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.
WHY PAPER IS SO OVERWHELMING?
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.
BREAKING IT DOWN
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
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.
SECRETS FOR SUCCESS
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
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.