For Meeting Planners: Organizing Your Office for Less Stress and More Profit

If you discovered your speaking career depended on how organized your office was, your reaction could range from complete composure to sheer terror. Even the most successful professional speakers sometimes utter, "Some day I'm really going to get organized," but purging files, organizing computer files, tackling piles of unread journals, or learning a new software program (even one that will help you get organized!), usually gets pushed to the bottom of your list of priorities while you handle today's crisis.

But can you afford to ignore overstuffed files, unidentified computer files, unlabeled floppy disks, miscellaneous handouts, nebulous receipts, and a generally cluttered office? In years past, it was possible to postpone or even ignore "getting organized," but today it is not, for three major reasons:

1. The amount of information you have to organize is greater than ever before. Although computers once promised us the paperless office, most of us are organizing more paper than ever before. With computer files, faxes, e-mail, voice mail, and on- line services, organization is essential. 2. The demand from meeting planners for a quick turnaround on information is increasing. Meetings are planned with less and less lead-time. As a result, meeting planners need information quickly. If they can send us a fax in 15 seconds, we can't wait a week to reply, and expect them to hire us.

3. The number of people staffing businesses is decreasing. That means we have to do whatever we can to make meeting planners jobs easier. Managers and staff at all levels are required to produce more in less time, and it is to our advantage to help them accomplish that challenge.

So what is an "organized office?" Don't confuse organization with neatness. Remember that old adage "A place for everything and everything in its place?" In my experience, it's half right. A place for everything is very important, but everything in its place may not be. The stress comes, not from the clutter, but when you'd like to clean up the clutter, but don't know where to put it so you can find it again! To put it another way, organization gives you the "ability to recover." The reality of the speaking business today is that we often find ourselves in a crisis mode -- flights canceled, meetings scheduled at the last minute, etc. Good organization makes it possible to recover from these inevitabilities in the least stressful way.

My definition of "organized" is very simple: "Does it work?" and "Do I like it?" If what you do affects other people, you should ask a third question, "Does it work for others?" If the answer to any of these questions is "No," here are five suggestions to help you get started on the road to organization:

1. Remember that clutter is postponed decisions. The reason that desks and filing cabinets become inundated with paper -- and our computers with files -- is that there are decisions we have not made. In fact, there are only three decisions you can make about any document: toss (or, hopefully, recycle), file or act. In my experience, in the typical day's mail, you can toss 40% and file 40%, which leaves only 20% to clutter your desk.

2. Use your wastebasket frequently and encourage others to do the same. When I first started as a consultant, I used to have nightmares that someone would call and say, "When you were here we threw out ... and (something terrible) happened." In 18 years, I've never received such a call! Research shows we use only 20% of what we keep, but how do you decide what you really need? For each piece of information (paper or electronic) ask these questions:

? Does this require action?

? Does it exist elsewhere?

? Would it be difficult to get again?

? Are there any tax or legal implications?

? Is it recent enough to be useful? If all the answers are "No," but you're still not sure, ask one last question: "What's the worst thing that could happen if I didn't have this?" If you can live with the results -- toss it.

3. Implement a good system for keeping track of names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Many of the pieces of paper that clutter up your life are deemed valuable because of a name, address or phone number. Choose a system for tracking this information, and use it consistently. For most speakers today, a computer program, such as Telemagic of ACT, to manage your client database is essential unless your client base is limited, and you do little marketing.

Using the notes section of the program to track information you can use to build relationships, and to trigger important decision dates, can be the difference between booking and not booking. A Rolodex can be a very valuable organizing tool. Use it to keep track of services such as computer repair, graphics, etc., as well as quick access to frequently contacted clients and colleagues.

In addition, you can use it as a mini-filing system. A tidbit of information too small for a traditional file -- for example, a note from an e-mail newsletter about what color print brings the best sales. When you want to file something in your Rolodex, ask yourself, if I wanted this information again, what word would I think of first?"

4. Create a paper filing system that works easily and consistently! If your filing system is not working, ignore it and start over! It is unnecessarily depressing and time consuming to spend time organizing information you are not using. It is much easier to start over than to try and fix it. Clean out your most accessible file space, and put those files into less accessible space if you are not comfortable throwing them. Begin your new system, and as you need information from the old files, incorporate it into the new system.

File information according to how you will use it, not where you got it. For example, file seminar handouts you received at an NSA convention under the topic of the seminar. To determine where to file a piece of paper, ask yourself: If I need this again, what word will I think of? The answer to that question is the file title. Arrange the files alphabetically. The key to the continuing success of your filing system is a File Index -- a list of your file titles. Use your File Index to determine where to file a piece of paper just as you would use a chart of accounts to determine which account to charge an expense. Keep a copy near the filing cabinets and see that co-workers have a copy.

It is easier to locate where a paper might be located by quickly scanning the File Index than by thumbing through drawers of files -- and possibly missing the very one you needed. The File Index not only helps you locate a particular document, but will avoid creating a file for "Car" when you already have "Auto." Remember to keep it an active document. Handwrite changes as you add or delete files, and print out new copies as necessary.

5. Manage your paper on the road as well as you do in the office. Every piece of paper you collect on the road can be divided into three categories: toss, file or act. Play a game with yourself to see how much you can get in the wastebasket before you get back to the office!

Carry file folders labeled by specific action. For example, "Act" is for papers, which require action when you return. Note in the upper right hand corner the specific action you want to take. A "Call" file makes it easy to use the 15 minutes before a flight to make one or two quick calls. "Discuss- (your assistant) contains papers she can handle. Finally, be sure to include one labeled "File" -- with a copy of your File Index. As you get papers along the way that you want to file, check the File Index for the keyword, write it in the upper right hand corner. When you return, filing will be easy. (Consider hiring your 10-year- old!)

So, you want to get organized? "Where do you start?" A good place in most offices is a "File Clean-Out Day" with all the members of your staff. Get plenty of trash bags, wear comfortable clothes, and order pizza. People often ask me, "How long will it take to get organized?" It doesn't matter -- just start somewhere! The longer you wait, the more time it will take, and the more difficult it will be. And remember, human behavior is not like a computer program -- it cannot be installed. It has to be nurtured. Learning new a behavior pattern takes time, but the rewards will be worth your effort!

© Barbara Hemphill is the author of Kiplinger's Taming the Paper Tiger at Work and Taming the Paper Tiger at Home and co-author of Love It or Lose It: Living Clutter-Free Forever. The mission of Hemphill Productivity Institute is to help individuals and organizations create and sustain a productive environment so they can accomplish their work and enjoy their lives. We do this by organizing space, information, and time. We can be reached at 800-427-0237 or at

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