How to “Look” Organized

In Leadership by Tim Baker0 Comments

This past June, my job at the church I’ve been working at for two years changed significantly. I had been the youth director, but when our Finance Director retired, our Rector asked if I’d like to add that to my responsibilities. Honestly it was a stretch. I don’t have any experience in finance, adding finance into my role as youth worker is exactly like the clashing together of two completely different worlds. Different ways of thinking. Completely different goals, and different ways to measure those goals.

I quickly learned that I needed a new set of skills. I needed organization, and I needed it quickly. I struggled, did the typical “Why can’t there be more hours in the day” lament. Then, realized that getting things done isn’t about working harder, or having more hours to work with…it’s about working smarter. Here’s the stuff I’m doing that’s helping me the most.

Email Weekly

I’ve been sending out weekly parent emails since I started at the church over two years ago. Often, the information is repeat of the previous week (with a few tweaks to keep the email fresh and current). These emails communicate that I’m organized. Even if I don’t have all of the games figured out for the next youth event, and even if I’m behind planning the trip, the regularity of a parent email says that I know the landscape and I’ve got things under control.

But the more than that, in my transition into adding an additional job, weekly emails have been an incredible help in how I plan my week, and what goes on my to do list. As I’m writing the email (or, copying last week’s and tweaking it), I’m forced to review what’s coming up, consider what I’ve accomplished, and start adding undone things to me to do list. Weekly emails force me to consider the big picture, and ensure that I’m planning for it.

Follow a Rhythmic Week

I first learned about the power of the rhythmic week from a consultant friend. You’ve probably heard of them. Rhythmic weeks begin by first making a list of tasks you need to accomplish through the week. Thank you notes. Parent emails. Connecting with your senior pastor. Lunch visits. First, you list all those important, repetitive tasks. Then, you look at your schedule. When are your open spaces and unscheduled times? Then, you simply drop tasks in the most logical spots in your rhythmic week. Parent emails go out on Mondays, as do student cards and volunteer thank you cards. Lunch visits happen on Thursdays, and so on. Once your rhythmic week is established, you just live it. Your rhythmic week schedule decides the major tasks you do each week, and it decides when you do them.

I’ll be honest, of all the things on this list, this one is the most difficult for me to live. I have things I naturally do on certain days of the week, but dropping specific tasks onto specific days can make me feel a little claustrophobic. What’s where grace comes in. Rhythmic weeks are fantastic guides for those of us who need a guide to help us plod toward progress, and other times, they’re simply great reminders about the importance of living with intentionality.

Harness Sticky Note Power

In my new role, I have people walk into my office all the time with things for me to do. Operating in my sporadic youth worker mode, most of those kind of to do items usually got filed away in my memory. And, I could typically remember them. But the more people walked in with their varying to do items, the more I was forgetting to do’s. It wasn’t too long before someone walked in, asked me if I’d made a phone call or ordered an urn pal, and I hadn’t, and I felt awful for forgetting.

Enter Sticky Note Power.

Everything…every request, every phone call, every item I need to do (along with those that get unexpectedly dropped on my administrative lap) gets written on a sticky note. Then, I organize them in the most convenient place for me, often at the top end of my desk, or on the left side. Sometimes, they’re dealt with immediately. Other times, they wait. Sticky notes keep me organized, but they also create an amazing feeling of accomplishment. There’s nothing more satisfying than completing a task, pulling a note off my desk, wadding it up and throwing it away. I’ll organize my to do stickies in a list on their own (ie, lined up in order of importance on the glass top of my desk). Or, I’ll write those stickies down onto a real to do list.

Create a “Do Next Week” List

About three months into my new double-role, I started dreading Monday’s. The focus of my frustration was the double role I was living. Monday’s new beginning meant that I had a whole lot of new things to do for our student ministry. And, Monday’s are typically the day we count the offering, catch up on admin stuff that came up on Sunday, etc. Mondays were tense, and part of my tension stemmed from feeling untethered. I already had too much to do, and as I sought to accomplish those things, I knew I had carryover things to do in the current week. The result was my Do Next Week list.

I can’t get all of my to do things done in a week. I’m way too optimistic, and I typically have way too many interruptions. So, I reserve the last part of my Friday to make the list. Every undone to do for the current week goes on this list. Every pressing thing I know is coming up the next week goes on this list. The list goes on the center of my desk immediately after I wipe it off (see that idea further down on this list), waiting for me on Monday. Then, when I show up on Monday, I go immediately to the list, and it begins my week.

Nibble

It might be because I’m strongly ADHD, but in my new role I’m learning to harness the power of project nibbling. I struggle with focus. When projects come up and I need to complete something large (like a spring calendar, church financial reports or plan a mission trip), I typically feel insecure that cannot just sit down and accomplish something start-to-finish.

So, I’ve adopted a “nibble” approach to projects. Nibbling is, quite simply, giving myself permission to accomplish large tasks via small steps. Large projects are broken down into smaller steps, and I list those steps. Then, I tackle the larger project by tackling those smaller items. Sometimes, those nibble steps go on my to do list. Other times, nibbling is decided by natural project deadlines (mission trip registration deadlines, van rental deadlines, etc). This big idea is really tied more to how I approach my jobs emotionally. Nibbling frees me up to approach my work in the way that’s most comfortable to me.

Get a “Do It Later” Box

I keep my desk clean, but that doesn’t always mean that I don’t have a pile of papers that need my attention. My youth ministry mind doesn’t sweat piles, but my finance mind get’s distracted by them. And, piles in my finance office communicates that I’m too distracted to effectively manage my job. The more organized I became in my finance office, the more I realized that other’s perception of my organization made a difference in how they related to me. This is a good thing. I like that I’m able to present an organized presence for our church finances, and I think it’s essential that youth workers present that same kind of organizational presence for their youth ministries too.

Taking a suggestion from a friend, I created a “Do It Later” box. Everything that I cannot accomplish immediately, every piece of mail that needs attention (but doesn’t need attention right now), every important loose piece of paper goes in the box. Then, important papers in the box goes on the to do list. Bills, even mail I don’t know how to handle go into the box. Then, when I have free time or when the most important stuff comes up on my list, I handle it.

This simple idea alone has saved me. Despite the number of little pieces of paper that need my attention each week, my desk is typically organized. And, better than that, I look like I’m on top of stuff.

Wipe off Your Desk

On the last day of the work week, right before I leave my office for the weekend, I started the practice of wiping my desk off. It’s my weekly ritual, and one that I look forward to the most. At the end of the day (about 4pmish on Fridays) I go to the bathroom, wet two paper towels, take them back to my office and wipe the glass top of my desk clean. While I know that sounds incredibly OCD, there’s a lot more going on here than my need for cleanliness. Wiping off my desk is a symbol of completion. I’m closing my week, putting away whatever lingering emotions I’m holding on to from the previous weeks’ tasks. Walking in to my office on Mondays with a clean desk and my “Do Next Week” list keeps me sane.

Put Everything in a Folder

This one’s so simple, and I actually discovered it by going through the previous finance administrator’s historical data. I learned how to do my new job by going back through our previous Finance Admin’s files, and the incredible woman kept a file for everything. There are files with meeting notes. Files for contracts (even old ones, which have proved very helpful). Files with important brochures, company phone numbers.

I know this isn’t necessarily earth shattering, so maybe describing the contrast will be helpful. In my youth ministry office, I had piles of retreat center brochures, old fliers, calendars, etc. Those piles of clutter affected my ability to focus (I’d sit to work on something, notice the large pile of paper, and that would immediately divert my attention). And, those piles were often the first thing others saw when they walked into my office, and that was sending a negative message about what the youth ministry was doing.

So, everything gets a file. When files don’t work, everything gets a notebook. And when notebooks won’t work, or when files pile up, files and notebooks go into cardboard banker boxes. Nothing organizationally new here, and probably something you already do. But if this is new to you, it’s a good discipline to begin. It’ll go a long way to keeping you organized, or at least making you look like you’ve got it together.
That’s my current spate of things that I do to stay organized (or, maybe just to look more organized). What do you do to stay on top of everything you’re managing? I’d love to hear.

Tim Baker has worked with students since 1989. He’s the Director of Student ministries at Trinity Episcopal Church (Longview, Texas) and a professor of Biblical Studies at LeTourneau University. He’s also the editor for YouthWorker Journal, a bimonthly publication for adults who work with students. Tim lives in Longview, Texas, with his wife and their three kids.