4 ways to get clutter out of your in-box and off your desk

Every professional soon discovers that his or her name resides on dozens, maybe hundreds of mailing lists. Not only does the normal flow of correspondence find it way to you, so does tons more: catalogs, flyers, sales offers, opportunities to win $10 million, newsletters, magazines, newspaper clippings, contracts, receipts, bills, memos, notes, legal documents, and most of the same electronically too. It can become an impossible heap to manage. We can spend many minutes a day moving the stuff around. If it is real paper, we pick it up, look at it, put it down in another stack, pick it up again, and move it here or there. Tomorrow we’ll move that same piece of paper to yet another stack and add more on top. In a few days we might lose it altogether and, when we discover we need it, spend way too much time trying to find it again. If it is electronic, we do the same or leave it where it was, cluttering up the inbox of our email programs. Time, efficiency, information, and effectiveness are soon lost.

There is an easy and inexpensive way to handle this. For dealing with real paper stuff you will need only a few manila file folders, a calendar, and a trash can. For electronic files you need the equivalent – folders on your hard drive, your schedule either paper, electronic or both, and the delete button. There are four, and only four things to do with each and every piece of paper or electronic file you receive: Do, Delay, Delegate, or Dump.

  1. DO – Some things need to be handled immediately. This you put in a “DO” place to be processed right away. You may not tackled it right that moment (although you probably should), but you will in the next several minutes. These are top priority items that demand immediate attention. You can create an electronic directory on your hard drive for those e-items and a file folder on your desk for the same in paper. Mark the folder “ACTION” and put all the “do” stuff in it, and then handle each item as soon as you are done sorting. Make sure every item is processed BEFORE you go on to anything else and I mean ANYTHING.
  2. DELAY – some items are important but not urgent. You need to do something with them, just not right now. Perhaps you need more information, have to wait for a response from someone else or it isn’t due today. You can delay processing it until another time. Don’t put it back in the stack of mail; don’t just leave it in your inbox. If you do that, you’ll only have to re-categorize it once more without making any progress toward completing it. Instead, for paper items, you should have tickler files, a set of specially marked folders in a file drawer (I’ll address what to do with electronic docs later in this section). You will need at least 12 folders. If you want to be even more precisely organized you will need four or five more. Label folders by month – January through December. You can add more folders – Week 1 – Week 4 if you want. Then take the document you want to delay and place it in the month ahead. If you are using weekly folders and the document needs attention this month, put it in the appropriate week. Now, the imperative is to always check the folder for items needing attention. E-mails are easier, depending on your email program, you can usually set a reminder and your computer will let you know. Other electronic documents can go into a folder then you can set a reminder for yourself in a task management program (Outlook has one) or an on-line program like Google Calendar to remind yourself when to deal with it. Don’t just leave it where it is! Make certain it is delayed not neglected.
  3. DELEGATE – Some items should not be handled by you at all. They belong somewhere else – with an associate, a secretary, a sub-contractor, a subordinate, or in a file (not a tickler). Don’t put it back on your desk or leave it in your inbox. Give it away to the proper person to handle it. Make it someone else’s problem not yours. If it is something you need to see again or review before it goes past your delegate, make a note in your calendar to follow up and notify whomever you send it to that you want a follow-up. I don’t know what system you might have in your office or if you even work in one. If you do, there should be a central place where all in-transit correspondence or documents pass. I generally discourage people placing things directly on my desk because they are too easily misplaced. A desk or work table is a work place not a mail box. Just be sure everyone knows where it is and uses it. For documents I’ve delegated out, I place a copy in a file called “Correspondence in progress” which tells me the process is not yet done. When it is finished, move the paper out and place it where it needs to go in a master filing system or the trash. Catalogs are a bit easier to handle these days because more and more vendors have gone to on-line ordering. Pertinent vendors can easily be stored in folders in your browser’s “Favorites” function. Paper catalogs need to be regularly updated. Discard or recycle the obsolete ones, keep the new ones, store them all in the place where they can be accessed by the people who will need them. Magazines are handled the same way. Newsletters, clippings, magazine articles you might have copied I put in a temporary file marked “READING.” I can grab the file when I’m waiting for someone or on a trip and read through them. The article then gets “delegated” into a file for research or it gets trashed. For electronic “clippings” I use OneNote. Some have used Evernote too.
  4. DUMP – If paper or e-files don’t fit anywhere else, dump them. Don’t move it to another stack or leave it in your in-box, get rid of it. Think of your trash can as a circular file. When you pick up a piece of paper or open an e-file, ask yourself “What will happen if I do nothing with this, if I make no response?” If the answer is nothing, then dump it.

So, there it is four simple steps – Do, Delay, Delegate, Dump – if you follow them your files…and your life, will be much less cluttered.

Have you found a way to handle paper and files you can share with us? Let me hear from you.

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