Is your desktop often covered in piles of paper? After the holiday hiatus, many people return to work with new enthusiasm, but possibly also to a desktop covered in papers and projects that have been lingering. In another post, we identified three steps to get paper piles under control, but today, my focus is on helping you create a simple paper sorting system to get your desktop clutter under control! If you missed that post, please go back and spend about 30 min’s preparing for these next steps.
Here is how we will create a simple and successful paper sorting system.
First, we will identify what overwhelms us about paper piles (the how or why things are feeling out of control). In accounting for our mental state, it might be helpful to journal about what comes up for you! Next, we list the categories of files and papers we need to keep. Finally, we create a working space or staging area to spread our supplies and create a new system.
Many people suggest the first step to paper sorting is to gather all your papers in one place. I don’t start with this because I believe before we dive into paper sorting, we need to identify how we got here and where we want to be! I’ve written about setting intentions in several past posts. and I believe this is one of the most important steps to creating lasting changes. This step can be easy to overlook and seem unimportant, but it can make all the difference.
Setting our intention is a valuable part of creating successful and lasting change.
After we identify what is holding us back and intend to change things, we are ready to gather all our papers in our work area. This might be just your desktop to start with (baby steps are BIG steps).
Before you begin, consider how you want to organize your newly sorted papers. In a prior post, I go through several filing systems, including the Tickler, binders, and color coding. Before you commit to one filing system, take a look at some alternatives. This paper sorting process will work for any type of filing system! It also helps to think about how you store your digital files, mirroring systems can save you time when retrieving (or trying to remember) things.
*A quick note about shredding and sensitive papers. If you have a lot of papers to process at once, hold off on shredding and put papers to be shredded into a LABELED bag or box. If a piece of paper only has your name and address, you might want one of these excellent ID Blocker stamps to mark out your info and recycle it.
With all your supplies and your staging area set up, let’s begin sorting!
- Gathering papers is like a treasure hunt. Don’t forget to look in the kitchen, bedroom (nightstand drawers or surfaces), dining room, office or den, and car!
- Before sorting stacks (files or bags) into categories, list the categories you know you need. Your categories might be different than mine. The most important thing is to create a system that is easy to remember. Common filing mistakes I see are overly complicated or very vague systems. See this post to review your categories.
- With your list of categories nearby, put each of your categories on a sticky note. If you come across a category you don’t have, just add another sticky note! If you come across papers and are unsure if they need a separate category, set them into an “undecided” area to review later. Don’t forget an “Action or To-Do” category and a “Delegate or refer to someone else” category if those will be helpful.
- Pick up your first stack and sort it into recycle, shred, or one of your categories. If you have a lot of categories, set up hanging folders in an empty box or file drawer. I prefer to start with a blank slate and sort everything into a new filing system.
Sort for a set amount of time, and use time-blocking and an alarm. Remember to take breaks every 30-60 mins. Though I can’t advise on what specific papers you need to keep, a helpful retention guide is available on the IRS website. For anything related to taxes and finances, check with your accountant.
Consider going digital for information you can access online. If you’re not comfortable but want to try it out, pick one category like “Utilities” and convert each account to paperless and see how that goes! If you like it, convert additional categories, such as banking, investments, and insurance.
Once you’re through sorting paper piles, don’t forget to label your categories. You can get fancy with printed labels, use erasable labels, or just a sharpie. If your new files don’t fit into your existing drawers, you may want to set up additional file boxes for items you don’t need regularly (such as tax or other archive papers). There are some downright gorgeous file cabinets in various styles; check out my previous round-up here. Now that you have a fantastic system in place, maintain it daily or weekly so you don’t end up with a backload of piles again!