Paper Chaos to Organized Files in Only 10 Minutes a Day

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“I have so much paperwork. I’m afraid my paperwork has paperwork.”

– Gabrielle Zevin

Paper arrives in the mailbox and in your kids’ backpacks. You bring paper home from your doctor and your dog’s vet. The cashier at the grocery store stuffs a flyer into your bag. Even in this digital age, paper chaos is a common problem.

The unfortunate reality is that for most people, it will take several hours (or more) to organize this mess. Because it’s such a big job and so intimidating, we tend to avoid the task. And the paper chaos just gets worse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The principles of gradual minimalism apply to paperwork too. Don’t even try to tackle it all in one day. Instead, do 10 minutes a day (or, if you’re feeling inspired and have lots of free time, as much as 30 minutes a day).

Eliminate incoming paper.

Stop your junk mail. The FTC gives tips on how you can cut down on unsolicited mailings, calls, and emails. You can also call the companies who send you catalogs to request you be removed from their mailing lists.

Next, try to cut back on the other mail you receive. Most, if not all, banks will give you online statements, whether for checking and savings accounts, credit card bills or investment accounts. Often, you can get those thick disclosure pamphlets most of us don’t even read electronically as well.

You can also receive – and pay – most of your bills electronically. Set up automatic bill pay for all the bills you can. This saves time and, if you have trouble remembering to pay bills, saves money, since you’ll no longer owe late fees. Don’t forget to check bills and statements for errors.

Consider cutting back on newspaper and magazine subscriptions (only order what you actually read) and getting some or all of those you continue electronically. Keep magazines and newspapers where you’re likely to read them. If you haven’t read a magazine or newspaper when the next issue arrives, recycle the old one.

Deal with mail as soon as you get it. Immediately put all junk mail into the recycle bin. Make tossing paperwork easy – keep a recycle bin where you open the mail.

Realistically, you won’t always have time to immediately put papers where they go, even after you’ve succeeded in taming your paper chaos. So, create ONE place for all incoming paperwork that you’re keeping, whether action items or paper for long-term storage. This way, when you go to deal with it, nothing gets missed.

The most important thing you can do to control paperwork chaos is to have less of it, so make that your first priority.

Plan your future paper storage.

How and where are you going to store the papers you decide to keep?

You’ll have two types of paperwork (whether in paper or digital format): paperwork you need to do something with and paperwork you’re storing for the long term.

Papers you need to do something with include field-trip release forms, bills, invitations, coupons, magazines and newspapers. Some of this paperwork may be thrown out as soon as you’re done with it (e.g., expired coupons and magazines you’ve read).

You might need to store other papers long-term after you’ve finished what you need to do (e.g., checking account statements after balancing your checkbook).

Paperwork to store also includes papers you have to keep (tax returns, birth certificates, insurance policies), papers you want to keep for sentimental reasons (letters, children’s artwork, certificates) and paperwork you may occasionally refer to (recent credit card statements, medical records).

Since you keep paperwork for different reasons, you’ll need different ways to store it. Put “action items” where you’ll see them. Something like one of these wire sorters with some manila folders should work for all the stuff you need to keep at hand.

You can store rarely needed papers in a closet or a spare room. Use a small file cabinet, a file box or two, or a couple of accordion files.

Don’t buy anything until after you’ve completed purging and scanning, so you’ll have a better idea of what you need.

Start with the low-hanging fruit.

Begin by collecting all your paper clutter and putting it somewhere you have room to do a bit of sorting, preferably somewhere you can leave the mess for a few days.

If you’ll need to pick it up before you’re done, also grab a couple of cardboard boxes or paper bags. One is for items you haven’t reviewed yet and the other is for items you’re keeping.

Quickly go through the paper, and recycle all the stuff you know right away that you don’t need anymore. If you need to read more than the date and title to figure it out, go ahead and keep the item for now.

This violates the traditional “only handle it once” rule, but I find that plan works a lot better for maintaining your system than for purging.

Get rid of old catalogs and junk mail. Throw out the expired coupons and old sales circulars, as well as the flyers for events you’ve already missed.

This stage is all about reducing the volume. Don’t spend more than a second or two looking at each piece of paper.

After each session, immediately put recycling in the bin.

Once you’ve tossed all the stuff that you obviously don’t need to keep, it’s time to go through items in more detail. This time, as you sort, place each paper into one of three piles: (1) recycle, (2) action items and (3) long-term storage.

Get organized.

Set up a place to keep any unpaid paper bills and paper statements that you need to review. Find any paper bills you already have and put them there. When you sort the mail or get paper bills from other places, make sure you immediately put the bills in this spot.

Take all the invitations, flyers, post-it notes, pages ripped from newspapers, kids’ soccer schedules and postcards you’ve saved about upcoming events and enter all the information into your calendaring system. You can mark the entries “tentative” if you’re not yet sure you’re going.

Sales circulars and coupons can’t save you money if they’re buried in a pile of paper. Recycle expired items and find a set place to keep the rest. Every week, recycle the newly expired items.

Sort remaining paperwork into piles by category, e.g. taxes, travel, hobbies, medical, home repair and vital records.

Once you have completed your paper decluttering project – and not until then – buy any organizers, file cabinets, etc. that you need, along with appropriate filing supplies, and start filing.

You can look at online lists of how to organize your files for ideas, but it really comes down to your personal preference. Think about how your mind works. If you use someone else’s system, you’re likely to end up frustrated and give up on your filing.

This doesn’t sound like a 10-minute project.

True. It’s NOT a 10-minute project. It’s 10 minutes A DAY, for however long it takes you to catch up. This may be a few days or a few months. Maybe even a year or two. And that’s okay.

If you spend 10 minutes a day, you WILL make progress. Maybe not as fast as you’d like, but you’ll get there, and one day, the paper chaos will be a distant memory. Which is almost certainly not true if you wait to start until you feel like tackling the paper chaos in one sitting.

Remember, start with reducing incoming paperwork. This will help you finish your paperwork decluttering much faster.

Do you have any tips to share for taming paper chaos?