Ever spend an hour looking for an old tax return? Permanently misplaced your articles of incorporation? Maybe you've lost track of time and missed a crucial sales call. The bottom line: Disorganization and poor time management are revenue-killers for small-business owners, says Monica Ricci, author of Organize Your Office in No Time.
Ricci, a professional organizer, spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein, about why entrepreneurs shouldn't feel embarrassed about needing help getting their companies under control. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Are entrepreneurs reluctant to call in an organizer?
Some are hesitant to ask for help because it feels like everyone knows how to do these things but them. What I tell them is that being unorganized is not about having a character flaw. I have met wonderful, fantastic, incredible people who are hopelessly disorganized.
What they should remember is that everyone has different skills. I don't do my own plumbing or my own taxes. Some people need help organizing their time and their environment.
What's the worst situation you've encountered?
About seven years ago, when I was just starting, I went to see a consultant who had three rooms of commercial office space. Every room was stacked waist-high with papers. There were probably seven or eight years of unopened mail, bills, publications, and client files.
It was overwhelming, but I've learned to have a pretty good poker face, no matter how horrified I might be. My role is to be nonjudgmental, supportive, and helpful. I figure the person mustered up the courage to call me, so I don't want to add to the problem.
Many people tend to be in disarray by their very nature. Even if they're not born with a talent for organizing, can they still get their acts together?
I tell clients that even if you weren't born into organizing, you can learn it. Also, becoming organized is not a fixed goal -- there's definitely a continuum. Where you are on that continuum is your choice, based on what's going on in your life. That's liberating for a lot of people. Change has to do with attitude and a willingness to adapt as well as a willingness to be flexible in what works for you.
What's the danger of disorganization? Can't an entrepreneur with a great product and winning personality succeed
There are people who are chronically disorganized who are successful, but it's a very small group. The rest of us have to spend every minute possible on revenue-producing activities. Getting bogged down in tasks like trying to find addresses for a mailing list or receipts for your accountant means taking time away from producing revenue.
What techniques do you teach your clients?
I try to find out the root cause for the chaos. Usually it's poor time-management skills, procrastination, unclear priorities, or lack of boundaries. If you're not sure what to work on first, you wind up spending time on tasks that could be put off indefinitely. So I have to teach them how to figure out what the high-payoff tasks are.
For other people, there's fear involved: People fear losing information, so they keep everything, which guarantees that they'll lose what's important anyway. I teach them how to figure out what they are likely to need again, and then give them the confidence to weed out the stuff they won't.
What do you recommend for people who put off organizing because they're overwhelmed by the time commitment?
I give them mental and physical strategies, like visualizing themselves doing a task quickly and easily. I also tell them to negotiate rewards for themselves, like doing something they enjoy once they finish a particular task. I ask them to imagine the relief and accomplishment they'll feel when the task is done.
What do you advise for people whose schedules are always in flux because they easily lose track of time?
Those people tend to misjudge how long it takes to get to an appointment or complete a sales call. We like to schedule ourselves up to the very last minute, instead of allowing plenty of time for things like traffic, interruptions, and unexpected circumstances.
On the flip side, if it's a task we hate, we tend to exaggerate how long it will take as a way to avoid it. I had a roommate who would not do housework because he estimated that cleaning the kitchen would take all day, and he never had that much time. Actually, cleaning the kitchen took about half an hour.
Strive to be realistic about time. For clients who don't have a good sense of how long things take, I tell them to use a kitchen timer for a while.
How long does it take you to organize a client's business?
Some people ask me to come in and give them some ideas on how they can make their business more efficient and better organized, and we accomplish that goal in half a day. On other jobs, I'm recreating a central filing system and may work over a period of months.
How much do organizers charge for their services?
Most organizers charge an hourly fee between $70 and $200. They may have flat fees for half-day or full-day consults or larger jobs.
Have you ever seen an office that was such a disaster, even you couldn't organize it?
No, though I've gone into some places and been tempted to just light the place on fire! Thankfully, I haven't done it yet.
There are a small group of clients -- maybe 10% -- who are chronically disorganized and very resistant to change. I make a suggestion, and they come up with a reason why it won't work without even trying it. That can be frustrating.
Where can small-business owners find an organizer in their area?
We have a Web site for the National Association of Professional Organizers, where they can search by Zip Code and specialty.