Provision #214: Touch It Once

Laser Provision

Are you overwhelmed by the paper and e-mail that come your way every day? If so, you’re not alone. But there are systems that can make this easier. Learn to touch things once • or at most twice. Toss, refer, act, or file. That’s all you can ever do with paper and e-mail; this Provision will help you do them better.

LifeTrek Provision

If your home is anything like mine, it’s seen a series of pets. Not infrequently those pets have come after the usual fervent vows by children that they would walk it, clean the cage, feed it, and do whatever else might be required to care for it. When it comes to asking for permission, the promises flow liberally.

That’s how Danny the hamster came to be in one home. As was often the case, within months after the promises were made, Mom found herself doing all the work. That was not the deal, however, and this time • with a good sense of her own boundaries • Mom located a prospective new home for Danny.

When she told the children the news of Danny’s imminent departure they took the news quite well, which somewhat surprised her, though they did offer some comments. One of the children said, “I’ll miss him, he’s been around here a long time.” Mom agreed, saying, “Yes, but he’s too much work for one person, and I’m not getting any help, so he needs to go.” Another child suggested that he might be able to stay if he ate less and wasn’t so messy.

But Mom was firm. “It’s time to take Danny to his new home now,” she insisted. “Go and get his cage.” Then with one voice and in tearful outrage the children shouted, “Danny? We thought you said, Daddy!”

That story would be nothing but funny if it weren’t so true. In most families, and in most work environments, there are two kinds of people: those who mess up and those who clean up. Ironically enough, in the workplace those who mess up tend to be paid more, a lot more, than those who clean up. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Apart from artistic creative geniuses who often seem to thrive on clutter (Beethoven would simply move when his apartment got too messy), successful people develop automatic sprinkler systems for putting out the fires and staying on top of things. In the spirit of last week’s Provision, “Get Things Done,” they manage to touch paperwork once • or at most twice • in a lifestyle of effortless simplicity.

Paperwork has long presented a special challenge and it only seems to get worse. In an era of the so-called paperless office, we are drowning in a sea of mail, memos, and messages. Similar to the rise in telemarketers, there has been a comparable rise in paper marketers. The growth of the Internet has not eliminated this time-tested tool for getting your attention; it has simply added another layer with e-mail. Then there’s all the important stuff that comes your way! What’s a person to do?

Although I find it a challenge to put into practice consistently, I like the TRAF technique advocated by Stephanie Wilson in her book, The Organized Executive. Why TRAF? Because it makes you think of “traffic” and that’s exactly what Wilson argues every piece of paper should yield: an action that’s 100% complete. You never have to think about it again.

1. TOSS. Wilson reminds us of the Business Week quote that aside from the dog, a person’s best friend is the wastebasket. How many times have papers sat around for days, weeks, or months only to be thrown away because they had gotten hopelessly stale and irrelevant? Wilson encourages us to aggressively challenge the right of every piece of paper and every e-mail to exist. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I threw this out? Would someone call me on it later? If so, are duplicates available?” When in doubt, throw it out! Into the recycling bin, of course. You may be amazed at how well the world goes on without that “important” piece of paper or e-mail. Dump it before it dumps you.

2. REFER. What you can’t dump • and don’t be surprised if the recycling bin gets the biggest pile on a daily basis • has to be delegated or dealt with directly. The paperwork and e-mails that you can refer to others may represent the next biggest chunk, once you have gotten the hang of streamlining your home or office. Is there someone who can better handle this? Is there someone whose job it is to handle this? Is there someone who would enjoy handling this? Keeping too many things on our plate • and in our in basket • leads to both overwhelm and reduced productivity.

For those papers or e-mails that can’t be acted on and can’t be handed off to someone immediately, Wilson suggests an alphabetized filing system with the names of people, standing meetings, and customers. Drop that piece of paper or draft e-mail into the appropriate folder. Once a week, go through each folder and take action. Get progress reports. Develop agendas. Toss the junk.

3. ACT. This stuff belongs uniquely to you. Decisions have to be made. Bills have to be paid. Letters have to be written. A separate action box or folder can be created to hold the stuff that needs to be dealt with in the next day or two. This should be high-priority stuff. Set aside time, each and every day, to deal with this box and take action. Mark that time out on your calendar. Don’t let it grow from day to day and week to week or you’ll end up getting hopelessly behind. Create a separate box or shelf space for anything that needs to be read later, such as lengthy reports, trade journals, or publications. Don’t get distracted or bogged down by such items. Keep moving.

4. FILE. Whatever can’t be dumped, delegated, or done has to be filed. Keep your active files handy. If you know exactly where something goes, drop it in. Otherwise, set up two all-purpose boxes: one for stuff that goes in your active files and the other for stuff that goes in your archival files. Remember, any paper that requires a decision belongs in the action box, not the filing box. Only inert stuff gets to be filed.

This is one area where a personal assistant, in the home or office, can be a really good investment. The personal assistant stays on top of the stuff you set aside for filing, clearing your brain of having to figure out and maintain a filing system. If you do your own filing, follow the program and develop a pattern of attending to this task regularly rather than whenever.

Coaches work with people to develop systems like this that can make life easier. Instead of taking time, these systems make time. Let us know if this sounds like a project for you (Click). Most people can develop new habits in a matter of months.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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