Monday, May 2, 2011

The Buttercup Syndrome

An old friend brought lunch over last week, and we spent part of the visit discussing the countless cartons of paperwork that are cluttering her life. Volumes have been written about managing paper flow, but my casual reading has not turned up any comments about Linda’s situation.

She used to teach elementary school and is conditioned to live with four or five bank boxes on the back seat of her car. Her lawyer father made his living hauling papers around, so there’s a senior role model who did the same. She is now shuttling between her house and her parents’, filling in elder care while trying to administer both households. Nothing’s in the right location, and she’s losing track of where things are.

Both her computer and its back-up storage crashed recently, and why Linda is not drinking is beyond me. Events, however, have left her with a clean slate and a beautiful opportunity to get a grip.

The fundamental problem with managing paper is that it acts like buttercup, generating its own herbicide and killing off productivity as it spreads. Linda’s always the first kid on the block with new technology, and when I mentioned that I now hold only two inches of paper files, dawn broke and she started talking about a hand-held scanner. I mentioned that we store a digital archive for a California photographer in a fire safe here in the house, and that he undoubtedly has the archive stashed in one or two other locations as well. I forgot to mention that digital files have to be refreshed now and then-as I understand it they’re viable to about five years out, but the experts can fill this in. Learning the term “data smog” helped Linda get some perspective on her archive. She’s more conditioned to generating information than to managing it.

In the early Seventies, Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall published The Universal Traveler, which they described as a software handbook for the process of design. One of their core ideas has proved unfailingly valuable: when faced with a decision, ask oneself what’s the worst thing that can happen if I do or don’t do something. In managing paper, the question is how much will it cost me in time or dollars if I don’t keep a certain record. Over the last thirty years, I’ve raised the level of risk from fifty dollars and a couple of hours to several hundred and a day or so of hassle, and I’ve yet to regret putting something in the shredder.

Managing paper is a labor issue centering on the value of one’s time and the safety of one’s back, which can be protected by using a lightweight folding hand truck. Handling a bank box full of paper is a task more suited to a weight room than to finessing nuances of decisions behind a desk. There’s a reason offices used to have specialist file clerks.

If I had a barn full of bank boxes to manage, I’d contact a security outfit with a shredding truck, and start sorting into whatever format the big paper muncher wants. I’d drink lots of coffee and work fast. I’d hunt for a copier that can scan to files as fast as it can churn out images, and I’d start by making a few phone calls to find out if I were on the right track. It might make sense to rent a fast bulk scanner for a week or two.

Making these kinds of decisions is no different from doing yard work and nearly as taxing and grubby. Corrugated cardboard breeds mites, so it’s prudent to wear a mask and run a HEPA filter when handling archives. Part of the buttercup syndrome is that allergens impair cognition, reinforcing one for ignoring the problem.

Having something and knowing where it is are two different qualities. If you don’t know where it is, you don’t have it.

Checklist for mobile management: shredder, scanner, laptop, rolling briefcase, 3G wireless card


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