It’s time to stop drowning in your work and reclaim some hours in your day. We ask the experts how you can increase productivity, decrease stress and get on top of your daily tasks.
Doing your job might involve working out of the back of your ute, going to clients’ sites, manning a grill or pounding the keyboard in an office. But no matter what your livelihood is, many of the tasks involved with actually running your business are done with a computer on a table. And you may not be all that great at it.
“A lot of us have never been taught how to work. We don’t have those day-to-day skills that you need to manage your desk, your emails, and all the other administrative tasks. Taking time to learn these things will save you time in the long term,” says Cyril Peupion, author of Work Smarter: Live Better.
Taming all the time-sappers that lurk at your desk means looking at both the physical set-up of your workspace and the basics of how you do things. Too much clutter – whether it’s piles of paper on your desk or emails in your inbox – costs you time and, in the end, money. So take the advice of experts and dejunk your life. It could make an amazing difference to getting things done.
1. Think “clean desk”
Keeping your focus on the task at hand could be as easy as keeping your desk clear. When you’re more focused, you get things done faster. “Your desk is not a task management system. People leave things on their desk thinking they’ll forget to do them if they put them away. Use your calendar to tell you what needs to be done and how long it will take. Your documents need to sit in a filing system until they’re needed.
Have nothing on your desk but the document you’re working on.” Cyril Peupion
2. Open it and file it
Keep on top of clutter by dealing with it every day. That way you won’t lose important documents in the mess. “Open your mail daily, when it arrives. Deal with anything that’s urgent, and then create a system to deal with the rest. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Set up files on an ‘as needs’ basis, and make sure you use them.” Irene Biesbroek
3. In a logical filing system
“Create a filing system that is so logical and useful that you respect it. Take a pen and paper and think about your roles. That’s the basis of your filing system. Expert, sales, marketing, management, finance… Then, whatever system you decide to use, you must continue to use it. Until it becomes a habit.” Cyril Peupion
4. Make friends with the bin
“Get rid of the rubbish. Recycle or shred anything that’s no longer current or relevant. Not sure where to start? Choose one drawer from your filing cabinet and purge it. Or focus on the office equipment – old printers, cables, phones – that are still hanging around despite being replaced with newer models.” Lissanne Oliver
5. Don’t drown in your inbox
Responding to every email as soon as it arrives can steal hours of your time. “Don’t have your email inbox open all day. Choose once or twice a day to do emails. Then, take a look at your inbox. Go through it and make decisions. Do you need it? Can you act on it right now? Can you get that information again easily? Delete what you don’t need.” Cyril Peupion
6. Plan your time
You can use cloud-based calendars that sync with your smartphone to make sure you never miss an important event or a deadline. Schedule in holidays, family and me-time as well, so you don’t overstretch yourself. If you need to get an overview of the entire year, put up an annual planner chart on the wall.
“There are three key steps in learning to manage time. Number one, think quarterly. Number two, plan weekly. Number three, act daily. Block in half an hour every three months to think – what are the two or three things that will have a huge impact on your business if you do them well in the next quarter. On a weekly basis, review your focus on those three things and plan them in your diary. Each day, have the discipline to do what your diary tells you. Respect it. Keep an eye on what’s important.” Cyril Peupion
7. Schedule filing in your diary
There are some people who like filing, and many of us who don’t. But it’s a necessity.
“A lack of discipline around maintenance is where most people go wrong with their home or small business office. You need to do your filing regularly. Open your mail every day. Do your shredding. Get rid of envelopes. Make sure you have an action system that incorporates a ‘to do’ list and schedule filing in your diary.” Karen Koedding
8. Keep your desk stocked
Sometimes it’s the little things that are aggravating. Not having a pen that works, or staples, or running out of printer ink… Keep everything in its place, even if it’s just pens in a cup, so you don’t waste time having to hunt them down. And keep an eye on your office supplies so you don’t run out at the worst time.
9. Make your work space pleasant
Your work area should be an inviting space, not a dingy hole you want to avoid. Being in a dark, messy corner can pull down your mood and make you less productive. Don’t let boxes and other junk encroach on your workspace. Brighten the space with some colour, even if it’s just a rug or a picture.
If you can, set up your desk in a space with good natural light. If not, make sure there’s enough task lighting so you don’t strain your eyes.
Don’t forget about ergonomics. You don’t want to break your back by working on a chair and computer at the wrong level. Your desk and chair arrangement should be as good as you can afford.
Have effective cooling and heating, too. It’s difficult to concentrate if you’re feeling too hot or cold.
10. It takes 21 days to change a habit
“For the first few days, challenging your work habits will seem weird and will feel uncomfortable. [But] it takes 21 days to change a habit. So practise and persist for 21 days, and in 21 days what you are practising will become a new habit.” Cyril Peupion
Meet the experts
Irene Biesbroek from Home Office Organiser combines 40 years’ experience in business management with organisational and counselling skills. She specialises in work organisation so her clients spend less time at their desk and enjoy a better work/life balance.
Karen Koedding started her professional organising firm, A Little Elf, in New York in 2004, then moved to Sydney in 2007. Before training in interior design, Karen worked as an accountant and financial controller.
Lissanne Oliver is one of Australia’s best-known professional organisers. Before founding her business SORTED! in 2002, Oliver learnt her organisational and coordination skills during 16 years working in film, video and stills photography and advertising. She has appeared on television shows Better Homes & Gardens and Your Life on the Lawn, and is the author of Sorted!: The ultimate guide to organising your life — once and for all. Her business aims to smooth out the knots in a client’s day and teach them how to keep it smooth.
Cyril Peupion is the co-founder of Primary Asset Consultancy, which has been contracted by firms such as Westpac, Suncorp and AMP to teach staff more effective ways of working. Peupion says working smarter can give you back two hours in the day, and you can spend that with your family and having fun. He is the author of Work Smarter: Live Better.
Andrew Heaven, financial planner at WealthPartners in Milsons Point, NSW, learnt to rethink the way he tackled tasks.
“When you’re first starting in a small business, your first issue is not about being efficient, it’s about being profitable,” says financial planner Andrew Heaven. “But once you’re profitable, your prime asset is your time — and the way you improve that is by becoming more efficient.”
When consultant Cyril Peupion visited Heaven for the first time, he found a desk awash with folders, and Heaven admits he’d felt overwhelmed by the number of complex tasks in front of him.
Peupion says piles of folders are common. “Your desk becomes a task management system. A lot of people have never been taught how to manage their tasks. People are cluttered.”
Under Peupion’s guidance, Heaven now makes smarter use of filing systems so he can quickly see which tasks need immediate attention, and well-labelled folders help him store material he might need to read more than once.
“I discovered that email shouldn’t distract me from getting things done. I’ve also learnt that everything I look at requires a decision — can I deal with it straight away or do I need to schedule time to deal with it later.
“A lot of what I keep for the future is now stored electronically. I don’t keep a hard copy. One of the biggest changes in business is that we can now store things in the cloud, where it’s safer and easier to access.”