Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jennifer Frank, MD: Paperwork

Of all the things that do dual duty by assaulting me both at home and work, none is as annoying, overwhelming, and constantly present as paperwork. As an academic physician, I manage not only the clinical paperwork that threatens to overtake all physicians, but also grant requests, manuscripts, resident evaluations, medical student applications, faculty schedules, and professional journals.

At home, there are the inevitable bills, catalogs, junk mail, pleas for urgent end-of-year, beginning-of-year, and mid-year contributions to charities both noble and questionable, endless brightly colored announcements about a school roller-skating event, book sale, or popcorn day sent home with frightening regularity from my children’s school, and numerous, precious art projects generated constantly by my prolific kids.
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As I write this, I am in a pretty good place with paper control at home and on my desk at work. This is unusual – manifestations of a pretty quiet weekend at home (clearing off the kitchen table is one thing I can do while holding a baby on one hip) and a Friday afternoon frenzy at work trying to get my desk cleared off so that I wouldn’t come in to chaos on Monday morning.

Most days, my desk is piled high with a random assortment of papers – in reverse order of what I have been working on. The references for my article in progress are on the bottom of the pile, followed by the overdue medical student evaluations, an article on placental abruption, a recipe I requested from a co-worker, notes from the last staff meeting, and a letter from a local health plan. It seems impossible to keep it all under control.

Sitting at our kitchen table eating dinner, I am amazed at how quickly my family members undid my good work of the weekend. Papers have taken over once again. The Wall Street Journal, homework assignments, holiday cards, receipts, random scraps of paper for future art projects, and the grocery list compete with the dishes for space. The paper battle feels endless and hopeless. Paper is generated more quickly than I can recycle it. What to do?

- Toss as you go. It is only four feet from the in-box on my office door to my desk, but if I don’t cull out the job offers, CME brochures, and throw-away journals before I get there, they claim space on my desk and make it less likely that they will be recycled quickly.

- Buy a label-maker. It is so much more inviting to file papers in a colorful, clearly marked file folder.

- Periodically purge. Take some time to get rid of papers that you once needed but no longer use. For some of us, it is the article on hyponatremia our internal medicine attending gave us in 1995. For others it may be the pile of Christmas cards littering the dining room table.

- Use electronic media frequently and comprehensively. With electronic access available nearly everywhere, it is getting easier to store things virtually – perfect, no clutter. (Actually it is possible to clutter up your electronic storage but it is not as unsightly).

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