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The not-so-joyful task of paper management

Many of our parents and grandparents kept every official piece of paper they ever received. Bills. Bank statements. Insurance renewals. Academic records. Product manuals, etc. It is ok to keep everything, until it isn’t. Once paper becomes a hassle – once it flows out the drawers of the filing cabinet, and of the second filing cabinet, and starts to pile on every surface of the house - it is taking up too much of your space, time, and energy. Starting to wrangle all your papers can feel very overwhelming causing many of us to procrastinate as the piles continue to grow.

This might not sound very helpful, but, in all honesty, I cannot tell you how to manage your papers. I could organize them in a lovely system that would enable me to find anything easily, but if I labeled something ‘Auto’ and you are looking for a file labeled ‘Subaru’, then it won’t help! Instead of a one-process fits all approach, I encourage clients to start with a few considerations.

Do you need it? I do not think there are that many things that we truly need. And I don’t think the consequences for tossing something that should have been kept are that severe. You might have to make a phone call and request a new copy of something; you might need to go online and request a new password to access information; or it might be more of a hassle to return something purchased, but none of these tasks are insurmountable. Personally, I think the number one thing to consider when you are deciding whether to keep something is will you sleep well at night if you don’t have it. Are you comfortable not having it? If not having something makes you nervous, then keep it. (Of course, there are some things that you just need to keep – car titles, birth certificates, legal papers, etc.)

Do you need it here? It is fine to keep something just because. Maybe it makes you smile, represents an accomplishment, or contains phone numbers that are not easily to find online. If you are a person who wants to keep a lot of papers but does not like having them all around you, it is time to consider storage options. Sentimental papers and photos and are a joy to have, but they do not need to be in the kitchen. Use the most accessible spaces for the items that you access regularly. The kids’ sports schedule, the Gutherie tickets for next week, the gym schedule for the month, etc. – this is the information that you need to be able to get to easily. Items that you want to have on hand but might never look at should go in less used spaces. As long as we know where those files are, they can certainly stay in the basement or another out-of-the-way space.

Is it easy to get to your files? If you have a crowded filing cabinet that requires two hands to squeeze a new file into, chances are you won’t. Instead, you might put the papers on top of the cabinet and go on with your day. When considering where your files are kept it is helpful to eliminate any barriers to putting something away. I love file drawers with extra space so I can open a drawer, easily find the correct file, drop the papers in, and go. Putting papers in the right place should be almost as easy as dropping it on the kitchen table. This does mean that you will occasionally need to take time to clear out your files every now and then.

Once you find your files, can you find the right one? I have created color coded filing systems for some of my clients. Each member of the family may have a different color, health information is in red, financial in green, etc. Knowing that a bank form will be in the green section helps the filer know where to look. I personally prefer all my files to be identical, but some people need a colorful system so things stand out. Similarly, I prefer my files to be in alphabetical order, but not everybody thinks that way. You might find things more quickly if they are arranged in order of importance or chronologically. The right format will match the way you think.

There are so many things that can be done to make a filing system that works for you! Before googling ‘the best filing system’ and prior to buying anything, I recommend you spend time considering what you really need and want to keep; what should be accessible; and how your brain naturally organizes information. That will set a foundation to build a system that works for you!


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