Process Your Paper to Prevent Piles


Now that most communication occurs digitally, you would think paper disorganization would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In my experience, almost every person who struggles with organization of any type also struggles with keeping papers in order. It’s not unusual to find piles of paper throughout the home as well as multiple containers of paper when I visit a client. Without a good system for organizing and maintaining paper, there is little hope of change. The system of paper organization I have used for many years and have helped clients establish is extremely effective. This article gives step by step instructions for implementing this system.

First, you need to understand the difference between active papers and archive papers. Archive papers are usually long-term, don’t need to be consulted often, and are often filed. Examples of archive papers include social security cards, insurance forms, mortgage information, tax files, and birth certificates. Active papers are usually short-term, need to be consulted frequently, and often require action. Examples of active papers include coupons, invitations, receipts, bills, and forms. This system of paper organization is for active papers only. Organizing archive papers is also extremely important but won’t be included in this article.

Gather your household paper 

Gather ALL of the papers around your house. Look everywhere. Paper can hide in unusual places! (drawers, cabinets, family Bible, behind or under furniture, etc.) If you have files of archive paper, don’t include those papers in this step. Put all papers into one container if possible. 

I call this step Paper Palooza. The word palooza is often used for big festivals. It denotes an exaggerated one-time event. If you use this system correctly, you shouldn’t need to complete this step again!

Sort all papers into archive or active

You will need 4 containers: one for recycling or trash, one for shredding, one for archive paper, and one for active paper. Start sorting through the container(s) one paper at a time, dividing into archive or active. As you complete this first simple sort, discard any unneeded paper. Save shredding for later. I have found that using an identity theft prevention roller stamp (about $20 on Amazon) is much quicker than shredding. You can also take advantage of bank free shred days or outsource the shredding to an office supply store.

I am convinced that we don’t need 80-90% of the paper we keep! If you are doing this sort correctly, your recycling container should fill up very quickly. How do you determine whether you need to keep a paper? Here are a few criteria:

  • Does this require action?
    Just because you receive information—even if it’s from your boss—doesn’t mean you need to keep it!
  • Does this exist elsewhere?
    • Finding the same information online is most likely going to be easier than finding this paper later!
    • Library
    • A home file 
    • Book or manual
  • Is this information recent enough to be useful?
    • Information quickly becomes outdated. 
  • Can I identify specific circumstances when I’d use this information?
    • “Just in case” is not good enough! 
    • How likely is it that you will need it? 
  • Are there tax or legal implications?
    • Here’s where “just in case” works. 
    • What is the worst thing that could happen if I did not have it?
  • Does anyone else need this information?

If you end up with only a few archive papers and have a good filing system, go ahead and add these papers. If you have a lot of archive papers, save organizing them for a later time. 

Set Up Your Paper Processing System

Now it’s time to set up your paper processing system. Sort all active papers into categories. Your categories will be determined by your preferences and your life stage. You can choose action words like Pay (bills), Contact (people you need to contact), Complete (forms), File (papers for archives), and Wait (pending items). You can choose any categories that work for you. Other examples include Church, Neighborhood, Upcoming Events, Coupons, etc. You’ll be able to figure out your categories as you go. I like to use Post-It notes or index cards to write down categories as I sort. I will sometimes add, subtract, or combine categories as I go. Group each category (I suggest about 5-10) into a labeled file folder. 

This paper organizing system has two basic critical components: one container and one day a week. 

  1. Keep all active paper into one container. A vertical tabletop file box is ideal. Whatever you use needs to be able to hold 5-10 letter-sized file folders. Don’t use a much larger container because you will be tempted to store papers that don’t belong in it. This container should be kept in an easily accessible area, ideally the room in which papers usually accumulate or the room where you usually work on papers. 
  2. Go through papers one day a week.
    1. Choose one day a week that will be easiest for you to commit 30 minutes to 1 hour. Committing to this one day a week is of paramount importance to maintaining the organization. If you will be traveling that day, take the container with you if possible. If you get behind, catch up as quickly as possible and recommit to one day a week. I can’t stress this point enough. 
    2. On your scheduled day, empty the container completely and go through every paper one at a time. 
      1. For each piece of paper, ask, “Can this wait until next week?”
      2. If no action is needed now but you still need to keep it, replace it into the folder.
      3. If action needs to be taken this week, set the paper aside into a To-Do pile. 
    3. When you have gone through every paper, you should wind up with one To-Do pile for the week, with the rest of the papers back in the container in their proper folders. 
    4. With each paper in the To-Do pile, either act on it now or schedule it. This is an ideal time to plan your weekly schedule. Examples of actions from the week’s To-Do pile: bills (pay), invitation (RSVP, schedule on calendar, schedule gift buying), forms (fill out and mail), errands (schedule), appointment slip (make sure appointment is on the calendar), solicitation for charity donation (pay online or mail check), etc. 

I guarantee that if you set up this system and are diligent with weekly paper processing, you will see a tremendous improvement. Feel free to contact me with questions. If you have more papers than you know what to do with, contact me. I’d love to help you! 


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