Sunday, December 24, 2006

Organize Your Work With a Notebook in 2007

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that the best way to get richer is by increasing your income. For most of us, the best way to do this is by doing our current jobs better and getting the raises and bonuses we deserve. This post walks you through a system I use to organize my work and manage my time on a daily basis. It has done wonders for my organization and recall, has been a real timesaver, and I think it has contributed to improving my performance.

The system is incredibly low-tech, and consists of nothing more than an ordinary spiral 8.5' x 11' notebook that I use to take notes on virtually everything I do. If you walk by my desk, you will always find one of these books right next to my computer, open to a page with the date on top.

Each day I get into work about a half hour before everyone else. This gives me some good quiet time to plan my day. I usually start by flipping a new page in the notebook, writing the date on top, and making my to-do list, which I sometimes populate while reading my emails and flipping through the previous days' pages.

Then I keep my notebook with me throughout the day so I can write things down and cross off my "to-dos" as I get through them. When I said "virtually everything" goes in my notebook, I meant it. Some examples include:

• Each time I make or receive a phonecall related to a work project, I write down the person's name and number along with a summary of the important points.

• Each time I come across a word or a concept that I don't understand, I make a note to research it when I get some down time.

• I bring the notebook into every meeting I attend, where I list the attendees and my notes on the important discussion topics.

• If I get some particularly important handouts at a meeting, I scotch tape them into the notebook so I can easily reference them at a later time.

• I have multiple sets of usernames/passwords, and I keep them on a certain page of the notebook, disguised so that someone who found the book would not know how to use them.

• If I accomplish a task that wasn't on my to-do list, I make a note of it.

• If an idea comes to me in the course of working on something, I immediately write it down so I don't forget it.

• If a new employee joins the company and they are introduced to me, I write down their name and department, and possibly a few other details about them (where they used to work etc...) because those are the kinds of things that tend to immediately fly out of my head right after I've met someone new.

• If I write down something important that I will need to come back to over and over again, I go over it with a highlighter so that I can easily find it. One example of this is a procedure I run through quarterly to access data from a website and format it for a certain report.

• I often write a brief postmortem after I’ve completed a project or solved a problem. Sometimes when you get an answer, it sticks in your head for a short period of time, then leaves. When the question comes up again, you have to reinvent the wheel and figure it out all over again. If you’ve written it down, you can just go back to your notes instead fo doing extra work.

The single notebook system is a great way to make sure that I'm not always searching for materials, that I don't forget things, and that I can recall phone conversations from years ago. I can't count the number of times where this system has helped me out. For example, just the other day I was in a meeting where we were discussing a certain transaction we did some months back, and nobody could remember the dollar amounts involved. I simply flipped back to the day I called someone about the transaction and pasted into my notebook was a summary Excel table I had made with all of the relevant details. This made me look extremely efficient and organized.

It is also a great place to keep phone numbers. I find that I often lose business cards, napkins, post-it notes, and various other scraps of paper that people use to jot down phone numbers. When they are taped or stapled in my notebook, all I have to remember is the approximate date I had the conversation, and I can immediately find them.

Another great thing about having this notebook is that it comes in extremely handy around annual review time, especially when I am asked for a list of my accomplishments throughout the year. Reading through my notebook at the end of the year is a great way to get all of my accomplishments fresh in my mind before heading in to a performance review.

I make sure to put the book away in a drawer at the end of each day so the cleaning staff doesn’t accidentally toss it. And when I go on vacation I usually try to lock it in a drawer to make sure someone doesn’t walk off with it.

This technique is also a great one for the disorganized college student (which I was during my first couple of semesters at college). If you keep one binder or notebook for each class, bring it to every class, and keep all of the materials together, you will never lose anything. You are also much less likely to forget due dates for assignments.

If you want to improve your organization at work, I highly recommend you try using a notebook. Once you stick with the system for a few weeks, it becomes second nature to keep your notebook by your side and should lead to a noticeable increase in your productivity.

You can adapt the system any way you want but I would say the three keys to making it work are:

1) Starting each new day on a new page
2) Putting the date on top of each page
3) Resisting the urge to take notes anywhere else (like a post-it or the back of an envelope)

Best of luck with this, and I'm always happy to hear if this helped, if you do this differently, or have any additional tips on how to be more organized at work.


taxxcpa said...

Recently I've started doing something similar. In the past, I used to grab a piece of paper from my wastebasket and scribble notes when someone called me. Later I would need to look at my notes and it often took an inordinate length of time to find them. Now I have a notebook and write all notes on it, so I can always find my notes, phone numbers, web sites etc that I need.

MoneyMan said...

I too once suffered from the same malady- misplaced scraps of paper disease. It is amazing what having it all in one place can do for your sanity.

I admit the notebook isn't exactly a revolutionary idea, but I wish someone would have told me about it a long time ago. Sometimes you just need someone to plant the seed.