Jeff Davidson's book, Simpler Living, was Amazon Kindle #1 in its category, first quarter, 2012. Jeff is featured in the NY Times, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, Businessweek, Fortune, Organized Executive, and Success.

Dealing Daily with Paper Overload

In the course of a workday, week, month, and year you encounter memos, reports, newspapers, newsletters, faxes, bulletins, magazines, calendars, promotional items, and all manner of sundries. Right now you’re hanging on to too much paper and that is slowing you down on your path to getting things done.

Grasp the information that impacts your career, stay on top of that, and have the strength to leave the rest behind. Not to suggest that you ignore things willy-nilly, but make conscious choices about where to give your time and attention. Most of what competes for your attention needs to be ignored.

To stay organized and get things done, I advocate that you take in even less paper and less information than you’re currently doing. Actively choose where you will give your time and attention.

If you’re concerned that you’ll miss some vital piece of information, fear not. The redundancy in our information channels, be they publications, the Internet, key newsletters, or your organization’s Intranet, increases the probability that you won’t miss some major development that merits your attention. If you use email effectively, you can quickly establish a peer group of cyber associates that trade and share information with one or another on a regular, if not ad-hoc, basis.

What to Do with All the Paper

At work when you receive a magazine or other periodical, even one that you actually want, do you need the whole magazine? Continually strip down magazines to the basic elements relevant to you. Usually you can pull out the few articles that matter, and recycle the rest. Develop the habit of streamlining the information you receive regardless of how big and thick the item. You can probably peruse a 250-page book in ten to fifteen minutes, picking out the eight or ten key pages.

When confronted by a large packet of information I swiftly break it down to the few pages that appear most useful. I use the edge of a ruler to deftly and neatly extract out only the bits of information from each page that I need, then quickly assemble such tidbits on the copier and create a one or two sheet composite of what might have been many, many more pages. This affords quicker review in the future, keeps my files leaner and more targeted, and is anxiety-reducing.

If it helps, buy a paper puncher for a three-ring notebook and group like materials in one to two inch binders. Particularly in areas where you are collecting information in periodic fashion, assembling a notebook can be more practical than accumulating files in a filing cabinet or contributing to multiple piles. After you’ve collected information in a notebook for a while, you can rearrange it and introduce sub-dividers for easier use.

Streamline the Information Mine

As piles on your desk mount up, the task of dealing with them soon becomes overwhelming, at least mentally. “How am I going to deal with that information?” When you keep them to a minimum, they seem manageable. Perception is an important tool. When you believe you’re on top, you tend to act accordingly. It’s not merely positive thinking — a chain reaction occurs, and it works.

Remember: to help stay organized, reduce voluminous materials to the slimmest, most potent file folders or packets which still retain the essence of what you need to have for the task or project at hand. Strip arriving mail down immediately — discover what parts are vital, and what can be tossed or recycled. When you receive a large packet of information, immediately go through it and extract the key pages, paragraphs, or contact information.

Strip and Win

When my friend Michael receives copies of periodicals, journals, and other potentially important items in the mail, he strips them to the essence. He retains the few pages, articles, or ads that are important to him and parks them in a folder, which he keeps in his briefcase. This approach allows him to identify the material to which he will devote some attention, without adding to the items in, on, and around him desk.

Likewise, other materials he wants to thoroughly peruse, but doesn’t want to initiate immediately, go into such a folder. Only when something appears to be timely will he give it attention then and there.

By continually adding to — and subtracting from — such a folder, and keeping it in his briefcase, he’s able to have more clear space around him while maintaining a sense of control. Some time later in the day or later in the week, he’ll go through this folder. It might take 30 minutes, an hour, or a little longer.

Speedy But Informal Correspondence

When you receive a letter that merits a reply, if you already know the other party or it’s not essential to maintain professional protocol, write your reply at the bottom of the letter or on the reverse side, make a photocopy and mail or fax it back immediately. I often write “speed reply” and the date, quickly jot down a note, put my initials and then send it back within a matter of minutes…Some organizations offer stamps and stickers, “Please excuse our informal reply, we wanted to send the information to you quickly.”

You can clip the return address label when it is provided on the envelope. Then use that clipping as the label to send something back to them. Not many people find this objectionable. Of course, don’t do this for first-time contacts or official business. However, you’ll have a sense of when you can–for personal correspondence, for people with whom you have long-term relationships, who know you well, or who see you often.

Get Off Extraneous Mailing Lists

It’s a wonderful morning when you open up your mailbox, and see only six pieces of mail, instead of 18 pieces of mail and 12 of them junk. Develop a standard letter, sticker, or stamper that you mail back to the other party saying, “Please take me off your list.”

A vital part of reducing correspondence and paperwork is to get your name off the junk mail rolls. Write to the DMA or register online at and ask to have your name removed from their lists. This will reduce your junk mail by 40 percent for about the next six months after which time, write them another letter requesting the same thing.

    Mail Preference Service
    Attn: Dept: 16433070
    Direct Marketing Association
    P.O. Box 282
    Carmel NY 10512

Quiet Contemplation

It is helpful to actually schedule time to peruse the material you’ve retained, in a quiet place away from phone, fax and email. Your concentration powers will be at their best. You’ll be able to zip through the folder at a much quicker pace than if you attempt to do so on the fly. As you review the items, pare them down further.

Instead of a two-page article, perhaps you need only one key paragraph. Instead of a flyer or brochure listing some offer, maybe you only need the toll-free 800 number or URL. Simply log in the important information on a palm top, note pad, or pocket dictator and then chuck all the extraneous pages. Hence, you are lighter, freer, and able to handle whatever else comes into your work area. In a single file or two, you have all the information you need.

Clearing out what you don’t need to retain is good housekeeping as well a vital discipline among those who win the paper war. Merging and purging is essential because even with all the new technological tools, paper will continue to proliferate the foreseeable future.

Jeff Davidson is "The Work-Life Balance Expert®," is a preeminent time management authority, has written 65 mainstream books, and is an electrifying professional speaker, making 886 presentations to clients such as Lockheed Martin, Eckerd, Kaiser Permanente, IBM, American Express, Lufthansa, Swissotel, Re/Max, USAA, Worthington Steel, and the World Bank. Jeff is Executive Director of the Breathing Space Institute and the author of books such as:
  • Simpler Living (Skyhorse Publishing)
  • Dial It Down--Live it Up (Sourcebooks)
  • The 60 Second Innovator (Adams Media)
  • Breathing Space (CreateSpace)
  • Accomplishing Your Goals (Smart Guide Publications)
Jeff is the premier thought leader on work-life balance issues and has been widely quoted in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, USA Today, Businessweek, Forbes, and Fortune. Cited by Sharing Ideas Magazine as a "Consummate Speaker," Jeff believes that career professionals today in all industries have a responsibility to achieve their own sense of work-life balance, and he supports that quest through his website

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.