There you are in your office, searching for that one item you need among all your other stuff. (Stuff being the appropriate word here, as every item appears to be stuffed in, under, or around more stuff.) You know you have it, but there seems to be no way to find it. Many IT professionals have difficulty organizing the seemingly endless array of documents they accumulate every day. Probably, on more than one occasion, you’ve undertaken a frantic search when you needed to find one important piece of paper.

The biggest obstacle to organization is that most professionals keep papers that they don’t really need. Read on to find out what to save, what to discard, and how to organize what’s left.

What to keep forever
Keep permanently:

  • Legal documents: birth certificate, social security papers, real estate records, car title, original copy of a will, current passport.
  • Tax returns.
  • Audit reports.
  • Insurance records, current policies.
  • Checks and receipts for tax and mortgage payments.
  • Records of investments. Retain year-end reports from your brokerage to document when you bought and sold stocks and the amounts you paid or received. Store employment agreements, stock option plans and 401(k) plan papers, and other investment plans in a safe-deposit box at your bank or other secure location.

What to keep until the seven-year itch
Keep for seven years:

  • Tax records. If you itemize you have to show (in an audit) written documentation for deductions, so save year-end or quarterly statements as well as receipts. The IRS can audit back over three years from a timely filing. There is no statute of limitations in the event of non-filing or fraud.
  • Discard:
  • General memos and papers.
  • Greeting cards: Throw out the ones that are just signed. Only save cards with special notes of sentimental value.
  • Pay check stubs: This information will be on your W-2 or 1099 forms.
  • Old drafts: Once a new draft of a budget, contract, or list has been finalized, discard the older version. If you need to remember changes made, keep a copy of the pages that changed, not the whole draft.

The strategy
There are only four basic things you can do with any item of data. Understand this concept and you can sort your data into four categories:

  1. To do
  2. To pay
  3. To read
  4. To file

The rest of the mountain of data litter is not important at this time. What is important is not to get sidetracked with concerns about the process. You are only sorting now. Don’t start reading the latest correspondence from your most important supplier or pause to wonder why you didn’t answer that important letter that might have contained the winning $10 million entry into a sweepstakes. You are just sorting, so keep on sorting.

To do
Once you have sorted the entire pile, piles, or boxes, go through each category again. Begin with the papers in the to-do pile, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I really need to do this? If not, dump it in the trash or file it as a necessary.
  • Is it too late to do this? If it is too late, file it or discard it.
  • Do I really want to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it or dump it.
  • Does anybody care whether I do this? If the answer is no, then why should you? Discard it or file it.

The rest of your to-do data should be only those matters that you must do something about in the very near future.

To pay
All matters pertaining to accounting should be directed to that area of the enterprise. Send off this material to the appropriate department.

To read
Whatever you do as you go through this category, do not succumb to the temptation to read the magazines, journals, or catalogs. Quickly scan the table of contents and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a worthwhile reason to read this?If there isn’t, dump it.
  • Do I have time to read this?If the answer is “no,” discard it.
  • Is this out of date?If the material has been updated, contains outdated information, or has been replaced with a new edition, discard it.
  • Do I have more than three months’ worth of issues?If you have magazines backed up more than three months, consider canceling your subscription (you usually get a refund on un-mailed issues) and eliminate at least the earliest month.

Once you have gone through the materials and discarded as many magazines, trade publications, and journals as you can bear to part with, review the remaining materials and cut out any articles that you need to read and staple them together. Throw away the remainder of the magazine, journal, or other material and put the articles in the to-read bin. Carry a file of these articles in your briefcase so that you can read them when waiting for appointments, during a commute (if you are not driving) or during breaks.

To file
Eighty percent of everything you file you’ll never look at again. Consider how expensive it is to use space for paper storage and how much time is expended to actually file the materials. You have four filing options:

  1. File in archival files
  2. File in current files
  3. Scan for computerized document storage
  4. File in circular files or utilize a shredder

According to a study by The Accounting Guild, the average IT professional now sends and/or receives 57 phone messages, 42 e-mails, 23 pieces of mail, 6 faxes, and 14 pager messages—in one day.

We must practice ways of handling information overload before it overpowers our ability to perform our jobs. You do not have to answer or even read every single e-mail. The key is to filter, and many corporate e-mail programs let users set up filters by author, subject, or other criteria. The easiest way to filter is to simply read message headers. Determine what’s critical today, giving messages from your boss and your clients priority. E-mails marked “FYI” or that have attached articles are not. And don’t be afraid to delete messages without reading them.

It’s a fact that information overload is here to stay. You can’t completely turn off the deluge, but minimizing the unnecessary stuff will increase your productivity.

Jack Fox is executive director of The Accounting Guild in Las Vegas, NV. Fox has been assisting thousands of accountants and IT consultants in starting and building their own businesses or coaching for effective leadership in IT functions of small- to medium-size enterprises since 1984. He is the author of five books including the third edition of Starting and Building Your Own Accounting Business , published by John Wiley & Sons.

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