by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally appeared in Florida Bar News

Q: I am overwhelmed by paper work. To keep track of the daily mail and faxes, client files and trade journals, I end up creating piles on my desk, in chairs and even on the floor. I am embarrassed to hold meetings in my office so I always see clients in the conference room. Even worse, I often misplace things and that just adds to the frustration. Do you have any tips on managing all the paper – I’m drowning!

A: The average American executive loses six weeks a year trying to retrieve information from paper-laden desks and misplaced files. For most attorneys, the time loss is probably greater. Piles are a function of three factors:

  1. Not having “stations” for paper as it is being processed.
  2. Storing paperwork horizontally, which greatly restricts access to it.
  3. Not deciding on and dispensing with a piece of paper immediately (see the four Ds below).

One such “station” that can help with the paperwork process is to set up a standing file into which you and your staff triage incoming paperwork. Think of it as an in-box on steroids. It should be placed where you can comfortably use it without getting out of your chair. The staff should also be able to access it easily. It should contain four standing files, open at the top.

The first file is labeled the HOT FILE and can be color-coded with red or orange. Into this file goes the high priority, truly urgent, deadline-driven paperwork that you must deal with immediately. When the staff needs you to work on paperwork of any kind, it goes into this file, appropriately flagged. When you are opening your own mail, the items requiring immediate action go into this file. To ensure that nothing is overlooked, you should be in the habit of touching this file frequently throughout the day. By centralizing the items in one easy-to-access spot, this hot file set-up eliminates urgent paperwork sitting in random order or, worse yet, buried in a pile somewhere.

The next file is the DELEGATION FILE. Into this file goes the items that you will delegate to staff. A variation of the single delegation file is to have multiple files labeled with each staff person’s name. Upon receipt of paperwork that must be delegated, you should attach a post-it note to the item that instructs the staff on what action is required (i.e.: ‘file this,’ ‘call this person back,’ ‘pay this,’ etc.), then put it into the file. When you hold a staff meeting, this folder is ready to go. Or, you can hold the items in the folder until ready to delegate them individually. And because there is now a station for this category of paperwork, one more pile is eliminated.

The third file is the HOLDING FILE that holds all the items that are lower level priorities – important, but not time-sensitive. Paperwork should not languish too long here. This file should be checked on a weekly basis in order to deal effectively with the items it contains. Routinely block time on your calendar to handle this weekly ritual. This file will often contain reading material. To conserve space, we recommend quickly scanning through trade journals and pulling out the relevant articles instead of storing the entire publication. A secondary method is to drop these into your briefcase for reading on the go.

An important addition to this system is the often under-used CIRCULAR FILE or wastebasket. Be ruthless here. Force yourself to toss out paperwork that is redundant or that can be readily reproduced if you absolutely had to get another copy in the future. You don’t have to save every issue of that trade journal because you can go on line and download any article that you need, when you actually need it.

In conclusion, once you are set up and using your new paperwork triage process, here are the four basic actions (the four Ds) that you can take with a piece of paper:

  • Do it (act on it right away or put it into the HOT FILE for immediate action).
  • Delegate it (put it in the DELEGATION FILE).
  • Delay it (create a HOLDING FILE that will be checked weekly).
  • Dump it! (use your CIRCULAR FILE).
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