Thursday, March 7, 2013

Taming the Paper Piles

Sorting through the mountain of paper that builds in our lives can be intimidating.  When there is no filter on what goes into the pile, it easily gets out of hand. Important papers get mixed in with junk, and the pile grows. When you know there is one important paper in a pile, even if you can't quite tell what's in the rest of the pile, the entire pile is labeled "important" in your mind. That makes sense, until all the piles are important and you can't see the surface of your desk. How do you tell if you should keep a piece of paper? This is where many of us get stuck. Let's work on applying a filter so that the piles stay in control.

Whether you are working your way through your office or starting on the mail pile on the counter, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I need to keep it? Other than tax documentation, the answer to this question is often, "No." Once receipts have been checked against your account, there is no need to keep them. In today's digital age, there is very little paper you need to keep. This question alone will place a good portion of the pile in either trash, recycling or shredding.
  • Do I need to take action on it? Bills to be paid fall into this category. Do you need to sign it? Return it? Give it to someone else? Put it in an "action" pile.  If not, shred it if it contains personal information. Recycle everything else.
  • Do I need it for taxes? If it's paperwork you'll need for taxes, file it with other tax papers and make tax preparation time a breeze.

Do I want to keep it?  This is tricky. You put the paper in the pile in the first place because you thought you wanted to keep it, right? What's interesting is that what you thought you wanted to keep a month ago, or a year or more ago, sometimes doesn't make sense today. There are some follow up questions that go with this.
  • Is it still relevant? Instructions for items you no longer own, sign up sheets for last year's summer camp, and expired coupons are perfect examples. Straight to recycling.
  • Can I find this easily elsewhere? Keeping papers for reference does makes sense in some cases. If it's the only copy you have of something or it's not easily found elsewhere, keep it, either in your files or in your Command Center. If you can easily look up directions, recipes, or instructions online, you don't need to keep the printout. Straight to recycling.
  • Is it a memento?  Papers that you're keeping for sentimental reasons are perfectly fine, but not in your files. They are better kept with your mementos, and you have a place for mementos, right? Straight to storage.
If you answer these questions and you still want to keep the paper, that's fine. It's time to file. If you're not much of a filer, your file categories should be as general as possible. Get related papers into a file folder. The "relation" can be whatever makes sense to you. Maybe it's everything having to do with your health, or school, or each of your children. It doesn't have to be terribly specific at first. It gets the pile off the desk and into the drawer. From an access point of view, yes, you may need to spend a little more time searching, but you'll be starting from the right spot and you only need to go through one folder. If you find that you are accessing the same types of papers often, pull them out and give them their own category. If the folder is getting out of control, then work on subcategories. It's a gradual process of developing files. I recommend you don't jump right into specific subcategories if you've never had a filing system. Trust me on this one. You will end up with many, many folders that each have one or two pieces of paper in them.

Finally, if you're going through a major file clean-out, consider a shredding service. For a fee (roughly $10/box), companies will come and pick up your shredding and provide you with a certificate of destruction. If you have a shredder, and you've been holding on to shredding because the task is too overwhelming, this service could be perfect for you. Be already have a pile somewhere of things waiting to be shredded "when you have time", don't you? When you consider how long it takes to shred multiple boxes of paper, the value of this service is obvious. Not only do you save time, the boxes are immediately removed and your space is clear. No more paper piles? Priceless.

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