04/21/2013 11:00 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT

How Disorganization Is Costing You Time and Money

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Studio shot of young woman working in office covered with adhesive notes

I seem to recall a time in the not-so-distant past when my dining room table was not filled with hundreds of pieces of paper. This week I "lost" one of the three laptops that regularly occupy the table under the tsunami of items I must accomplish and then file away.

This lack of organization extends to my computer screen, which includes so many open windows that I regularly forget what I am working on. I used to laugh at the hyper-efficient, categorizing them as pitiful OCD sufferers, but frankly the chaos produced by my personal lack of organization threatens to undermine my productivity on a regular basis.

Disorganization sounds trivial, but when you weigh the business case for order, it feels more like a necessity. One study indicated that employees lose 76 hours per year as a result of disorganization.

Jane Southren, director of professional business development at Lerners LLP, in Toronto always felt like she "bobbing, weaving and dodging to try to keep all the balls in the air." She reached out to a professional organizer for support and offers some hard metrics to quantify the benefits of getting organized. She spent significantly fewer hours in the office, working fewer nights and almost never on weekends. Additionally, she billed approximately 20 per cent more in fees (as a commercial litigator) because she was actually tracking her time properly.

"I realized that having those piles of paper visible and touchable in my office were not helping me be efficient and keeping me calm and ready but rather increasing my stress levels every time I walked into my office," said Ms. Southren. She arrived at this epiphany after cleaning her office so well, that people thought she quit. After gaining control of her paperwork, Ms. Southren felt calmer when entering her work space.

"It was like my office had become a haven, and I was happy to be in it," she observed.

Ms. Southren's support came from Ann Gomez, of Clear Concept Inc., who believes that organization is a critical, if often under-valued, driver of productivity and the disorganized among us can lose from three to five hours a week looking for things. The secrets to an organized life, argued Ms. Gomez, need not be complicated.

She suggests three ways to take control over your disorder threatening to engulf your workspace. Her first suggestion comes down to knowing which is important "real estate" in your work life.

"There are prime locations and less-prime locations. The top spot in our office is our desktop and it should be reserved for the one thing that we are focusing on at this moment. No other work or piles should be taking up space in this prime real estate," advised Ms. Gomez.

Once the "prime real estate" gets designated, establish a "staging area" somewhere in close range to store other work that needs to be tackled today. When the current task gets completed, you can reach over to the "staging area" to grab the next one to bring over to the desk.

"Our office should function like a well-oiled assembly line. Work transitions throughout it in a logical fashion, with no room for inertia-like piles to settle in," said Ms. Gomez.

Her final tip: create a home for everything.

"Set up files for each project. Set aside a shelf for reading material. Banish the miscellaneous drawer...we want to commit to putting things away as soon as we are done with them. No more 'to be filed' piles; who has time for that anyways?" she asked.

Most importantly, Ms. Gomez emphasized the "touch it once" principal, meaning, open a bill and immediately deal with it. Open an email and respond to it. Triaging, especially in the digital world, can quickly spin out of control.

Get yourself organized, and it will also pay off in keeping your emotional health strong. Kathleen Maura Pye, a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of New Brunswick turned to organization out of necessity, believing that order was necessary to secure the grades needed for graduate school. Despite the trade offs -- like losing a sense of spontaneity -- she says it has turned her life around.

"Mental health has played a significant role in my 'road to organizational proficiency'," recounted Ms. Pye. "I struggle with anxiety so a personalized system allows me to maintain control and overall sense of calm when I'm tackling my excess workload

Andrea Wahbe takes the middle road. "I think a little bit of chaos is OK," said the B2B marketing strategist, who admits to a messy desk but also organizes it periodically. While she blocks off time to accomplish each task, she admits her calendar is "often like a game of Tetris. If something comes up unexpectedly, I move things around until it works out."

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