Handle Documents and Papers Once to Improve Time Management

By Dirk Zeller

Those who master documents and paper have mastered single-handling. These people touch or read a document, email, or paper one time and then take action. They don’t pile, table, ponder, check, reconsider, refile, or delay. They get rid of the document the first time they handle it or see it.

If you want to become a single handler, follow the five Ds: dump, delegate, detour, do it, or depot. Otherwise, you confront a less-productive list of Ds: dawdle, daydream, deliberate, and deceive — all of which lead to your demise.

Dump documents

The dump-it principle is simple: Do you need it? If you don’t, dump it or dispose of it. Say no to any of the following questions, and you can feel comfortable hitting the Delete button or sending it to the shredder or recycling bin:

  • Do you really need to act on this or keep it?

  • Is this new, relevant information you need now or in the future?

  • Does this information benefit a colleague or client?

  • Are there consequences for not keeping it?

  • Will this increase revenue or customer service?

Sort your mail over the recycling bin or waste basket. Everything that swirls into the bin or basket is no longer your problem.

Delegate documents

Do you have an inner pack rat that wants to hold onto everything, including every paper that crosses your desk? One way to shut down this impulse is to delegate papers to someone else. Even if you know you could complete the task with two hands tied behind your back, that doesn’t mean it’s the best use of your time. Delegate and give yourself more time to work on high-value tasks while building the skills and confidence of people you delegate to.

Detour documents; come back later

Handling every email, electronic document, or even sheet of paper once is a fantastic goal, but sometimes it’s impossible. Maybe you need more information before you can delegate or dispose of the item, or perhaps the document raises significant questions that need to be answered before you act. If you can detour and park the email, electronic document, or paper for later follow-up, you’ve saved time deliberating now.

Don’t park anything permanently! Create a detour file for delayed documents and papers, but be sure you get the information you need and deal with the issue. Don’t let your temporary file grow into a pile hidden in a file.

Do it: take action required by a document

Do it is the easiest and most straightforward of all the Ds. Take action, either to get the task done quickly or because there’s a high level of urgency associated with it:

  • Tend to urgent matters. If the task moves to the top of your priorities list after you read the paper, the best course of action is to do it now. Change your priorities and work until the new priority is completed, even if it takes you the rest of the day.

  • Get the task done quickly. Follow the five-minute rule: If the necessary task, phone call, response, or clarification is something only you can do, and it’ll take fewer than five minutes, do it yourself right now. By the time you detour it, pick it up again later, reread it, and refocus, you’ll have invested far more time than the five minutes required now.

Depot it: filing documents

A depot is a place where something is deposited or stored. Establish an effective depot for papers you need to keep (and only the papers you need to keep).