Close your eyes and picture the Zen-like state of your desk in a paperless world. When you need data from the last quarter, you speak to your computer and a soothing voice responds with the information. When it’s time to pay the bills, you instruct your computer where the payments are to come from.
Now, look at the paper sitting on your desk, dressers, tables, shelves, filing cabinets, etc.
The ideal of a paperless office has been around for at least three decades. While individuals, such as Eric Mack, experiment with paperless solutions, or online services offer paperless solutions, paper usage has increased significantly.
In 2003, Canadians used a whopping 2, 867,442 tonnes of paper, compared with 1,198,100 tonnes two decades earlier. Source: CBC News
For whatever reason, you’re stuck working with paper. Here are some tips for managing your piles (paper, that is).
- Keep only the work at hand visible. If you’re working on the month-end report, have it in front of you. Other pending work should be stored in some form of filing system, which makes it easy to retrieve, but keeps it out of sight.
- Have a fixed time each day to process routine paperwork. There are regular systems that dump a daily amount of paper on our desks: mail, filing, circulating files, etc. Set aside a few minutes every day to make sure this paper dealt with and not left piling up on your desk.
- Keep large wastebasket and/or shredder near your work area. Some percentage of the paper you process can go straight to recycling or garbage: used envelopes, advertising brochures, last week’s cafeteria menu. Toss it immediately.
- Don’t use a bulletin board. It’s a burial ground. I have a bulletin board in my office, but I am ruthless about what gets pinned to it. If you can’t be consistently ruthless, don’t put one on the wall.
- Organize your stationery. If you have to keep blank stationery on hand, get some type of storage system. Not only does lose stationery add to the cluttered look, it ends up dog-eared, frayed and unusable.
- Get a notebook. Resist the urge to take notes on dozens of pieces of scrap paper, notepads and sticky notes. Find a notebook that works for you and keep it with you at all times. That way, not only will you have a single, neat source of all your notes, you’ll only have one place you have to look to find information.
It doesn’t look like paper is going away anytime soon. You will need to have systems to control your paper flow.
filing space (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Options for managing document filing and retrieval.
By establishing a consistent system for filing and tracking documents, you will impose a sense of order on your records. This will save you time and ensure that the records you need will be at your fingertips. This works for business or personal filing systems
There are lots of choices when it comes to filing documents. No single system suits all types of records. It is important to match the system you choose to the particular types of records (financial, personnel and so on) you are keeping.
Here is an overview of the most popular options:
- Alphabetical filing is one of the oldest, most commonly used systems. It’s a good method for keeping personnel files, vendor records and customer files. Be sure to develop a universal index and a system of standards that describes how the names should be broken down for filing.
- Numerical sequence, such as accounting numbers, customer numbers, order numbers. There are several types of numerical filing systems, with the simplest being consecutive. Documents are placed in order according to their assigned number. Experts say numerical systems work best if you have fewer than 10,000 files to manage.
- Geographical sequence, such as by province: with breakdowns by cities, towns, postal codes, etc.
- Subject or organizational, such as by department, function or subject activity.
- Chronological, by years, quarters, months and/or days.
- Color coded. This coding is generally used in conjunction with one of the above systems to make it even faster and more efficient. For a numerical filing system, for example, you’d use a different coloured file folder for each number from 0 to 9, to speed retrieval and refilling.
- Hybrid. Companies often use alphabetical or numerical sequencing within geographical, subject or chronological filing systems.
- Bar codes. Scannable bar codes can speed more than retail checkout lines and inventory tracking. Organizations ranging from doctors’ offices to Fortune 500 companies use them for document tracking. Various bar codes, including the alphanumeric Code 128, are commercially available. Users can invest in equipment and software to generate their own labels or buy labels commercially.
Working at an organizations’ head office, we see a lot of paper. We recently were involved in a capital project to build a new program facility in our region. When the HVAC system was installed, someone thought we might want the user manual for the system: a 400 page PDF document. Instead of filing the PDF on the network, the document was printed and placed in a filing cabinet, where it will sit until doomsday.
We really didn’t need the manual. We will never troubleshoot the system; we will never program the system; and we will never maintain the system. The next time we will be concerned with the HVAC in this building is when it stops working and needs to be replaced.
Despite the improvements in document handling technology, despite the the convenience of a PDF, we still produce a lot of paper. Keeping your desk and files clutter–free in a paper–filled environment isn’t easy, but a little planning and a little technology can help.
Start with the 4 D’s of Effective Paper Management:
- DO IT. This means that you perform the necessary items on this piece of paper today. Once you’ve completed these items, the paper should be filed, re-routed to someone else or discarded.
- DELAY IT. This means that further action needs to be taken on this paper, but not right now. File it in a Reminder file or in your file cabinet. If necessary, write a date and time on your calendar when you’ll be retrieving this paper for further action.
- DELEGATE IT. This means that you immediately give this paper to someone else, whether this person is someone in your company, a client, vendor or someone else you outsource to.
- DUMP IT. This is the greatest one of them all. It’s probably safe to say that a huge percentage of the paper that enters your office can be immediately discarded.
Manage your “to read” pile
The paper littering desks and files is mostly mail or things colleagues send, stuff that you mean to read, but never get to. Have a plan to eliminating the paper as soon as you get it. That doesn’t mean throwing it in the recycle bin as soon as you receive it, but you need to know where things will end up after they hit your desk.
Put non–urgent “to read” items in file folder; use multiple folders if you have different to-read categories. As you receive new items, place them in the front of the folder. If the folder gets too full, toss the old stuff without looking at it. That way you always have current stuff that might go back a month or two. Don’t worry you’ll throw away something vital, if it’s vital, it shouldn’t be in a general reading file.
Think before you print
We also create a lot of the paper piles, without giving it much thought. It can be tempting to print every interesting thing we find on the web or print a 400 page PDF “just in case.” It adds up. Stop and think before hitting the print button. Is there a better way to store the material.
Here’s a place where technology can be put to good use. The cost of storage media keeps getting less and less. I just bought a 1 terabyte (that’s 1,000 gigabytes) hard drive for $120.00. I can print any web page to pdf and store it on the drive. Combine that with a search tool such as Google Desktop and I can quickly find material previously saved.
Create a record retention policy
Despite technological advances, there are certain files, such as personnel records and corporate documents, that you’ll need to keep for extended periods of time. To manage this process, you’ll need a record retention plan. How this policy reads will vary depending on local laws. However, these are the kinds of documents controlled by such policies:
- Annual financial statements, corporate documents (including corporate charter, deeds and easements, stock, minutes of board of directors’ meetings, labor contracts, trademark and registration applications), and income tax paperwork and payment checks.
- Bank statements, voided checks, purchase records (purchase orders, payment vouchers, vendor invoices), and sales records (invoices, monthly statements, shipping papers and customers’ purchase orders).
- Personnel and payroll records.
- Monthly financial statements.
Archive off site
Use off–site storage for those files that you don’t use everyday, but can’t discard immediately. This allows you to keep your office space free of the files, but the information is still available if you need. Assign a destroy date to each box that you store. This forces you to make a decision about a set of documents that you might not do if the files are on–site.
Before sending your files away, cull them and discard duplicates, non–essential files, or those past retention dates according to your policy. You’re paying by the box, you don’t want to send unnecessary bulk.
Invest in equipment and software
Technology lets you toss more than ever before. New information is constantly accessible to via the Internet, there’s less need to maintain all types of files.
- If you have documents that you need to keep, but you don’t use everyday or don’t have the room to store, use a scanner to create an electronic copy.
- If discarding confidential documents makes you resistant to purging files, shred sensitive documents before recycling.
- Business cards can be filed in a book, or scanned to keep electronic copies of the cards, which can later be searched by name or keyword.
- To file effectively and quickly, you need to have the essentials: plenty of file folders, file labels, cardboard boxes and bins, plastic crates and carts, and file cabinets.
- And don’t forget wastebaskets and recycling bins for the items that you choose not to file.
Organize your office heart
You may have business documents items which have more of a sentimental or morale value: photos, letters from clients, awards, etc. Have a memento box or album when and collect those gems — pictures of the first office party, thank you letters from their first few clients. Keep the box or album in a designated area in your office.
Keep it clean
Once your office is organized, keep it that way! A major part of maintaining order is your approach to the task. To prevent future accumulation, treat paper in your office as if it’s perishable. Don’t pile it up, telling yourself that you’ll deal with it when you have time. Make decisions on the paper immediately. Keep a recycle bin and a wastebasket next to your desk and use them frequently.
Continue filtering, filing and tossing and you’ll maintain a clutter–free environment.
Whether we like it or not, paperless systems are slow reaching mass acceptance. Unless you work for a company that has invested in paperless processes, you likely see loads of paper coming across your desk.
How do you deal with it? You could explore a personal paperless system. However, if that’s not workable for you right now, make sure you have a good filing system in place.
When building you system, consider these factors:
- Don’t be too logical. It’s your system, and no one else will be using it. It only needs to make sense toyou.
- Keep it simple. Use a limited number of categories. You may find the these five to be adequate:
- Projects – files with information related to different projects you are working on.
- Instant Tasks – folders on little jobs to fill in your time when you have a few minutes. Perhaps low priority letters to be answered, or general interest articles.
- Self-Development- folders related to training: books, articles, etc.
- Ideas – items you wish to investigate further to improve your operation.
- Reference Information – a resource for different things you are involved with. Keep separate folders by topic and refer to them when you need statistics, examples, quotations, etc.
- Colour code you files. Use colours to highlight priorities within each category to draw attention toyour most important items. This is easily accomplished by using different color highlighters and marking individual folders.
- Schedule a regular filing time. Keep your filing current so time won’t be wasted searching for an item.
- Purge! Clean your files periodically to keep the volume of material to an essential minimum. This also will reduce time going through files when you are looking for something.