WORK & LIFE BALANCE: Dealing with the Culprits of Disorganization

Strategies for Staying Organized [PM Magazine, May 2019]

May 3, 2019 | ARTICLE
By Jeff Davidson

In the life of a public manager, three of the biggest culprits to staying organized when you are striving to do so include: junk mail, mismanaged reading, and other people’s clutter.

Eradicating Junk Mail

Even with the wondrous web, paper still plagues us all. Books on time management traditionally discuss how often to handle a piece of paper. Some say once. Some say twice. It always depends on what the paper says. The ideal number of times to handle most pieces of paper is zero, by not receiving them in the first place.

When you make a purchase by web or by mail, your name can be sold and circulated to dozens of catalog houses. Even your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles sells its list of licensed drivers to anyone with money.

In an era when each piece of hardcopy mail adds to environmental glut, it’s your civic duty, as well as an effective technique for achieving breathing space, to reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. To trace who is selling your name, when you make a mail order purchase or a donation, add a code to the end of your street address such as “1A” or “2D.” Later, if you receive mail with your coded address, you know who sold your name to whom.

When making any mail order purchase, feel free to mention or include a preprinted label that reads: “I don’t want my name placed on any mailing lists whatsoever, and forbid the use, sale, rental or transfer of my name.”

Reading on Purpose

The typical career professional faces one to four hours a day of job-related reading. With hardcopy items, if you can, read at a desk or table. Have paper, scissors, postage, and file folders ready.

When you encounter something you choose to enter into your system, you can do so easily. If you’re reading on the web, take advantage of bookmarks or favorites to quickly save and store those items that merit a second look. And keep weeding out the excess.

While it might seem ruthless at first, tear out or copy only those pages of magazines, newsletters, and reports that currently appear important to you. Copy key pages from books. Get to the essence, which is all that you are likely to retain and act upon anyway.

Practice skimming, reading the first sentence of each paragraph, and scanning, looking through the entire body of your material to see which parts are important to you.

Delegate quantities of reading material to staff at work. It won’t take more than 10 minutes of instruction and a few follow-up sessions for you to guide others to quickly find and highlight topics and themes of interest to you.

OPC: Other People’s Clutter

While visiting someone else’s office you notice reports and folders piled high and a desktop strewn with papers—things are in disarray. You immediately know that you have little chance of being treated efficiently by this person. You don’t have the resources to straighten him out, but you can devise some coping skills.

Consider Aaron, an assistant director whose job involves reporting to a boss who is hopelessly deluged with clutter. Aaron knows that the boss’s job involves handling an endless stream of paperwork. This boss has an office and desk, even in the age of the Internet, with many more stacks and piles than Aaron has ever seen in one room.

Aaron’s solution is ensuring that his submitted work will be easily found by buying a box of fire-engine-red report folders and always turning in his clearly labeled assignments in these folders.

If his assignment is to be turned in via e-mail, as most are, Aaron sends a backup copy, purposely, to ensure that his work will be seen, and he uses the clearest possible subject line.

If you have the option, avoid dealing with clutter bugs—a decision you’ll have to face with increasing frequency as this era of too much information overcomes more people.

Jeff Davidson 
is principal, Breathing Space® Institute, Raleigh, North Carolina ( or An author and presenter on work-life balance, he holds the world’s only registered trademark from the United States Patent and Trademark Office as “The Work-Life Balance Expert.” ®