The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

“At Hand” Paper Filing

When I wrote recently about keeping track of your digital activity via a custom log file, I received an email from productivity consultant, Matthew Cornell. In his message, he reaffirmed his belief in the benefits on keeping a log file. He also appreciated my thoughts on de-cluttering and and had this to say on that topic:

Don't forget "at hand" filing next to your new desk.

My immediate thought was, “Yep—that's an important part of being organized.” And just as fast I realized this is another area that I struggle with, despite knowing how helpful it can be. My paper inbox tends to fill up with non-work related items, stuff that arrives via snail mail. Things like pay stubs, government notifications and tax related documents are all important and need to be kept around for a period of time.

But I certainly never want to take the time to file them away. And so my inbox eventually gets stuffed to the top, and I finally have to wade through it all. By then the job is so much bigger than it needs to be and I've experienced some low level of stress because of this nagging task.

This can be better.


First, what exactly do I mean by “at hand” filing? No tricks here—it's as obvious as it sounds. Keep your paper based organizing system close enough that every new piece of paper can quickly be processed and organized or disposed. In reverse, when a filed document is needed, it's close enough by that retrieval is almost instantaneous.

At this point, a distinction needs to be made. Not all paper documents you receive are necessarily needed close at hand. It depends a lot on your work and personality. Each person needs to distinguish between the items that can be stored more permanently and those that will need frequent retrieval.

That's my definition anyways. And although the definition is simple, I think making it a usable reality is often not.


What are the benefits we of “at hand” filing? Once again, this is straight forward. The most obvious benefits of keeping your paper documents well organized and easily accessible will be speed and efficiency.

But there are other benefits—peace and ease of mind. Like any aspect of good productivity, trusting your methods frees up your mind to focus on the higher level creative stuff that's really important. Does that sound GTD-ish? Well, it should—that's what GTD is all about.


So how can a person make the paper based portions of their work as slick as their digital setup? I think we can focus on three things.


Just like capture and processing in the GTD methodology, consistency is a huge factor. The trust that I spoke of comes after you've been able to prove to your subconscious that you'll do this piece of organizing the same way every time. You have to make this a habit.

I think that's one thing that new converts to GTD often struggle with. There is no consistency. One big complaint about GTD relates to this—you are really creating a set of new habits, and that's hard for lot of people to do all at once (especially when so much of the focus is placed on the tools).

I've said this before—diets don't work, lifestyle changes do. It's the same with personal productivity. Want to make improvements? Then you have to change your habits. Paper filing is no different.


This is almost a redundant thought. “At hand” filing screams close proximity in it's very name. But I'll mention it anyway. This setup has to be close enough that it's not a chore to retrieve an item you need.

Not everyone has the room to keep this filing on their desk. But unless your office is in the broom closet, that does not mean it should be on the other side of the room. Storage is pretty cheap these days, so there should be an option that fits your environment that will require nothing more than a twist of your chair to get access to your files.

Go Digital

One other option is to make your paper filing completely digital. It doesn't get much more “at hand” than that. There are those people out there who are already doing this, scanning every paper item they receive onto their machine.

There are many pros and cons to doing this—I won't go into them here. I think it often comes down to personal preference.

What I do want to mention here is the current application that is getting a lot of attention. If a person was to go digital with their paper documents, Evernote seems to be shaping up as the application that will suit a person best in this regard. It's various methods of input, along with the OCR technology that allows text within images to be searchable make it the best option I've heard of to replace a paper based filing system.

Just like all other aspects of being productive, organization and consistency can help us be better at what we do. It takes work of course—forming new habits is never easy—but it's worth making the change.

Excuse me while I go clean out my inbox.