Paper clutter poses a challenge for the most organized among us, with seemingly limitless amounts of junk mail arriving daily. Short of going paperless (a great option, if you can pull it off), managing and filing paper can reduce the clutter currently occupying your desk, dining room table or kitchen counter. (And by the way, keeping your papers in shoeboxes isn’t the best answer either.) Though there isn’t a “right way,” the following are nine tips from the experts on how to manage the paper stream in your life.
1. Sort by verb, file by noun: Believe it or not, grammar can help differentiate between papers you need to deal with now versus those you can store away, according to Renee Kutner, a self-described “chaos advisor” and founder of Atlanta-based Peace by Piece Organizing. Generally speaking, documents that require action should be sorted by verb. (Such as: pay a bill, RSVP to a party, call someone back, mail the form.) Use a noun to file away papers by category. (Such as: recipes, insurance, kids’ report cards, tax information.) There is no right way to label the system, Kutner says. “The question is, what are you going to look for when you want to retrieve it?” she says.
2. Enlist help in getting off mailing lists. Sure, you can place dozens of calls to get yourself off those mailing lists … or you can hire help through websites like www.41pounds.org and www.stopthejunkmail.com. The average adult receives 41 pounds of junk mail each year, according to www.41pounds.org. “We’ll contact dozens of companies on your behalf to stop your junk mail and protect the environment,” the site boasts.
3. Open your mail over the recycling bin: Opening your mail over the trash can and recycling bin stops junk mail before it can clutter up your desk. “It saves so much time,” says Dahlia Bellows, a licensed master social worker and founder of New York City’s Your Amazing Space. Head straight to the garbage when the mail comes, Bellows says. When you’re finished, you’ll have fewer items to go through.
4. Pay your bills online. In this day in age, most bills can be paid online. And, many utility companies and credit cards have paperless options to stop the paper bills from coming via the post office altogether. “You can set up an e-mail account solely for your bills,” says Bellows. “That way it won’t share your private e-mail address.”
5. Scan paperwork and toss the originals. Use electronic filing and then “make the trash your best friend,” advises Peggy Umansky, founder of St. Louis-based It’s About Time. Pretty much any information you receive is accessible online. And if you scan documents and business cards, you can tote electronic files with you next time you’re working at a coffee shop or airport. Just make sure you back up your system, black out personal account information off documents you recycle, and don’t ever throw away original copies of your lease, or financial or legal papers.
6. Spend 10 minutes a day organizing your papers. Whether you toss, follow up or file something away, a few minutes each night helps you stay on top of growing mounds of paper. “Do everything in bite-sized morsels,” says Bellows. Have a time limit, she adds. If you’re not a naturally organized person, it takes practice. “It has to become part of your day,” she says.
7. Create “daily” and “long-term” filing systems. No matter how you store your papers — in a binder, drawer or in trays — separating documents you need to access easily and those you want to store for reference is a way to keep the paper flow under control, says Bellows. Keeping a small file on your desk is one way to organize the papers you need daily. “The more cluttered you are, the less productive you’re going to be during the day,” she says. Umansky recommends a “tickler” file that is used for anything with a due date. The file can be an accordion folder with dates that you check daily, weekly or bi-weekly. “It should tickle your mind, to remind you that you have to do something and there’s the paper to do it,” she says.
8. Purge your old papers. Face it: Most information is Internet-accessible anyway, so ask yourself this, advises Kutner, “Is it worth this much space in my home for the slight chance I’m going to want to see a phone bill from five years ago?” But don’t throw everything out. Keep the last seven years’ worth of tax statements. Each year, rotate the files by tossing out the old and filing away the new.
9. Integrate a filing system with your home décor. If your dining room table has become your favorite workspace, who says a sideboard cabinet can’t act as a discreet file cabinet? “No one else needs to know what’s behind those doors,” says Kutner. “If you have a file right there, you’d probably clean off your dining room table.” This does not mean you should place a large, metal file cabinet in the heart of your formal living space. Rather, find a way to add decorative bins to your kitchen (if that’s where you work). “Don’t get hung up on what’s supposed to happen” in the room, Kutner says. “Build your life around it.”
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