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Guide Life: Get organized and get more done!

Do you spend hours working in the farm office to emerge at the end of the day disappointed with how little you have accomplished?

You’re not alone. For most of us, the time we spend in the farm office is less efficient and productive than the time we spend on almost any other farm activity. To help, we asked two professional organizers to weigh in with their tested and proven ideas on how to streamline your office procedures to avoid time-wasters and accomplish more.

Rhonda Erb recommends starting with the basics. The overarching principle of organization is that everything needs a place, says Erb, a professional organizer with a business called Heart of the Matter based in New Hamburg, Ont. It doesn’t really matter whether that organization system is a paper system or an electronic one, she says. The important thing is that it is a system that works for you.

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Of course, there are advantages for electronic systems, such as the freedom to work remotely, or having multiple people accessing the same information through a shared platform.

But keep in mind, says Toronto professional organizer and productivity consultant Deanne Kelleher, it’s also critical that everyone be able to use your system, whatever it is.

Sometimes it’s best to put a system in place that everyone is comfortable with now, and then move towards a more high-tech system in two to five years, says Kelleher who is confident that everyone can eventually learn a new system, no matter how old they are.

Erb cautions that if you are relying on electronic systems, be sure you are backing up your computer regularly.

Even then, however, don’t think you will be able to get away from paper completely. Both Kelleher and Erb say the paperless office is a myth, so you are still going to need a way to organize the paper in your life.

Otherwise you can too easily end up simply stacking, instead of filing, says Erb. Research shows that those stacks are time-wasters, even if you’re one of those people who tell yourself that you actually know where everything is. One study found such people touched each piece of paper in their office an average of nine times, she says.

Erb likes to use a Hot File for managing temporary paper such as invitations, flyers, receipts, newsletters, and research on a purchase you are considering. “Open the mail beside the recycle bin,” continues Erb. Then make a decision to file it or toss it right away, she says.

Kelleher developed the Core Four System to tame paper clutter. For this method, take four shoe boxes and label one each: To-Do, To-Pay, To-File and To-Read. Sort the piles of paper into one of the four boxes.

For the To-Do box, write each task down in one place such as a notepad. This lets you see them all in one place. If a To-Do is an appointment, enter it into your calendar.

For the To-Pay file, create a To-Pay folder and put all in-coming bills into the folder until it’s time to pay them. Once paid, bills go into the To-File pile.

Create a larger container for the To-Read pile. Use a highlighter or sticky notes to indicate information you want to save. Once read, file or scan an item to be saved and recycle the rest.

The To-File pile represents papers you want or need to keep. Create a filing system using titles on hanging folders that make sense to you.

As new paper arrives, follow the Core Four System to maintain your productivity and reduce stress.

We are all different, and the important thing is to develop systems that work for you. Some people who are very visual will feel more comfortable if information is where they can see it, says Erb. For a farmer client who was very visual and liked to pile papers, Erb created several “hanging piles” on a board using large appropriately labelled magnetic clips. He liked this system, she explains, because he could see them all at a glance.

But this isn’t enough on its own to turn your office mess into a marvel of organization, says Kelleher. Actually getting organized requires behavioural change, which means it takes a lot of effort. Her advice is to evaluate your current systems, acknowledge what you’re doing well, and then choose one area to focus on where you want to improve.

If you need a little help to establish new routines, you can take a course to improve your methods. However, hiring a business coach or professional organizer will give you more hands-on help to set up processes. The advantage of hiring a third party is that they will see things objectively and will hold you accountable for adopting better habits.

The upfront investment can pay dividends in improved productivity. Lori Straus felt overwhelmed by the huge “to-do” pile she inherited when she was hired to manage a theatre in Waterloo, Ont. She hired the professional organizers at Heart of the Matter to help her develop processes for dealing with the backlog of paper. “It let me get so much more done,” she says.

The biggest challenge, Straus says, was developing new habits. In fact, it took about a month, with followup visits from the professional organizer to ensure she stayed on track.

At the time, Straus says she was working mostly with paper but today, as a writer, she works mostly electronically. She uses the “reminders” option on her Mac computer to set “to-do” dates to work on projects at a later time. She adds notes so she will remember what still needs to be done. (The Outlook email program has similar functionality.) The Mac Automator program is also useful for keeping track of repeat task lists for event planning.

One of the biggest time-wasters for people is spending time on things that aren’t aligned with your goals, says Kelleher. It’s too easy to put our effort into things we like doing rather than the things that would really contribute to the success of their business.

That’s why, Straus says, it’s important to set goals and then monitor your tasks to ensure that they are furthering your goals.

A good place to start is with email, our experts agree. Email and social media can be black holes when it comes to time usage. Set aside a block of time for dealing with emails, suggests Erb. The same goes for social media, says Kelleher. Going back several times a day to either, she says, is simply inefficient.

Streamline your office

Check out these organization tips from Deanne Kelleher, professional organizer

5 Tips for Managing your email

  1. Consider creating a Personal Folder and a Professional Folder. Then add subfolders as required.
  2. Create a naming protocol for primary and secondary folders.
  3. Create To-Do or Waiting-On folders to hold information that is still in process.
  4. Create a To-Read folder to save articles of interest to Evernote (
  5. If you have more than one person in the office, create a naming convention policy that everyone can implement. Write the details in your Operations Manual.

5 Tips for Desk Space Workflow

  1. Create an L-shaped working area.
  2. Make sure your space is ergonomically correct.
  3. Keep essential information and tools within reach.
  4. Remove items that are not essential.
  5. Schedule time at the end of each day to clean up.

5 Tips for Paper Flow

  1. Create a place for in-coming and out-going mail.
  2. Use graduated file sorters to easily access daily files.
  3. If you can access it online — then do!
  4. Put it away after you take it out.
  5. Keep present-year financials on file and archive the rest.

Resources There are podcasts by Mark Dillon who will soon be releasing his book, Organize Mindfully — 7 Steps to Create and Maintain Order in Your Life. Deanne Kelleher’s site offers tips for organizing the office, kitchen, closets, time, etc. Here you’ll find podcasts on time management by David Allen. Or read his book by the same name. In his book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, author Peter Bregman shares a process for prioritizing your day in three steps that take 18 minutes over a nine-hour workday: Set your plan for the day, refocus every hour, review how you spent your time.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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