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10 Steps to Organizing Your Paperwork

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As a Professional Organizer, I’m often contacted by folks who feel that their paperwork is out of control.  Bills, statements, receipts, tax stuff, kids school papers, coupons, reminders of upcoming events, magazines & newspapers… the list goes on and on and it can be awfully hard to keep track of everything!  Nearly everyone is busy doing other things, and handling paperwork usually doesn’t make the top of the priority list.  But I’ve found that simply having a system in place to deal with it is half the battle.  Here is a short list of what I consider the very BASIC STEPS to keeping your paperwork organized and your home relatively free from paper clutter:

1. Gather everything in one place - Create a spot in your home where all the incoming mail and other papers are accumulated.  Don’t let it pile up all over the house!

2. Reduce paper coming in - Try to keep unnecessary paper from coming into your home in the first place by removing yourself from mailing lists, opting for online statements,  and not printing out documents received via email.

3. Recycle junk mail, newspapers, and magazines - You know those catalogs, offers and postcards that seem to keep coming no matter what you do?  If you know you’re not going to look at them, toss them immediately! Same goes for unread newspapers and magazines. The other thing I see a lot of people keep is the envelopes their bills come in, as well as the inserts.  Who needs those?

4. Buy a good shredder and use it - With identity theft on the rise, it’s more crucial than ever to own a good shredder.  If you have one, you can shred things as they come in rather than accumulating a big pile to deal with someday!

5. Establish an Inbox and a “To Be Filed” box or basket –  These are two separate things. The “Inbox” is where you put incoming paper as soon as it comes in, before you’ve had a chance to even look at it.  The “To Be Filed” box is where you’d put any papers you know you want to keep, and that don’t require immediate action.  You may also want to have a “To Read” box or basket.

6. Create a system to manage your action items - I generally recommend that clients have a desktop file, or someplace close at hand to keep papers that need to be acted upon in the near future.  A task or “to do” list can go hand-in-hand with this to help remind you about what’s lurking in those action folders and avoid “out of sight, out of mind.”

7. Create a system to store reference paper - Any paper that has not been recycled or shredded, and doesn’t require any action, would be considered reference paper.  This is generally something you want to keep “just in case” you need it later.  It’s also important to purge these files occasionally, and create a retention system or schedule.

8. Invest in “reinforced tab” file folders and printed labels - It’s really hard to file when the tabs on your folders are all bent and you can’t read your handwriting on the labels.  Just finding the right folder will be a chore.  Invest in some new folders and printable labels to make the job easier!

9. Make time to file  - Let’s face it… filing is just not that much fun!  But now that you’ve created your filing systems, it’s time to use them.  One thing I’ve found is that it really doesn’t take as long as you think– once or twice a week, set a timer for 30 minutes and just DO IT!

10. Use financial software - I recommend Quicken to just about everyone, because it’s always been an essential part of my paper management system.  You see, if every financial transaction is accounted for in the software, then it becomes less important to save an actual piece of paper related to that transaction.  You’ve already got a record of it.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be going more in depth about many of these basic steps.  I’ll recommend some specific products and give you a little more detail as to how you can put these ideas into practice.

In the meantime, please share YOUR biggest challenges when it comes to managing your paper by submitting a comment.  I’d love to hear from you!