Life at Work

Become a Task Master

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

How organized are you?

If you're like me, you make a list -- at least mentally -- of all the things you have to do. Mine starts out with the day written in capital letters at the top of a tablet page. I usually list the five or so things I really must accomplish by day's end. Oh, it looks so promising.

But I know the reality: Those five things will become about 79 by the end of the day. One boss needs one thing, another boss needs something else. A few interviews creep up that weren't expected. The phone doesn't stop ringing. A girl's gotta eat. Colleagues stop by to chat (thankfully). The e-mails ("I need a response right away!") keep coming. There's a meeting I forgot to mark on my calendar. Then it's 7 o'clock in the evening.

So much for that 9 a.m. boy-do-I-feel-organized sensation.

But it doesn't have to be that way, argues Kenneth Zeigler, an organizational consultant to companies such as the Hertz Corp. and the Federal Reserve and author of "Organizing for Success," a book that claims we can get two more hours out of each workday if we follow his instructions.

After speaking with him, I began to think it was true. But first I had to find my keyboard.

People are less organized at work than ever, Zeigler said. That's because downsizing in recent years has left many people simply overworked and overwhelmed. Even if a worker isn't taking on a job that used to be completed by four people, the onslaught of instant messaging, BlackBerrys, e-mail, voice mail and text messaging means employees are always on. And that means they can't get any one thing done without interrupting themselves to do several other tasks.

One thing we all need to learn, he said, is to cut into demands to have something done immediately. If people realize you'll get something done if they push you at the last minute, they always will, he said. "What you need to do is move them away from that expectation, or they won't plan ahead."

If workers say they can't do something at that very moment, then the demanding person will learn to plan ahead. "All of corporate America is extremely reactionary," he said. "We give the impression that we can go to another person and they will do something for us immediately."

Next, we need to learn to control ourselves. Zeigler recommends a "master list" to control all the things that fly at you every day.

Zeigler said the most used, and least effective, tool is a to-do list. "A typical to-do list might contain dozens of items that a person would naively hope to accomplish in a day," he writes. (Okay, now I'm embarrassed.)

A master list, on the other hand, is a weeklong slate of tasks that need to be accomplished, but it's also a changing list to which we add ideas as they pop up, personal to-dos and notes from conversations. He recommends we update the list at the end of each day. It's a good time to do it because it provides a sort of closure and separation between work and home.

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