How to Organize Papers

You’re not alone if you struggle with paper management. The challenge with papers is not knowing how to organize them and not knowing what to toss and what to keep. The fear of tossing something that you might need “one day” causes most people to postpone making a decision on the paper’s fate.

This repetitive behavior of “playing it safe” can amount to piles of papers on your counters; kitchen and dining room table; and other surfaces. Then, when you need to find a specific paper it becomes a stressful event as you look through piles and piles robbing yourself of valuable time with the possibility of never finding it.

When papers are organized in a functional, yet simple system, you should be able to find a paper in 30-seconds or less. If you are ready to reduce your clutter and paper stress, follow our simple steps below to set up an easy-to-use file system. If the process seems overwhelming we can help. We provide in-home filing system setup services and off-site services in our office (we can pickup your papers, you can drop them off, or ship them to us).

Items Needed:
1 to 2 Boxes of Hanging File Folders with 5 Tabs
1 Box of 2” Bottom Hanging File Folders with 5 Tabs
Interior File Folders with 1/3 Cut (please note the specific name is “Interior”)
Sorting Categories (you’ll create)
Inserts for the Clear Tabs (in the hanging file folder box or create your own)
Desktop File (small portable bin for hanging file folders)
Large Envelope to Fit 8.5 x 11 Papers (for archiving)
Optional: Avery File Folder Labels (for printer)

Step 1:
Choose a time where you don’t have anything major going on in your life or in your home for 2 weeks. Then make sure you have plenty of flat surfaces available where a child or pet won’t interfere with during those 2 weeks.

You will have two types of papers in your house, “reference” papers and “work” papers. Reference papers will be those you’re holding onto in case you need to refer back to something, such as a bank statement or insurance policy. Your “work” papers will be ones that need an action such as “To Do,” “To Read,” etc.

For each type of paper, reference and work, write the individual categories you will need or have on a piece of paper the size of an index card. Keep the “reference” categories separate from the “work” categories. Put each set in alphabetical order. Then spread all the categories out, keeping each set separate but in alphabetical order. Space them on a flat surface so an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper can fit just below the category title.

Step 2:
Designate a spot for recycling, shredding, and archiving. Begin sorting all your papers according to the categories. Create new categories if needed. If you can decide in 3 second or less that a paper can recycled, shredded, or archived, place the paper in that location. If not, keep the paper within that category for later reviewing.

Step 3:
After all your papers have been sorted, look through each pile of papers in the categories. Remove items that can be tossed, shredded or archived (those items pertaining to different tax year).

Click here for: general rules for record retention. Each household is different. We recommend you consult your accountant and or financial advisor.

Step 4:
Look at each remaining category. If there are under 5 papers remaining in the category and the category won’t grow to more than 5 papers, considering revising the category to a more broad category so another category can be combined with it. Keep in mind that if it is less than 5 papers, the file folder will take up more space than the papers inside of it.

In each category determine if the category should have subcategories. For example if the main category is “Insurance,” you may want subcategories such as Auto, Home, and Life. When creating subcategories use the interior file folders listed above to hold the papers. Interior file folder tabs are cut shorter so they do not stick out above hanging file folders, blocking the title on the hanging file folder inserts. With the tabes being shorter on the interior file folders, you will have a neater look.

Step 5:
Finalize your categories and subcategories. Create titles that are general and easy to locate by someone other than you. Don’t think about what works for you, instead think about what would work for someone else. You should want anyone to be able to easily find a paper in 30 seconds or less. If it works that easily for someone else, think how easily it will work for you!

Follow these rules for naming:

  1. Begin with a noun not an adjective or adverb, for example Tax versus Income Tax.
  2. Use general words like Auto and not too specific like Van.
  3. Use words that don’t need to be updated such as Banking instead of the name of the bank, such as ABC Bank.
  4. Use words that will easily come to anyone’s mind, not just yours such as Pets instead of Fido.

Once you have finalized the titles for your categories, create the tab inserts for the hanging file folders. Then create the labels for the interior file folders.

Side note: Blank tab inserts come in the box with the hanging file folders. When we work with a client we create typed tab inserts using the computer. We also print out the titles for the labels used on the interior file folders.

Step 6:
Place your “reference” papers in the hanging file folders according to title while also placing your papers the interior file folders where you have created subcategories. Keep each in alphabetical order.

Place your “work” file folders in a desktop file box. A desktop file box is a box made for hanging file folders that is small and mobile allowing you to move it easily from a shelf to a desk or table making it convenient to work on papers. An attractive box that blends with your decor is ideal!

Step 7:
Once a year, ideally after your taxes have been filed, look through each file folder and remove papers that can be recycled, shredded or archived. Place all archived items in a large envelope. Record the year on the outside of the envelope. Store the envelope in a bankers box labeled “Archives.”

If you still feel challenged by getting your papers organized, we can help! Our professional organizers have over 20 years of experience in paper management. We offer both in-home and off-site file system setup. Whichever location you choose, we follow the same steps as listed above but we set aside your papers that we feel need to be tossed, shredded, or archived so you can make the final decision. If you choose the off-site file system set-up, your papers will be organized in our office and then returned to you in file folders organized in banker boxes allowing you to easily transfer the files to your own file drawers.

Interested in our services? Please contact us.

Happy organizing!

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