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Paperwork: Dig Out From Under

Is your desk turning into your personal nightmare closet? Does the overflow from your in-basket seethe across your desk, flood onto the credenza and cascade from there to the floor? Do you dream of being buried in an avalanche of inquiries, invoices, reports and journals?

One challenge we all face is coping with the mass of paper that pours across our desks. It becomes increasingly difficult to find things, keep track of projects or work comfortably, when the stacks and piles turn into clutter. If you do not move that paper on, you may never see your desktop again.

The solution is to take control: Get organized up front, maintain that organization and create a filing system that works. Ensuring a smooth paper flow means removing the stacks, rearranging and color-coding files and learning to handle the in- and out-baskets quickly and effectively.

The In Basket

Ideally, the in-basket is the one place other people put material they want you to see. It is an essential tool, but you have to learn to use it for what it is good for. Do not try to transform it into a filing system, a bulletin board or a nagging reminder.

Your in-basket isn't working if:

  • You don't have one.

  • You have one, but even though you sort through it many times a day, the stack never gets any smaller.

  • You only touch your in-basket once a week.

  • The entire top of your desk is the in-basket.

  • Your coworkers know the only way to make sure you see something is to put it on your chair.

Touch it Once

You should sort through and handle the papers in your in-basket twice a day. Establish a To-do list and a Reading file. With these two items it should take no more than 15 minutes to empty your in-basket. Make a decision on every piece of paper and put it in its proper location. Not at the bottom of the basket.

Papers relating to a project you are currently working on should be scanned and put in the project file. The latest in-house periodical, a newsletter, long memo, etc., all go in the Reading file. A cartoon from a friend goes in your Personal file. Something requiring your signature should be signed immediately and put in the out-basket. An item you want to discuss with a coworker goes in a file with that person's name on it. Throw away the draft of the third revision that supersedes the second revision which is to be followed by the semifinal copy.

To-do List. Handling the in-basket means sorting, filing, delegating and tracking its contents. It does not mean you have necessarily completed every item. Projects that require further attention from you need a temporary home until you have the time to work on them. Each time you file a piece of paper that requires additional action on your part, make a note on your To-do list. This eliminates the fear that once it is filed away and out of sight, it will be permanently forgotten.

Reading File. Those items that need more than a couple of minutes to read should go into a Reading folder. If you take the time to read everything when it first arrives, you will never get through your in-basket. Scan and save only the material that you are likely to need. Scheduling 30 minutes twice a week should be enough to keep you current and the reading stack down. Take reading along to look over while you wait for appointments or while commuting or traveling. When your reading file is full sort the oldest portion with this question in mind, "How likely am I to read this or refer to the information in the near future?" Then respond accordingly. You will find yourself tossing much of it.

Keep it Moving

Make room in your desk to hold your active work. Make decisions quickly and put documents away promptly. Once you set it aside "just for a minute," the piles will begin to take over. Controlling the volume of paper is the first step to personal organization. Beware of creeping clutter that is most often caused by being away for a few days, suddenly hitting a busy cycle or the onset of a crisis. No excuses, take the few minutes required to go through the stacks. Most of it will go "out" again immediately. This will help you feel better, gain control and be able to plan the rest of your day.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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