by Susan McCarthy
Everyday practice: Sort through papers daily or weekly to avoid overwhelming piles of paper that will command hours of time and attention.
Paper clutter may be one of the most difficult and time-consuming categories of stuff to sort through because paper works its way into your home and then spreads throughout every room. While sorting paper, you want to ask yourself what type of papers have accumulated and consider how that happened (No filing system? No scheduled time to process paperwork each week?).
In most cases, by identifying where the excess paper is coming from, you are taking the first step toward reducing your paper clutter. Do you need to hold onto something for reference or can you go digital? How much paper are you willing to hold onto?
1. Determine When You’ll Sort Papers
If you have piles of papers that you haven’t organized for ages, well, it’s not going to be fun going through everything, However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Use some of the tips below to reduce the amount of paper coming into your house now as opposed to when you’ve gone through old paperwork.
Establish a weekly routine of sorting, filing, recording, and whatever other verbs cover the management of paperwork in your home.
2. OHIO? No!
OHIO stands for Only Handle It Once, a paper management technique that has left some people thinking they couldn’t sort fliers and catalogs from their mail because then they’d be touching envelopes containing bills or invitations that they wouldn’t be ready to handle at that moment.
You don’t have to be this stringent; it isn’t realistic. However, you can be efficient with your paperwork – immediately recycle what isn’t necessary and put the rest in a basket that you’ll deal with at a scheduled time. Deal with the paper and then file it (if necessary). If you find yourself physically holding the same piece of paper over and again, ask, ‘what’s preventing me from finishing with the task related to this piece of paper?’
3. Put a Recycle Bin by the Door
Don’t bring your mail into your home and then put all of it in a basket or on your desk or kitchen counter. Do a quick sort where you toss all obvious junk mail into a recycle bin kept right near your door. This step will take a fraction of a minute and save you from facing down an intimidating stack of mail at the end of the week.
4. Create a Command Center
If you deal with the paperwork associated with multiple members of your family, you may want a central location for incoming paperwork. You could have a main calendar where everybody’s classes, events, meetings, and appointments get recorded.
Have a basket or tray for each person – the stack of birthday party invitations you need to sort through with your son can go in his basket until you have the time to respond to invites. These trays aren’t places to permanently store papers, but to leave them for a week or two until you have the time to act on them.
5. Go Paperless with Bills and Bank Statements
When you receive a paper statement from your bank or utility company, they probably have information printed on both the envelope and the statement directing you to sign up for online mailings. It isn’t difficult to do, and you usually get access to at least a year of past bills or statements without having to call and request this data.
You can pay your bills online and save yourself from mailing out checks.
Here’s the trick – for paperless bills and bank statements to actually eliminate the amount of paper in your home, you can’t print out these statements or bills. If you need the information, look for it online. Unless you need to give someone a copy of a bill or bank statement, keep the data online.
What about old printed bills and bank statements? Unless you need them to back up deductions on your taxes, you probably don’t need them. Check with your accountant or at the least someone at your bank to find out if you need to hold onto this information for any reason.
6. Shred Personal Information
Anything with personal information should get shredded. If you own a paper shredder, use it regularly instead of waiting until you have a tall stack of papers.
Because my parents kept everything (I found their checking statements with returned checks from when they got married in 1964!), I found their social security numbers printed on all sorts of paperwork – including the mailing labels for IRS tax forms. So keep your eye on this is you end up clearing your parents’ or grandparents’ papers.
If you have too much stuff for a home shredder, see if your local office supply company has arrangements with a mobile shredding unit. After burning out two home paper shredders, I discovered that I could bring the two large bins of paper I had to OfficeMax where the papers were put in a locked box awaiting the weekly arrival of a truck that would shred the papers. I paid for this service by the pound and it was less expensive than purchasing another shredder and then taking the time to shred the papers myself.
7. Recycle Magazines and Newspapers
Determine how long you will hold onto past issues. Personally, I figure that a magazine or newspaper should be read and disposed of by the time the next issue comes out. That means put the newspapers in the recycle bin each evening and read those magazines when they come in.
If you find that you have three months of unread back issues from a magazine subscription, consider if it’s time to cancel that subscription; something you can do online using the information on the mailing labels.
8. Purge or Save?
Keep menus from local restaurants in one file folder. If you don’t order from a restaurant, don’t keep the menu. Also, if you can just as easily look up the information online, consider that you don’t even need to keep these paper menus.
Instruction manuals are another item you may not need. If you still have the item and using it is tricky enough to warrant holding onto the directions, keep them in a file or scan and save onto the computer. Before you scan, see if you can find the information online; then, you won’t need the manual at all.
What about warranties? Save them with the item’s receipt until the time passes when you can neither return the item to the store or the limited warranty expires, often days or months after purchase.
9. Transfer Events onto Your Calendar
It really isn’t necessary to hold onto that flier telling you about your child’s concert or the invitation to your niece’s bas mitzvah. If you’ll attend, immediately record the information onto your calendar and then toss the paper.
10. Keep Coupons Accessible
If you use the coupons, keep them organized in a binder or in an accordion-style wallet file organizer. Coupons expire shortly after you clip them, so be prepared to go through them frequently so they get used.
11. Store Paperwork in the Proper Place
Don’t store cards, tickets, and photos that you are holding onto for sentimental reasons in with your everyday paperwork. Keep memorabilia in its own box. Put paperwork like past taxes into “deep storage,” which could really just be its own box that you store in the attic or a closet.
Some situations, like a current legal issue or a big project you are working on, may warrant their own file box or tray until the situation is wrapped up.
My Experience with Too Much Paper
Back in June of 2011, my father was diagnosed with dementia and was moved to assisted living. I was faced with trying to get his social security and pension checks deposited automatically into his checking account (a process he hadn’t trusted), trying to sort out which bank accounts and policies were active, and which were no longer valid, find the title to his car and motorcycle, and so on.
Out of the countless boxes and bags and file drawers of paperwork that were crammed throughout the house, I was able to sort it all down to a single file box of necessary paperwork.
Since I quickly learned that I needed certain documents in hand so doctors, bank personnel, and other people would just talk to me, I sorted the most necessary paperwork into an accordion file folder that I carried everywhere in a tote bag.
When my dad died two-and-a-half years after his diagnosis, closing his estate was fairly simple since by then I’d wrangled his paperwork into order.
The process taught me some essential things about paperwork.
Although sorting old paperwork isn’t easy, keep in mind that most of it can be disposed of after the most cursory of glances. And, you’ll probably be able to get rid of 80% of what you’ve been holding onto.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, loves learning and sharing information about organizing, productivity, and habits. She also likes reading young adult novels, crocheting, and spending time with her cat and husband in their riverside home in Massachusetts.