In my last post, I literally opened up my closet to show you my first organizing project of the year. When working with my clients, I find that they are often not as productive as they could be because they aren't organized and they don't have good systems in place, which creates clutter and confusion, leading to a vicious cycle of disorganization and poor productivity.
I talked about the basic steps to getting rid of office clutter on Lawyerist some time ago, but this post expands on those ideas, particularly with respect to Step 3 - organizing.
Step 1: Clear Out
The first step in de-cluttering is to determine what you have. The best way to do that is to clear everything out.
If just not possible or practical for you to tackle your whole office at once, you can begin de-cluttering on a smaller scale, by doing one area (such as one shelf, one desk drawer, or your desktop) at a time. But as you go through the de-cluttering process, remember one of the enemies of organization is duplication if you don’t know what you have or you can’t find it, you tend to collect multiples. If you’re not doing your whole office at once, you’ll have to be even more aware of duplicates.
Step 2: Quick Sort and Purge
Once your office (or that one desk drawer) is empty, it’s time to sort through all of the stuff. The initial sort is done on a ‘one touch’ basis – pick something up and make a snap decision as to which pile it belongs in. You can read more about this step here.
One of the most important parts of the initial sort is the purge – getting rid of what you don’t need. If you’re feeling stuck in your practice, you might be surprised at the effect that a good purge can have. Getting rid of the old or outdated makes room for the new and frees up your energy.
Your office should only contain paperwork that you’re currently working on, supplies and files that you need on a regular basis. Keep only those items in your office that you need to take action on or that you need to refer to when doing your work.
After this first round of sorting, you’ll probably still have more stuff than you really need to keep. That’s where Step 3 comes in.
Step 3: Organize
This is where the really serious work begins. First, take everything that doesn’t belong in your office and put it where it belongs – file room, your secretary’s desk, etc. Then you’ll only be organizing what needs to go back in your office.
Before you put anything back, ask yourself these questions:
- When was the last time I used or referred to this?
- Is this something I need to use or access frequently?
- Is this information I can easily find elsewhere (like the internet)
- Does it fit my current practice and my goals for my firm?
- Will it advance what I am seeking to achieve?
Create broad categories that work for you (too many categories or categories that are too specific may be difficult to remember and actually make organization more difficult). Some categories you might consider if you’re de-cluttering your office might include:
- Marketing/promotional materials
- Research files
- Client files
- Personal files
- Personal items (photos, mementos)
- Office supplies
- Reference materials
- Work to be done
For categories like ‘work to be done,’ don’t keep the entire file in your office unless you’re going to work on it right away. Instead, create some other reminder of what needs to be done, and only retrieve the file when you need it.
Next, you’ll need to create a home for everything that’s left. You might consider organizing by:
- Proximity (put things that you use together near each other)
- Space (make sure you use space to your advantage)
- Frequency of Use (how often you need to access something – the more you need it, the more accessible it should be)
- High traffic areas are free from congestion
- Storage space and necessary materials are accessible
- You can easily see memo boards and important information that’s accessed daily
Tip - Technology is your friend
In the age of electronics, there’s even less need for the piles of paper, whether it’s forms, templates, checklists, periodicals, reference materials, etc. Rather than keeping a file cabinet full of reference materials or templates, etc., scan those items into your computer and save them electronically. You’ll feel lighter without all of that paper!
“I need to see it” syndrome
One way clutter piles up is because you think you need a physical reminder of what you need to do, or you’ll afraid you won’t get it done. Bad organizational and management habits and lack of productive systems can create this syndrome. But the truth is that the idea that you need the physical reminder actually reduces, rather than increasing, your efficiency and effectiveness. Having piles of work or files, etc. makes it more difficult to focus on the task at hand – you’re literally getting buried under your ‘to-dos!’ – they’re physically looming over your head.
If you really can’t do without the physical reminder or are afraid to rely solely on your electronics or your calendar, keep folders or lists grouped by category in your office; instead of keeping a big bulky file in your office, you’ll have only an item on your list or one piece of paper noting what you need to do.
Files and Filing
Create a filing system that works for you – the simpler, the better. Don’t file stuff just to get it off of your desk. Only file what you’ll actually need.
Statistics show that 80% of what you file will never get used or referenced again.
Reduce ‘reference’ files – ask yourself:
- Can this information be found elsewhere (such as on the internet)?
- Do I need the whole thing (i.e. just cite vs. whole case)
- Will it be outdated by the time I need it again?
- Can I scan it and save it electronically?
Closed files: Move them to an out of the way or off-site storage area or scan them; don’t let them use prime space in your office
Electronic files: just like paper files, electronic files can get lost and you can waste time searching if you don’t create conventions for naming files and documents so that you always know where to find what you’re looking for. Begin with broad categories and name documents accordingly.
Your desk: Your desk is PRIME real estate – the most prime real estate in your office. That means anything that’s kept on your desk should be something that’s used daily. Move non-work items off of the desk. Keep office supplies in drawers or on shelves where they’re within reach but not cluttering up your desk. Make use of vertical space – hang shelves or wall pockets or bulletin boards to keep control of those ‘important’ papers that regularly pile up on your desk. These methods keep the important reference information or reminders in view without interfering with your work.
Don’t keep shuffling paper around on your desk; make a decision about what to do with it; if it needs action, schedule it (see step 4).
Business cards: Get rid of that stack of business cards from networking events, etc. Scan the information into your contact system (or have your assistant enter it) with notes from your meeting and toss the cards.
Periodicals: Newspapers, trade magazines and other periodicals multiply quickly. To keep them from piling up, skim through the table of contents and pull out only those articles that you want to read. Keep a ‘reading’ folder in your briefcase for waiting in the doctor’s office, waiting for your adversary in court, riding on the train, etc. TOSS the rest! You may consider having a secretary or assistant pre-screen your periodicals and pull articles for you.
The same goes for electronic ‘periodicals,’ RSS feeds, alerts, and newsletters that clutter up your email. The same content gets recycled over and over, so if you haven’t read it and it’s over a week old, delete it or save it to a designated folder, like a ‘library’ or 'reference' folder on your computer - or save it to Evernote and tag it for easier retrieval later.
Step 4: Schedule
Once you have managed to clear out your space and organize the work to be done, it's time to schedule a time to actually accomplish those tasks. Use your calendar wisely and don't over-schedule. And remember to leave time for the chaos factor.
(For more on getting organized and productive, I recommend David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, where many of these tips originated)
Need help with your law office organizing project or don't know where to start? Post your comments or questions below - or contact me to see how I can help.