Organization is key to our work at Forum, and truthfully, key to the productivity of our everyday lives. As we all struggle with feeling like we have more to do and less time to do it, knowing how to stay organized keeps you on track and feeling on top of your schedule. The truth is, we all have the same amount of time in every day – whether you are the president of the United States, the president of a company or yourself. It’s how we allocate our time that determines what our lives look like.

Too often, people are so busy simply flipping from one task to the next and not taking the time to truly understand if what they are doing is really what they should be doing. The good news is there are steps anyone can take to bring more organization into their lives so they can be productive and not just busy. Here are a few tips that I have found to be helpful on staying focused, being efficient, prioritizing and ultimately getting stuff done.

1. It all starts with methods of communication. Today there are endless tools for communicating, which can lead to overload and inefficiencies in knowing not only how to reach people but also in how to organize the information you receive through multiple channels. This communication overload is the culture in which we find ourselves, so we must focus on how to organize it.

All messages, regardless of channel, become “to-dos”. I personally follow the two-minute rule – if you can respond or complete the task requested in two minutes or less, do it now. Otherwise schedule it for later. If it requires further action on my end, I add it into Asana (or whatever your to-do list process looks like) and file it away. Following this rule allows me to streamline all the communication channels into one to-do list, so I eliminate searching for that message from a client that I can’t remember if it came through e-mail, text message or phone call. In addition, I knock out all those small tasks that either add up and become overwhelming or I end up forgetting!

Because e-mail is still the most frequent method of communication for many of Forum’s clients, and the one to which we are seemingly most-tied, I want to focus a little more on the specifics of moving e-mails to action items. After following the two-minute rule, I file the e-mail away. I do not leave to-dos in my inbox. The e-mails simply clutter my inbox and quickly become unmanageable with new e-mails coming in constantly. Although an inbox with zero e-mails is unrealistic, I do try to keep my inbox to no more than 10 e-mails at time before organizing. Keeping my inbox numbers down helps me stay on track when urgent e-mails come in, so I can review my to-do list and shift my daily priorities, if necessary.

Folders. Getting all those e-mails out of your inbox requires a filing system. Create folders. The number of folders and how they are set up is dependent on what works best for you, but decide on a system, stick to it and be consistent. I keep my system simple with a folder for each client and a reference folder for e-mails that I may need to reference in the future but do not apply to any other specific folder. Getting too specific with your folder names can sometimes make it harder to find things when searching. Keeping it simple works best.

Use Rules. Outlook rules can be life-changing when it comes to e-mail management. I set-up rules for any general notification e-mails like listservs or alerts, which enables me to review those folders when I have a moment instead of having the constant distraction of the new e-mail notification. Plus, it keeps your inbox to important e-mails that need attention rather than newsletters and notifications. Another great way to keep those inbox numbers down!

2. Prioritize. With an organization plan in place to manage all the daily communication, the next step is prioritizing all those newly created to-dos. We tend to focus on busy work to avoid the difficult and critical tasks. The downside to this poor prioritization is ending a day feeling like you did a lot of stuff but not really knowing what you accomplished. Do the difficult stuff first because doing unimportant tasks do not make them important even though they may take a long time.

Organize each day. I organize each day by 1) PRIORITY or things that have to get done that day, 2) SECONDARY or things I like to get done but can push if necessary, and 3) ONGOING or things that need to be thought about each day or checked-in on but don’t have a hard deadline. Having a firm understanding of your daily priorities helps you adjust when you get new, unexpected tasks. You are able to adjust your current list of action items or push back on adding a new priority item if needed. Understanding your current, true priorities helps keep clear communication with your team, clients or even family and friends and keeps you from over-promising your capacity.

Organize before heading home. Take a few minutes before heading out for the day to organize your next day. Knowing what is on your plate tomorrow before showing up to the office helps you plan your schedule. Maybe you come in a little early or plan to stay a little late to avoid feeling overwhelmed. I also find prioritizing my next day’s action items makes me more efficient. I spend less time deciding what I need to do and more time actually doing it, ultimately getting more done in the same amount of time. That extra five to 10 minutes at the end of the day saves more time the next, so remember that the next time you decide to drop everything and dash home. You’ll thank yourself the next day.

3. Design your day for you. We all have different energy and interest levels throughout the day. Design your day taking that into account. Know when you are most alert and able and capitalize on those times by doing the most difficult items then. I know I work best in the morning; therefore, I try to avoid critical-thinking tasks late in the afternoon. If I can knock those out in the morning, I can spend the late afternoon hours catching up on e-mails or returning phone calls. It’s better to plan for your varying interest and ability rather than try to work through it or spend hours unproductively staring at a screen. I know I have spent many late hours staring at a screen only to wake up the next morning and knock out the task at hand in a few minutes.

Organizational methods are certainly personal preference. However, I hope these few tips that help me organize my life, personally and professionally, might help you. After all, more hours in a day is not an option, so we might as well figure out how best to maximize the ones we have and begin focusing on being productive vs. being busy.