9.4 How to Create Systems to Stay Organized

Learning Objectives

  1. Learn why systems are important to getting and staying organized.
  2. Get ideas for different organizational systems.

Systems are essential to getting and staying organized. By selecting a system, you ensure that your current lists get organized but also that any additional items to your list get organized. A system enables you to make updates and changes to your contacts or activities. A good system enables you to find what you need quickly so you can track your job search and move forward.

The most important criterion for selecting your organizational system is that it supports you and how you work best. You do not want to create or select a high-maintenance system that requires big changes in your natural work style and, therefore, a lot of additional work. Your job search will give you enough to do without having to add extra time and effort tracking the information.

Systems for Your Overall Contact List

Some popular methods of storing your overall contacts include the following:

  • Paper address book
  • RolodexA popular circular device that stores physical business cards in an alphabetized wheel that you can turn to access each card. or business card collection
  • Cell phone directory
  • OutlookA Microsoft software program commonly used for e-mail that also has organizational features, including address book, distribution list, calendar, to-do list, notes, reminders, and other features. or other e-mail contacts database
  • Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media networkAn online community where members of that community can connect to and communicate with each other.
  • Relationship management system, such as SuccessHawk for job search or Salesforce for sales leads

For many people, the overall contact system is some combination of the preceding methods. The important thing is that the system supports you. There are ways you will know your system works:

  • You can easily find the people you need.
  • Information on your contacts is updated or easy to update.
  • You can easily skim or search your contacts to discover people you might have forgotten.
  • You can categorize people so that your network stays organized as it grows.

Systems for Your Job Search–Specific List

For your job search–specific list, you need a system that can capture both contact information and activity. So it needs to be more flexible and substantive than your overall contact system. You can choose from three categories of systems for your job search–specific list:

  1. Paper based
  2. Customized electronic
  3. Off-the-shelf electronic

Paper-Based Job Search–Specific Systems

In a paper-based system, you have a tabbed binder or accordion file folder, with different sections corresponding to different areas of your search. You can have a section for each target company, as well as for your overall search. You can also have a separate sheet for each person related to each target company and log your activity with that person there.

A paper system has several positive traits:

  • It is visual.
  • It enables you to easily capture thoughts, ideas, and asides
  • It is easily portable, so you don’t have to carry a laptop or find an Internet connection

A paper system does have some downsides:

  • It is difficult to search. What if your research turns up a name for a senior executive at one of your dream companies, who happens to be an alumnus of your school? You don’t want to contact him right away because you want to do some other lower-level informational interviewsA meeting set up with the purpose of gathering information or exploring a topic. first. Several weeks later, you know you want to go back to this contact, but what was his name? You would have to page through your whole paper system to find it.
  • It is hard to back up.
  • It consumes more space when you have a lot of leads.
  • It lacks flexibility. If you arranged your filing by company, where do you put your general networking contacts or other people who may be relevant across companies?

Customized Electronic Systems

You can create an electronic system for your job search activity in ExcelA Microsoft software program to create spreadsheets.:

Table 9.1 Sample Activity-Tracking Spreadsheet in Excel

First Name Last Name Title Company Source (How You Heard of Them) Current Status Status Date Follow-Up First Contact
John Smith Head of campus recruiting Company X Career services Résumé and cover letter sent 9/23/10 Call after 10/8 to check on status 9/1/10
Jane Doe Marketing associate Company X Alumni database Second e-mail 10/1/10 Follow up on request for info interview 9/1/10

You can add additional columns as needed for fields you want to track. For example, you may want to include a Comments column and put notes or ideas there. As you add more contacts, sort by status date to see to whom you haven’t reached out recently. Then check the follow-up column to see if you need to do something specific or just reach out to maintain the relationship. The First Contact field shows the first time you reached out to this person, so you can see if you have moved forward since adding them to the list. In the case of Jane Doe, you attempted to contact her on September 1 and you are still trying to reach her for an informational interview on October 1. You need to try harder to reach her, or assume the contact is stale and find someone else to add to your list.

The preceding table was created in Excel. On the plus side, you can customize an electronic system:

  • You can be flexible about what fields you want to add.
  • You can format and sort according to exactly what you need.
  • You can back up electronic systems.

Electronic systems do have downsides:

  • You have to build the system from scratch.
  • You have to know what fields are worth tracking.
  • If your contacts have a lot of activity, your spreadsheet can quickly get crowded and disorganized.

Off-the-Shelf Electronic Systems

Salespeople use customer relationship management (CRM) software, such as Salesforce or High Rise, to track candidates and activity. In the job search, you are the product and employers are the customers, so you can apply the idea of sales-tracking software to your job search. One solution already customized to the job search is SuccessHawk Job Search Productivity Solutions.

Figure 9.2 SuccessHawk Home Page

SuccessHawk is a web-based platform that you customize with your contacts and activities. You can import your contacts from your existing overall lists. SuccessHawk supports online e-mail (e.g., Gmail, Hotmail, and so forth), LinkedIn, Outlook, Apple Address Book, vCards, and Internet service provider webmail (e.g., Comcast).

SuccessHawk also has a section for tasks, where you can export tasks from Apple calendar or Outlook, or you can add tasks manually. So instead of documenting in Excel that you want to call Jane Doe for an informational interview, you would Add a Task to your SuccessHawk “My Action Items” section, designating the target (Jane Doe), a description of the task (call to follow up on e-mail request for informational interview), and a target due date. SuccessHawk sends you e-mail reminders of upcoming tasks, so instead of having to visit your Excel spreadsheet and sort by follow-up, the reminders come to you.

SuccessHawk also has other job search-related features built into the platform, including a space for goals, a résumé creator, and advice and research.

On the plus side, off-the-shelf electronic systems have several attributes:

  • They are prebuilt so you can get started right away.
  • They can be interactive and give you extra support (e.g., the reminder feature in SuccessHawk).
  • They can be synchronized with other resources you already use (e.g., contact lists, task lists).
  • They can be backed up.
  • They have additional features and resources you wouldn’t get on your own.

Off-the-shelf systems also have a downside:

  • You may have less flexibility if you are very particular about how you organize data.
  • You have to buy the system or pay for a user account.
  • You have to learn the ins and outs of the system.

Key Takeaways

  • You need to select a system to get and stay organized.
  • There are three main choices for organizational systems: paper-based, customized electronic, and off-the-shelf electronic.
  • Each choice of system has its pros and cons.
  • You want to select a system that matches the way you naturally work.


  1. How have you been tracking the information and contacts developed during your job search?
  2. If you haven’t already selected a system, experiment with paper and electronic. Pick five friendly contacts and try to schedule meetings with them so you have something to track. Create a paper folder or binder system to track your efforts and build a spreadsheet to track your efforts. What data and fields did you include? Which system did you prefer?
  3. If you already have a task-organization system, are there additional fields you will track for your job search? How will you change (or not) your organization of your search based on the information you have learned?
  4. What do you wish you could track better, or where are you stuck in your organizational needs? What resources might you consult to get your organizational needs met?