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How To Make Paper Less Overwhelming

So many of my clients mention a sense of annoyance or dread when consider dealing with their files and paper. So, it is my great pleasure to share this amazing guest blog on paper organization, written by my NAPO colleague, Julie Bestry. She explains what's behind all of those anti-paper emotions and gets to the heart of how you can create order out of that paper chaos.


Paper can be one of the most frustrating categories to organize. In other spaces, like

clothes closets or garage storage, you can usually perceive some general categories

and group those items together. It’s not always pretty (and it doesn’t have to be).

But with a little elbow grease and ongoing maintenance, it’s done.

Paper is not like that. Paper seems to reproduce by itself. Paper flutters from its

perch and it arrays itself like sedimentary rock, with the oldest layers on the bottom.

Organizing paper can feel overwhelming for several reasons.

First, we don’t have complete control over what paper we have or how long we

have it. You can choose not to purchase any more shoes — I know, that’s shocking!

— but the mail keeps coming. Even if you switch to paper-free billing (and

remember to check your email or automate your bill-paying system), papers keep

entering your space, whether updates from the insurance company, notices from

your child’s school, forms for completing your taxes, or notes you’ve created for

yourself. As with laundry, you can keep doing the work, but you will never be done.

Second, the rules of paper maintenance are much more varied than with other

tangible items. There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding how long to keep a

dress or handbag (though the editors of Vogue may disagree). However, there are

records retention schedules (for legal and financial purposes) that determine how

long you should maintain an auto title, a will, a tax return, or a passport.

Third, paper requires thinking. If you spot a phone charger or a child’s toy from

across the room, you immediately understand (or can decide) where it belongs.

Almost everything you need to know about non-paper tangible objects can be

discerned by the shape/size/texture/use of the item. Unless the object is paper-like

and has a label to be read (so you can tell the difference between paprika and chili

powder), the categories and even subcategories are usually obvious to the eye.


Paper categories can be much more complex and require more thought than

most other tangible items. It starts off easily enough, with two basic categories:

  • Action paperwork — This reflects all the paper that triggers an activity. From the lowly coupon for a free car wash at the new Wash-o-Rama to the reminder postcard for your medical appointment to the registration forms for your child’s summer camp, action paperwork is relatively easy to corral in an in-box or my preferred method, a tickler file. (Getting motivated to actually do the tasks is another issue altogether.)

  • Reference paperwork — If a piece of paper doesn’t trigger an action, but it’s something you need (or want) to keep for later retrieval, it’s reference.


But then, reference paperwork needs to be broken down into categories, and this is

where people tend to get overwhelmed, and as we say in organizing, “The

overwhelmed mind says no.”

No to filing. No to thinking up labels. No to creating time in your schedule for dealing

with paperwork.

Wouldn’t you like to say “Yes” to conquering paper overwhelm? Here are a few ideas

for chipping away at your backlog and creating a system that works for you.


Whether you’re a family of one or you make The Waltons seem like a tiny

household, your reference files can be broken down into just five categories:

Financial — It’s all about your money, Honey! Break your financial section down

into three categories: income, expenses, and taxes.

If you just have income from one job or Social Security or a pension, you’ll likely

have just one or two thin folders, because almost everything will come digitally or

via direct deposit. If you have lots of investments (potential income), or multiple

sources of actual income, you’ll have folders for each account.

“Expenses” sounds posh and businesslike, but it just means all the categories where

your money goes, reflected by bills or monthly/periodic statements. Give every

account its own folder: your mortgage or lease, each individual utility company,

each credit card, etc.

Your tax section is easy. For each past year, keep a copy of your returns and

supporting documents. For the current year, maintain a tax prep folder for

collecting donation receipts during the year and giving yourself a place to park

1099s and other tax documents that begin arriving each January.

Legal — You need one folder for VIPs (very important papers) like birth and

marriage certificates, Social Security cards, passports, and copies of wills and estate

documents. This is also a place to put contracts, copies of custody agreements, and

anything else you consider “legal.” Most people like to put their insurance policies in

this category; that’s fine, but insurance bills and statements count as financial, so

they deserve a folder in the prior category.

Medical — One folder per person in the household usually suffices. Keep track of

childhood and travel-related vaccinations; store your eyeglass or contact lens

prescription here until you need it. If someone in the family has a complex medical

history, consider starting a file for each condition (for test results, etc.).

Household — Create folders for each area category of making your house (or

apartment, cottage, or yurt) into a home. This is a great place to keep your user

manuals, subdivided by type (HVAC, major kitchen appliances, audio/video,

computer/tech). If you have a remodeling plan (in the works or in your dreams),

have a folder for developing ideas or tracking progress. Do you garden? A folder for

your garden plan with seed/plant ordering keeps information at your fingertips.

Personal — Yes, all the papers are yours, but this isn’t a catch-all. Personal files fall

into two main categories. Personal history includes things like academic records,

career highlights, certificates, old resumes with contact information for references,

and even genealogy. Personal interest items (clipped ideas for an eventual trip to

Paris, notes for that Great American novel) also go here.


1. Don’t wait for your system to be perfect. You don’t need a fancy mahogany

filing cabinet; you don’t really need a filing cabinet at all. Start with a few open-

top milk crate-style filing boxes in colors that please you. Add a box of file

folders, 1/3-cut with left/middle/right tabs, and a box of hanging folders

(preferably in a cheerier color than army green, which motivates nobody except

G.I. Joe, and you probably never saw a cartoon episode with him filing mission

reports). Label makers are excellent for creating bold, clear labels that inspire

you to file papers in the right places, but if you have legible handwriting, a

Sharpie will do.

2. Eliminate friction. You may be tempted to use three-ring binders instead of file

folders, but unless most of your paperwork comes to you pre-punched, there’s a

good chance you’ll procrastinate. Merely having to add the steps of punching

holes, opening binder rings, settling the papers in, closing everything and

returning the binder top shelf makes people pause. Binders are OK for pre-

punched quarterly brokerage statements or putting loose recipes in sheet

protectors, but overall, file folders work better.

3. Watch your (folders’) weight. Bulging, “fat” folders overload hanging folders;

when a folder is too thick, re-apportion to multiple folders divided by simple

chronology (2008-2012, 2013-2017, etc.) or take time to think about sub-

categories. If you have lots of files with only a couple of pieces of paper in each,

those “skinny” folders are probably too narrowly segmented. Create your

subcategories so that you can find things in a matter of a minute; don’t waste

folders to save mere seconds.

4. Consider going digital little-by-little, but be realistic. It’s OK to prefer

tangible paper, which may feel safer (barring a fire or flood) than keeping

something in the cloud. However, it’s not practical for most people to take the

time to scan all of their papers. Take baby steps. If you get monthly Medicare

notices of your current prescriptions and explanation of benefits, sign up for the

online account and monitor how the paper pages just duplicate what’s easily

accessible. Try Evernote for collecting online articles instead of printing piles of

web clippings.

5. Build in time for maintenance. Your filing cabinet is not a self-cleaning oven.

Block time in your schedule to file daily (or at least weekly), and periodically

remove “expired” paperwork, anything you don’t need or want, or that no longer

serves a useful purpose or is no longer legally required to be maintained.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by paper, but put forth a little concerted effort (on your

own, with your partner, or with the help of a professional organizer). If you create a

system that makes sense and looks inviting to you, you’ll never have to suffer from

paper overwhelm again.

About the Author

Julie Bestry is a Certified Professional Organizer ® and president of Best Results

Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, providing guidance in all aspects of organizing and

productivity. Julie helps residential and professional clients save time and money,

reduce stress, and increase productivity through one-on-one and virtual organizing

services, workshops, and webinars, as well as her books and Paper Doll blog.

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3 comentarios

Maria White
Maria White
30 abr 2023

This was clear, practical advice for handling the dreaded paper piles.

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Julie Bestry
Julie Bestry
06 abr 2023

This was fun, Yve. Thank you for asking me to write it! I love the clean lines of your site and the useful, practical content!

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Yve Irish
Yve Irish
06 abr 2023
Contestando a

Thank you so much, Julie! This was awesome! I appreciate your time and your expert advice.

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