The Paperchase

October 4th, 2009

It’s just before 5 p.m. when you push open your office door and scan your desk, shelves, and floor for a place to set a box of fliers. Since the organizational fairy hasn’t yet arrived (does God never answer prayer?), there isn’t a free square inch in sight. Frustrated, you consider setting the box in the lobby, but Darth Vader (a.k.a., the senior pastor’s secretary) knows your m.o. and is just waiting for you to try.

You’re still rehearsing your options when the phone rings, so you balance the fliers atop the volleyball net and say, “Hello.” It’s the church treasurer and she’s demanding a financial report. Of course, since the report-preparation fairy didn’t show either, that task isn’t done. “I’ve got to get those numbers from you by 5 p.m. or you won’t be reimbursed until I get back from vacation. Do you have my fax number?” You’ve copied it down with pen and paper every month for two years, but have a better chance nailing pudding to a tree than finding it, so you start rifling through three desk drawers looking for scrap paper before deciding to write it on your hand. That accomplished, you pick up the stack of mail off your seat—the secretary couldn’t find anywhere else to place it—and plop down. You’ve got to find the numbers for the report, but you glance through the mail first. Three pieces look important, so you wedge the rest into a small, overflowing wastepaper basket and look for a spot to set the good stuff.

You don’t dare throw it on top of one of the existing stacks—you might not find it for years—so you clear a space by combining two of the smaller piles. While you’re working to make sure the new pile won’t topple over—stacks over four feet do require a good base, you discovered long ago—you realize all the piles are made of “important papers.” In fact, everything on your desk is there because at one time or another (for reasons you now forget), you thought it was important. You’re feeling pretty low when you finally unearth a few of the receipts you need for the financial report, so you bolt for the fax machine. It’s only 5:11 p.m. If you hurry—and fabricate the numbers you don’t have—you just might make it. But on the way out the door, your shoe hooks the volleyball net and you pull the box of fliers all over the floor…

I could go on, but I’ll spare you the pain. Suffice it to say that you got this job because of your good looks, not because of your administrative savvy. And besides, it’s not your fault: you were promised a paperless office! In its place you have a tornado of notes, spread sheets, and mail. Big and small. White, blue, and hot pink. In file folders and roaming free. Four hundred and sixty pounds of it this year alone, up 20 percent since last year, with no end in sight. Short of renting a bulldozer and pushing it all into one big pile, what’s a right-brained, creative, people-type person supposed to do about the paper chase?

The truth is, you only have one choice: cope. You might not have gone into ministry in order to manage paper, yet the ugly, undeniable facts are as follows:

  1. Managing information is critical to your effectiveness. It helps you get things done and avoid having the energy sucked out of you by all the clutter, confusion, and visual noise that random filing and piling systems create.
  2. Despite technological advances, paper still rules. Technology has changed our world, but fax machines, photocopiers, and laser printers are spitting out more paper—not less—every hour.
  3. Some people manage the paper flow quite well—even without coming across like pencil-neck geeks. The goal is not a meticulous office with color-coded files neatly stacked on a clean desk. The goal is a workspace that helps you do the best job in the least amount of time.

Actually the concepts involved are so simple that even a senior pastor could pick them up. It all comes down to the willingness to make decisions. As Barbara Helphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger, wrote, “Paper clutter is postponed decisions; paper management is decision making.”

Here are my suggestions for pushing paper like a pro:

  • Stop it before it arrives. Go to the source. Cancel subscriptions to magazines you don’t read (uh…you’re reading this one, so don’t start here…), arrange to junk your junk mail before it reaches your desk, and remove yourself from extraneous routing slips. Be brutal.

    Then do your part to cut down the flow of paper traffic. Whenever possible, go electronic. When you have to write, keep it short and make it a big deal to send a copy to anyone. (After all, if you keep copying them then they will keep copying you). It takes less time andno file cabinets to talk rather than write, so do that when you can’t use e-mail. The only items over which you ought to consistently cut trees are those that keep you out of court (i.e., legal documents, the flow of large sums of money, and performance appraisals).
  • Make decisions. You’ve probably heard that the trick is to only touch a piece of paper once, but I think that’s a bit unrealistic for those of us who are hopelessly right-brained and people-oriented. I believe our mission is marginally less demanding: Never pick up a piece of paper and set it back down in the same spot. Believe it or not, most people spend 30 minutes a day doing just that. So unless you have a half hour to spare on a daily basis, you need to learn to make decisions.

    Don’t pick up a piece of paper until you are ready to act on it, and when you do, realize that you have seven options:
  1. Sort. We all need a “sort” pile. Place it in an in-basket, a tray, or even on a corner of your desk. Papers land here when they enter your office or when you don’t know what to do with them. The one rule, though: they can’t stay. Everyone needs a permanent resting place, and this isn’t the place. You might want to make the rule that you can’t have more than one sort stack, and no piece of paper can park there overnight.
  2. Recycle. You’ll save a lot more paper (and more money from office supply budgets) if you hold on to those outdated memos, faxes, and letters, and use the opposite sides for scrap paper and less important memos or notes of your own. Why not put a large recycling bin by your desk and feed it more often than you do yourself?
  3. Refer. If the letter you’re reading would also be of interest to Billy Bob, then write his name on it and send it his way. Do not set it down on your desk again (i.e., let Billy Bob deal with it…).
  4. Record. Most of what we have on little sheets of paper would be of more value recorded in our calendars, so whatever type of system you use (Day-Timer, Franklin Planner, etc.), make sure there’s enough room to write down both your appointments and your action list. After you’ve transferred the relevant information, deep six or recycle the paper.
  5. Act. Better yet, don’t record it anywhere—just do it. When First United Church writes to ask if its youth group can sleep at your church on its way to Mexico, either pick up the phone and give them an answer or write your reply right on their letter and send it back. Don’t waste your time writing them a separate letter—that’ll take too long. And you know what happens when you sense a project will take too long. (Can you spell procrastination?)
  6. File. At the risk of sounding like a real loser, I’ll go on record as saying you should spend some serious time with your filing system. If, as I suspect, we’re not just spiritual developers but also information brokers, then we need to be able to access information easily. And that means a streamlined working system.

If all of this sounds like a grand strategy but you don’t know where to get started, let me suggest two more options:

  • Block off four hours on a Friday afternoon, move a dumpster into the hallway outside your office and have at it. The rules are simple—you can’t put a piece of paper down in the same spot again—and your options are limited: recycle, refer, record, act, or file. Get rid of it all. Discover office furniture you didn’t know you had. Throw away eight-track tapes and pasta from last year’s retreat. You might even find an intern under all the rubble.
  • Hire someone to do it for you. Jeffery Mayer, who wrote If You Don’t Have Time to Do It Right, When Will You Have Time to Do It Again?, will gladly clean your desk. He charges just over a million bucks and it takes him less than four hours. (Not bad work if you can get it.)

By the way, now that you’ve read this article, you are about to face your first test: what to do with all of your copies of Youthworker journal?

(Don’t answer that!)


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.