Paper is one of the hardest things to keep organized. Believe me, I know. So the first thing I will tell you is this: don’t give up.
You may have started with a bag of paper that grew into a tub of paper. Maybe this became surrounded by more tubs and put into that room that no one is allowed in. The room of guilt, clutter, shame. And every time you enter that room, to find taxes from three years ago or your child’s birth certificate you think to yourself, I need to get a handle on this. This should not be so hard.
But for many people it is that hard. It took me 25 years to collect a ridiculous amount of paperwork, and a good solid 7 years to get a handle on it. Seven years of trying out various systems, purging, shredding, recycling and yet, when I turned around, there was always more.
If you think the system is rigged against you, you are right. The post office makes money on junk mail, vendors charge to remove you from lists, companies charge YOU to keep YOUR information private. If you shop online, you get their catalog, and the catalogs of every company affiliated with them. If you have an address, own a home, have credit, are over 18, under 18, a teen in sports, camps or looking at colleges, you are getting bombarded with junk in the mail ALL THE TIME. Several of my clients receive hundreds of pieces of junk mail and catalogs every month! And don’t even get me started on emails. If junk mail is your thing, great. If it is not, keep reading.
A Professional Organizer’s Battle with Paper
My own battle against the paper bulge stared in my late thirties. To combat it, I began each year with “staycation” where I purged and organized my files.
The monthly bills were easiest to tackle. I shredded utility bills that I had saved throughout the year (because that is what my parents did), along with all kinds of other useless paperwork. I shredded until my files were empty and I could start out the year with a fresh filing space.
But the really important stuff, like insurance policies, closing documents and house management files always alluded me. What to keep, where to file and how to label just really threw me off. So I did not spend much time on that paper. Those documents were banished to the back-of-the-cabinet land of “I know where you are if I need you” and slowly grew through the years.
When the paperwork from my son’s adoption could fit in a huge TUB, I knew it was time to get a handle on this beast, and that is when the real work began.
The following system is the one I began seven years ago, and still use today for all my paper clients. It is the ONLY one that worked for me.
Break it Down
In the organizing world, many people say that you can’t really organize a space until you know what you have, and recommend starting by gathering all of your paperwork into one big pile or room. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS. The bigger the job, the less likely you are to tackle it.
Instead, break the job down into the following three steps.
Step One: Address New Paper with a Mini-File
Before you address any piles of paper, it is important to put a system in place to address new paper coming into the home. This will help stem the flow and reduce paper stress immediately, since new paper is what we most need to get our hands on quickly. I use a strategy called The Backwards Method for this, which you can read about here.
I recommend using a tabletop desk file or plastic portable box for your mini-file. Set it up using hanging files labeled according to what comes in that you need to keep track of.
The first file category that belongs in every home is a tax file. If you have a small business, you can create two: one for work and one for personal. If you write off utilities or purchase receipts for taxes, place these in the “work” file.
Each person in the family should have their own file, including your pet. Your home should have a file. Your car, etc. If you are an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of person, do not put your bills in a file. A tabletop inbox or something visible would be a better choice for these.
As new paper comes in, you can now organize it immediately, preventing future build-up. If it is junk, make sure it gets shredded, recycled or tossed right away. Only relevant stuff gets to come into the home. As you move forward you, will stay on top of anything important as it enters the home, which ultimately will stop new piles from accumulating.
Step Two, Use the Miller Organized Paper Pile Action Plan
Now that you have a mini file system and you are on top of the new stuff coming in, you can tackle the piles laying all around your house. Set up a banker box or plastic bin for each year, labeling the front of each box with a sticky note taped to the front of the box.
As you review each pile, toss individual papers into the appropriate year. The farther back you go, the less paper you are likely to find (consider combining those past years into one box). When you get tired or burned out, go ahead and pop the lids on and stack them in the corner. They will be waiting for you when you are ready to tackle the project again. The great thing is that as you come across pieces of paper lying around, you can go ahead and pop them into the appropriate year.
The benefit of this step is that allows you to review old piles of paper at your own pace, and prioritize your efforts by focussing on more recent years.
Step Three, Organize Each Box
Once you have collected and sorted all of the paperwork from each year throughout the entire home, it is time to tackle the individual papers inside each box.
Begin with the current year and work your way back. Place hanging folders inside each box, and individual papers into each file using a sticky note to label them. These are temporary files, so no need to get fancy just yet. Create the files as you discover the paper that goes inside them. Keep the file names general so that they are easy to access. For example, a label called “Car” is better than “Porche 356” (hey, a girl can dream).
Create your Final Filing System
Once you have finished organizing everything into each individual year, you will see each file fall into one of four following categories.
1. “Immediate” or “action” item papers. These are very temporary and change based on the little projects that you have, and will go away once the task is complete.
2. Papers that you will keep for a year or less and often are needed to complete your taxes.
3. Important documents that you will keep long term such as filed taxes, birth and death certificates, insurance policies, deeds, wills, etc.
4. Files relevant to the home. If you move, these are the files that stay with your home.
Example: A furnace manual would be stored with category four files, while the paperwork that comes home for your child’s soccer season would be stored with category one files.
The Finishing Touch: Keeping it Visual
Now that you have sorted all of your piles, it is time to create your final system. Combine your files together into separate boxes based on the four categories named above. This will help you get your hands on individual paper you need based on that larger category.
Visuals are so important when it comes to keeping this system in order. Adding more permanent labels will make it easier to get your hands on what you need. Use your printer, label maker or even write them out using a sharpie.
Use hanging files to separate categories within each box, and manila insert files to divide them into more specific details within a file. You can also file using binders, bins or simply clipping papers together. The type of files you create will greatly depend on your storage space, type of file and personal preference.
I hope this system works for you! In the coming weeks, I will be breaking each step down into more detail with a clear plan to finally tackle your paperwork. Stay tuned!
Need a speaker for your group? “Organize Your Paper, Organize Your Life” is a topic that I love to speak on! Learn more on our speaking page. Thanks so much for stopping in and spending a few moments of your time with me.
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