Manage Paper without Arson, Part I
There is no more stressful organizing challenge for my clients
than dealing with the overwhelming and constant flow of incoming paper.
Some people tell me they’d just like to throw a burning match
at their desk and take care of their paper for good. If you’re
overwhelmed by the capture, processing, and management of paper, you’re
completely normal. Don’t resort to arson; there is a better way!
I am going to use this column and the next one to help you deal with
that vexing paper you’ve got covering your desk, stacked on your
floor, and shoved in your junk drawer. By the time we’re done,
you will have a framework to begin tackling your nemesis. This column
will present the nature of our paper, what our paper mismanagement is
costing us, and the need for systems. The next column will explain the
five paper management systems everyone needs at home and at work, so
be sure to stay tuned for Part II.
All forms of paper enter our homes and offices every day. From junk
mail, to bills and invoices, to circulars and advertisements, to catalogs
to coupons, we are drowning in the growing piles of paper. This new
paper just compounds our problems with our old paper. Our existing piles,
stacks, and outdated files add to our confusion. Our file cabinet is
tightly packed with who-knows-what and we can barely see the surface
of our desk.
A REFLECTION OF OUR ACTIVITIES
I simply believe that all of our resources are gifts to be managed with
purpose. Our resources include our time, our talents, our space, and
our possessions. But did you know that your paper is a resource, too?
Why? Our paper records and reflects our activities. Our documents hold
up a mirror to what we’ve been up to and records what we value.
In the personal realm, our receipts, bills, checkbook, and credit card
statements reflect that into which we are choosing to invest our finances.
Our catalogs and magazines reflect our interests and how we spend our
time. At work, our projects reflect our current efforts and all that
we’re juggling. Our files contain our resource material and record
our past efforts. In short, our paper is important because it is an
ever-present shadow of our lives and as such it deserves our stewardship.
Paper documents our activities. If our life is out of control, it is
going to show up in our paper record. The good news is we can actually
restore some control to our life by delving into this fascinating set
of records and bringing order and out chaos. If your paper is managed
correctly, it will bring you great peace of mind. You will know what
to do next instead of wondering what you’re missing and what has
fallen through the cracks. Effective paper systems will help you regain
power to be proactive instead of putting out fires and being reactive.
THE COST OF PAPER MISMANAGEMENT
There are costs to our paper problem beyond just mess and stress. Paper
dysfunction costs us in the pocketbook. At home, paper covers our kitchen
counters and migrates all over the house. We are incurring late fees
on our bills and un-returned videos. Some of my clients have even had
their lights and water turned off as a result of unpaid bills missing
The costs of paper mismanagement aren’t just incurred at home.
At work, the average professional wastes about an hour a day searching
for documents and information, adding up to six work weeks per year.
(For a professional with a $120,000 annual salary, the cost to the employer
of this search is $15,000 in lost days and productivity.)
Not only are there direct costs for this frantic paper search, there
are indirect costs as well. Mismanaged paper produces the following
indirect detrimental costs in our personal and professional lives:
- Damaged credibility
- Personal stress
- Interpersonal tension
- Diminished competence
- Lack of confidence
- Stymied productivity
At work, we understand that there are costs in sorting, filing, and
locating documents, and an extra cost if a lost document must be re-created.
Therefore, if you can implement effective paper management systems,
these systems will reduce confusion, contain administrative costs, and
simplify life. At home, however, the same cost exists. We may not see
a cost in “overhead” as a business does, but our time is
invested looking for paper, recreating it, and shuffling it instead
of investing in the things that truly matter to us. Since our time is
a limited resource, the way we spend it is either an asset or a liability.
Stumbling through life burdened by ineffective paper systems is a liability.
INVEST IN SYSTEMS
Almost every client with whom I work needs help managing paper, in varying
degrees. Some just need a system to capture their incoming mail and
take action on items requiring attention. Some lack an effective filing
system and need a filing overhaul because permanent papers have no destination
and just stack up on their surfaces. We pile because we don’t
file. We need some systems to simplify our paper.
In my work as a professional organizer, I’ve observed that there
are at least five basic paper management systems my clients universally
seem to need. I’ve titled them all with the letter “P”
to make them easy to remember:
- Processing—a system to deal with incoming and actionable
- Projects—a system to manage current or pending material
- People—a system for transferring paper and information to
- Permanent—a system to store paper you will reference again
- Perpetual—a system to store loose paper that hangs around
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of customizing each of these
five systems to the roles, thinking patterns, habits, and work style
of each client. I extensively interview each client in their unique
environment to discover their individual needs. Systems that are personalized
are intuitive to the individual and are easy to use and maintain. On
the other hand, systems that are imposed tend to hinder a person’s
productivity, and may eventually be abandoned. Stay tuned to Part II
to learn more about each of these five systems so you can fit them to
your particular needs and preferences.
The time you will spend figuring out what you need and setting up effective
paper management systems will be an investment in your sanity. You will
be practicing better stewardship of your resources and you may even
Some parts adapted from Restoring Order™ to Your Home a room-by-room
household organizing guide copyright © 2007 by Vicki Norris (available
in bookstores and at www.RestoringOrder.com). Published by Harvest House
Publishers, Eugene, OR.
About the Author: Vicki Norris is an expert organizer, business
owner, speaker, television personality, and author who inspires people
to live out their priorities. Norris is a regular on HGTV’s nationally
syndicated Mission: Organization, and is a recurrent source and contributor
to national lifestyle publications including Quick & Simple magazine,
Better Homes & Gardens, and Real Simple magazine. Norris’
premiere book Restoring Order : Organizing Strategies to Reclaim Your
Life™ (copyright 2006) is also published by Harvest House Publish
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