours.  Clear your desk by putting everything on it in a box.  Set up The Magic 6 to stop future clutter, and provide a SYSTEM for every new piece of paper in your office. 

Maintaining Your Success

Organizing is an art!  People often ask, "What should I do?" but the real question is "What will you do?"  

No one likes to think about maintenance—but unless you figure out how you can maintain any system, you will fail.  You can buy a Lamborghini, but if you don't complete the necessary maintenance, you will soon have a pile of junk. You can go to a health spa and lose a lot of weight, but maintaining good exercise and good eating habits are essential if you don't want to gain back everything you lost.  One way to think of maintenance is "plan + habits."  

If you know yourself well enough to know you won't maintain it, and you want your office to reflect the quality of the products and services you provide, hire someone to help a few hours a week.  Your office will look better, you will feel better, and your leadership will shine!  

©Barbara Hemphill 2016-2019

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Barbara Hemphill

About author

Founder & CEO at Productive Environment Institute

Barbara's passion is helping businesses create a culture to decrease the amount of time it takes an employee to accomplish a task by eliminating the physical and digital clutter in computer, desks, offices, and storage areas. Research reveals that the average employee spends 19% of their time looking for what they need. For a company with 20 employees at a wage of $15/hr, that means a lost productivity cost of $115,000/yr. By creating and implementing SYSTEMs (Saving You Space Time Energy Money), an organization will increase profit, and employees are able to meaningfully accomplish their work and enjoy their lives.

The company she founded, Productive Environment Institute, has trained 300+ individuals around the world through a comprehensive on-line program that enables individuals who love systems to build a productivity consulting business. This program affords them the opportunity for substantial income, flexible hours, and the ability to work from anywhere by becoming a Certified Productive Environment Specialist.

As a follower of Jesus, Barbara loves to share her knowledge and experience with diverse audiences to offer hope and specific techniques they can implement immediately. Frequently referred to as the “Paper Tiger Lady,” she is the author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Work, Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever, Organizing Paper @Home: What to Toss and How to Find the Rest! and Less Clutter More Life.

Starting with a $7 ad in a New York City newspaper, Barbara was a pioneer on the cutting edge of what USA Today calls an $8 billion dollar industry. She’s appeared on CNN Nightly News, Today Show and Good Morning America. She was featured on the covers of Today’s Business Woman and Guideposts, and in Fast Company, New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, Real Simple and Reader’s Digest.

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