Paper Chase

The other day I was talking ‘personal organisation’ with my fellow-retiree and WordPress correspondent Curt Mekemson – click on the name to view his enjoyable blogsite. Our conversation reminded me of a highly effective system I’d begun to use by the end of my working life. If I’d seen it earlier, I might have more hair now!

It’s paper-based but I’m sure it could be adapted for computer. I’d recommend a read to anybody, if only for a glimpse of perfect order in an otherwise disorderly world … 🙂

Image result for paperwork overload

The Less Stress Desk System

Operates on the “doing one job at a time” principle and “out of sight, out of mind” principle. Also keeps a running check on the work in-hand while constantly keeping papers in the right priority. Most desks have piles of papers on them, usually in no order of priority. Pending baskets invite paper piles. Double and triple tier baskets double or triple the size of the pile and the pressure. They are a constant reminder of work waiting to be done, and they distract from the current job. The less stress desk system cures this. Here’s how it works.

It uses one in-tray, one waste-paper basket and one bank of size A4 drawers. Drawers are better than baskets or trays because they keep pending work out of sight, but aren’t essential to make the system work. The drawers are labelled as follows:

Action Today

Action Soon




Info Needed

Under pain of death, people are warned to put papers only in the in-tray on your desk. Each time you return to your desk, or complete a task (whichever is convenient to your working style), you sort, not deal with, the in-tray contents as follows:-

1.  Take the first in-tray document, scan it quickly and ask yourself “Am I ever going to need this piece of paper again?” Be ruthlessly honest in your answer. If the answer is “No” put the document in the waste-paper basket.

2.   If the answer is “Yes” put it away immediately in the appropriate drawer of the bank of 6, including papers that you intend passing to other people. Put these in Redirect.

3.   If you have a Secretary or an Assistant, have him/her empty and deal with Redirect.

4.   Don’t go home until you have dealt with all the contents of the Action Today drawer. These will be processed one at a time and put in one of the other drawers or waste-paper basket as appropriate. If you are rigid in your discipline about not leaving each day until the Action Today drawer is empty you will become very realistic about what you put in it.

5.   As you leave at the end of the working day, put the contents of the Action Soon drawer in the in-tray ready for the same process at the start of the next day. This keeps pending material under constant review and prioritises it constantly.

6.   To prevent the Info Needed drawer becoming like the usual pending basket, handle it as follows:-

a)  Write on the original document the action needed from another person to provide the info needed plus the date you expect it by with a note to let you know if the person can’t do it by that time immediately on receipt.

b)  Note this in your diary on that date. Put the document in ‘Redirect’ to be passed on but with a note for it to be copied and this copy go into the ‘Info Needed’ drawer. Your diary will bring this to your attention at the right time to pull out and put in your ‘Action Today’ drawer.

c)   People will get used to meeting your diary date if they know you don’t forget and automatically chase them on the due date.

7.    Put away any material that will take more than a few moments to read – e.g, Trade Journals – in the Read Drawer. Plan blocks of time to do reading daily. And filing things away can be relaxing when you don’t want to do anything else.

And there you have it. Almost makes me want to go back and have a second crack at it. Almost.

20 thoughts on “Paper Chase

  1. Another question I always asked myself, Dave, and I could get away with it since I was normally in control of my life: Given my particular goal, what was the most effective thing I could do to achieve it. Bang for buck. For example, I worked for the American Lung Association for many years. Our job was to reduce lung disease. It quickly became apparent to me that the primary cause of lung disease was tobacco use so we had to reduce tobacco use, not an easy task given the highly addictive nature of tobacco and the billions spent by the tobacco industry to market their product, especially to young people. I came up with three approaches: One was to push non-smokers rights, which, in addition to protecting nonsmokers from the harmful effects of tobacco, would serve to make tobacco less popular. So I set out to push one of the first non-smoking ordinances in the nation, and probably the world. Second was to increase the tobacco tax, not only to make tobacco more expensive for kids but to take a significant amount of the money and use it for an extensive, wide ranged prevention program. I put together a $.25 tax increase in California for that and the tobacco industry came unglued, spending $25 million to defeat it. They lost, we won and I was able to get $100 million a year dedicated to prevention. California went from the highest use of tobacco among kids in the states to second from the lowest. Finally, I became convinced that the glamorization of tobacco in movies was a major reason for kids to start smoking. So i put together a very low cost effort in Sacramento where I would have kids go out and evaluate tobacco use in the movies. We would then hold an annual news conference with the results. A group of teenagers in Sacramento had world-wide reach! (This is a battle that is still going on!) I remember waking up at 4 in the morning to “This is the BBC calling.” I know this is a long response, but I’ve always had a passionate belief that working smarter means working more effectively. –Curt

    1. A handy reminder, Curt, that working effectiveness isn’t just about being organised but also about having worthwhile goals and values. I reckon deciding whether to bin a piece of paper brings in those judgements. I like your three-pronged attack on the tobacco problem and that educational survey idea that hit the news!

      1. I agree, Dave. The decision on a piece of paper can make an important difference. Note, I put together the Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down! program in 2000 and the program is still operating and generating data that is used nationally and internationally. The other mark of an effective program is its ability to last. There were certainly plenty I put together that suffered and early demise. (grin)

        1. I imagine creating such a lasting initiative must bring satisfaction, Curt. A more minor achievement: I’ve always wanted to use this Burns quote and now you’ve given me the opportunity.

          The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
          Gang aft agley,
          An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

          Curiously, that has made me feel better …

  2. I’m so glad you’ve shared this with us, Dave. It sounds chillingly efficient. Is there an industrial version? Applying this to the two towering heaps of papers on my desk might take a week, and I can’t even blame anyone else for adding to it.

      1. Got it. This isn’t about creative paperwork, it’s about institutional ‘stuff’ that arrives relevant, but is rapidly overtaken by a new approach. I’ve a separate tray for that. I tend to use the backs of it for rough drafts and test-printing – though it seems to outpace my ability to use it.

        1. Sounds a good system. I’m always making notes towards, er, something – can’t decide whether it’s because I don’t want to miss anything out or because I’m fighting shy of beginning. Insecurity at the root, whatever!

  3. Interesting post!
    Even in retirement there are still piles of real paper and digital paper! My husband seems to have a system for ‘actioning’ the piles of paper on his desk. I couldn’t work with that clutter surrounding me, but for him, if it is out of sight it is gone forever. He is the same way in the kitchen. Anything at the front of the shelf in the fridge will get used/eaten. If it slips to the back of the shelf, it no longer exists!
    I guess that is why there are multiple apps, systems, approaches to so many things. What works for one person may be useless to another.

    1. Encouraging to hear of your husband’s effective use of whatever comes to hand, Margy, especially as I’m currently in a dither about what to post after a longer-than-usual blogging hiatus. I’m always devising filing systems that don’t seem to result in delivery …

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