Does your desk sometimes look like a cluttered mailroom? Do you then go on a neatness spree – only to watch the untidy stacks of paper mount up again so that, in the following week or two, you have to clean up all over again? Some managers have a constant swirl of paper on their desks and assume that somehow the most important documents will float to the top. If you are being smothered by the paper avalanche, here are some useful ideas that may prove to be your salvation…

1. Adopt a system to process your paperwork.

The key to managing the paper war is to develop an effective processing strategy. It is essential to find a structured system that will work for you – and stick with it.

For example, the DRAFT system could be considered. Here, all incoming papers are sorted into one of the following five categories:

Delegation pile. Use routing or action slips to refer these items to staff members better equipped than you are to respond.

Reading pile. Put the journals, articles, and updates into a pile ready to grab when going to a dental appointment, or catching a bus, or taking off for the weekend.

Action pile. These items will require a personal response from you in the form of a written reply, an analysis, a draft report, or a decision. Subdivide this pile into ‘top priority’ and ‘lower priority’ tasks.

Filing pile. In a ‘filing box’, place all papers that need to be filed for future reference.

Toss pile. Junk mail and throw-away items are destined for the wastepaper basket. If you are unsure of what to dump, ask: What’s the worst thing that would happen if I tossed it? Will someone be calling me later about this? Is there a duplicate elsewhere? If you feel it is impossible to decide on dumping immediately, keep the flyers and catalogues in a separate file to be browsed in one quick sitting each week before discarding, filing, or delegating.

2. Never handle a piece of paper twice.

Sort through all incoming papers as part of a regular daily routine. Handle each item only once – moving each from your desk to a delegation folder, to a read-later stack, to an action tray, to a file-later box, or to the wastepaper basket. (In reality, the goal should be to try to handle a document only twice at most – once on sorting it into the relevant pile, and, in some instances, once when resolving it.)

3. Enlist your assistant’s help if possible.

Your secretary or clerk can save you much time by sorting your incoming paperwork for you, by handling the less important items routinely, by filing routine papers before they reach you, by highlighting the essential elements of the documents, and by routing the material appropriately after sorting.

4. Develop skimming skills.

Move those papers across your desk promptly. Learn to skim background information to gain a general understanding of material without loitering. Consider a speed-reading course. Take time to read in detail only high-priority documents.

5. Allocate a set time each day for paperwork.

If possible, form the habit of processing paperwork at the same time every day. Such discipline combats procrastination and prevents your in-basket from overflowing. For example, 30 minutes of quiet time at the beginning of a day or after hours will send you home with a feeling of having accomplished much.

6. Screen unnecessary paper.

Have your name removed from mailing lists that provide you only with junk mail. Cancel subscriptions to newsletters, magazines, and catalogues that no longer serve a useful purpose. Reduce photocopier use. Train your personal assistant to handle paper not requiring your personal attention. Work hard to stop the flow. Do you really need all those ‘for your information’ copies from staff?

7. Focus on your action file.

Developing a workable paperflow system, like DRAFT, is essential; in the long run, it’s your action file that counts. How can you ensure that you keep it to a manageable size? Here are a few tips:

  • Use a priority list.
  • Explore time-saving options: use form letters, form paragraphs, and with compliments slips, and tickler files.
  • Use the telephone or e-mail. It’s faster and cheaper than mail.
  • Make marginal notes on incoming mail and have your assistant draft your reply.
  • Ask that every report over three pages in length include a summary on its cover page.
  • Periodically check on the reports or bulletins you prepare – Who reads them? Are they of any use? Should you persist?
  • Spotlight your tardiness. Mark a document with a red dot each time you handle it but fail to take action. Allow three dots – but no more.
  • Don’t put it down. Put it away.
  • Learn the art of wastepaper-basketry. Take no prisoners!

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