Conquering the paper tiger

If your desk is covered with papers, files, catalogs and mail, it's easy to get discouraged as piles seem to grow on their own.

"When your work space is a mess, the basic disorder can begin to symbolize your other feelings as well—as though you're weighed down by everything else in life," says Stephanie Winston, author of several books on getting organized, including The Organized Executive. "On the other hand, a desk where all the papers have been dealt with sends a very different message of order, discipline and calm."

Ms. Winston suggests the following decision-making process for clearing your desk.

Learn to TRAF

You can make only four decisions about a piece of paper: toss it; refer it, meaning pass it along or discuss it with someone else; act on it personally; or file it. Ms. Winston calls this the TRAF system.

  • Toss. "I seriously encourage you to toss as many papers as you reasonably can," she says. "If you're not certain if you should, ask yourself if you can find a duplicate in the unlikely event you'll need it. If you can, then throw it away."

  • Refer. This means there's someone else you want to share this information with, so you'll refer it to them. "To make it easier to deal with 'refers,' make a file folder for each of the people you frequently interact with—your boss, your assistant and a few coworkers—and drop the refer documents in each person's folder as you come across them," Ms. Winston says. When you have time, pull out one of the folders and cover several things at once with the person.

  • Act. This is the category for all the notes, memos and mail you receive that you need to personally respond to in some way. "Keep all your action papers in one place and schedule 30 to 60 minutes each day to deal with them," says Ms. Winston.

  • File. File-as-you-go is the best way to prevent a buildup of articles and materials you eventually intend to file. But be sure to make the file headings clear and easy to remember.

"It's the small decisions you make that often have the most effect on your time management, efficiency and productivity," says Ms. Winston. "In fact, if you spend 15 minutes a day TRAFing the current day's incoming mail, memos and faxes, you'll soon have gained mastery over your clutter."

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