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5 Ways to Get Organized Now

Restore order to your business and personal life by prioritizing the most important tasks.

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Organization comes easily to some people. And to others, not so much.

That's why professional organizer Jeanine Baron estimates that it can take anywhere from six months to two years to whip a disorganized company (and its and employees) into shape. When she meets with , they're often confused about how processes fell apart, and upset that they've lost control - both at and at home, where they feel stressed and distracted. "They only know their points of pain," says Baron, the founder of Streamliners in Blue Bell, Pa. "They have no idea what the origins are."

The majority of the time, the biggest culprit when it comes to disorganization is lost or misplaced , whether it's hard-to-locate electronic files on a computer or documents buried under a pile on a messy desk. That's coupled with the sheer amount of information (and demands for one's time) that business owners face from all directions - employees, clients, vendors and suppliers, not to mention family and loved ones.

As a result, one of the biggest traps that small-business owners fall into is "taking care of what's right in front of your face, because there are so many things," says Alicia Rockmore, chief executive of Buttoned Up, an Ann Arbor, Mich., company that helps people organize their lives. Instead, the key to organization is to prioritize the most important tasks first, she says.

Here are tips for restoring order in your work and :

Incorporate the 80-20 rule. Any time you feel overwhelmed, "make a list of what you have to do, and pick the 20% that's most important," Rockmore suggests. The other 80% is likely trivial. By focusing on just a few, important tasks, you'll get more things accomplished in the long run - whether that's business tasks, such as budgeting, bill paying or answering emails, or more personal responsibilities, such as meeting a child's teacher or keeping a doctor's appointment.

Keep a master calendar for business and personal commitments. "You can only be in one place at one time, so one calendar makes a lot of sense," Rockmore says. Mark down every business meeting, follow-up phone call or session - and every birthday, anniversary or child's soccer game. A number of free tools are available online, such as and Yahoo! Calendar, which allow you to add and edit events, receive reminders, and view them from any location.

Put it in writing. Keep a small notebook and pen handy to jot down ideas, appointments or anything you need to remember for later. "Document it, so it doesn't get away from you," says Mark Gavagan, an organization expert and founder of media company Cole House in Mendham, N.J. He also recommends that business owners write down emergency, insurance and other critical information (both business and personal) - and keep it in one place to cut down on search time. More products are on the market to help people get organized; Gavagan's company publishes a three-ring binder called the "It's All Right Here Life & Affairs Organizer," in which a person can record everything from personal information (such as health-care directives, retirement plans and real-estate holdings) to business information (such as operations, strategies and debts). Rockmore's company similarly produces "Life.doc," a bright red binder that organizes a person's critical information in one spot.

Create filing systems that work. Baron, the professional organizer, often works with small and medium-sized businesses on improving their information-management practices. She advises business leaders to come up with a companywide system for storing and retrieving paper and electronic information. For instance, on a company's shared computer drive, "group information in buckets, and assign bucket names that are familiar to everyone in the organization, so everyone is sharing the same nomenclature," she says. For instance, accounting information can be grouped in one bucket, under file names such as accounts payable, , payroll, expenses and taxes. It takes time and energy to come up with an efficient system, but the reward is greater productivity, which ultimately boosts a company's bottom line, she says.

Put some parameters around your work and personal life. Aside from organizing your documents and critical information, you also need to organize your time. Many people start businesses because they want the flexibility to set their own schedules and spend more time with family. Come up with a routine that works for both your business and personal life, Rockmore advises. She works from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m out of her home office, then takes an hour off to get her daughter ready for school or child care. Then it's back to work until 4:30 p.m., when her daughter returns home. Rockmore sometimes gets a few last things accomplished after her daughter's 8 p.m. bedtime. "It's not about limiting the hours," she says, but rather managing time wisely.

("Work & Life," a regular column written by Colleen DeBaise for, advises entrepreneurs on how to better balance their lives. Write to her at

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