Time Management

by Di McLanachan

Get your desk organised

This topic is filled with helpful advice on time management, and in several sections we will be looking at ways in which a shift in your mental outlook may transform you time management capacity, but sometimes the simple solution to a lot of your problems is staring you in the face every time you sit your desk.


Research has shown that, on average, most office-based people spend 17 days a year looking for ‘missing’ paperwork!

Your desk is a place to work, not to store work. It reflects the way that you work; if it looks disorganised and muddled, then your thinking processes will mirror this too, making it very hard for you to work effectively.

Some people actually seem proud of the open cast filing system on their desk. They claim that they can find anything they need as quickly as any other way of filing. Research shows that this is simply not true: papers get lost or pages go missing, leaving incomplete files. If this is you, don’t kid yourself!

Cluttered workspace

Not only is your desk cluttered, there are piles of paper on the floor under your desk, at the sides of your desk, on top of the filing cabinet – everywhere! This clearly demonstrates a disorganised, unprofessional working style, which will not exactly encourage the respect of others. Not only that, others will tend to treat your desk the same way that you do, sometimes leaving important papers tossed casually on top, where they become quickly absorbed into one of the many piles, never to be seen again!


Clutter can also take the form of desk accessories and executive toys. These take up room and are distracting – keep them to a minimum.

To address this cluttered, disorganised working style, you may need the help of a ‘clutter coach’ – someone who will look at your desk and workspace with fresh eyes and be brutally honest about what needs to happen to sort it out. If your desk/workspace has been cluttered for a long time, you have stopped seeing it for the mess that it is and have just accepted that this is the norm. To tackle this task effectively, you may need to do it outside normal working hours, thereby avoiding any distractions or interruptions.

If you are able to adopt the fresh eyes attitude yourself, then you can be your own clutter coach.


Sort your paperwork into these categories:

  • Take action
  • Delegate to someone else for action
  • Throw it away
  • File it: set a day and time each week for filing, so you keep it under control
  • Put into storage: you may be legally required to keep some paperwork for a specified period, but that is still no excuse for it to spend six years on your desk! Consider purging old files on a regular basis. Send these documents to storage. Mark the contents of each box so you can find things easily. Once a year, remove from storage those boxes that are beyond the destruction date. Depending on your industry, they may need to be shredded rather than put in the trash.

Remember to recycle paper, unless it contains sensitive data, in which case it should be shredded. Make this sorting exercise a regular occurrence by scheduling a monthly clear-out day and you will never allow clutter to accumulate again.

Colour coding

Colour code your records as a way of making them easier to find. You could use coloured folders or file tabs. You could reserve a special colour for current or hot files.

Out guides

Use out guides: if you work with other people and share files, create a check-out system so that files are not lost. Put the file name, taken-by name, and date on a card and place it in an out-guide box. When you can’t find what you want, check the box to see if your co-worker is using the file. Another way to do this is put a marker in the filing cabinet itself to give the location of the checked out file. Remember to remove the card when you return the file.

Bring forward

Use a bring-forward system to clear from your desk any documentation that cannot yet be permanently filed because you need to access it again on a specific date. At its simplest, the system can comprise a set of five envelope-style folders, each labelled with a different day of the working week, Monday to Friday. If, for example, you receive a letter on Monday that prompts you to telephone the sender, and you are told that he is out of the office until Thursday, you put the letter into the bring-forward file labelled Thursday. Now it’s off your desk until you check your bring-forward system on Thursday morning, when it will remind you to make that phone call.

You can also set up a monthly bring-forward system by using a ring binder divided into 12 sections, each labelled with a different month. You can even use a day of the month bring-forward system by keeping a set of 31 hanging files, labelled 1 to 31, in a filing cabinet. A note in your diary can act as a prompt to check the appropriate file for relevant paperwork. For example, you are invited via email to a meeting on Friday and an agenda is attached to the email. You print it out and put it in Friday’s bring-forward file. In your diary, where you have logged the time and venue for the meeting, you also write ‘See Friday b/f for agenda’.

Avoid paper shuffling

This happens when a piece of paper does several circuits of your desk without being actioned and given a permanent home elsewhere. This often correlates to indecisiveness – when you hear yourself thinking, ‘I’ll just leave it there for now’. A technique for addressing this behaviour is to make a small mark on the top right-hand corner of the piece of paper every time you touch it. When you find yourself handling this particular piece of paper and by now it has 18 or so small marks at the top right corner, guilt tends to kick in and demand that you take action NOW!