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Get organized and quit looking for things

Stephanie Davis of Jackson, a professional organizer, has a simple formula for helping businesspeople realize the costs of poor organization and time management skills: “The average executive will spend an average of 150 hours per year looking for things,” Davis asserted.

Work out those costs per hour on an executive salary, Davis said, and people begin to regard organizational skills as essential tools for

doing business rather than desired personality traits.

Martha Fulcher of Fulcher Organizers disdains the thought that some people just can’t get organized. “Organizing is a learned skill. It enables you to be calmer and to have more energy. Disorganization is a drain on your energy.”

Davis predicates her advice for her clients on the premise that whatever can save time can improve how the clients do business and make them more efficient — one of her first tasks is to create a “time map” to pinpoint how a client uses time, how much time tasks essential to the job take and where time is wasted. Space organization can play a part in increasing the time available to complete tasks by making them simpler to perform, said Davis.

Fulcher looks at use of time and resources as they serve the client’s priorities. “From your values come your goals; from your goals come your steps,” Fulcher said. Goals must be written down and doable within a time limit, Fulcher said; then the client can concentrate on activities towards that goal. “If you don’t have a plan, you can’t prioritize.”

How do these principles play out on a day-to-day basis? Davis indicated that many of her clients in sales or in executive positions complain that they spend all day reacting to phone calls and taking appointments, leaving much of their “work” still to be done after 5 p.m. Time management tips can ease the stress of too many appointments and too many unscheduled interruptions:

• Don’t overschedule. “People do a to-do list that is too ambitious,” Davis said. Fulcher noted that many people actually forget to plan for travel time to get from one appointment to another, frustrating their efforts to keep to a schedule.

• Don’t allow too many drop-ins or social visits during the workday. “Most people think that other people cause them to waste time,” Fulcher said, adding that people-oriented personalities are prone to allow these kinds of timewasters.

• Move less time-sensitive tasks to later in the day. “Sixty to 70% of productivity goes on before lunch,” said Davis, suggesting important priorities take precedence in the morning hours.

• Recording appointments accurately and routinely. “You have to have a consistent place to record everything. You have to have confidence in your planner,” said Davis.

Keeping appointments and other pertinent information in your head isn’t recommended. Dayrunners and PDAs are the most common organizational tools for professionals on the run; Davis indicated that analytical and linear thinkers among her clientele like PDAs such as PalmPilots, while visual thinkers and people in creative professions tend to rely on Dayrunners or calendars. Some people maintain dual systems, with computer program prompts and written desk calendar notes.

“People hang on to paper for comfort reasons,” Davis said. She also notes a common characteristic of PDA users: “To use the PDA effectively, you have to be very organized already.”

David Steele, technology manager at Office Depot in Pearl, said PDAs are moving beyond their original functions of to-do lists, address and contact information and hour-by hour calendars; many of the newer models are more accurately termed pocket PCs with increases in battery power, e-mail access and applications such as Word and Excel packaged into the device.

The most common buyers of the more powerful wireless units include military personnel and medical professionals, while the PalmPilot is still more popular among appointment-dependent professions such as real estate agents and salesmen.

Steele noted the organizational value of the devices is increasing, especially time saved in being able to prepare applications while away from the office and sync the PDA with the main computer or laptop to print or store information.

“You get a 14-hour battery as opposed to the four-hour battery on most laptops,” said Steele.

Mary Burcham of Ridgeland, group manager for Discovery Toys who works from her home, still relies on a paper system for much of her customer information and time management skills; although her computer has a calendar function, “I don’t know how it works,” Burcham confesses.

Burcham began managing her time with a Dayrunner after her husband, a telecommunications engineer, took a company-provided course in how to use it effectively. Burcham found, however, that the nature of her business did not demand a lot of hourly or even daily appointment organization; as an independent toy distributor, her business is seasonal and is best organized month-to-month, so Burcham records sales made, orders placed and follow-up contacts on the monthly areas of her planner.

Most of her follow-up contacts and sales alerts now go out by e-mail, a method Burcham prefers since she does not waste so much time leaving voice-mails and wondering if the client got the information. Her customer and sales contact list is computerized to save keystrokes and her new Web site is included in all e-mails so customers can check out catalog information online — a bonus over mailing and addressing costs for her business, Burcham said.

Home offices can be particularly hard to maintain since the line between home and business space is often blurry. Davis’ advice is to have a designated space and keep everything related to day-to-day business in it. An efficient filing system and good computer file management can keep the space from drowning in paper, said Davis, who relies on two acronyms — OHIO (Only Handle It Once) and FAT (File it, Act on it, or Toss it) — to control paperwork overload. Executives often ask for training they can pass on to their employees, saying “I need space management and time management so that when you get me organized, I can teach others in my office,” said Davis.

Davis cautions that any new organization system has to be learned — and the learning curve can be frustrating. Fulcher maintains that a habit takes 21 days to form and advises her clients to keep working at whatever system they adopt.

“Once you get a system set up, you have to maintain it — that is the last step in organizing and the hardest part,” Fulcher said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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