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New Year, Fresh Start By: Nicole Bridge

Happy New Year! Take this annual fresh start as the opportunity to set yourself up for a successful year.  The beginning of the new year is the perfect time to set your intentions for greater efficiency in both your personal and professional life. Consider the way you write your to-do list and how you plan your day. Organize your desk supplies and email inbox so that you can minimize headaches and access the resources you need quickly.  Here are some suggestions for increasing productivity and minimizing distractions so you can stay focused and on target with your current responsibilities and future goals:  

Make Your To-Do List Do the Work

An effective to-do list drives your schedule and spares you from having to stop and decide what to do next. Your brain only has capacity for a certain number of decisions each day, so leave room for making decisions that will contribute to your organizational success and professional goals instead of burning up all your energy on decisions such as "what should I do next?” or "what time should I eat lunch?”. Steve Jobs’ now famous daily uniform of a black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers was his answer to decision-making fatigue. He was limiting the number of minor daily choices in order to leave enough room for product-driven decision-making and creative work. Write your to-do list the night before so that the moment you wake up, you know exactly how to get started.

Construct an Effective List 

It feels good to scrawl a triumphant line though something on your to-do list, but don’t overpack your list with meaningless items just to get that high! A good list should help you balance the things you need to get done in your personal life (pick up the dry cleaning, make dinner) with projects and assignments at work (write that proposal, send the meeting wrap-up notes). Consider the urgency and intensity of each item as you plan. For example, the meeting wrap-up notes should be sent within at least 24 hours after the meeting. And, that proposal deadline- even if it’s tight- likely gives you enough time to split that project into small tasks that can be completed over several days.

Plan a to-do list format that works with your style and the arc of your day. The following are some guiding principles as you get started:

-          Make room for your own values and emotional outlook. Exercising, checking in with a friend, sitting down for dinner… if these fit in with your value system then they are a priority.

-          Keep the list short. Consider dividing your list into buckets: work, home and correspondence. Then write short task lists for each. For example:


-          draft opening statement to proposal

-          finalize meeting agenda

-          finish expense report



-          write thank you notes

-          pick up dry-cleaning

-          make dinner



-          ask team for their monthly reports

-          read cc’ed files

-          reach out to layout vendor


-          Break large jobs into small tasks. This will ensure that you can get a little bit done every day, but also affords you some brain flexibility. If you’re feeling energetic and motivated, tackle one of the harder tasks on that list. If you’re tired and the phone is ringing off the hook, pick something easier.

-          Organize a master list. This will help you keep track of long-term projects, professional goals, and competencies you need to tackle for your annual review. You can draw from this as you plan your daily and/or weekly workflow.


Keep Minor Headaches to a Minimum

Forgetting your password to the department server can ruin a morning. Three incorrect log-ins resulting in a lock-out and you’ve lost an hour. Keep your passwords in a safe place so that you can find them in case you blank. Running out of office supplies, hunting for an email in a disorganized Outlook box, and misplacing your security badge can also be equally disruptive. Here’s a few tips for limiting headaches and wasted time:

-          Keep your keys in the same spot. Have a consistent and secure spot to drop your most important things (keys, badge, wallet) when you walk into the office and when you get home at night. A basket, small shelf or designated drawer will remind you of this ritual each time you walk through the door.

-          Maintain a clean inbox. Organize your file folders in Outlook so that your inbox is clean and past emails are easy to find. Some ideas for folder organization: client name, project name, and an archive folder to move over documents or folders you aren’t using immediately but aren’t ready to delete. Consider setting up a box for the emails you’re only cc’ed on, to distinguish them from emails requiring your immediate action. Then select a time at the end of each day or early each morning to read through the items in that file.

-          Tidy your desk weekly. Set an admin hour each week to tidy your desk and make sure you have the supplies (letterhead, business envelopes, mail slips, sticky notes) needed to stay productive. Bring your paper inbox to "ready,” meaning that you take this time to go through each item and file, trash, or respond so that the box is completely empty for the upcoming week.

Minimalizing the Social Media Distraction

It’s not just kids who can’t stop checking social media sites! Minimize the distraction by setting some boundaries for yourself:

-          Set "no social media zones” in your house and office.

-          Turn off push notifications.

-          Remove apps from your phone.

-          Shut down the internet browser while you’re working.

-          Try a social media detox.

-          Use an actual alarm clock so you can put your phone away at night.

Ask a Mentor

When it comes to time management, mentors have had plenty of experience balancing a full plate with competing deadlines and priorities that stretch across both their personal and professional endeavors. Ask them about the practices they’ve adopted to meet these challenges. Some questions you might ask:

-          Do you have any tips for managing Outlook emails and folders?

-          What’s your favorite time-saving strategy that you use when organizing your administrative items (i.e., cleaning out your inbox, responding to emails, filing expenses.)?

-          How do you stay connected to social media while making sure it doesn’t dampen your productivity?

-          What does your daily to-do list look like? Do you use a specific format?

-          When breaking big projects into smaller tasks, how do you keep track of your overall progress?

-          If you had to segment your to-do list into five buckets, what would they be?