A couple weeks ago, we identified three steps to get paper piles under control, this week we will create a simple paper sorting system! If you missed that post, please go back and spend about 30 min’s preparing for these next steps. To recap, we start by identifying what overwhelms us about paper piles and how or why things are so out of control. This is a mental step but feel free to journal about it if that helps! Next, we list the categories of files and papers we need to keep. Finally we create a working space or staging area where we can spread out with our supplies gathered.
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. This step can be easy to overlook and seem like it’s unimportant, but it can make all the difference in creating lasting change.
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Now, we are ready to gather all our papers to our working area. If you have a lot of papers in an existing office, it might make sense to start in that area. Gather everything to a table or desk where you can go through your stacks (or files or bags) and begin paper sorting into categories. In a prior post, I go through several kinds of 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!
*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 great ID Blocker stamps so you can mark out your info and recycle.
With all your supplies and your staging area set up, let’s begin paper sorting!
- Gathering papers is like a treasure hunt, you probably have papers hanging around over the place. Don’t forget to look in the kitchen, bedroom (nightstand drawers or surfaces), dining room, office or den and your car!
- 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! We will review later. Don’t forget an “Action or To-Do” category and a “Delegate or refer to someone else” category. Common filing mistakes I see are overly complicated or very vague systems. See this post to review your categories.
- Pick up your first stack and begin to sort into recycle, shred or one of your categories. If you have a lot of categories it can help to set up hanging folders in an empty box or file drawer. I prefer to start with a blank slate and work through old systems and stacks, sorting into the newly created system.
Continue the paper sorting process for a set amount of time, taking breaks every 30-60 min’s. If you’re unsure about items, set them into an “undecided” area to look back through later. Though I can’t advise on what specific papers you will need to keep, a helpful retention guide is available on the IRS website. For anything related to taxes and finances, you may also want to check with your accountant.
Going digital might be a consideration for information you can access online. If you’re not comfortable but want to try it out, pick one category like “Utilities” and begin to convert each account to paperless and see how that goes! If you like it, consider other categories such as banking, investments and insurance.
Once your through the paper piles, that’s it! The only thing left to do is label your final categories and make sure your files are in the drawers, binders or the file box you want to keep them in. There are some downright gorgeous file cabinets in a variety of styles, check out my previous round up here. Now that you have an awesome system in place, maintain it daily or weekly so you don’t end up with a backload of piles ever again!