File It!

File It!

Decide on what to do with each email or letter the first time you touch it, deal with it immediately if it takes 5 minutes or less; use a task file to schedule later activity.


It’s not always obvious what you should do with every email or letter you receive.


On the days when you receive a “bumper crop”, you can feel overwhelmed, and it’s at times like that when you especially need a system; a way to cope effectively with all the “paperwork”.

Some people allow hundreds (thousands?) of emails read or unread to accumulate in their inboxes. If you’re in a company, then such behaviour will probably incur the wrath of the IT department. If you’re on your own or solely responsible for your inbox, then you may feel that the challenge is too big to undertake at all, and so over time it just gets worse.

It’s easy, too, to spend your time opening messages over and over again, or to rearrange the letters on your desk or in your filing cabinet, without ever giving them the attention they need in order to deal effectively with their contents.

And handling correspondence isn’t limited to what you receive. It also includes what you send. You have to have a way to keep track of it so that you can follow-up as necessary.

All of these problems beg for system to manage your communication. The tendency, however, is to look for a single method that works for everything. In fact, entire books have been devoted to doing just that. But such an approach only makes matters worse because it oversimplifies the problem. As the former US Ambassador to the UK, Kingman Brewster once said, it’s common for people to mistaken oversimplification for clarity. In other words, it can make the problem seem like something that is much less than what it really is.


Of course, if if none of your correspondence is important, or if nothing you do or fail to do has an impact on you or anyone else, then how you manage your communication doesn’t matter. It’s not a problem for anyone. You could simply select “All” in your inbox every morning and delete the lot, and no one would take a bit of notice.


Only in your dreams.

It’s more than likely that if you fail to take effective action on the messages and letters you receive, someone will not only notice, they’ll call you to account for the failure on your part to fulfill the responsibilities associated with them. And that’s not just because of the impact that your behaviour has had on yourself. It’ll include the implications that doing so has had on the ability of others to do their jobs, as well.


No one is an island.

If you’re the communication bottleneck, then you’re the reason why everyone else is unproductive. That means that you cost more to employ than you should, and you make the work of others more expensive that it needs to be.

In other words, your inability to manage your own correspondence directly affects the organisation’s ability to achieve its strategic objectives.


What does that look like?

It’s easy to speak in generalities such as a loss of organisational productivity or a diminished bottom line, but internally - what does that look like?

For a start, deadlines are missed. You’ll know from your own experience that in order for the supply chain to function as it should, you have to plan for and honour lead times. Even with the ubiquitous just-in-time delivery, you still can’t depend on getting what you need on the spur of the moment simply by phoning someone or sending a message. Suppliers have deadlines of their own.

Another problem is that people in your own organisation can’t make decisions about what to do next until you take action. If you’re not on top of your communication, then that means that they’re waiting for you.

As a leader, manager, or owner, you have authority to make decisions that others don’t.


Think about your inbox. Even with coloured stars or some other way of highlighting your messages, they all begin to look the same after a while. They all take on the same level of importance. And in your eyes, that makes them all seem unimportant.


And there’s another problem.

The more you put off dealing with your correspondence, the more you teach your subconscious that facing it is something to be avoided. And that makes it easier by the hour to find something else to do.


What should you do instead?

The obvious solution is to touch all correspondence as little as possible. To not do it at all would cause you distress; but to do it just a little can solve so much.

Ideally, it should touch it only once, though there are times when for one reason or another you have to handle it more often. The rule-of-thumb, however, is to take whatever action is required right then so that you can file it.

Filing it can mean different things.

It doesn’t necessary mean that it has reached the end of its journey. It could mean that, but chances are that when it arrives in your inbox or onto your desk, it’s there only for as long as is necessary to get your input before it goes to the next person for some additional action.

It’s likely that what you receive is a cog in a larger wheel, and if that’s the case, then you simply need to do whatever is necessary to get it off of your desk; so when you file it, it goes to the person who needs it as soon as possible.

You could think of your correspondence as a piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle. What you contribute goes somewhere else, and when all of the pieces are considered together, a complete picture is formed, and action can be taken as a result.


What keeps you from touching something only once?

There are many things that can keep you from touching your correspondence more than once.



The most obvious one is that your system, whatever it is, is disorganized. It doesn’t let you see what you have, or what needs to happen next. It looks like a jumble sale without the price tags.



Another reason why you may touch correspondence more often than you need to is because of your own inability to make a decision. It’s one reason why people make several copies of the same thing. They don’t know what to do with it, so they put it everywhere just in case.

That doesn’t solve anything. Instead, it just adds to the confusion. When a change is made, then all of the copies have to be updated. And over time, you can be sure that one will be missed.

The more copies and the more files, the more places there are for things to get lost, too.



If you’re a typical manager, then you routinely get more input than you can cope with. Not long ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked people to limit the length of their memos to two A4 sheets. It seems that even with all of the administrative support he has at his disposal that it’s still possible to have more to read than the time to do it.


Short deadlines

Another reason is that the deadlines you’re given are too short.

No doubt, you’ve had this experience. Most of the time what feels like a short deadline is one of our own making. If the little things distract you for long enough, then it can feel like the big things have snuck up on you.


Insufficient information

It could be that you’re awaiting certain information that will enable you to decide what to do with the correspondence.

In the “old” days, managers used to have hold files. These were files containing documents that required some action, but which needed the input of others before it could be taken.

Nowadays, they may take the form of a folder in your inbox.


How do you cope with these obstacles?


Stop micromanaging

For one thing, you must recognize how ineffective - indeed, counterproductive and expensive - it is to try to micromanage your correspondence.

If you assigned a monetary cost to the time you spent on each message or letter - the equivalent of your hourly wage, for instance - then you’d be astonished at the price of your micromanagement. Of course, this isn’t something that people do, though it would be an eye-opener if they did, but an exercise like that might be enough to get you to change what you do.

No system for managing your correspondence will be perfect. It will always need to change according to the circumstances.

Let it.

A system is made for you; not you for it.

When it stops working for you, then change it so that it does. But stop micromanaging it, as if by doing so that will somehow make you more efficient, because it won’t.


Create a “Waiting” file

A waiting file is a place - it could be a physical one - where you keep files that need more information. Make a note of what you need, why, and the next step after you get it, and then file it.  It shouldn’t take you more than about 10 seconds to do all three.


Don’t respond unless you need to

So that there’ll be no misunderstanding from anyone, you can make it your personal policy and publicise it to all concerned that you won’t respond to any correspondence unless you have something to contribute to the process.

The occasional ‘thank you’ is fine, as is what many refer to as ‘make nice’. To make nice is to grease the wheels of courtesy and respect, but that doesn’t mean that everything that reaches your inbox or desk needs or deserves a reply.

The process for some things will end when they reach you, and at that stage you can just file it.


Pace yourself

When there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, then one of the worst things you can do is try to work faster.

That’s right. Working faster than your normal speed isn’t a good idea.

That’s because over time you’ve learned to work at the pace you do for a reason. It’s not that your work has expanded to fill the time available, though that’s what Parkinson would have us believe. Instead, it’s that you’ve discovered that when you try to do more in less time that that’s when mistakes occur.

At your level, mistakes cost a lot more than they do further down in the organization.

Remember that.



You have plenty to do.

And that means that you need to make the most efficient use of your time.

You can’t avoid handling correspondence because it’s the lifeblood of communication. But, you can certainly manage it. And this you must do.

If you need to hire someone to create a workable system for you, then do it. Whatever you spend on them you’ll lose anyway trying to do it yourself, and you’ll be no better off without their help anyway. In fact, trying to manage this function without help may fall into the category of micromanagement.

The more responsibility you have, the more time you need to spend on things that only you can do.

Get off of the correspondence hamster wheel so that you can focus on bigger things.


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