The FAT System

When was the last time you saw the bottom of your In-tray? Was it the day you bought it and placed it on your desk?

Or was it empty, briefly, when you took everything out, shuffled through it, gasped in horror at every urgent or overdue item, felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it, had a few pangs of guilt, then threw it all back in to deal with another day?

There's a simple solution and it's called 'FAT'.

In her book 'Taming the Paper Tiger at Work', Barbara Hemphill - America's Favourite Professional Organiser - tells us that there are only 3 decisions we need to make about any piece of information, whether to:-

  • File it
  • Act on it, or
  • Toss it away.

As you go through the items in your In-tray, sort them according to the FAT system:

FILE for future reference

  • Ask yourself "Will I need this in the future or do I think I might?"
  • If "yes" put it in a 'To File' tray ready for filing in your Reference Files.

ACT on it

  • Ask yourself "Is there something I need to do with this?"
  • If "yes" put it in an Action File located nearby
  • There may be several actions that you need to take, just decide what is the next action required.


  • If you don't need to keep it and you don't need to act on it, toss it
  • Toss means "it doesn't belong here"
  • Recycle it, shred it if it contains any confidential information, or put in your 'Out Tray' ready to forward if someone else needs it.

The Golden Rule:

Once you've taken an item out, it never goes back into your In-tray.

The In-tray is Not a 'To Do' Pile

The purpose of the In-tray is to hold new items that you haven't looked at yet. If you put things back in so you know where they are, they'll get buried under tomorrow's mail and your in-tray will end up so full you won't remember what's in there.

"Today's mail is tomorrow's pile" - Barbara Hemphill

If you want to see the bottom of your In-tray on a regular basis, you need to make a decision about each item as you take it from the In-tray and move it to the appropriate location.

Do it in one 'sweep'; don't interrupt the process by stopping to file items, or act on them at the time (unless you can do the required action in under two minutes).

Don't allow yourself to get distracted by the urgent items that you'd forgotten were in there. If they've waited this long, a few more minutes while you finish sorting won't make a difference.

FAT in Action

We keep far more information than we'll ever need or use, just in case we might need it 'someday'. For this reason, it's better to use the FAT system in reverse order:-

  • Can you Toss it?
  • If you can't toss it, do you need to Act on it?
  • If you don't need to act on it, File it for future reference.

To process the contents of your in-tray in one sweep you need your Basic Toolkit for managing paper within reach of where you sit.


See Also Did You Know...?
  • Only 20% of the contents of a typical In-tray require action; of the remainder 40% can be filed and 40% can be tossed
  • more facts...
Quotable Quotes

The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.

- Richard Bach