How to Get Through a Paper and Digital Backlog

This week I haven’t been able to work because my 1-year-old daughter has had the flu and she won’t let me put her down long enough to get any work done. While I have no complaints about taking care of my children, when I got back to work this morning, I had a stack of papers to go through, a ton of email, a full RSS inbox, forum posts to read, comments on my blog to respond to, and late assignments that were all screaming for attention.

While everyone has different reasons for allowing a backlog of papers and digital messages to build up, there probably isn’t anyone among us who hasn’t faced a pile of work and messages to go through.

And it can be intimidating and stressful, especially when everything seems to be needed yesterday.

How do you get through such a backlog? Well, there’s as many methods for handling this as there are people reading this post, but let’s take a look at a simple but effective method that I’m using today. It’s done in three stages.

Stage 1 – Triage. Basically, you have to know everything that’s on your plate, so you can decide where to start. And you need to get through everything quickly. So the first stage of getting through a backlog is to go through everything, as quickly as possible, so that you can identify what needs to be done now, and what can be done later. We’re assuming here that you have urgent tasks in this stack (or stacks).

Here’s how I recommend doing it:

  • Go through everything quickly. And I mean everything: don’t treat paper and digital stuff differently. Go through each “inbox” from top to bottom, processing as rapidly as possible. That includes your physical inbox on your desk (pile all papers in your backlog and messages in here), and all your digital inboxes — email, RSS, forums, comments, other services.
  • Make three piles. The first is stuff that needs to be done right away. For this pile, you might want to keep a short list, so that you can put digital stuff and paper stuff all together. For example, I have an index card that I’ve written all the stuff I need to do today. It’s more than I normally would try to handle, but again, I’m catching up. The list includes important emails and assignments. You’ll get through this in Phase 2. Second, make a list or pile of stuff you will sort through later. This is lower priority stuff. You’ll get to it in Phase 3. The third pile is really your trashcan. Delete or trash all the stuff you don’t need to deal with at all, to get it out of the way quickly.
  • Don’t do stuff yet. Although GTD advocates doing tasks if they’re 2 minutes or less, as you’re processing, if you have a large and urgent backlog, I say just add it to one of your lists/piles for now. Do them in one of the next stages. After you get through the backlog, I recommend following GTD’s advice during your daily processing, as it greatly reduces the stuff on your list.

Stage 2 – First Things First. OK, you’ve sorted through your backlog and identified the top-priority stuff. This is the stuff you need to get through today. Now identify blocks of time for each, putting the most important/urgent stuff first. If you don’t have enough blocks of time, you probably won’t be able to do the entire list today. Be realistic — don’t give yourself 15 minutes to do something that normally takes an hour.

Some tips:

  • If you have a large backlog, you’ll want to work quickly, and perhaps set a timer.
  • Set aside at least 30 minutes today to get through your backlog (Stage 3), as otherwise it’ll never end and just keep getting bigger.
  • Get the hardest and most important stuff done first. Don’t put it off till last, because you might not get to it.
  • Set aside distractions. You probably don’t have time to respond to IM or most incoming emails or browsing through your fun stuff on the web. If you do, set aside a block or two of time for that, and don’t let yourself do it outside those blocks of time. It’s important that when you’re doing your important tasks today, you are able to focus.

Stage 3 – Work Through the Rest. So you’re taking care of your important tasks first, but you’ve still got that backlog screaming at you. And it won’t go away until you deal with it. Set aside at least 30 minutes today to process your backlog, and set aside at least an hour tomorrow and for as many days as it will take to clear it.

Here’s how:

  • Process one inbox at a time (email, paper, etc.). And in each inbox, process one document or message at a time, make a decision and taking an action with each, clearing it from the inbox, until the inbox is empty. What decisions and actions should be taken? One of the following.
  • Trash or delete anything that you don’t need to save or process or reply to. I know this was in the earlier stage, but if you see something that you missed the first time, or that has become irrelevant, trash it now.
  • Forward or delegate anything that someone else can do instead of you. Archive or delete (or file, if it’s a paper document) to get it out of the inbox.
  • Quickly reply to messages that can be done in a minute or two. Quickly do actions that take a couple minutes or less. Archive or delete (or file, if it’s a paper document) to get it out of the inbox.
  • Note items that need action, but that will take longer to do. Put them on a separate to-do list. Archive or delete (or file, if it’s a paper document) to get it out of the inbox.

When you’re done, your inbox should be empty. If you can’t get through all of it in one day, set aside a block of time tomorrow to finish the processing. And continue to do that until you’ve cleared through everything.

If your inbox (paper or digital) is super full and will take weeks to process, put it in a separate folder to process each day (again, set aside an hour or more) and have your inbox start afresh. Process all new incoming papers and messages each day using the steps above.


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