Dealing with a disorganized client can be difficult. But how’s your own desk looking? If you’re drowning in paper and files, you may not be able to help clients to the best of your ability.

We spoke with Jacqueline Whyte Appleby, client services librarian at the Ontario Council of University Libraries’ Scholars Portal, about how to get organized.

Problem: You’ve got piles of information and don’t know how to make sense of it.

Solution: “When first setting out a schedule or project plan, wanting to see everything is a good thing. But that means you don’t often see what the priorities are,” says Whyte Appleby, who suggests inputting everything into an online tool designed to prioritize key information or tasks. She likes task tools such as Asana (free for teams of up to 15 members) and Trello (free, with paid upgrade available).

She adds one caveat: know what works for you. “It’s instinctive to want to work electronically, because digital objects can live in more than one place at the same time. That’s amazing for organizational purposes; less so for human productivity.” Some prefer to type notes and move them between systems, using software like Evernote. But, if you don’t process information well when you type it, use a notepad.

Problem: You’ve implemented an elaborate schedule and organizational system, but you can’t stick to it.

Solution: Check in with your schedule. “I have a colleague who, every Wednesday from 1:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., figures out what he’s going to do over the next seven days,” says Whyte Appleby. “You have to schedule time to take a step back and assess where you should be, even if it’s 10 minutes a day.”

Because your responsibilities and priorities will change over time, your system also needs flexibility. Whyte Appleby suggests separating tasks into three categories: delete, delegate and do. “This exercise often creates a sense of calm around large numbers of tasks,” she says.

Problem: Someone else needs to access your files or database, but no one understands your system.

Solution: Whyte Appleby says, “Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to saving, storing and sharing data and related documentation.” She suggests running organizational choices by your co-workers before implementing them. Consider one large city’s approach to a recent overhaul of its 311 database, the system that helps citizens access civic information. City staff spent months developing a taxonomy that would ensure city planners use the same words as residents. “We say ‘potholes’; city staff say ‘cuts,’ ” says Whyte Appleby. “That needed to be addressed before the system was in use.” Ask your co-workers questions like: “When I say ‘client services,’ what does it encompass? What does it not?”

Another habit that stems information loss: meticulous documentation. She likes, a site that takes you through the process of writing documentation. Even tracking your projects in a spreadsheet or sharable doc can help.

by Mira Shenker, a Toronto-based financial writer

Originally published on

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