My Desk Looks Great! All papers are on the kitchen counter. (and aren’t you proud?) If this is you, please know you are not alone and that paper clutters homes the most because it is harder to corral, classify, and organize.
Paper is sneaky, and you can’t see the chaos it makes by looking at a page here and a page there. But when it accumulates enough for you to notice, then it is too late.
Whether it is brochures, magazines, newspapers, instruction manuals, receipts, unopened mail, coupons, gift cards, or schoolwork, these things always hang around the house and clutter everyone’s lives.
When organizing clients’ homes, they are often surprised by an unpleasant by-product of the process: the unforeseen accumulation of paper and other items that seem not to have a definite place in the home.
We gather all paper, including magazines, brochures, children’s papers, and projects. These should be addressed later by the client. We can’t save our clients from doing this work.
Because looking at the paper collected, it is impossible to know what you need to keep; you’ll have to do the work you have been avoiding in the first place (except that now it is all accumulated and is a lot!)
Since this part of the process is a necessary evil and people fear paper so much, it is not even fair to leave you in the dark to do your homework So, here is a detailed guide to winning the paper clutter battle.
NOTE: Before we start: It is fair to say that you need to establish a cut-off date, after which you go forward with managing your incoming mail and papers using your new system (thus, staying on top of that).
1. Clean up your files
You will need space for the new stuff that requires filing. If you do not have a filing system, this is the time to create one. Your filing system should preferably be in your home office. The following best options would be a rolling cart under a desk by the kitchen or a filing cabinet that complements your décor in the living room.
But every household needs a filing system. Every piece of paper worth keeping should have a permanent home where you will know to look for it.
2. Gather every piece of paper
Gather every piece of paper throughout the house. Include magazines, coupons, receipts, notebooks, journals, books, and gift cards in this group.
This exercise might result in several bins of stuff as you’ve never seen before. It will be okay! We will take one box and one category at a time.
3. Divide and conquer
Start with one box and sort its contents into the categories you find in that bin or container. Then tackle the second bin of mixed contents and repeat the process.
As you move along, take your trash to the trash and clean the bins that you empty.
Pro Tip: Tackle each category separately. Do not start with a group while still working on another.
4. Sort bigger items
Start with the bigger stuff such as books and magazines. Decide what can be donated, sold, trashed, or recycled.
Then see where to allocate what you keep. For example, you might already have a logical space in your home for those items. In that case, merge the items you gathered with corresponding objects in their designated home space.
Note that if you run out of space to place all items together, you can purge items evaluating the entirety of your collection. If this does not give you the space you need, consider an alternative space for these items. The important thing is to keep the same type of items together.
5. On with the paper!
Set up the following boxes to collect four types of paper:
- Shred (only for sensitive information)
- File (all documents you decide to keep in paper format)
- Digitize (paper to be digitized and let go of print)
Keep paper to digitize in a separate box and set aside as a project for the near future.
Every piece of paper needs a decision, and every piece you keep needs a permanent home in a file.
6. Create These Files
- “Important Documents” File
Important and official documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, and the like, need their file, so you will always know where the most important things are.
- “Medical” File
You will want to make a “Medical” folder for each household member. Here is where you file medical records, EOB’s, insurance, etc. If you have too many, though, you may need to have Medical-Records, Medical-EOB’s, Medical-Insurance, and so on.
- “Taxes” File
Decide what you might need to keep for tax purposes for the current year and place all that material in a file called “Current year taxes.”
When filing past years’ taxes, get rid of anything other than the IRS’s need if they audit you.
Discard any envelopes, especially manila envelopes, and unfold papers to letter size.
If you need to keep papers or receipts together, paperclip or binder clip them on the right side. That way, when they are in their folders, you can easily see what’s what.
Consider digitizing everything. Digitized documents are acceptable to the IRS. But always check with an accounting professional regarding financial/tax decisions.
- “Owner’s Manuals & Warranties” File
It does not matter what these are; it needs a file to keep a user’s manual. Create a “Household Manuals” folder and place them all together. You can be more specific and divide the category (like tools, appliances, miscellaneous, etc.).
- “Hold & Throw” File (or tray)
The Hold & Throw is a parking spot for things you may want shortly, but that will be irrelevant in a few months.
This space could be a tray or a file within your system. Some examples in this category are receipts for clothes, neighborhood trash schedule, paid bills. These items are not worth filing long-term, and you can safely throw them away every couple of months. This practice negates piles of advertisements, receipts, brochures, and things people put on their refrigerators. If the paper will be irrelevant in a few months, it goes in the “Hold & Throw” folder.
- “To Do” File (or tray)
Among the papers you find, decide what is “to do.” Place that in your “to do” tray/file. Once done, let go of these papers. You might want to make a note on your schedule to ensure you tackle those “to-do” timely and consistently.
7. Sort other categories of paper
Get a coupon wallet to keep in your kitchen drawer. All store coupons and gift cards can live there until needed. They will be accessible whenever you go shopping. Review this wallet monthly to let go of expired offers and coupons.
- Loose pictures
Set pictures apart and place them with other images you might have. Photos deserve their category, and the procedures to handle picture organization are here.
- Business cards
Transfer business cards (including those refrigerator magnets with business information) to your computer or mobile phone with card scanning apps or software available for this purpose.
Discard receipts that you can find online by accessing your bank account or your transaction history with the vendor.
If you need receipts to return or exchange something, those receipts should probably go into your “To Do” file or your “Hold & Throw” file.
Going Forward with Mail
Mail comes into the home daily for most people. Without a system to handle mail effectively, we would be back in square one very soon.
Note that handling mail daily does not mean handling every piece of mail completely. Instead, it means opening each mail piece and directing it to where the action will occur. This should take one or two minutes of your day when you come home.
To this end, you should have your recycle bin and your “To Do”, and “To File” files or trays up and running in your mail processing area. Have a recycling bin next to the mail processing area so that all junk mail goes immediately to recycling. Then, sort the rest according to the action needed on each piece (near future action or file).
Recycle — Place all junk mail in your recycle bin immediately
To-Do — Things that will require some action (like paying a bill or RSVPing to an activity)
To File — Papers or documents that you’ll want to keep for reference and that belong to any of the file categories in your filing system
OHIO Rule (Only Handle It Once)
If you’d like to be one step ahead, apply the “OHIO Rule.” It means that you immediately deal with any paper coming into your home instead of setting it down, unopened, to deal with later.
In this case, you commit to processing each mail piece completely when you first handle it. Handling your mail this way reduces paper clutter and eliminates the need to deal with paper later.
Remember that if you follow the steps to handle mail every so often, you need to schedule in your calendar as a weekly or biweekly activity — time to finish processing the mail you pre-classified. The “one-touch rule” eliminates this second part of the process.
Tackling your paper might seem daunting. Nobody said you need to finish organizing all your accumulated paper in a day. Paper is the thing that takes the longest to manage! Take your time and work on a category at a time. The space and relief you will feel afterward are worth every moment you invest in the project.
You can tame the paper monster. But, as with everything in life, keeping it under control requires some commitment and effort.
If you have a hard time organizing and deciding about your paper (no, there’s nothing wrong with you!), contact us! We will be thrilled to nosedive into your paper mess. Truly!