Ever feel like you’re constantly surrounded by piles and piles (and piles!!) of paperwork and random papers?
In fact, sometimes it feels like we’re downright drowning in the paper around here!
Paperwork ends up taking over the dining room table, mail clutters up the front hall, baskets of magazines and catalogs sit, unread, in living room corners, and we end up with even more paper lying around after reprinting what we were looking for in the first place, simply because it’s too much of a hassle to sift through the piles of paper lying around.
On school mornings, we end up forgetting what we need or want, becoming delayed getting out the door or rushing out in a panic–which makes the kids and everyone else stressed.
To be honest, swooping entire piles of un-filed bills and schoolwork, plus a stack of loose photos from five years ago, into a box or hiding it in a drawer typically feels easier than actually dealing with it.
I’ve even requested paperless billing and unsubscribed from catalogs to cut back on the flow of paper coming into the house—and I’m still amazed at the sheer volume of paperwork, clutter, and mess that piles up.
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So how do we find a lifeline when we’re floating in a sea of paper?
What can we do to handle the Thursday folder that comes home from school, the daily mail, magazines, and unwanted advertisements, and all the paperwork we already have on hand?
It’s time to apply some hard and fast rules to tackle ALL of the paperwork and get rid of the piles for good!
1. Divide and Conquer: Deal with It, File It, Archive-It
The first step to prioritizing your paper clutter and tackling mass amounts of paperwork is to divide it up into manageable categories. The three categories that seem to work best for me are:
- Deal with It
- File It for Reference
- Archive/Scrapbook It.
(When schools in session, this works really well for dealing with all the permission slips, homework, PTA flyers, all kinds of info about the school year and afterschool activities that the kids bring home; somehow it’s all paper.)
Gather up all paper lying around the house—clear off your desk, and clean out your drawers and cupboards. Pull all the papers out of your kid’s Thursday folder, check your mailbox right now, and don’t forget to grab everything from that place everything seems to land when your family comes in the door. Take all of that paperwork and put it in a box, a bag, or a laundry basket.
Sit down and do a quick sort. Don’t categorize papers by Home vs. Work vs. School, or worry about the filing category. Simply look at each piece, and if there’s action required, put in the “Deal with It” pile. If no action is needed, but you think you might need it for future reference (medical bills, insurance or investment information and tax info) put into the “File It” pile. If it’s something you’re holding on to for sentimental reasons, like cards, photos, notes, tickets, recipes or articles, put it into the Archive/Scrapbook It pile.
2. Apply “If, Then” Rules
To keep future paperwork from piling up, it’s important to set and embrace a few “paperwork policies” that you can apply as it arrives. I like to call these “If, Then” rules. For example, IF a catalog comes in the mail, THEN I will immediately look at it, or unsubscribe and throw it away. IF my child brings home a note from school, THEN I will immediately sign it and pay any associated fees. IF I get a card from a friend, THEN I snap a picture of the card and return address and immediately throw out the envelope; I display the card for a week, then recycle it.
Establishing these go-to paperwork rules can help you narrow down your tasks while providing a simple, straightforward answer whenever you’re faced with a “what should I do with this” question. If you know you always pay medical bills when they arrive, you won’t be cleaning them out of a drawer in a few weeks and kicking yourself because you forgot to write a check.
3. Invest in a Scanner
These days, most home office printers include a scanner, which may even function wirelessly. Another option is to use your smartphone to quickly capture photos of paperwork you’d like to retain for reference. Items like receipts can be snapped and saved, so you don’t have to hold on to the paper trail.
If you have a scanner or a smartphone, you can save schoolwork from your kids, notes, cards and other items you want to hold on to, but might not need to keep a physical copy of. Storing files digitally gives you the ability to print them out later IF you have to use them. Otherwise, they literally take up zero physical storage space.
Many of us experience a little FOMO when it comes to unsubscribing. Whether it’s digital subscriptions to newsletters and emails, or paper subscriptions to magazines, catalogs, and mailing lists, we often feel like we’re going to miss out on some sort of great sale or important information if we discontinue our subscription. Let go of the fear!
I’ve found when I unsubscribe from the mail, I can still find what I need online, especially if I have a hankering to look up details about an upcoming sale. Unsubscribing from catalogs helps me avoid getting lured into “great deals” and purchasing items I don’t really need. I automatically unsubscribe from junk mail lists and opt for electronic notifications and statements whenever possible.
5. Deal with It: Touch it Once
When it comes to your Deal with It pile, make it a policy that you’ll only touch any one piece of paperwork once whenever possible. Vowing to “touch it once” rather than put off dealing with it until a future date allows you to take it off your calendar entirely. When you’ve sorted it into the pile, the next time you interact with it, you’ll do whatever needs to be done. That means pay it, respond, write back, sign it, or make the call.
If you’ve taken a step to resolve it and you’re waiting on a response (which rarely happens), move it to the bottom of the pile and deal with the next thing. Only allow yourself to move something to the bottom of the pile when you’ve exhausted the possibility of dealing with it right now. That means you’re waiting for a return call or you need it for an appointment you scheduled and a physical, hard copy is requested (a scan or snapped picture won’t do).
6. File It Newest to the Front and Discard
The items you need to file should be relatively few. Now that most things are available digitally, there aren’t many instances when you need to hold on to statements, bills, and other pieces of paper. In cases of medical records and tax documents, you might find you need to hold on to physical copies for a while. In this case, a sturdy, waterproof file box is a good solution.
When you file items, be ruthless. Really consider if you can shred it and access it electronically later. If the answer is yes, then shred away. If you deem it deserves a spot in your home office, pick a small file box so you won’t be tempted to hang on to more than you need. When you file, place the newest item in the front and discard the oldest item from the back (if it’s aged out). Make it a policy to file as you go. Handle the “File It” pile one time, and walk it to your file box when it’s ready.
7. Keep 7 Years of Financial Records, 3 Years of Anything Else
Tax auditors will ask for records from the past seven years. Most other situations also require only the last seven years of documents. Aside from birth certificates, titles, marriage licenses, and a few other legal documents, most items don’t need to be held beyond the seven-year threshold.
For most other documents, once they’ve been paid or resolved, you can safely shred them. Budget-savvy people know that needlessly holding on to paperwork can make you feel disorganized and less able to access what you really need. If there’s something you’re very nervous about, consult with a tax professional or an attorney before discarding it.
8. Learn to Let Go of the Sentimental
With your “Deal with It” and “File It” piles now finished, you’re left with other items we’ll call “sentimental.” These can be some of the hardest to let go of—ticket stubs, vacation mementos, news clippings, and cards. Photos can also show up here, as well as articles you’ve clipped, recipes and other things you want to hold on to.
Ask yourself: Why am I holding on to these items? For some items, like photos and letters from loved ones, it might be obvious—it’s something important, a memory you want to remember. Or, you may simply be holding on to something because you plan to try a recipe or read an article.
When it comes to true mementos, like photos, ticket stubs, vacation items, and correspondence, make it a policy to organize it regularly. If you scrapbook, set aside time every few months to put items in your scrapbook. If you keep items in a memory box or another spot, try to examine if the items hold real value for you. A ticket to the first concert you went to with your husband might bring you back when you see it. Can you create something with it? For example, put it into a shadow box with a photo from the concert? Or can you add it to a scrapbook?
Other items, like a ticket from a movie you remember seeing but not liking all that much, an expired coupon for a favorite restaurant, or brochures from a vacation—let them go. Holding on to these items won’t take you back to an enjoyable moment. If anything, they detract from the other items of real value to you.
For reference materials like recipes, decorating tips and articles, read them or try them and then let them go. Almost all recipes can be found online these days. If it’s something truly unique or special, give it a shot. If you love it, add it to your recipe file. If you don’t? Toss it out. If you’re holding on to it until next season, chances are high you’ll forget you even have it.
Set an “If, Then” rule when it comes to your sentimental keepsakes. If two years pass and you’ve done nothing with it, then let it go. For photos, hang on to hard copies of older photos, where digital archives aren’t available. If you have a digital copy, keep it backed up and organized so it’s safe to let go of duplicates and hard copies.
The flow of paper into our homes can become truly overwhelming if we aren’t diligent about stopping the flow and prioritizing our paperwork. Start your school year out right by reducing the flow of paperwork, implementing systems and rules to deal with it, and getting it all under control today!
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