The Secrets to Effective Personal Organization

Or Gaining Control in an Out of Control Environment

A major cause of stress is a feeling of being out of control. Having helped people be better organized for more than 20 years, I see that many are out of control when it comes to their personal organization skills. Gaining control is relatively simple, but it requires being willing to make changes in habits, and learning to use an organization process. This process or “system” enables you to make effective, productive choices about your time use throughout the day.

We cannot control people, so let’s focus on PERSONAL ORGANIZATION. This is controlling our own activities and the information related them, which help us reach our goals and objectives. Mastery of appropriate tools is vital. Technology is not always the answer, and may cause some people to become even more out of control.

If you are frequently interrupted, an organizational system is even more important because you can easily be taken off important tasks by urgent but unimportant events. Let’s look at a simple process, then figure out the best tools to make the process work for you.


The Time Link – A Secret to Activity Control

Two types of activity which occupy our days:

1) appointments, which are events requiring our physical presence. We have to “be there.” An appointment is a scheduled meeting, a phone appointment, an airline flight time, a parent-teacher conference.

2) action items or “to do’s,” which do not require us to be necessarily at a particular place. Often these are listed on a “to-do list” or a calendar.

Gaining control over these activities (appointments and to-do’s) requires that we develop the habit of identifying The Time Link, telling yourself three things:

* What (to do or be there for) * When (to do it) * Where (is the information)

The tool you use to establish The Time Link is part of your system. Key point: it must be a place that your mind trusts that you will see the linked item at the appropriate time, knowing you will not forget to act on it. You can make The Time Link for an appointment on your calendar, either computer-based or paper. Entering an appointment on a date automatically tells you What and When. If you use one master calendar, it also gives you a “panoramic view” of all your “be there’s.”

To-do items should not be on your monthly calendar, but should be on a to-do list. This can be a “task list,” similar to that found in Microsoft Outlook®, or a written to do list organized by date or sequentially. (Click here for a great resource for paper organization skills.)

Alphabetic Filing: A Secret to Information Control

Note that the third “W” when making The Time Link is “where.” Many of us try to work in an extraordinarily cluttered environment because we are afraid if we put the information away, we won’t be able to find it. Part of your personal organization system is a simple filing system.

Whether you save information in a computer or in a paper file, or both, alphabetic filing helps to retrieve information quickly. When you save a file on your computer, you are asked to give it a file name, and are allowed to put it in a “file folder.” Without getting into details about computer filing, give your file a simple name, related to the person or the subject or the organization, and file it in the appropriate folder. When you enter The Time Link, you simply name the file and the folder.

When your organization uses a particular filing protocol, then always follow it. The Time Link just names the specific file in which the information can be found for action.

Using A – Z paper files: You can organize thousands of notes in three files; an active file, an inactive file, and a dead file.

The Active File is in your organizer or notebook which you carry daily. It contains notes about people, the projects and the programs that you need to have with you, for the next one to four weeks, wherever you go. This turns your organizer tool into a “portable desk.” (On your calendar for the 15th is “9:00 AM Meet w/Mac Johnson (J)” This tells you “what” (meet with Mac Johnson), “when” (the 15h at 9:00 AM), and “where” the notes are (behind the “J” tab in your portable A-Z file). If you work mostly at your desk, this A-Z file can be in your desk as a set of hanging file folders.

The Inactive File contains the items that are not active for the next one to four weeks, but which are likely to be needed when that project, person or program becomes active again. It can be a set of A-Z hanging files in a desk, or even a two inch thick three-ring binder with a set of A-Z tabs. Nothing should be put in this Inactive File unless The Time Link has been entered. This is a good time to use your computer calendaring tool. In early May you note: “Follow up with Principal Jones about driver’s ed for Billy Joe (I-D) The “I” is for “inactive file” and the “D” is for your top of mind reference, Driver’s Ed.

The Dead File is simply information which you are not ready to toss out, does not fit into any of your organization’s master files and which you might need some day. This paper is filed alphabetically the way you would think of retrieving it later. Use a two inch wide three-ringed binder labeled by the time frame (January 1, 2008 – March 31 2009). When full, the binder is closed out. After sufficient time passes, the “dead” paper is “buried” in your trash can or shredder and the binder recycled.

IMPORTANT. These alphabetic files supplement your organization’s master filing system, not replace it. If the paper has a place, put it there to provide appropriate organizational documentation and history.

Think of Outlook® or your e-mail system much like you would the filing system above. You could even set up the three files identified above. And store e-mails and other files accordingly. Attend a class on Outlook® usage if you don’t know all its potential. (Click here for a great resource on using Outlook® to be better organized.)


Harness the power of habit by making The Time Link process routine. When something requires future action, establish The Time Link, put the paper away (or the file in it’s place). Clutter will disappear!

You probably understand the power of a process like this. However, you may not understand what happens to you when you try to change your old habits into the more productive new habits. It is like the power of the exponential curve: “consistency over time, leads to explosive growth.”

When you are trying to develop a new habit, it feels uncomfortable and you must stop and think about it. Often after about three or four days you give up. However, psychologists tell us that 7 to 21 days of regular practice will make a new habit displace an old one. To gain the benefit of a new habit you must persist! Learn to take advantage of the exponential curve in forming a new habit.

Submitted by J. Mark Walker


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3 Responses to “The Secrets to Effective Personal Organization”

  1. Todd Schnick Says:

    Mark – thanks for sharing this. I think the key to good time management is your ability to prioritize. If you can do that, you will spend time more wisely…

    • integritysolutions Says:

      You are correct, of course, Todd — first things first. However, you first have to remember what to prioritize. Has anyone ever said, “I’ll get back to you by next week,” and you have to call them because they did not? Have you ever overlooked a deadline because it just did not capture your attention on the due date? Ever double-book yourself? The technique of The Time Link will greatly reduce, if not eliminate those kinds of problems.

  2. givenchyshoes Says:

    Thank you for this article. That’s all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something special. You clearly know what you are doing, you’ve covered so many bases.Thanks!

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