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March 28, 2012


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I worked during a far different time period, 1960-1992.

1) I had flexible hours, I just had to work 40 hours/week but always worked more than that. I set my work day to minimize traffic congestion.

2) We didn't have e-mails in my day, they hadn't been invented. We had IDC's (Inter Departmental Communications) and they existed only on paper.

3) My desk had to be totally bare and locked when I left the office, and if I was the last one to leave I had to see that every other desk was also bare, and locked, since I worked in a room with a security guard at the door because everything we worked on was classified "Secret" or "Secret Restricted" in the case of Nuclear related information. Every desk was also padlocked with a combination lock. Some rooms I worked in had no windows since there was a paranoia about espionage at the time.

I always kept my desk neat, with a minimum of objects. No photos, doodads, or Dilbert comics. Not even office supplies. I only kept out what I needed at that moment. Every week, usually at the end of the day on Friday, I'd wipe down my desk and remove all the dust and any food stains and crumbs that had accumulated since I always ate lunch at my desk. I did it because I can't stand filth, but I think it also gave a good impression to my superiors. The only drawback is that because my desk was always so neat and clean, people would sit on it!

I also had a mountain of email to deal with and I found the best strategy was to sort it as soon as it hit my inbox. We used Outlook which allows you to assign color codes to messages. So emails that I needed to act on I colored red, after acting on them I turned them green. Emails that simply contained info I needed to know I colored blue. And so on. Then I could sort my messages by color and see at a glance what was urgent. It really helped me stay on top of things.

I also make tons of lists. I don't always follow them exactly, but they are a great tool for getting my thoughts together. I made lists at work but also for groceries, for what to pack in my suitcase when going out of town, all kinds of things. Before I would leave for work each day, I would jot down any tasks that needed my immediate attention the next morning and put them on a sticky on my monitor. Not the most sophisticated system, but it worked.

I have followed the other habits to some degree as well. They served me well while I was employed, but couldn't prevent me from being eliminated with the rest of my department. But these habits were for my benefit, not my employer's. My personality thrives on order. I think I'd like a job where my duties involved tracking and organizing, except I don't have any professional experience, I just know that chaos drives me batty!

I do think it's important for professionals to pick up most of these habits. They may not make or break your success, but it will make you more efficient and more responsible. For me the one that stands out the most is the daily lists. A lot of time we can have so much going on that a lack of focus can really hinder your progress. If you don't define what you want to accomplish each day, some of those things will never get dealt with.

Create a good first impression and then strive to build and maintain an impeccable reputation.

I'm not sure what the purpose of arriving 10 minutes early to work is. If its to impress co-workers, that metric is worthless. If its to start your engines before you begin work for the day, then it may be worth the extra effort.

I'm always early, and I read stuff for work constantly, and my desk is messy but I have all my important stuff filed carefully in digital form.

I found out long ago that making detailed "to do" lists is counterproductive. If something comes up that I need to do, if it takes less than 15 min I do it right then or delegate it right away. If it takes longer than that to deal with, I write it on my calendar on the date I need to do it. If my calendar is too full that day, I tell people I can't help them or tell them that I can do it at a later date. Then I mostly just do what my calendar says. I typically focus on doing only the most critical 1 or 2 things written on each day.

File all emails daily? How much time do these people have? I file important emails as soon as I respond to them--usually the same day. I delete irrelevant emails right away. The other emails? They sit in my inbox until IT complains that my inbox is too large; when that happens I just delete everything without looking at it again.

I agree with you on the desk thing. I've always been an organized desk type, but I've worked with (and live with) many who aren't. Means nothing in my experience about success. It's about personality type I think: For me, I find stressful an unorganized desk; others are stressed by the thought of creating and maintaining an organizational system. All that matters are the results, right?

If no one else is ever going to need access to your desk when you are out, feel free to be as piggy as you want. But I've had to fill in for my supervisor many times on short notice, and it was a pain trying to sort through his papers, figuring out what had been completed, and some papers I couldn't even find. His computer desktop was a mess too. Cluttered with so many icons! Yes, staying neat and organized helped me function, but it also helped my coworkers too. I kept all my paperwork in piles clearly labeled as to what status they were in. And I kept my icons to a minimum, with only the essential files and folders on my desktop. You never know when you'll have to miss work unexpectedly, and it relieves so much stress for your coworkers if everything is easy to find.

I think the list is fairly good habits for most situations. Theres nothing wrong with being organized and being early. Some of it is more impression than actual organization. Like I think a clean desk and being early for work are more to put up an appearance rather than actually improve your efficiency.

I think the details on these kinds of things vary a little based on the job in question or the company culture.

I get to work when I get to work. I'm usually here about the same time give or take a couple minutes. I'm on a salary so theres no time clock and my management and peers have better thing to worry about than whether I get here at 5 minutes before or 5 minutes after the hour. But I have a fairly casual work environment as far as that stuff goes. One of my coworkers was always early and always worked late and he was the latest person to be laid off in the last round. Performance matters 10 times as much as hours clocked for us.

My desk is neither messy nor clean. Its in the middle. In principal I think a clean desk can be a little more efficient. But I don't see any correlation between clean desks and success. However when I do see peoples offices that are absolute messes it just doesn't look good. So I don't have a great impression of them cause of that. If I were to pick between two potential hires and one was a total slob then that would count against them.

Organizing my email into various folders daily is a waste of my time (been there, done that). I deal with too much email and detailed organization of mail doesn't really help much. For me its best to just answer everything as I can based on priorities and then file all emails into an archive. If I need to find something later I just use the search function. Search works a lot better than trying to sort and search through some folder organization. e.g. if I want to find all the 'pinetree' project emails then I just do a search in my archive for 'pinetree'.. no need to have a 'pinetree' folder.

Hmm, I'm pretty bad at all of these. I've always wanted to adopt the "task list" concept because I feel like it might help me be more productive, though I'm good at knowing my long term goals and continuously working towards them. I skim email as it comes in, and mentally track what needs a response, but I don't do a perfect job responding to everything in a timely manner. I had a previous manager who responded to everything daily with one-liners, and it got annoying because it was clear that she hadn't given things any depth of thought. I'm always late, and my desk isn't particularly neat, but I don't think that either has been a huge detriment to my career.

Personally, I think it's more important to (1) know what your long term goals are, (2) spend your time on productive things (which cleaning my desk and sorting email are not for me), and (3) being a genuine, honest, and giving person (i.e., you can trust me to over deliver on my promises).

I do all of these things. But as a young professional, only a few years out of grad-school, I think it's a good idea to place importance on the neatness of a desk and appearance of myself and my office in general. I know that when my superiors or mentors come into my office, they see that I'm organized and "on top of things." They feel comfortable entrusting me. Besides, how awkward is it when your boss comes in to your office and there's no where to sit or even rest his/her cup of coffee because you've got piles of papers and maps (I'm a Geographer) and charts everywhere? An established long-timer can afford different appearances, but I think for people still trying to make their mark, it's just one more thing that can't hurt and might even do you good.

My mother, a trained cpa, has attempted to educate me (for the most part unsuccessfully) with professionalism and business etiquette tips for as long as I can remember. As I grow older I begin to appreciate the wisdom in many of these, particularly in cleaning out the flood of daily emails into manageable folders and reading just enough articles to be knowledgeable in your chosen field. She always taught me that organizing your desk or workplace will simulate a false sense of cohesion in an otherwise chaotic life. "Fake it till you make it," she used to say.

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