Friday, January 26, 2007

How embarrassing!

Today I'm going to be on the radio -- which is good, because, as they say, I have a great face for radio. Luckily my desk also has a great face for radio and what the radio audience doesn't see won't hurt them.

WHYY-FM wants to hear about my organizational progress at about 11:15 a.m. this morning. My organizational system, while good, is barely hanging on. I have two unwashed cups, a medical receipt, some cookie crumbs and a few random piles on my desk. The piles are very thin, I will say in my defense.

What's happening? Layoffs happened, which means more work and less of an ability to worry about piles. It's more important to hug my colleagues than clean my desk. At the same time, it's even more important to get a grip because when this transition period ends, everything will change and the pace will pick up even more. I'm learning a new skill -- how to put out an online newsletter, so my reporting gets backed up. I'm delving into a newish beat -- health insurance. There's lots of new information and I'm not sure how to file it because I'm not sure yet what the categories should be. Big papers, like the Wall Street Journal, have multiple reporters to cover health insurance, which is just about a third of what I do.

Email is mounting up. I have 750 in inbox, up from a low of 240, down from a high of 4,300, but there are lots of emails in folders. But my attitude toward this has changed. I used to think it was all my fault. But now I think it's partly a matter of capacity. Companies need to give their workers more online space, just like they supply adequate pens, staplers and toilet paper. I'm spending too much time on dealing with emails and trying to file them and having no room.

That being said, I still have hope and confidence in my system -- it just needs a little love. And don't we all!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Chaos, the Bathroom and the Desk

At home, when things are chaotic, I immediately feel better when I clean my bathrooms. I think getting down on my knees and scrubbing the floor makes me feel virtuous in addition to having a clean bathroom floor, which is its own reward. Really, it would make me feel even better if I tore everything out of my kitchen and scrubbed it from top to bottom, but that is entirely too daunting of a task.

My kitchen is big, but my bathrooms are small. I can plant my knees in the middle of the downstairs one and scrub the floor within one arm's reach.

Same thing here at work.

Carmelita wrote into this blog about feeling overwhelmed about her messy desk. She proposed an hour a day of cleaning time. I think that's the work equivalent of tackling a whole kitchen. It'll never happen. No one has an hour a day to devote to cleaning up.

More to the point, it's silly to make unrealistic promises to yourself.

Try for a more bathroom-sized goal of 10 clean-up minutes a day, every day.
If you do, you'll be "flushed" with success. (I had to throw in a bathroom pun to continue the metaphor. Sorry.)

And showered with praise ...

And you won't have that sinking feeling.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Here We Go Again

I'm sitting here thinking about how to write an update on "My Messy Desk." It's funny how much time has gone by and I'm wondering how all the people who wrote to me are doing with their desks, and more importantly, lives.

When I first wrote, I got a lot of half-funny, half-sad letters from folks who were clearly bothered by the chaos in the lives. Some made valient efforts to clean up. Others were in a competition almost -- you think you're messy! How about me? Others just felt overwhelmed. Lots of organizers wrote in and volunteered to come help me clean up. I think they felt sorry for me.

Please write in and let me know how you feel about the changes you've made, if any. What lessons did you learn? I'll incorporate what you say into what I'm writing for the Inquirer in an upcoming story.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Too Many Decisions

My desk still looks pretty good, but I can feel myself losing my organizational grip. And the issue is the same as it always was -- how do I prioritize my work? There are so many good stories on my reporting beat that I have a hard time choosing. That's how email piles up and that's how desk piles begin to grow.

Take today for example:
I would most like to be at a conference at the Bellevue-Stratford Park Hyatt (whatever it's called). The conference is titled the Global Creative Economy and it focuses on how talent and creativity and the economy mix. That mix lies directly at the heart of my workplace beat. There is an inch-high stack of notes from the first day of the conference and other interviews on my desk pertaining to that.

There are three other stories I could do today and each one is represented by a paper or email. One is about a five month lockout at Tinius-Olsen Machine Testing Co in Horsham. That is a long lockout and it would be worth seeing what's up there. A lot of unions are rallying to picket with the workers. I have a couple of emails about that, plus a fax or two.

The Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children released a report today that essentially says that Pennsylvania's youth are not fully prepared to enter the workforce. Again, an important story with implications for our future. That's about three emails.

And finally, there's a group called the MidAtlantic Employers' Association that is publishing a salary survey -- usually there are interesting findings and it is very locally relevant information. Another three emails.

I could probably handle at least one of those stories, but a co-worker I need to help me with a technology project is going on vacation tomorrow. He's the one who knows how to create an online version of an interview with a well-known business author which will appear in The Inquirer soon. So what I am actually doing is transcribing an interview. The interview is fascinating. Transcribing it is boring beyond belief!

So I guess that's what I have to do and I have to let these other stories go, along with the emails. But I feel bad about it and that guilt translates into piles. Well, I'd rather write a blog than transcribe, but I need to get to work.

What do you think I should have done today?

Too Many Decisions

My desk still looks pretty good, but I can feel myself losing my organizational grip. And the issue is the same as it always was -- how do I prioritize my work? There are so many good stories on my reporting beat that I have a hard time choosing. That's how email piles up and that's how desk piles begin to grow.

Take today for example:
I would most like to be at a conference at the Bellevue-Stratford Park Hyatt (whatever it's called). The conference is titled the Global Creative Economy and the ideas presented there of how talent and creativity and the economy mix goes directly to the heart of my workplace beat. There is an inch-high stack of notes from the first day of the conference and other interviews on my desk pertaining to that.

There are three other stories I could do today and each one is represented by a paper or email. One is about a five month lockout at Tinius-Olsen Machine Testing Co in Horsham. That is a long lockout and it would be worth seeing what's up there. A lot of unions are rallying to picket with the workers.

Another is that a group called Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children released a report today that essentially says that Pennsylvania's youth are not fully prepared to enter the workforce. Again, an important story with implications for our future. That's about three emails.

And finally, there's a group called the MidAtlantic Employers' Association that is publishing a salary survey -- usually there are interesting findings and it is very locally relevant information. Another three emails.

I could probably handle at least one of those stories, but a co-worker I need to help me with a technology project is going on vacation tomorrow. He's the one who knows how to create an online version of an interview with a well-known business author which will appear in The Inquirer soon. So what I am actually doing is transcribing an interview. The interview is fascinating. Transcribing it is boring beyond belief!

So I guess that's what I have to do and I have to let these other stories go, along with the emails. But I feel bad about it and that guilt translates into piles. Well, I'd rather write a blog than transcribe, but I need to get to work.

What do you think I should have done today?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Teach the Children

At home, all the year-end activities are building up. We are trying to organize a college tour for my older boy, a high school junior, and I'm trying to help my younger one, who is in a high school research program at Central, get his work together for next year.

When I was talking to these organizer folks about cleaning desks, I noticed that some of them specialize in organizing teenagers. (Do they have any tricks for picking up dirty socks?) Tara Grunde-McLaughlin, one of the Inquirer's readers, thinks that all of us should be taught, as youngsters, to be organized.

Here's what Tara wrote to me:

I want to share my thoughts on the origins of our troubles, whether at home or work. Once, we were all new to our jobs (although we may have inherited file drawers full from previous tenants). Once, at home, we only had a few folders of "important documents."

Eighteen years into adult independent life, I wish I had had a system of organization from the very beginning! It seems we are all trying to close the barn door after the fact, so to speak - or at least lead the horse back in.

This leads me to wonder what, if anything, is being done to guide future businessmen and women. How about a weekend class or two for college students? Are any local universities or trade schools providing anything of the sort? It seems that organization is such an important life and job skill, yet it is expected this knowledge would be just absorbed along the way.

Can we help our youth prevent future chaos?

Monday, June 05, 2006

My God! I Have A Chair!

It's totally immature to crow about this, but the chair in my cubicle is empty!

Long before I started this digging out process, I had a mail crate that was full to overflowing with papers, articles, notes that some day...

Sometimes I stashed this box of dreams and regrets under my desk in my cubicle. Sometimes it was smack dab in the little amount of space that I have, tripping me up. Lately, I've been keeping it my chair as an incentive to empty it. It has taken nearly six weeks to empty it.

So why did an 18-inch pile take so long to go through?
Because I'm trying to finish what I start -- and that is a priority.

One of the main reasons I used to have piles on my desk is that I'd finish a story, the article would get published, yet my notes and phone numbers would stay in a file on my desk. The files grew into towering piles, which hemmed me in physically and psychologically.

Now I'm trying to go through those story files immediately after the story is published -- kind of like doing the dishes after dinner instead of leaving them in the sink. I make sure I keep track of the phone numbers and contacts, check my notes, look over reports and toss what I don't need -- which is 90 percent of it. That process can take me about half an hour per story.

Given a choice between staying current with these ongoing organizational tasks, or getting to the backlog, I've chosen to stay current. The reason staying current matters is because the key to this whole thing, I think, is to have a plan for your work and then, as they say, work the plan.
The Box Of Backlog gets more out of date by the minute, which means regrets for some of the ideas that have been lost in the sands of time. On the other hand, there's nothing that screams trash louder than a two-year-old press release! It makes the tossing all that much easier.

After I emptied the mail crate and returned it to the mailroom, I went out for a cup of celebratory latte. Now, I think I'm going to sit on my chair and read something, before I start the rest of my day.

Anybody else have a triumph? You can confess your mess, but you can also trumpet your triumph.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Love My Tickler

It's not what you think....
I'm talking about a filing system...!!!

Tip Seven: Lots of people like the calendars built into their computers. I have not gotten used to that yet. I'm using a cruder system, but it is one that I works for me, at least so far. I set up a two tickler files. One is on my computer and the other is in my desk drawer. It is a essentially a reminder system with documentation attached.

The one in my computer system is part of my email program.
I set up a series of folders and sub-folders.

The main folder is called Tickler
The subfolders are labeled like this: &01Tickler, &02Tickler, etc. through 31, one for each day of the month. I also have 01January, 02February, one for each month. You have to label them like this because the & keeps the days together and because it is a symbol, the computer alphabetizes the symbols first. You have to use 01, 02, because otherwise the computer will line it up, 1, 10, 11, 12, etc., so presumably, you'd have January, October, November and December, before February, March and April.

When an email pertaining to something that must happen on a particular day, I simply drag it into the proper day's folder. If it is for a day in a future month, I will drag it into that month.
The last day of the month is key. That's the day that I have to open the next month's folder and distribute the material into days for the upcoming month. Also, obviously, if you are checking your email on June 10, and something comes in for July 6, you can drag it directly into the &06Tickler folder, since June 6 has already passed.

I have a similar set of files in my desk drawer. I also write personal notes and reminders on scrap paper and jam them in to a particular day. I can also write an email to myself and shift it into a day.

Newsrooms have long used tickler files, but usually editors maintained them, not regular peons such as myself. But David Allen's book "Getting Things Done" reminded me of the files and I decided to try them out.

I love my ticklers because papers no longer sit on my desk as a "reminder" for action. Of course, you can't be reminded when they are buried under loads of similar "reminders."

I have been training myself to look at the files regularly, particularly on Friday when I need to organize the next week's work. Give the ticklers a shot and let me know how it goes. I just like the idea of ticklers. Cheers me up when I'm organizing my desk.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

New Bosses. Old Emails.

Yesterday all my systems collapsed. I had been doing my best to keep my emails to 240 and my desk clear, but yesterday it just didn't work. Everything built up to a big crescendo yesterday.

All morning long we were waiting to hear if our newspaper would be bought and by whom. All of us were in a tither, writing and writing, reporting, trying to learn a little bit about our investors. Naturally, everyone was on edge.

Then, of course, everything happened right on deadline.

If our new owners, who are some local business people, want to own a newspaper, they've got to learn not to push their news right up to the deadline.

So it was completely frantic from about 4:30 to 8 p.m., what with them giving speeches and us trying to write, edit and gossip. Then at about 7 p.m., I learned about warrants being issued for arrest of some union machinists -- a story I had been following. So that had to be written. When it was all done, my email was up to about 280 and I said, forget it, I'm going home. That was enough.

Now, today, I'll get it back down. I guess getting a new boss (or set of bosses) is a good enough excuse to let email drop.

But I'm feeling more hopeful. The whole time that we've been in this anxious process of being sold, I think I just responded by cleaning my desk. Maybe, I wanted to feel in control of something. I was definitely worried about losing my job, especially since I've been here at The Inquirer for so long (nearly 24 years). At the same time, I was falling in love all over again with being a reporter.

I'll blog again next Wednesday. I'm trying to blog on Mondays and Wednesdays, but last week I was off running a church trip and being a chaperone for Central High School's science fair. (I thought I'd have quality time with my teenage son. Hah!)

Now to attack those emails....

Monday, May 08, 2006

Russell Cooke's plan

When I first started doing this organizing series, one of my colleagues wrote to me about his organizational practices. Russell Cooke, who is an editorial writer for The Inquirer, is far more adept than I am in using the computer as an organizing tool.

Russell uses his Microsoft Outlook Contacts program as more than just a telephone listing. He also uses it as a mini-file cabinet, by making liberal use of the notes section. For example, he has a contact for "Travel Plans." In that section, he keeps names and phone numbers for travel agents, travel websites and anything else he needs to book a trip. He has one for his doctors.

He also uses Microsoft Word as a running notebook, keeping all names and phone numbers as he goes, but also writing many key words. Because Microsoft Word is searchable, this acts as a de-facto phone list, and also allows him to find people even if he can't remember their names, titles or jobs.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Two Minute Rule

Today something is happening here at the Inquirer that strikes me as kind of a joke. We have Brown Bag sessions here at work in which reporters and editors who have developed expertise in certain subjects talk, very informally, about what they do and how they do it.

What's funny is that I'm being asked to talk about organizing my desk. There are lots of things I think I'm good at as a reporter -- developing relationships with people, having good ideas, thinking about holistic and complete approaches to present material, making connections in unusual ways, but I'm being asked to talk about what I struggle with the most, a sense of orderliness.

Of course, in newsrooms, which are legendary for their messiness, someone who keeps a desk clear for three days is probably the equivalent of PhD. OK, so I'll be the expert....

That being said, another tip from my research follows. As a reminder, I will be blogging Mondays and Wednesdays, unless I'm on vacation. Please check back and add your comments.

Tip Six
Once you've collected your items to sort in a box, here's what to do next: Pick the top item and set yourself two minutes to deal with it, either by tossing it, handling the matter, referring it to someone else or filing it appropriately. If it will take longer than two minutes, put it in a project file and on a to-do list, scheduling a time to handle it.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Take A Walk

It's too nice a day to sit inside and organize, so I have a great idea for you that will get you outdoors and also help you with clutter:

Tip Five: Talk over your ideas and organizing strategies with friends (and do it by taking a walk outside!). Ask them for their organizational suggestions, and see if they can find flaws in your logic. But remember: It’s your life and your desk — do it your way.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Rich and the Messy

Today, after a week, I finally opened my mail to find a letter from retired engineer Donald Ironside, of Havertown. He sent along a 1990ish photo, possibly from Forbes magazine, of Fayez Sarofim, an extremely successful businessman, standing amongst the piles in his office. The office itself is gorgeous, paintings, paneling, leather. But the piles are everywhere and if the man gets too aggressive with his rolling chair, he'll run right over them.

Don writes, "Maybe the enclosed photocopy of zillionaire Fayez Sarofim's office will help. It certainly gave me heart." Don's message to me was that some people need their piles and "you should operate to suit your needs." Again, proof to me that the Inquirer's readers are among the most generous and encouraging of any newspaper anywhere, I am sure.

That being said, here are two more tips that I gleaned from my month-long journey into the world of the organized. See Monday's blog for tips one and two.

Tip Three: Collect at least some of what you want to sort into one box so that your desk is clear. If you have more stuff than will fit, leave the surplus where it is. Instead, write yourself a note and put it in the bottom of the box. The note might say, “clean out third file drawer.” When your sorting bring you at last to the note, your box will be empty. Now you can fill it with the contents of the file drawer. Repeat as needed.

Tip Four: Switch back and forth between two tasks - creating new systems that reflect your work style, and dealing with items in your collection box. The reason to alternate is that the items in the box will help to suggest the system, and the system will help you decide what to do with the items in the box.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Speaking of Disorganization....

Sometimes our newspaper is a little disorganized. Part of it is the nature of the product. Can you imagine putting out a newspaper every day with so many different sections and stories, each requiring attention to every comma, plus headlines and photo captions? We make plans, but as the news changes throughout the day, so do the plans. It is always very fluid and sometimes confusing.

All this is by way of introduction to what will follow in some future blogs here. One of the articles planned the final Sunday "Digging Out" package didn't make it in the paper on April 9. It was an article of hints and lessons I had learned in the course of doing the series. So I'm going to break up the story and serve a hint or so on Mondays and Wednesdays. Our online honchos at the paper say people like these blogs short and I believe them. Sorry I've been guilty for writing so long in the past.

By the way, I remain at 240 emails, down from 4330.

Here comes my first tip -- these are all based on the work I did for myself, my sessions with my organizer, my interviews and observations of other organizers and the half-dozen or so books that I read or skimmed.

Tip One: Start by spending some time, but not too much, tossing obvious clutter — for example, I threw out files from companies no longer in business. That will give you a little room to set up your new organizational system. But don’t get caught up in this process, because it is not the most important work.

Tip Two: Thinking is the most important work.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Great News!

Thanks to all of you, my colleagues this afternoon gave me the Ralph Vigoda Award for journalism. This is an Inquirer award named after one of our former colleagues, a kind-hearted and diligent journalist who died prematurely. We all miss him and to honor him, our newspaper gives an award each month to a reporter who exemplifies his fine qualities.

I'm not sure whether Ralph had a clean desk or not -- he worked in our Conshohocken office and I'm in Philadelphia. But I know he brought a rabbit into work. No further comment!

Anyway, they picked me! I am thrilled and I want to thank you, the readers of the paper and of this blog for all your help. When I gave my acceptance speech, I said how wonderful our readers are and they truly are. So thank you. Sorry this sounds delirious. I am extremely happy and excited about this honor. Thanks again.