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Getting Organized: The Key to a Successful Job Search

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How many people have exclaimed, "I can't wait to find my next job!" Not very many, I suspect. A more common reaction would be a grimace, which shouldn't be surprising given the realities of the process. According to the Department of Labor, the average job search takes an epic 10 months. It's also frustrating, stressful and exhausting: you don't hear back from companies, people disregard your schedule and opportunities that were meant to materialize never do. Yet, even as the economic downturn makes it longer and more difficult to find a new job, little has been said about effectively managing the job search process. Sure, plenty of career "experts" have suggestions about improving your resume, optimizing your interview or using LinkedIn as a pro. But all of their recommendations are very tactical; they won't necessarily make a difference to your overall results.

As simple as it may sound, the real key to finding a job faster is being organized. It makes sense: the job search process is long, it's filled with inconsistencies, and it has no definitive end date. To further complicate things, the resources available on the web today are infinitely greater than what we had a few years ago, creating additional responsibilities for job seekers. With so many inputs and unknowns, the benefits of organization should be obvious. But the evidence is also real: studies have shown that organized people are more likely to achieve their goals, feel a sense of accomplishment and be happier with themselves, than those who are not.

On a high level, staying organized means having a plan of action and executing it in an organized manner. More specifically, it's a set of behaviors that allow you to manage your time effectively and focus your efforts on the highest-value tasks. These behaviors consistently manifest themselves among people who are highly organized. But they can also be learned by people who lack this natural inclination, leading to big improvements in a short period of time. To increase your chances of finding your next job, consider these six principles:

1) Set goals. This should be obvious, but many people only scratch the surface when setting goals. "Getting a job" is too broad. You need to be more specific about interim goals, add time constraints to make them real, and write them down to make yourself accountable. What tasks do you want to accomplish by the end of the first month? How many interviews do you expect to have by the end of three? How many new opportunities can you find through warm introductions? Setting tangible goals is important because it gives you something to work toward at each step of a job search process, not only at the very end.

2) Prioritize your tasks. You know you can't possibly do everything, apply everywhere and meet everyone, so why try? You'll only spin your wheels and waste your time. It's important to determine your priorities early on, so you can focus your efforts on the highest-value tasks. Think about the most important thing you need to start your job search (hint: it may not always be updating your resume). Determine how many hours you can realistically spend looking each day, before that marginal value of your output drops. Think twice about going to another networking session, or meeting with companies you don't really care about -- are they really worthwhile? Remember, time is your biggest commodity, so the way you spend it should always align with your end goal.

3) Eliminate distractions. It's often said that looking for jobs is a full-time job, so the only way that you can get it done is by minimizing distractions around you. Start by finding a proper, dedicated workspace for your search. While some people work fine from home, others do not, so a quiet coffee shop or co-working space may be better. Next, turn off your mobile phone, social networks, app notifications and other programs, unless there's a specific reason to use them. Multitasking lowers the quality of your work and increases the time you need to finish. Lastly, avoid non-essentials activities like making weekend plans or running personal errands until you're done your search for the day. This will allow you to focus on the task at hand and be more efficient in your work.

4) Use the right tools. As with any task, doing the job search properly requires the right set of tools. There are a myriad of websites and apps to choose from, but only a few are essential. To find the right opportunity, use aggregators like Indeed to search multiple job boards in one click, as well as niche websites that cater to your specific profession. Keep track of your progress with an app like Huntsy, which lets you bookmark opportunities directly from job boards and organize them into a single dashboard. While spreadsheets are also an option, the process of updating them is very manual, which makes them error-prone and time-consuming. Keep your schedule organized in a calendar program like Google Calendar, so you always access it on the go. And use social media dashboards like HootSuite to identify and monitor important professional connections. If you find a tool that costs a few dollars or a nominal subscription fee, buy it. The $50 you spend for LinkedIn Pro pales in comparison to the value you'll get from professional introductions.

5) Create a routine. One of the best ways to combat the unpredictability of a job search is to make parts it predictable. Namely, by creating a routine that you follow each day until it becomes second nature. Start by dividing each day into manageable chunks. Check emails and scan social networks when you wake up, send follow-up notes and make phone calls in the morning, research new opportunities during lunch time, take coffees and interviews in the afternoon, and reserve evenings for networking events. Then, create routines for each individual job. Follow up with two emails and one phone call after submitting an application, and send a thank you note one day after an interview. Lastly, get into the habit of asking people for help, whether it's your friends or new professional contacts. Focus on being consistent and following through with your plan, rather than stressing out about the details of your approach.

6) Stay optimistic. This is probably one of the most difficult pieces of advice to take, especially if you've been job searching for months. But looking at it from a different perspective, no one enjoys being around negativity, and people are less likely to help you if you yourself don't believe in finding a job. One of the marquee traits of organized people is optimism in achieving their goal, no matter how big or challenging. Rather than complaining, they seek support from others around them. They celebrate small victories and reward themselves for achieving milestones. And they remove themselves from negative environments, ignoring things they cannot control. It's easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day frustrations of the job search, but try to remember the end goal: a challenging new job, a big career move, and one step closer to achieving your professional potential.

So, before you dive into your next job search, step back and think about the bigger picture. What's your plan of attack and how will you stay organized? Answering these questions will help set the tone for your search and determine the overall experience: either a long, drawn-out and stressful process with no definitive end, or a well-structured plan that gives you a sense of progress and increases your chances of success. The choice is simple, so make the necessary investment now so you can draw from its benefits later. Get organized and get employed!