Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Do you see piles of paper everywhere? On your desk, beside your bed, on the kitchen table? Are you thinking about buying a bigger bag?
I can help you. It’s time to fight back.
Grab a couple of hours, right away. It might be a pain, but at the end of it, you’ll feel a lot better.
Step 1: Gather loose paper
Find a big, empty table to work on. Gather all your loose paper. Letters, memos, reports, receipts, bills, whatever. Not only the piles you can see around you, but also look in your purse or wallet, and in your briefcase or laptop bag. Don’t forget post-it notes stuck on the walls or on your computer screen.
Put them all in one huge pile. Then away we go…
Step 2: TRAF
TRAF stands for Trash, Refer, Action, File.
Trash is anything you can toss away now. Refer is anything you need to pass on to someone else. Action is something you must do personally. File is something you just need to keep.
Pick up your pieces of paper one handful at a time, and deal them into four piles – Trash, Refer, Action and File.
Do it quickly, as if you were the dealer in a card game. Stand up if you like. Don’t read everything in detail. Just glance at it and rapidly assess what pile it belongs in. If you make a mistake, you can correct it later.
If a piece of paper is in an envelope, you might be able to see it’s trash without even opening it. When you do take a document out of its envelope, put the envelope on the trash pile right away. Don’t put it back in the envelope.
Keep going until you have consumed your pile of loose paper. Feels good already!
Step 3: Trash
If you’re lucky, Trash will be your biggest pile. That’s good because trash takes the least time to deal with. But it does still need a little bit of effort.
Split your Trash pile again, into Confidential and Recycle. Put the recycle pile into the recycle bin. If you’re at work, put the confidential stuff into the confidential waste bin, or shred it. If you’re at home, shred it. If you don’t have a shredder, get one.
Now your trash pile is gone. But spare a thought for your postman. He spends his life bringing this garbage to your door and putting it into your mailbox or pushing it through your letterbox. Then you just hurl it into the trash with a curse.
Can you do anything to stop the flow of trash? Look at repeat offenders and see if they can be convinced to stop sending it. Add a task to your to-do list. But don’t keep the paper! Throw it away anyway.
Step 4: Refer
These are things you will pass to someone else. For me, it’s always the smallest pile, because I don’t have anyone to dump on these days. But if you do have someone, and they are in the same building, stick a post-it note on the front saying what you want them to do, and send it on its way.
If you are passing it onto someone who is somewhere else, you are going to have to send it over to them, and that means scanning the paper so they can see what they are working on. There’s a section later in this post about scanning.
Step 5: Action
These are the things you are going to have to work on yourself. But you aren’t going to leave them all in an action pile. It will rapidly become a forgotten-actions pile. You are going to get rid of that paper.
Look at the top piece of paper on your action pile. It got there because there is something in it that needs you to perform a task. Maybe more than one thing.
Maybe it’s a simple task you can do right away, like answering a question or putting an appointment in your calendar. In which case, do it now, then trash or file it.
If the task needs more work, add it to your to-do list. Then scan the document, or at least the bits of it that you need to refer to again. The paper itself can go into the trash.
Is your to-do list in a mess too? If so, you are not alone! Have a look at my blog post for more help on how to get it under control. And try TaskAngel, one of the best to-do list organisers and task managers.
Receipts for items you have bought for yourself are useful to keep if they are for large amounts and are required for guarantee claims. In which case, they should be in your File pile.
Receipts for company expenditure will need to be channelled into expense claims. To avoid them cluttering up your to-do list, consider using a service like Expensify. This scans your receipts and gathers them into expense reports for you to submit to your boss. Magic!
Step 6: File
Nearly done now. Just the filing. If you’re an old-timer like me, you spent much of your working life filing paperwork into folders or box files. Or maybe an admin person did it for you, and you just scribbled on the front where it should go.
But most of the paper that went into the files never came out again. The files just got more and more full. And you could never find anything in them because you’d forgotten which file you put the damn thing in! Who can forget John Cleese and his secretary who filed everything under M (for Miscellaneous)?
So once again, the way forward is to scan it and bin it.
But wait! Stop and think before you do that. Isn’t the information already available online somewhere? If so, this piece of paper is really trash. You just need to save a link to the online version and toss the paper.
What about magazines and newsletters? Rapidly look through them now for anything interesting, then tear that page out and scan it for action or filing.
A word about scanning
In the old days we used scanners, and fax machines before that. But now we have smartphones or tablets that will do the job for us quickly and easily. I have an iPhone and an iPad, with a huge variety of scanning apps. If I search for ‘scan’ in App Annie’s keyword explorer, I get a list of over 2000 apps competing for my attention.
You may already have your own favourite. Or have a look at Sweet Setup for some excellent advice.
My current favourite scanning app is Scanner Pro. It’s very easy to use and it has lots of options for uploading my scans to iCloud, Dropbox, Google, OneDrive, Evernote or whatever.
Organising your scans
As soon as you’ve scanned your papers, you are going to throw them away. So you have got to be sure that the scans are going to be stored safely and securely, and you must be able to get at them conveniently when you need them.
To achieve this, they need to be stored online. If they are work-related, your employer probably has a policy governing the use of online services. So you will have to comply with that.
For your personal documents, you have a lot more freedom. Apple, Microsoft and Google all have excellent cloud drives that are great for storing scanned documents. And Dropbox has the additional advantage of not being tied to the Big Three.
Step 7: Reward yourself
Did you make it? Has all the paper gone? Will you need to spend a bit more time tomorrow to finish off?
Anyway, it’s time to give yourself a treat. Anything will do, as long as it isn’t illegal, immoral or fattening 😉
But wait, who’s that at the door? Oh no – it’s the postman…
Andrew Boswell September 2016
Did you find this blog post useful? Do you have anything to add? If so, please leave a comment. And please share it with your friends.
To manage the actions arising from your paperwork, use a good todo list manager like TaskAngel. You can try it for free at taskangel.com.