Time Management and Goal Setting

Home > Time Management > Worst Practices > Piles of Paper

Time Management Worst Practice: Piles of Paper

Do you have piles of paper stacked up on your desk, your bookcase, or even the floor? Do you have trouble finding important files? Is you desk covered with all sorts of different documents, notes, and memos? Do you have more than fifty  "old" emails in your Inbox?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. A common practice for handling paperwork and notes is to just put them at the top of the closest pile!

The practice of creating piles of paper becomes a worst practice when the level of disorganization in your desk and office start to cause you to forget important deadlines or assignments, misplace information that you need, or cause you to waste time searching through your piles for an important piece of paper you need to complete a task.

To overcome this worst practice you will need to bite the bullet and get your desk, office and email organized. But before you launch into a full-out organization effort, you may need to resolve the underlying problems that caused you to fall into this practice in the first place; otherwise, you may have a hard time getting rid of the piles or notice that they start returning after just a few days.

Most people pile papers for one of three reasons.

Reason # 1: Lack of Inflow Management

First, they don’t have a systematic way of handling new paperwork. They don’t have a plan for dealing with the inevitable arrival of that new piece of paper, so they fall back on the path of least resistance: put it on top of the closest pile to look at it later when they have more time.

Problem is that time never comes and the piles just grow and grow. Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside‑Out, says the number one cause for disorganization is that things don’t have a “home,” a place where each item naturally belongs.

The best practices of Inflow Management and Effective Filing will help you manage your paperwork effectively and find an appropriate home for each piece of paper as it arrives.

Reason # 2: Need of a Reminder

The second reason people spread papers on their desk is as a way to remind them of something important they need to do.

Whenever something that needs their attention shows up, they put it on their desk as a reminder so they won’t forget about it. This is a natural crutch for people that have reached the limit of what they can keep track of using their memory. Without the constant reminder, they would simply forget to do the important task.

The problem with this approach is precisely that you have a constant reminder of that task, even when you are trying to work on something else.

This nagging distraction can prevent you from concentrating on your present work and being as productive as you can be. Now just multiply this effect by the ten or twenty different “reminders” on your desk and you get an idea of why it’s difficult to concentrate and focus with a cluttered desk.

A better way to store these reminders is to capture work items in a time management system. With such a system in place, you can keep these distractions off your desk without the fear of forgetting something important.

Reason # 3: Mental Context of Your Work

The third reason people place notes and papers on their desk is that it can give them a concrete idea of all the projects they are working on.

Some people have discovered that by spreading bits and pieces of their projects all over their desk and office, they can clear some of the information from their head and put it out in the open; it is their way of storing a “mental context” for each active project.

For example, the context could be the next person you need to call as part of your research, or the memo that contains key information you need to include in your marketing report.

This “mental context” serves as a crutch that relieves some of the stress, anxiety and overwhelm associated with keeping track of everything using memory alone and may even help them think more clearly.

The payoff they are getting from putting things out in the open more than compensates for the extra disorganization and wasted time searching for information.

Psychologist Alison Kidd argues that for many, piles of paper represent a way to cope with too much information and complexity. Since people cannot deal with this complexity using their memory, they have to put things out in the open.

They can't file the papers away because they would risk loosing track of them and forgetting the important action or thoughts associated with them.

It should be clear that this is not the best way to get a “mental context” for your active projects; there are much better ways that don’t involve keeping a cluttered desk with bits and pieces of your projects out in the open serving as regular distractions.

Once you setup a practical system for keeping track of all your active projects—a system you can use at any time to restore your mental context—the need for keeping a cluttered desk with papers out in the open begins to disappear.

If you do want/need to put things out in the open when working on a project, you just pull out all your relevant documents from your project file and spread them on your desk.

Some writers have said that they need to see their editorial scribbles on real paper because it helps them sort out their ideas. That's just fine.

The point is that when you are done with this project, you can collect all your paperwork and store it away knowing that you've captured the necessary context in your time management system.

For example, you could capture where you left off and what you need to do next. The next time you work on this project, you'll know exactly where to start.

Once you’ve resolved the three fundamental causes of this worst practice, you can get around to organizing your desk and your office without worrying about loosing a valuable reminder or the context for an active project.


The Time Management  eBook contains more information on how to get rid of the piles of paper using a sound time management system. Get it now!

Related Articles (time management guide):

Improve your time management skills fast and take your productivity to the next level: Check out the Be More Productive training program.

Investing in yourself through time management training could be one of the best investments you make because time is one of your most precious and valuable resources.

If you'd like additional help, time management coaching and life coaching are both a great resource to implement these ideas and improve your time management skills. You can use personal coaching or group coaching depending on your needs.

In a corporate setting, executive coaching is also very valuable to help you be more productive and perform at your best.


Effexis Software makes a terrific time management software system that is based on these principles.

If you've been looking for a tool to help you get organized, increase your productivity, and work more effectively, give it a try free for 30-days.ctively, give it a try free for 30-days.