Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cage The Paper Tiger

Tax season is upon us. This time of year more than any other tests our paper management system. Have you been swallowed alive by the paper tiger? Read on. Below you will find some techniques for putting that paper tiger in the cage where he belongs.

Start by keeping all of your incoming paper in one place. An in-box – or some organizers call it a “to-sort” box – holds all the paper that needs your attention. I’d like to bust a myth right now: it is unrealistic to believe that you will handle paper only once. However you can minimize paper handling by focused decision-making when you sit down to manage your paper, which you should do often if not daily.

Really there are only three basic decisions that can be made about paper:
File: no action is needed or the action is complete
Act: these go into special act-on files
Toss: get rid of it!

Any paper containing information that you may need in the future can be filed as reference. Some examples of reference categories are: Insurance (one file for each type), Household Maintenance Records, Resume, Consumer Information, Child Care Information, Holidays, Income Tax, Home Inventory, and Retirement Information. It is quite likely you will have other reference categories as well. Ask yourself “Under what circumstances would I want this information?” Use the answer to help determine the file category. A few other guidelines are:
• Keep things simple, and use the most general category first. Only when the file becomes too bulky should you break it down into smaller categories.
• It is easier to look in a file with several sheets of paper than several files with one sheet of paper.
• File information according to how you will use it rather than its source. You will not remember the source of the paper, but the circumstances under which you would look for it will guide your search.
• Put an “expiration date” on the file. The expiration date will make cleaning out your files a snap. Remember that news articles have a relatively short lifespan but some information must be kept a long period of time – such as income tax returns.

Sort your act-on stack by the type of action that is needed. Here are some categories to consider: Call, Calls Expected (so when someone returns your call you have all the pertinent information in the file rather than trusting your memory), Pay, Discuss, Computer Entry, File, Special Events, Upcoming Meeting, Write/Email, Projects, and Tickler. The Tickler category is a way of incubating items until a specific date or until you receive additional information. One way to “tickle” your memory is to write notes in your calendar about when to follow-up with the items in this file. Of course you can add or delete categories according to your needs.

Keep your act-on files together, and keep your reference files together, but distinguish between these two types of files for ease of locating information. Use different colored folders or assign each type its own file cabinet drawer.

The real key to a paper management system isn’t what is kept but what is discarded. When going through your paper ask yourself the following questions:
• Is there a legal reason to keep this information? When in doubt, ask an authority!
• Would it be difficult to replace?
• Is this the only place the information is available? If the information can be obtained easily elsewhere then why keep it?
• Can you think of when this information would be useful? If you cannot imagine the circumstances under which you would need the information, then it probably isn’t applicable to your life. “Just in case” is not acceptable because there is no keyword to help you find the information later. If you can’t find it then it’s worthless to you.
If you are hesitant to toss that paper after answering “no” to all of the above questions, then ask yourself “What is the worst thing that could happen if I don’t have this paper?” If the consequences aren’t bad, then toss it.

According to Professional Organizer and author Barbara Hemphill “we never use roughly 80% of the paper we collect.” Make judicious use of the trashcan and you will lessen the amount of filing that is needed -- without negatively affecting your life. In fact, it will help you cage your paper tiger.