Originally from Matt Baier’s Organizing Works Newsletter, August 2008


Last month I stated that ultimately all paper demands just two imperatives:

1.    Act upon it

2.    Find it

In my last newsletter I focused on ways to find and retrieve files, but the subject of this newsletter will be how to deal with that massive amount of papers that demand action before they can be put away.

In this overwhelming Information Age it’s all too easy to lose perspective of one fact that remains constant.  You still only have 24 hours in a day.  With all the things you have to read, download, reply to, fill out, email, calculate, write, etc.  How are you supposed to get it all done?  The answer is simple.  YOU CAN’T.

Perhaps the most useful thing I ever heard on the subject of Time Management was in a lecture given by Time Management expert Harold Taylor.  He said, “when you die, you are still going to have a full in-box. ”  The message is that Time Management is not about getting to EVERYTHING that pops into your life.  It ‘s about knowing your priorities and using what time you have effectively to get to what matters most.  Taylor had another way of putting it.  “If you have a song you want to write, don’t die with the music still in you.”

Maybe you think Harold Taylor is a morbid guy–two quotes, both about death, but the point is, time is as precious as life, so make a point every so often to stand back, get perspective and see what goals are TRULY important and how you are going to go about achieving them.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a guy on his deathbed (sorry, another death reference) and he’s saying “I wish I bought more crap.”  It’s a hysterical gag because NO one would ever say that.  It’s pointless, BUT ask yourself what WOULD you regret not doing?  Whatever the answer you come up with, that’s what Time Management is for. 

OK, back to the pile of papers on your desk.  Again, for this discussion we are not talking about items that you just need to find.  We are talking about items that require action.  Hopefully that will START reducing your pile.  So here are six tips for reducing that pile further:

1. Distinguish between “Must” and “May”. Let’s say you’re flipping through a catalog and you see a couch you like.  If it’s exactly what you’ve been looking for, the price is right and you want it delivered this weekend, then the action required is a MUST do.  If, however, this couch is just a likely replacement someday, then purchasing it is a MAY do and it would fall into the FILE category.   (Remember, my idea of filing is making things findable, not hidden.) Also, when you jot something down, it could be something you MUST do or something you MAY do.   This is why collecting all your thoughts in a spiral notebook is a bad idea.  Whether your idea is a MUST or a MAY it is liable to get stuck in the notebook.  I favor keeping single ideas on single notes or post its.  In this way you can quickly divide your thoughts between MUSTs and MAYs and assign them appropriately.

2. Categorize then Subcategorize. I know this may sound a little TOO organize-y, but bear with me.  Let’s face it, a huge pile of papers is intimidating.  So what’s the answer? Break it into 5 or 6 smaller piles and attack one pile at a time.  And what if those little piles are not so little? Break it into subcategories.  Give yourself a time limit and move fast and general. Even if one of the categories has to be “miscellaneous,” it will be faster to deal with if it is smaller.  One of my favorite clients had a home office FULL of piles, so we broke those piles down into categories.  One of those categories concerned her more than all the others.  It was four boxes of “Information to Enter” that she had collected over several years.   Despite resistance, I gently encouraged her to face these boxes by simply breaking down the contents into six subcategories.  She finished quickly and threw out a lot of papers along the way.  She was happy that she finally confronted this growing wave of papers, but here’s the best part.  As a result of subcategorizing, she not only felt capable of starting the information-entry project, but actually FINISHED it within a month.  All those papers GONE!

3. The Paper Filter.  Two of the most important categories to identify are “Read” and “Review.”  What’s the difference?  A reading pile is to be digested more slowly, perhaps even savored.  A review pile is to get through FAST.  How does this help you? The more EVERYTHING demands your attention, the more likely NOTHING is going to get your attention.  When we’re on overload, we tend to switch OFF.   By taking the reading material off your table and moving it to your favorite reading area, you are removing a lot of bulk from your To-Do pile.   Then by isolating all the review material you are gaining what I call a Review Mode.  This is when you can set a timer, for say 20 minutes, and just tear through a pile of paper.  The goal is not to come up with the final answer, necessarily, but take no more than 20 seconds per item, and make a decision about the next STAGE.  Ask yourself which simple category it falls into. If there’s a bill that needs following up on, then put it in a Follow Up pile, with a note. If it demands a more thorough reading, it goes into the Read pile (for when you are in Read Mode).  If it turns out the item has no value, then toss it immediately. If one article looks like useful information, cut it out, toss the magazine and put the article in the File pile.  Later, when you deal with the File pile, for example, you will be in Filing mode which will make THAT step go much faster.   Moving paper forward in stages like this is what I call the Paper Filter.

4. Headlines vs. Content.  If the front page of a newspaper was a solid block of unbroken 10 point text, newspapers wouldn’t sell.  Why? Because it’s boring.  Newspapers make their front pages compelling by just showing the headlines, some photos, and just enough copy to whet your appetite.  You know that the full content is inside the paper, but you are willing to read one story at a time.  Your To-Do list should be like the cover of a newspaper, a single compelling page of focus.  Anything more becomes too overwhelming to do.  Whether you remove six files or six piles from your desk, you can connect back to them with a compelling note on your To Do list. 

5.  Fixed vs. Flexible.  I believe the majority of time management systems fail because they are too rigid.  Consequently, the user feels like it’s no use, and reverts back to NO system.  Of course some things require rigidity, like meetings with clients and doctors.  This is what I call Fixed Time and it makes sense to enter it into a rigid system, whether it’s digital or paper.  Everything else that you want to make a point of doing is what I call Flexible Time.  Let me be clear on this.  Flexible does NOT mean unimportant, but it IS more about commitments you are making to yourself.   This is much more challenging, so give yourself a break.  Write these commitments on small Post-It notes, cross off whatever you can do today, and move the rest onto tomorrow’s (fixed) To Do list.  This saves you the trouble of rewriting what you haven’t had time for.

6. Indicate a Time.  It’s human nature to underestimate how long a task is going to take.   We believe folding the laundry will only take five minutes because we WANT it to take no more than five minutes and we feel like we have failed, when it takes longer than five minutes.  It’s very easy to think you can knock off ten phone calls in a half hour if you’re convinced each phone call will take a couple of minutes.  Really? Why not put that to a test?  Write a number beside each name you need to call, for each minute you expect this call to take.  I like to circle that number so that it stands apart from the message.  When you write a number, two things will happen.  First, when you give yourself a target, you give yourself a focus.  Second, you get a more accurate sense of how long these tasks really take.  Setting a timer will help the focus and accuracy too.


Perhaps you’ve read these six tips and you’re thinking “I’m not going to do all that stuff.”  So don’t!  Just try one or two.   Conventional to-do lists don’t work because we tend to do the easiest tasks first, so we can cross them off the list and feel like we are accomplishing more.  For your to-do list to be EFFECTIVE, you need to be able to answer “yes” to the following two questions:  Are you getting TO what matters most and are you getting THROUGH what matters most?