Working Your Organization System

Here’s how to work through your entire organization system to keep it up-to-date.

1.       Each day, take time to prioritize what you need to do that day.  Spend some time at the beginning of the day (or at the end of the day for tomorrow), looking at what has come up on your calendar or Next Actions list to determine what absolutely needs to be done.  Schedule time on your calendar to do things that will take you 30 minutes or more.  This will help you plan what you can get done and when.

In general, your calendar and your Next Actions list will drive what needs to be done on any given day.  Your priorities will most likely change during the day, but if you plan it out you know what to shoot for, and you’ll have a better chance of getting the main things done.

Don’t forget to check your tickler file if you’re keeping that separate from your calendar.

2.       As items enter your system through your email, your physical inbox, Next Actions list or another capture device, determine what the item is and whether something must be done with it.  If nothing needs to be done with the item, then:

  • Trash it.  Junk mail comes to mind for this category along with notices of events you don’t have an interest in attending, or email that you were only CC’d on and don’t have an interest in;
  • File it away for reference in your topical file in case you ever need it.  Maybe someone sent you an article on “employee performance”.  You don’t need it for anything now, but maybe you will in the future; or
  • Let it simmer.  You’re at dinner with friends who describe their latest trip to Antarctica.  Now you think you might want to go someday.  Put it on a Someday/Maybe list where it will stay until you decide to go or until you decide you’re no longer interested.

If something does need to be done with the item, then:

  •  Do it.  If you’re the person who needs to do it, and it will take you 2 minutes or less to do it, do it as soon as it comes up in your email or physical inbox;
  • Delegate it.  If the item is better handled by someone else, delegate it to him/her.  For example, if you have an administrative assistant, s/he can make those mailing labels for the alumni gathering.  You don’t have to.  When you delegate something, make sure you’re clear with who will do it and when it needs to be done.  Make note on a Waiting On list, so you can follow up if needed when you review that list; or
  • Defer it.  If you’re the person who must take action with the item, and it will take longer than 2 minutes to do it, then defer it by putting it on your calendar for the date and/or time that you need to do it.  Maybe it goes on your Agenda for a particular person or meeting, or maybe it should go in your tickler file for a later date.

3.      Review your lists at least once a week.  Check on your . . .

  • Waiting On list for things you’ve delegated to someone else.  Do you need to follow up to find out how things are going?
  • Next Actions list for the next steps to take on various projects.  Is there something you can do in the coming week(s) to move a project forward?
  • Someday/Maybe list to see if you’re ready to do an item from this list . . . or maybe you’ve decided to cross things off this list because you’re no longer interested.
  • Agendas to make sure you are keeping track of items for meeting agendas or to bring up the next time you see a particular person.

Ultimately, you should have the least number of lists to keep you organized.  The goal is not to have a complex system but to have the simplest system that works for you.  If you find yourself not working your organization system from time to time, don’t worry.  It’s easy to get back into it.  And you know that you feel better and more in control of your work when you keep your system updated.  For more tips on self-organization, I recommend the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Self-Organization: Capturing Items and Managing Projects

In an earlier blog entry, I talked about the beginnings of getting organized, including organizing your files, creating a tickler file, and processing through everything in your inboxes every day.  Now, let’s look at capturing and managing all projects you have on your plate.  Remember:  the idea is to get things out of your head, through your inboxes (physical and/or email) and into your organization system, so they can be handled timely and by the right people.

1. Have a capture tool with you always for work and personal items.  A capture tool?  That’s just a fancy way of saying that you need to be able to record every thought about something that needs to be done when it occurs to you.  You probably already have a grocery list on your refrigerator – that’s a capture tool.  As soon as you notice you’re out of milk, you put it on the grocery list, so the next time you’re at the grocery story, you don’t forget to pick up milk.  Have you ever gone to the store thinking you’ll just remember all 6 items you need, but once you get to the store, you can only remember 5?  Yep.  Should have used a list (a capture tool).

Your capture tool can be a small note pad and pen, the electronic memo or task function on your PDA or cell phone, or a voice recorder.  Whatever works for you and is portable.  So, when you get home from work and remember that you need to call Joe Schmoe tomorrow about the Smith account, you can write it down on your note pad, type it into your PDA or cell phone task list, or record the reminder on a voice recorder.  (Only one method required – not all three.)  The idea is that if you “capture” the thought, you won’t fret all evening or lose sleep trying not to forget to make the important phone call the next day.  Capture it and forget it until you’re where you can deal with the item.  And don’t worry about keeping personal and business items separate.  Capture everything together.  You might need to pick up a birthday card for Aunt Martha during your lunch hour, so get it down somewhere.  The timing of when you can complete personal projects and business projects overlap much of the time because business hours needed for information or service for your personal projects are the same business hours you’re at work.

2. Create a Projects List that includes both personal and work items.  A project is anything that takes more than 1 step to do.  For example, “Clean the house on Saturday” could involve these steps: (1) check for needed cleaning supplies, (2) vacuum the carpet, (3) dust the furniture, (4) clean the bathtubs, (5) clean the sinks, etc.  Now even if you write down, “Clean the house on Saturday”, chances are you will become overwhelmed thinking of the project as a whole.  Ugh!  But if you break it down step by step, you need only muster up the energy to do the next piece, which usually isn’t so bad.

So, your project list might include both personal and work items:

  • Clean the house on Saturday
  • Get cleaning supplies
  • Vacuum carpet
  • Dust furniture
  • Clean bathtubs
  • Clean sinks
  • Create new employee appreciation program
  • Call to George at XYZ Company to find out what they do for employee appreciation
  • Talk to HR about doing an employee survey
  • Invite Bob, Mary, Jim, and Sue to be on an employee appreciation committee

Don’t be surprised if your project list has 50+ projects on it.  Take the time to capture it all, so you’ve identified all the balls you have in the air.  It will feel good to get everything down where you can see it.  And again, your Project List can be on paper or electronic.  Don’t worry if you can’t think of EVERY step required for each project.  As you work through the steps of the project, you’ll see what you need to add.  That leads to the Next Actions list.

3. A Next Actions list contains those things that are ready to be done.  This list contains those things that must happen as soon as you can do them – personal and professional.  From your Inbox, Tickler file, and Projects list, you can determine what your Next Actions are for the next week or so.  Next Actions that must happen on a particular day and/or time can go on your calendar.  Other Next Actions may not be time sensitive, in which case, you’ll keep them on your Next Actions list until you do them.  Again, the Next Actions list can be on paper or kept electronically.

If you have more than, say, 25 items on your Next Actions list, you might want to categorize them to make it easier to manage.  Categories might include:

  • Phone Calls
  • Errands
  • Computer Work
  • At Home
  • Agenda Items (for people and meetings)
  • Read/Review
  • Waiting For (anything you’re waiting for someone else to do)

Use categories that make sense for you.  You’ll need to review your Projects and Next Actions lists at least once per week to make sure you’re on track.

Get Organized – Getting Started

Confused with the flurry of paperwork and email that flows through your office daily?  Tired of living among piles of paperwork on your desk or on the floor?  Are your file drawers chock full of documents that you haven’t looked at in ages?  Where did you file that electronic file from 2 years ago that you need in 5 minutes?

You might need to get organized by managing the influx of physical and electronic documents.

It’s estimated that corporate executives waste 6 weeks per year searching for lost documents. (Fast Company Magazine, August 2004).  How can you make sure your are set up to increase your productivity simply by organizing your workspace?

1.  Tidy up the clutter. Your best weapon?  A file cabinet that meets your needs, doesn’t fight you, and is within arm’s reach of your desk.  File drawers should be no more than 75% full to make accessing files easily.  Use typed labels in a simple A-Z system.  Put 1 manila file folder per hanging file, too, so overstuffed files don’t obscure the labels on the files behind them.  Remember to clean out and/or archive old files once per year.  Label things clearly and logically enough so you can find a file within 1 minute.

Your computer files should be just as organized and de-cluttered.  At least once per year, archive or delete files from your desktop.  Re-arrange your file structure periodically as your focus changes and as you archive older files.  You should be able to find any computer file within 1 minute as well.

2.  Create a “tickler” file or system to remind you of tasks you need to do in the future.  This can be a physical tickler file, or you can create “tasks” and/or “recurrences” of appointments on your electronic calendar.  If creating a physical tickler file, create a file folder for each of the twelve months of the year (Jan through Dec.) and create 31 separate file folders (numbered 1-31) to account for up to 31 days/month.  If it’s September, put the September file in front, followed by the 31 daily folders.  (The rest of the monthly folders are now behind the 31 daily folders in order beginning with October.)

Place notes, invitations, fliers, etc. in the monthly folder during which you need to attend to them.  For the current month (in this case, September), put the items requiring attention in the particular daily folder that you’ll take care of them.  Each day, check the daily folder for the current month and take care of the items inside.  When you start a new month, move that month to the front, followed by folders 1-31, and sort the tickler items from the monthly folder and disperse them throughout the daily folders.

3.  Clear out your physical and email inboxes everyday by addressing everything in them.  For your email inbox, create storage folders for items that you want to save, that you will address later, or for messages you will forward to someone else to take care of.  Move your incoming mail to a folder if you’re not going to take care of it right away.  Set up email rules for certain incoming email, so it will automatically file itself.  For example, if you are CC’d on email frequently, set up a rule that sends anything you’re CC’d on directly to an email folder for these items.  Check email only twice per day — once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Your physical inbox should be managed the same way.  With both your email and physical inboxes, trash it, delegate, put it on hold, or get it done.  Remember to:

  • Process the top item first
  • Process one item at a time
  • Never put anything back

With these basics in place, you’ll be well on your way to staying in control of the steady flow of work that comes through your office.  Next time: managing larger projects with a Project List.

Do You Have What It Takes to Lead Others?

what it takes to leadIt happens every day. Someone is put in the position of managing people for the first time and finds it is daunting and very different from what they expected. If this happened to you, you might have been completely unprepared for what it takes to lead other people. Just being the one in charge coupled with their own sparkling personality was supposed to make you a “hit” with your team, wasn’t it?

Au contraire, mon frere.

What does it take to lead employees in the workplace successfully? In addition to skills you can learn (how to interview, how to address behavior and performance issues, how to communicate better, etc.), it takes a couple of other qualities that usually come with maturity and are not always easily acquired:

1. Self-Awareness.

To maintain your composure under stressful situations at work (and at home), you must be aware of your underlying assumptions about people and work, your motivations, your own hot buttons, your talents, and your limitations. A tall order, I know, but without this basic awareness, you are prone to react (and over-react) to situations at work without producing the results you desire. In fact, without self-awareness, you’ll probably make the same mistakes over and over, producing exactly the opposite of what you desire. Becoming a manager is a great experience for learning these things about yourself. If you aren’t already self-aware, leading others will help you increase your self-awareness, but you have to be willing to recognize and own your “stuff”.

2. Balanced Ego.

You also must be self-aware enough to realize that even though you would like to believe you “deserved” the promotion to manager, the workplace is not always about merit. Maybe there are others who would be as good or an even better manager, but you were in the right place at the right time to be selected. Realize this, have some humility about it, and keep focusing on your own growth as a person to enhance your growth as a supervisor of people.

3. Appropriate and Flexible Boundaries.

Having flexible boundaries means you decide what to let into “your space” and what to keep out. Good but flexible boundaries make you resistant to influences that will get in the way of your ability to function as a healthy manager. As you understand your role as manager, you should come to understand that your role is to get the best out of those who work with you while enforcing all the rules of the organization. (Sometimes that means you will not be the most popular person around. You have to be OK with that.) As you create professional boundaries with your employees, you are establishing the ground rules for how you will behave and others are to behave around you. Having flexible boundaries means . . .

  • You build trust with your employees as you maintain confidences; are firm, fair, and consistent in your dealings with others; and admit when you make a mistake.
  • You understand that you and your employees have roles to play and that the decisions made and the actions taken at work are not designed to personally favor you or another individual.
  • You do not make decisions out of pity for others or just so your employees will like you.
  • You hold yourself and your employees accountable for expected performance and behavior in the workplace based on the business objectives for your work group.
4. Compassion.

Compassion is the ability to understand what someone else might be experiencing. It’s the ability to put yourself in their shoes. Compassion allows you to meet others where they are and assist them as they move to where they need to be based on what the work requires. In general, I think the more self-awareness one has, the more their compassion for others increases.

Becoming a manager/leader will be challenging and rewarding. Instead of validating your talent and wonderfulness, it is a wake-up call and a growth opportunity for most. Enjoy!

Copyright – Beth Strathman 2011-2018
All rights reserved

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

beliefsThroughout my career, I have learned that much of what is thought, is only in your own head and is not necessarily true.  Yep.  Humans make up a lot of stuff about the world. But creating clarity of thought comes only if you decrease the amount of our own interference with the information you take in.

The brain has been described as a pattern-making machine.  It looks for patterns everywhere (even where there aren’t any).  You have many THOUGHTS that come together in patterns, which eventually form BELIEFS about everything.  And although you like to think of yourself as a rational, logical being, you typically don’t investigate the objective TRUTH of those THOUGHTS and BELIEFS. In fact, most of our beliefs were formed before you were 7 years old.

Based on the way the brain is designed, the more you practice a belief, the more you see it in the world around you.  And if you don’t examine what is going through your mind, you can end up making decisions about or reacting to situations and people in ways that can look wacky to others and that don’t serve you in the long run.

In other words, you have filters in place that color what you see, hear, and experience. The more you use these “filters”, the stronger the neural connections become around a belief. In turn, these “filters” shape how we interpret our experiences.

To get clearer about your interpretation of things around you, become aware of a few of the negative thoughts or beliefs you hold about a situation or another individual at work.  Something for which you don’t have much of a factual basis.  Own up to the fact that the stories you tell yourself are often merely your interpretation of what happened and may not fully describe the entire situation.

Explore processes like The Work by Byron Katie  to help you question beliefs that especially cause you to react negatively with frustration, sadness, or anger.

As a leader, question a negative belief you have about someone at work.  Is it true?


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with leaders as they evolve into the leader they are meant to become and learn to maximize the people side of business. Learn more about her at:

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Self-Awareness Leads to Accountability

reflectionAs a leader, you are a role model of accountability.  So what does it take for you to hold yourself accountable?  To check how accountable you are as a leader, consider reflecting on the following questions for each (important) interaction you have:

Q1: What did I do that worked/didn’t work?  Why?

Take stock of your actions/reactions. Be honest with yourself.  If there was conflict or disappointment within the situation, resist the temptation to vindicate yourself.  Even if you think you were justified in whatever you did or didn’t do, what could you have done differently to decrease the conflict or increase the satisfaction with the situation for  yourself and others involved?

Q2: What do my actions/reactions tell me about myself?  What patterns do I see?

Reflecting on how you responded or reacted helps you to spot patterns that can lead to personal insights about what’s driving your reactions (motivation, fears, and desires).  Becoming aware of these deeper aspects of yourself and the behavioral patterns that emerge allows you to catch yourself in the act next time (or even before you act/react next time). This allows you to interject conscious thought to interrupt what might be a behavioral pattern that isn’t working for you. The split second it takes to think about what you are getting ready to do or say, allows you to exercise choice – the choice to stay stuck in our unconscious patterns or to consciously create new solutions without reacting unconsciously.

Q3: What excuses did I make (in my head or out loud) for bad results or failures?

Identify the “story” you tell yourself. What does this story say about the beliefs you have about yourself or others? Are those beliefs necessarily true?  When you examine the stories you tell yourself, you might just find that your reactions are based on unfounded beliefs about the situation. When you unpack those unfounded beliefs, you might find that they aren’t that true. Yet, they can cause you a lot of anger or stress.  In other words, you might not want to believe everything you think!

Q4: What did I do that might be part of my typical behavioral patterns?

Do you habitually tune out or retreat when stressed?  Do you often come across as overly-critical of others?  Do you consciously or unconsciously intimidate others?  No matter your behavioral patterns, you’re probably doing unto others what you don’t want done to you.  Be aware of these patterns and how they shape your interactions with others.

Q5: Who do I want to be? How do I want to come across instead? 

Once you’ve identified behavioral patterns that aren’t serving you, try an alternative way of responding.  Instead of frequently pushing yourself beyond your limits, what would happen if you took a breather once in a while or take a day off for fun?  Instead of fearing you’ll disappoint others, what if you said “no” more often or tried voicing concerns?  Instead of appearing intimidating, what would happen if you conceded a point to someone else without trying to justify yourself or let them “win”? Letting go of your usual way of being and doing is a practice that can help you realize that your typical maladaptive behaviors may have served you when you were younger, but they just might be getting in the way today.

Use these questions to raise your self-awareness. When you do, you’ll become more accountable to yourself and to your team. The more you model what real accountability is, the more likely your employees are to own their results without excuse, too.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with leaders as they evolve into the leader they are meant to become and learn to maximize the people side of business. Learn more about her at:

Follow Beth:
YouTube: Firebrand Consulting LLC
LinkedIn: /company/firebrand-consulting-llc or /in/bethstrathman
Facebook: /firebrandleadershipconsulting

Enabling Versus Empowering in the Workplace

co-dependent managerDo you have employees who are poor performers or who don’t get along with others and who have been in your company for too long?  Why?

There is no reason why you should tolerate employees who continually produce substandard work, exhibit unsatisfactory attendance, or who behave badly as a general rule.  Yet, you, like most leaders, have at least a few of these employees.  The sad fact is that you have no one to blame but yourself.  Even in the public sector, where employees are entitled to “due process” before they are fired or demoted, it is very do-able to address the performance and behavior issues and even discharge someone, if warranted.

The issue is often includes a co-dependent manager, who would rather be liked than to hold the employee accountable.  Another word for it is “enabling”.  Enabling behavior encourages the “bad” employee to continue being bad.  It’s the same dynamic between loved ones and an addict, which prevents the addict from addressing her addiction –like allowing drug use in your home or giving the alcoholic money for rent because she used the rent money to buy booze.  If you are “walking on eggshells” around an employee in your organization and avoiding a necessary conversation about unmet expectations, chances are, you are part of an enabling dynamic.

When you are an “enabler”, you prevent or interfere with holding the employee accountable to acquire new competencies.  It keeps her stuck in her unproductive performance and poor behavior.  Enabling keeps the employee believing she has no power or control over her life , her work, and her self-efficacy.  You become complicit in reinforcing unproductive behavior such as procrastination or passivity by not expecting more.  In short, if you are a co-dependent manager, you are silently communicating that the “bad” employee is not capable of changing and is not capable of taking responsibility for her performance or her actions.

Here are some examples:

  • Looking the other way when the employee mistreats a customer or co-worker.
  • Talking yourself out of addressing an issue as you pretend “it isn’t that bad”.
  • Giving the employee adequate performance reviews, so you don’t have to justify your observations of inadequate performance.

By avoiding the issue, you are effectively ignoring your duty to the organization and to the rest of the employees who are meeting company expectations.

If you are enabling an employee, you might fear the reaction from an under-performer if you address the work issues. Like the addict or alcoholic, the enabled employee will most likely have an emotional outburst that deflects the attention away from herself as she points the finger at others, including you.  Not a comfortable place to be.  In short, it’s just easier to tolerate the substandard employee and hope it doesn’t get any worse than it already is.

The healthier way of dealing with the substandard employee is to expect more of her by empowering her.  But this takes guts, an acknowledgment that it’s your job as a manager to do this, and a belief that it is better to respected than to be liked.

Empowering is behavior that expects the employee to acquire new competencies for better performance.  It increases the employee’s sense of control or power over a situation, and encourages the learning of new coping abilities to replace the unwanted behavior or performance.

What does empowering look like?  Good old-fashioned management:

  1. Talk to the employee about what you are experiencing, giving her a chance to explain;
  2. Restate your expectation for what acceptable work product or behavior looks like;
  3. Offer or require training if appropriate for the issue at hand;
  4. If applicable to the situation, ask the employee for options for how she can do things differently to achieve the results you expect;
  5. Follow up and follow through with the employee to make sure the necessary changes are taking place;
  6. If the necessary changes do not occur, start summarizing your conversations about performance or behavior with the employee in writing, and escalate the formality of the written summaries from a warning to reprimands to a letter of suspension or termination as warranted and according to your company policy.

As with many things, if you want an employee to change, you might have to change first.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with leaders who want to confidently become the leader they are meant to be as they maximize the “people side” of business. Learn more about her at: