EasyPeasy QuickTip #3: Taming the Paper Dragon

No matter what business you are in, how organized you are, or how committed you are to converting to a “paperless system”, you cannot escape the tsunami of wood pulp that engulfs our society every week. Sure, we’ve made great strides in reducing the amount of paper in circulation in the last 20-30 years, but the fact remains that a truly paperless society is not yet a reality.

When people learn that I am a professional organizer, many of them feel compelled to share their frustrations over the constant tide of paper swirling around their homes. Even I find that I must remain vigilant if I want to stay afloat in the storm of bills, schoolwork, junk mail, reminders, and general correspondence. So in honor of National Organize Your Files Week, here are a few simple tricks to help you remain above the fray:

  • Establish a “landing pad” for papers coming into your home, such as a small basket or bin to hold incoming mail, school papers, etc.
  • Set aside 5-10 minutes daily to go through and process the papers in your in-box. (The in-box should remain completely empty for at least some period of time every single day.)
  • Somewhere near your in-box, set up a small file box or magazine holder with the following folders: To Pay, To Do, To Read, To File, To Deliver. These folders are temporary “holding cells”, not permanent homes.
  • During processing:
    1. If the item is a bill to be paid, either pay it immediately and file a payment record in the To File folder (if required) or place it in the To Pay folder.
    2. If there is an action required that takes 2 minutes or less, do it immediately and then either file the paper in your To File folder (only if necessary for record-keeping) or throw it away.
    3. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, file the paper in your To Do folder.
    4. If no action is required, but you need to remember something, record a reminder in your day planner (if you don’t have one, get one) and throw the paper away. (Hint: electronic calendars and planners are a great way to further stem the paper tide. I love Cozi Family Calendar for keeping up with everyone’s schedules, and you can even add things to your spouse’s To Do list…big bonus!)
    5. File news articles, letters, etc. in your To Read folder.
    6. File things you don’t need to do anything about but may someday need to refer back to in the To File folder.
    7. Anything that needs to be processed by someone else goes in the To Deliver folder. (You may find it easier to have in-boxes for each member of the household so that you can immediately deliver these items to the appropriate person’s in-box instead of an interim folder.)
  • At least once each week, set aside 30 minutes to an hour to:
    1. Pay any bills that are coming due from your To Pay folder and file any payment record as appropriate.
    2. Review the items in your To Do folder and either do them or schedule a time in your day planner to do them.
    3. File your To File items in a larger reference file cabinet that has folders for categories that make sense (Medical Records, Insurance, Tax Records, Vital Records, etc.)
    4. Deliver anything in your To Deliver folder to the appropriate person.
  • Grab your To Read folder on your way out the door to doctor appointments, meetings, or anywhere that you might be waiting for awhile so that you can make the most use of your time by reading. Just be sure you either throw the reading material away when you are done or process it appropriately as soon as you return home.
Taming your paper dragon doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming but it does take commitment. If you are currently sitting on top of a mound of papers and feel overwhelmed at the prospect of processing them all, don’t. Grab one handful each night and deal with just those until the pile is gone, but keep up with everything new as it comes in. Once you’ve established a routine, you’ll see that it takes far less time each day to process and file your paperwork than it does to search for that one missing paper you desperately need but can’t find in the heap.
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