If you are like many managers and
executives, each day brings a fresh river of
paper to your desk. Some small percentage
may be important enough to require immediate
action. Some will require action, but not
immediate action. Then there is material
that requires no action, but, for one reason
or another should be retained. And, some
material will have no value to you
The key to effective
paper management is to have an organized and
coherent system so that a) important
material is not lost or action delayed, and
b) unimportant or valueless material does
not take up an inordinate amount of your
time. In this article, we will look at some
tips to help you optimize the time you spend
dealing with the paper that crosses your
Most offices process mail
by having an administrative/support employee
open/date stamp incoming mail and paper.
There is no reason why the same person
cannot pre-sort the mail as it is opened.
There are several ways to do this. A
rudimentary sort can be done to separate the
material according to its type.
Advertisements/junk mail can be kept
together, as can customer/client
correspondence, reports of various types,
internal memos, etc.
A second method requires
more knowledge on the part of the employee.
When the mail is sorted, it is categorized
in terms of its importance or urgency. The
most critical material is presented to you
on top of the pile, or in a separate file.
methods are designed to reduce the amount of
time you spend sifting through the material,
but both methods require you to spend time
explaining to staff what is important and
what is not. Once this is clear, significant
time savings can be achieved.
Decision on Each Item
Your goal is to handle
each item once and only once. Routine
paperwork (material that does not require
much of your time) should be dealt with as
it is examined. For example, a staff member
needs an extension on a project. On reading
the memo, try to make a decision AT THAT
TIME. Either approve the request with a
short note on his/her memo and return to
sender, or deny the request in the same
manner. If you require more information,
indicate THAT on the memo and return.
Even if you can't make a
decision on the issue, make a decision about
the memo, and move it off your desk.
Use the TRAF
Stephanie Winston, author
of The Organized Executive suggests that
there are only four and a half things you
can do with paper. You can Toss Refer, Act,
File or Read (that's the half!). She
suggests that you:
"Sort all incoming papers
through the TRAF system, moving them from
your desk to wastebasket, referral folder,
action box, file box or reading stack."
Some material simply has
little or no value to you. Rather than
keeping material on your desk, toss any
valueless material immediately. Junk mail
might fall into this category, but so might
many For Your Information memos, and other
reports that are sent to you on a regular
basis but require no action on your part.
There is no need for you
to act on each piece of paper that crosses
your desk. Whenever possible Refer to
someone else for action, making sure you
provide sufficient information so the person
handling the action knows what you expect.
Some material requires
immediate action. When you sift through your
paperwork, identify items that you can take
action on immediately, where action will NOT
require large investments of time. Where the
action will be time consuming (e.g. writing
a report), set the item aside so you can
devote proper attention to it. It is often
useful to schedule the time needed to
complete the required task.
Material that requires no
action but needs to be retained can be
placed in the to file folder. It is a good
idea to mark on each item, a "retain until"
The "half" action is
Read. Short items can be read immediately.
Items that will require more than five to
ten minutes to read should be set aside, to
be dealt with during your "reading periods".
It may be a good idea to keep two piles of
reading material--items that MUST be read,
and items that would be NICE to read.
Anything not falling into one category or
the other should be tossed.
Unnecessary Incoming Items
Consider the material
that you receive on a regular basis. These
may include weekly or monthly reports from
staff, other managers, etc. Many of these
will have little value to you, although some
may need to be retained "just in case". Ask
yourself the following question for each
What is the worst thing
that can happen if I don't receive or see
If that worst thing
really isn't very terrible (often it's not),
ask to be taken off the distribution list,
or have your secretary (if you have one)
gate these out by filing them automatically.
Routine Staff Reporting
Some organizations ask
staff to submit regular updates/status
reports to the manager. Whatever time period
you currently use, ask yourself whether
these reports can be submitted less
frequently. Also, can written reports be
replaced by short verbal updates at staff
Keep in mind that time
savings here can be multiplied since you can
reduce the time YOU must spend examining
such reports, and reduce the time spend by
staff PREPARING reports.
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