If You’re Drowning In Paper Build A Raft

You’re an overworked professional with too little time and too many voices calling for your attention. Your filing cabinet is bulging, your desk and floor are overrun with papers, and each brief silence is broken by the beep of email, the whirr of the fax and the ringing of a cell phone. You may be metaphorically drowning in the demands and clutter of life, but the stress you feel may actually keep you gasping for air. But just because you feel like you’ve been cast adrift in a sea of paper and obligations, don’t despair.

The lifesaving solution? Build yourself a RAFT.

RAFT is an acronym for the four simple steps applicable to your ocean of papers—Refer, Act, File or Toss. I know–you’re probably thinking that if you don’t have time to get the work done, you certainly don’t have time to learn a new system for dealing with it. But the truth is, when you’re drowning, instead of flailing around, your survival depends on getting a sense of your surroundings and differentiating the deep water from the shallow end and sharks from the beach balls.

Create an interruption-free zone—ringer off, voicemail on, door closed. Next, keep your COMPASS handy to guide you to safety. Your compass includes your calendar, tickler file and To-Do list (hard copy or digital). Chances are, the first time you do this, your time will be limited, so locate the most essential reference documents on your desk—items you always keep in view to prevent attacks of blind panic—and set them aside. That way, if a true interruption worthy of your attention arises (like a storm at sea), you’ll have quick access to the essentials.

Now, gather all other loose papers, confetti of Post-Its®, and messages from around your office. Yes, even items taped to the phone and the computer, unsorted mail, personal papers, receipts, computer manuals, and other homeless papers. Pile this collection in a basket or photocopy paper box lid. If the pile is so high you can’t see over it, fear not! Just “bail” the extra items “overboard” next to your desk to deal with when you reach the end of your first pile.

Lift out an item, consider deeply and ask, “What’s the NEXT ACTION I need to perform regarding this item?” Dealing with only the next action reduces stress considerably. For example, a client memo requesting a detailed report can instill the same panic you had when you got assigned a term paper in ninth grade. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Defining only the next step limits your concerns to what you can handle right now. The report represents an entire project—a series of tasks—but you need only determine the very next step to spur progress.



Now that you know the next action, who must complete it? Is it dependent upon someone else, such as research by your intern or a contract drawn up by your attorney? Is it (or can it be) the responsibility of a support staffer, colleague, spouse or vendor?

If the next action need not be performed by you, bail it out of the RAFT! Affix a Post-It® regarding to whom the item goes and set it by the door. If the work you’re delegating is time sensitive, make a note in your calendar to discuss it with them at some point between now and the deadline. Making sure you follow up with that person helps ensure it won’t drown in his or her sea of papers. At the end of your RAFTing session, send these referred items out like messages in a bottle—by hand to the next office or overnight delivery to Timbuktu.

You may be caught up in the notion that you are the only one who can handle every detail properly, that you are not only the captain but also the chief cook and bottle-washer of your raft. The truth is that with limited time and resources, you can only do so much by yourself. Delegating to staff (or family) teaches them that you trust them; what does refusing to delegate say about your faith in them?

If you think you can’t afford to outsource or get a virtual assistant, think about the dollar value of your time spent doing those things for which you are not uniquely qualified. A cost vs. return analysis will almost always lead you to let go of your need to control every process. You can still dictate what you want done and provide a checklist for how it should be completed. Be creative: a 16-year-old can file on the weekends in return for driving privileges; barter with another professional whose skills match your needs.



If the next action is something only you can do, ACT on it. Certainly, we can’t delegate everything. So, if it will only take a minute to get it off your desk, sign your child’s permission slip and pin it to her book-bag. Sign off on your sales rep’s expense report, and then it becomes an item to REFER to your business manager.

But acting doesn’t mean stopping the RAFT. Remember that planning is the most powerful action you can take. Having a clear sense of what you have to do before you do it eliminates redundancy, feeling ill-prepared and missing deadlines.

First, identify which action the item represents (e.g., call a client back, write a response, read this week’s trade journal, research a new vendor proposal, deliver a blueprint, etc.) and place similar items in separate piles for each category (to call, to write, to read, to research, to deliver, etc.)

Next, determine when you can accomplish the similar tasks. Block off space in your calendar for time-specific work. Obviously, this will be dictated by a variety of factors, including differing time zones, other people’s schedules, your energy level patterns, etc. For time-flexible tasks, note them on your To-Do list so you have a master plan of what tasks remains. When you’re done RAFTing, you can methodically deal with each category of items, now neatly sorted, awaiting your attention.

In the likely event that all of your items to ACT upon will need more effort that you can attend to in one sitting, keep these papers (representing the tasks to be performed) in your tickler file. Your next action may actually be contemplation. Should you attend an important all-day seminar if it falls just before a major client deadline? Tuck the registration form in your tickler file a few days ahead of the cut-off date, and schedule decision-making time in your calendar.



If a paper doesn’t require your attention but must be saved for tax, legal or reference purposes, file it. That doesn’t necessarily mean folders and filing cabinets. You can also “file” new insurance cards in your wallet, computer manuals in labeled magazine sorters and financial records in reverse-chronological order in three-ring binders. Save one copy of each advertising effort or published news release in a company scrapbook you can display in your reception area. Scan artwork to archive it digitally.

The key to filing is asking “Where would I look for this item if I needed it?” and placing it there. Or, “Where does this item live?” and then send it home. If your desk and floor are covered with papers but your filing cabinet is empty (or is storing clothing, empty software boxes or life-sustaining snack food), you’re probably telling yourself that you need to keep your work visible to remember to handle it. As you stand knee-deep papers that were all “the most important thing” to handle at some time in the past few months, I ask “How’s that working for you?” Designate homes and send the items to where they live. Then note in your calendar and/or tickler file what work needs to be completed and where the papers live.



The tendency in business is to keep things “just in case”. The question that begs to be asked is “Just in case of WHAT?” If you no longer need items for reference or ongoing projects, toss them overboard (into the trash or recycling bin). Consult your attorney, CPA or professional organizer regarding records retention schedules, and if you still fear discarding an item, try to imagine a situation when it would be needed. Chances are, the information you are saving “just in case” can be easily retrieved via the Internet or by making a quick call to a vendor, client or other reference source.

After a few RAFTing sessions, your desktop and floor will be visible again. Maintain the daily habit of sorting mail and incoming papers using the RAFT system. Instead of drowning in paper, sail your RAFT towards the happy sunset of your business day.

Copyright © 2002-2008 Julie Bestry and Best Results Organizing. All rights reserved.


About the Author:   Julie Bestry is a professional organizer, speaker and author, who helps individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems. Her most recent book is 57 Secrets for Organizing Your Small Business. For information on how Julie can turn your chaos into serenity, visit Best Results Organizing at http://www.juliebestry.com.

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