Winning the war on paper is all about having a great sorting system to organise your paperwork. This involves making one of four decisions about each piece of paper that’s piling up around you: finish it, forward it, file it or flick it.
1. Finish it
This category is for any work in progress. It includes current things in three main categories: finance, projects and correspondence.
Finance covers bills to pay, health insurance claims, unchecked lottery tickets, a tax return in progress and receipts for items to be returned. Projects might be any work to do or creative projects on the go, education or professional development assignments, personal projects and upcoming events. Correspondence will be any forms to fill out, drafts of letters or unwritten birthday cards.
2. Forward it
This is for the paperwork that needs to leave your space. It’s paper that doesn’t belong with you any longer. Examples include forms you’ve filled in that need to be sent elsewhere or something you’ve borrowed that needs returning. Anything that is no longer useful to you but that you know requires action or is of value to someone else falls into this category.
3. File it
Likely to be the largest pile, this category will contain all the documentation you need to file for future reference. It’s paperwork that you absolutely have to keep. Again, there are key categories like finance, correspondence and information/resources.
Finance includes bank statements, paid bills, credit card statements, mortgage or loan information, donation receipts, receipts for major purchases, memberships, insurance paperwork, employment contracts and motor vehicle registration. Correspondence includes letters or faxes you need to keep. And information/resources includes business cards, warranties and equipment manuals, travel information and maps, study materials, creative ideas and professional memorabilia like certificates.
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4. Flick it
Get rid of it! Toss it out! This will be one of the biggest piles of paperwork and should include anything you’re not sure about. If in doubt, toss it out. If you can replace the paper, for instance a print-out from a website or a brochure for something you might do, get rid of it now.
This pile includes unwanted receipts, out-of-date price lists, junk mail, newspapers, information on past events, newsletters and loyalty program brochures, out-of-date information, old cards and letters and excess stationery.
Applying the four Fs method
The four Fs is a decision-making tool. So unless the paper you come across in the course of sorting will save a life, don’t act on anything straightaway; stay with organising your paperwork into piles for now.
If you have many piles of paper to sort, allow 15 to 30 minutes per batch. As a very rough guide, a 10 centimetre pile of unsorted paper should take about 20 minutes to process. You will need four cardboard cartons, a Texta, a stapler or Esselte Nalclip dispenser and fasteners, and a large work space.
Use your stapler or Esselte Nalclip fasteners to keep like items together; for example, a two-page letter and multiple pages of a bill. Any document in an envelope should be removed and opened before sorting.
If you’re able to, work on the floor to organise your paperwork. Label each of your four boxes: finish it, forward it, file it and flick it. Position the boxes in an arc around you with the flick it container closest.
Grab a pile of paper and place it right in front of you. Take the top piece of paper and decide which of the four containers to put it in. Stay focused on the task at hand, and make a decision about one piece of paper before moving on to the next. This will help you handle each piece of paper only once.
Finally, keep only what really counts and don’t create a ‘not sure’ pile. I promise that every piece of paper you own will fall under one of these four categories.
When you’re done, recycle your paper and/or shred anything that is sensitive.
My challenge to you is this: If you can identify any piece of business paperwork that doesn’t fall into one of the four F’s, post a comment.