Consider the above decisions in the order suggested above. Think of a funnel. Everything enters the top of the funnel, and the volume of paper gets smaller as you move down the funnel. If you can throw it away, you won’t need to consider the other four options. If you can give it away (delegate it), you won’t need to consider the other three options. If it requires immediate action, you won’t need to file it away for future follow-up (tickler file) or reference (filing system).
Let's look more closely at these five decisions...
Although this option is simple and straight-forward, this is one of the most significant barriers to getting and staying organized. Some people have real trouble throwing things away. However, it is counter-productive to organize things that you should not be keeping in the first place. If you find throwing things away to be a challenge for you, consider these questions:
- What's the worst thing that could happen if you threw this away?
- By the time you might need it, will it be obsolete?
- If you threw this away now and discovered you needed it later, could you fairly easily replace it?
- If your office burned down, would you miss this enough that you would actively seek to replace it?
- Does it have tax or legal implications?
- How will it enhance your life to keep this?
"What separates those who achieve from those who do not is in direct proportion to one's ability to ask for help." -Donald Keough, former President of Coca-Cola
If you are like most busy professionals, you have more on your plate than you can possibly ever complete. Think of juggling a bunch of balls in the air. If you have more than you can juggle, you WILL drop some of them. Would you rather drop them because you cannot handle them all, or would you rather drop some by choice because some of the balls are not as important as others?
Accept that you cannot be all things to all people, and you cannot do it all without support from others...nor should you try to! Ask yourself these two questions:
- Are you the best person to do this job? As much as possible, work on things that only you can do.
- Are you passionate about this work? Even if you do something better than anyone else, if you don't enjoy it, is there some way to delegate it to someone else who can do an adequate job?
For more tips, read my article on effective delegation.
Take Immediate Action
If it’s something that can be done within 2 minutes or less and you are able to do so, do it now. This might be something that simply needs a signature or a quick email giving approval. Be careful not to start working on things that take longer than a couple minutes to do, as you are likely to get distracted and will lose momentum.
File for Follow-Up
These are items that require some kind of action from you, but they cannot be done within a couple of minutes. You need more time to work on it, and you don't have the time right now or it is not currently the highest priority. Or perhaps you need more information before you can take action or make a decision. There are two questions you need to ask yourself for items requiring action:
- What is the NEXT action I need to take?
- When am I going to do it?
Some activities require multiple actions. Be clear what is next. If you have a "project" (something with several steps required), write all the steps on a sticky note, in the order you need to take each action step. Then you can check them off as you complete each step. File the item in your tickler file for when you intend to take the next action, or schedule the activity in your planner.
As you are deciding WHEN you will do something, keep in mind your current priorities. Think of the 4 D's -- will you DO, DEFER, DELEGATE, or DUMP it?
I recommend using an accordion tickler file (with tabs for 1-31 and January-December), such as the one pictured above.
File for Reference
Have a To File stacking tray on your desk. As you identify things that need to be filed, place it in this tray. These items do not require any action, but you want to keep them for future reference. I recommend two resources that will help you manage your paper and electronic files.
For easy retrieval of paper files or other items in your physical environment, I recommend The Paper Tiger – a software program that enables you to cross-reference files and find what you need in just 5 seconds or less by doing a keyword search of your Paper Tiger database. Once you have your Paper Tiger database set up, all you have to do is add new items to your database in whatever location makes the most sense, or put papers to an existing file and add corresponding keywords that will help you find it when you need it.
A Few Tips…
Having all of these systems and processes in place will enhance your ability to be more organized and productive, but only if you consistently use them. Here are some tips to help.
Schedule a weekly “administrative tasks” appointment with yourself. Here are some of the things you can do during that time:
- File the things in your To File stacking tray.
- Clean out your email Inbox and Sent Mail (file in an email folder, take action, delete, forward).
- Have a weekly planning session with yourself to prepare for the next week. Here are some tools that may help you with this:
Check your tickler file daily. I suggest that you check it at the end of each day for the next day . If tomorrow is the 15th of the month, on the 14th you will take everything that is behind the “15” tab in your tickler file. Spread these items out so you can see everything. Look at your calendar for tomorrow. Then order everything from your tickler file from highest to lowest priority. If you know you will not be able to get to everything tomorrow, at least you can decide which balls you’ll juggle and which ones you won’t even pick up tomorrow. Move those items to another day or delegate them to someone else. This is much better than trying to slog through an unrealistic to-do list and realizing at the end of the day that you did not get to one of your most important tasks.
I have a folder labeled TODAY that I keep all of my papers in from the tickler file. The papers include a combination of mail, phone messages (3x5 cards), important emails I have printed out to remind me to take action, verbal requests from others (3x5 cards), and ideas or projects I want to pursue (3x5 cards).
When I come into my office in the morning, my TODAY folder is the only thing on my desk. I open it up, and I have my prioritized tasks already laid out for the day. This does not replace the weekly planning suggested above. It simply fine-tunes it for the day.
My Definition of Clutter:
Anything you own, possess, or do that does not
enhance your life on a regular basis.
If you accept my definition of clutter, then you acknowledge that clutter goes far beyond the physical environment. Clutter can be activities, or even people, in your present life…something to think about! The statistics below refer to physical clutter, although you could probably come up with some pretty startling statistics if you were to broaden this definition beyond your environment.
1. Clutter costs us time, which is priceless, because it can never be replaced.
- 80% of papers that are filed are never referenced again.
- According to the American Demographic Society, Americans waste more than 9 million hours each day looking for lost and misplaced articles.
- Office World News reported that the average executive wastes 150 hours per year looking for lost and misplaced documents
2. Clutter costs us energy. It makes our jobs harder.
- Getting rid of excess clutter eliminates 40% of the housework in an average home.
- 80% of the clutter in most homes is a result of disorganization, not lack of space.
3. Clutter costs us financially. Not only do we pay for the initial purchase, but also for the upkeep and maintenance.
- Before looking for more storage space, clear out the items you no longer need or use. Recycle them or donate them to a good cause.
- Make the most of the space you have available. Evaluate your need for better storage containers and organizing tools.
- An Ernst & Young study revealed that it costs $2100 a year to maintain a filing cabinet. An average of three percent of documents are lost or misfiled, and have to be recovered at an alarming cost of $120 per document.
4. Clutter costs us peace of mind. It's hard to relax when we are on sensory overload with piles of magazines we've been meaning to read, etc.
- Evaluate the number of subscriptions (magazines, journals, newspapers) you have mailed to your home or office. Can you realistically read them all? If not, reduce your guilt and cancel them! You can purchase specific issues of interest from the newsstand or go to the public library.
- We gain peace of mind knowing that we will be able to find what we need when we need it.
Back to Tips & Tools