Tag Archives for " paper "

The Productivity Killers (and How to Stop Them)

Piles are deadly to your productivity. Why? because when stuff piles up, it enters a kind of Twilight Zone.

Not a spooky kind of Twilight Zone, but a form of limbo where no work gets done.

Pile of paper

Piles reek of uncomfortable questions:

What’s in there?
Is anything seriously late?
Is there anything that’s going to be awkward to bring up again at this point?

And piles prevent us from asking questions that could be helpful:

  • What should I be working on now?
  • What should I work on later this week or next week?
  • What should I just drop, so it’s no longer on my mind?

Like mucky ponds, piles stink because they’re stagnant. They have no movement, no velocity, no momentum.

3 Kinds of Piles

We get three main types of piles. All three are bad, and all three are avoidable.

Physical piles—actual paper documents on our desk

Email—an inbox full of un-dealt-with messages waiting around for the “someday” when we’ll have time to deal with them all

Tasks—items on our to-do list that we haven’t processed into a useable system (in an app like Remember the Milk)

The electronic piles are just as bad as the physical kind, because they can grow even faster, and it’s easier to stop looking at them.

The Velocity Principle

Say goodbye to piles. Say hello to Inbox Zero, whether the inbox is physical or electronic.

If we want to get our most important work done, we have to put things in motion.

Have email you haven’t dealt with yet? Forward it to NudgeMail or FollowUp.cc.

Have a document that’s been sitting on your desk for a while? Slap a Next Action Sticky on it and throw it in your tickler file. Or pass it on to whomever should be handling it.

Have a bunch of tasks sitting in your to-do app inbox? Process them into your list system so they’ll get the attention they deserve.

But don’t leave any of this in piles. Piles stink. Velocity is the key to getting work done and getting rid of your piles.

What’s a Tickler File?!

How do you get paper that you’ll need in the future off of your desk for now, without losing track of it? How can you have a clean desk and still make sure you have the documents you need in front of you at the right time?

Inevitably, you will have paper that you can’t use yet, but that you will need at a specific time in the future. For example, if you need to bring a report to a meeting, you don’t want to stick it in the file cabinet and forget to bring it, but you also don’t want the report sitting on your desk for three weeks – it’ll clutter your workspace, and it might get buried under something else in the meantime.

If you want to ensure that you have the right documents in hand at the right time, you need a tickler file. Your secretary probably knows how to set one up, but here’s a quick description.

First, get 43 regular manila file folders. Read more (PDF)…

1 Wrangling the Piles On Your Desk

I have a large desk, probably close to two square yards. It can hold the equivalent of 27 separate piles of paper. Sometimes, out of fear that I’ll forget about something if it goes into a pile, I’ll make a new pile for it, using the document itself (say, a discipline referral) as a reminder of the task (e.g. talking to the student and calling the parent).

But each reminder is also a distraction, because I can only do one thing at a time. Piles are scary to the extent that they can hide things you need to act on, but they’re helpful in that they hide everything except what’s on top. A large desk with only one pile (ideally in a basket) looks neat and is less visually stressful.


Out of sight is out of mind. But is this a good thing? Yes, if you can keep track of everything that’s out of sight reasonably well.

The key to making this work, of course, is knowing what’s in your piles and dealing with it in a timely manner. If the pile is three days old and you don’t know what’s in it, it’s likely that you’ve already missed some deadlines or kept someone waiting too long.

At the end of every day (or the next morning), go through the pile and decide whether to file each item, keep it in the pile for action, or toss it. It will take less time than you think, and if any of the actions are quick (under two minutes), you can do them on the spot.

What about those items that will take longer? Write them on your to-do list or calendar, and make time for them at the right time. If that’s not today, put the document in your tickler file so it’s out of sight until you need it.

Your desk will be cleaner, your mind will be clearer, and you’ll be able to concentrate on one thing at a time.