For years, I had a very specific dream: to work in a bright and airy office, featuring a sleek, built-in desk with storage solutions that would make Martha Stewart jealous. The backdrop would be a wall of crisp, white bookcases, where everything—from paper clips to old PowerPoint printouts—has a home.
Too bad that vision was far from my reality.
The truth is, my offices have always been disorganized—but I was a master at faking out passersby. If my boss popped in, I could swiftly slide stacks of paperwork, books and even shoes into desk drawers, and she’d be none the wiser.
This system worked well enough when I was a magazine writer and editor. But once I started working for myself last year, my penchant for flinging files shined a nasty spotlight on a real problem. Reprinting contracts, forgetting appointments and, worst of all, completing low-priority work first reduced my productivity to rubble.
It all came to a head when I blew the opportunity to do a national TV show segment. When the producer followed up, asking for quick revisions, I couldn’t finish them in time because I was already racing the clock to hit another deadline, needed to pick up my kids from school and race to the supermarket to beat an impending snowstorm.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but the situation also taught me a valuable lesson: I needed to better prioritize my deadlines, stop procrastinating and follow up faster. So a few months ago, I buckled down and finally dumped my disorganization for good—and it paid off. Here’s what I learned.
The first thing I did was clean up my desk. I’d heard great things about Marie Kondo’s decluttering manifesto, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” so I picked up a copy. In it, Kondo says that if an item doesn’t bring you joy, toss it.
Since I had no emotional connection to, or professional need for, old industry publications and meeting notes, I trashed them. Next, I invested in a desktop scanner to convert paperwork I needed into tidy digital files—then promptly kicked myself for not doing this sooner. Anything that couldn’t be tossed or scanned, I neatly organized in filing cabinets or storage bins.
Finally, I devised a system to keep mail from piling up: I’d check my mailbox daily, and either file it, place it in the “to-do-today” bin or immediately throw it out. This process alone reduced my paper clutter by about 80 percent. Now, instead of hunting for my tape recorder or notes, I can locate any item in an instant.
Once I’d overhauled my physical space, I shifted my focus to learning new habits for prioritization. In researching a piece I wrote for Grow about productivity hacks, I’d picked up a couple tricks I could put into practice.
One hack is to start the day by adding new tasks to a running to-do list, categorizing each as “A” (complete today), “B” (complete within three days) or “C” (complete by next week). This helped me go from mindless multitasking to zeroing on—and actually finishing—one task at a time. And that’s made me a faster, more efficient worker.
Another is to use my Gmail calendar to break up the day into two-hour time slots because writing, editing, managing social media and pitching prospective clients require different skill sets. So I schedule the most pressing tasks—category-A items—when my concentration is sharpest, which is generally before noon. The outcome is that I complete assignments sooner, which my editors like, resulting in both new and repeat business.
In addition to my day job as a writer, I’m also a wife, mom, carpooler and volunteer. And when life is busy (read: always), I can feel frazzled. What I realized in completing this pro-productivity exercise is that part of the reason I was often distracted and time-strapped is because I did too much.
I recalled once asking an executive in an interview how she balanced it all. Her response? “Outsource, honey!” So taking a page from her book, I now order groceries online, live by a family chore chart and call a cleaner to tidy up the house from time to time. Freeing up this time has, in turn, allowed for more space and innovation at work.
And it’s already paying off. In the last three months alone, I’ve scored six new clients and increased my income by 25 percent a month—all thanks to a little effort and a lot less clutter.