Organizing and Managing Papers
May 11, 2018
Drowning in paper? Here’s how to manage and organize your piles.
Paper is the number one clutter element in a lot of homes. The average household receives a barrage of paper on a daily basis in the form of bills, ads, newspapers and magazines. The possibility of drowning in paper is real unless it is dealt with in a vigilant and consistent manner.
I’m personally a visual person, an artist, and things buried in deep files tend to get forgotten. I like my important items close at hand. If I had more wall space, a single-layer, frontal file system consisting of wall collages would work for me. Unfortunately, my work and personal life are too complicated for that to happen, plus I have a small home. Keeping things close at hand make flat spaces, such as desks, problem zones. Everything I want close at hand can quickly become a jumbled pile.
Here are some things that I’ve found to be useful for managing my papers as I combat my idiosyncratic, “visual” organizing tendencies.
Go Digital Where You Can
As much as I despise it for taking up space, I have an unhealthy emotional attachment to paper. It feels tangible, real. It’s proof of something. Proof when the bank screws up. Proof of a purchase. Something I can hold, touch, copy, or send to someone. It’s real, whereas, anything digital might disappear the next time my computer blows up (this has happened several times in my life and, unfortunately backup drives too). Paper, by comparison, will be there, unless, of course, there is a fire or other catastrophe. Digital catastrophes are common, right? More on this later.
Despite my aversion to digital archiving, I made a decision about paper clutter, and finally made the leap and started paying most of my bills online. After a lot of resistance and discomfort, I found that it forced me to be more organized. I now regularly download my statements and organize them into digital files, assign payment dates and names, and schedule regular backups. In the past, they might make it to a paper folder, a burning bin, or get lost in one of the to-file piles in my house.
Paying bills online reduces a third of paper clutter in your home provided you also request digital-only statements. Yes, there is the fear of online breaches and hacking. Many of us have already been the victim of such things. However, that is one of those conditions of the modern world that, really, is hard to avoid. Our data is online whether we save paper copies and write checks or not. The world is moving to digital and there is hardly anything we can do to stop it.
The second thing I did to manage paper was to invest in a paper shredder and routinely shred all junk mail on a daily basis. It’s important to keep up on it whether it’s by shredding on a daily or a weekly schedule. This includes fliers, ads, solicitations for donations and any other undesirable mail. Do you regularly get solicitations? Ask them to remove you from their mailing list. This means less junk in your mailbox.
One of my other problems is magazines and other literature. Some, I never get around to reading. My solution: Don’t read it? Stop subscribing. If you haven’t read it after three months, donate it to the library. If you are certain you want to read it, or if it’s something to refer back to (such as woodworking how-tos or DIY magazines), invest in inexpensive magazine holders. You can still keep them accessible, but they will be organized (by date, title, or some scheme of your choosing) and more attractive than piles of magazines scattered about. Alternately, for the more visual person, you can purchase open magazine wall racks (similar to the ones they have in doctors’ offices). These give you easy, frontal visual access and when they get overstuffed, you can make that donation/toss decision. If they have value and you don’t want them, you can dump them on eBay or Facebook Marketplace (see our post about cashing in on your clutter). If you don’t care about value, most local libraries have donation days, and, of course there is always Goodwill.
Alternately, if you live in the country, use them for a bonfire and you can get rid of a lot of clutter in a single s’more feast or weenie roast. I try to do it once a year.
Receipts stir the same kind of “attachment” issues for me as bank documents. They offer a kind of “proof” should something go wrong with your device, service, or other purchase. However, how long do you really need to keep them? What do you really need them for? If they’re for deductions, some tax software programs offer an app so you can store images (taken with your phone) right in the database. Once scanned, you can properly destroy the paper receipt. Remember to properly back up your files and, of course, you will have to decide whether or not to use a cloud storage service. My personal preference, given my lack of trust in the security of the digital universe, is to make my own backups on my own USB drives. You can even automate it with backup software.
I mentioned earlier about the problems with storage/hard drive failures. I’ve personally had no problems whatsoever with USB drives failing and you can now get lots of storage for a little money. The biggest problem for me is losing them, due to their diminutive size. Solution? A dedicated USB drawer and labels. Easy-peasy. Just remember to keep it there, or keep it plugged into your computer for your frequent, scheduled backups. “Frequent” is the key here. And if you are really compulsive like me, you can back up twice to two different sticks.
For school work or general home office needs, one might want a small floor-style filing cabinet, but for people like me who just want quick access, a desktop file organizer is more convenient. It was a compromise to single-layer collage-style “wallcovering” filing, but it’s a lot more attractive.
A filing system helps keep things accessible. Everyone is different when it comes to organizing. How big are your needs? What kind of language do you use to remember things? Are you an acronym person, or a proper name person, first name or last name? If you’re really visual, color coding files might make more sense than alphabetizing them. Maybe for your needs, a few general categories will be sufficient—i.e. banking, appointments, receipts, tax-related. If you want single-level, quick access, alphabetizing might be the best filing system for you.
I repurposed this inexpensive 31-day bill filing system to manage my most-needed papers using my own labeling system. It’s attractive, made of eco-friendly bamboo, and includes a storage drawer underneath for stamps, pens, Post-Its, and other office supplies. The 17-inch length is substantial and requires a clear, flat place to use. It works great on a desk, shelf, or wherever you need it.
This vertical wood organizer suits smaller filing needs, whether it’s a mail-in, mail-out system, or you want to use it for printing paper. It has a small profile at 12.75 W x 9.5 H x 9.25 D inches, so you can stash it anywhere.
Stacking paper organizers can be customized to suit your needs, or added to later on, should your requirements change. File storage boxes come in a range of sizes and styles, including clear plastic and more decorative, fabric-covered models to match your décor. It’s okay, after all, to integrate decorating into your organizing projects.
For the super-busy visual person with lots to organize, this large file organizer keeps everything you need right in front of you. Just add appropriate labels for a fool-proof system.
For the minimalists, however, traditional filing cabinets will be a better option, as they come in multiple sizes and provide a clean appearance in your home office.
Car Paper Clutter
Cars are one of the places paper can accumulate, whether it’s store and ATM receipts, parking permits, or other items. Visor organizers are a way to keep parking cards, park permits and other essentials close at hand. Just flip the visor down for easy access. They come in a variety of styles to fit your needs.
Cars come with gloveboxes for a reason. Feel free to use them. If you have trouble closing the compartment cover, there’s a problem. Open the latch and investigate! Receipts can easily be stored in an inexpensive, accordion-type file and emptied in the appropriate indoor location (or shredded) on a regular basis. I pick Saturday. Whatever day you choose, make it regular, as maintenance is the key to staying organized.
You can start the paper sorting process right in your car by keeping a trash receptacle handy. There are a variety of over-the-seat styles to suit your needs. Some even have drink, Kleenex, media and other pockets to store miscellaneous travel items.
Photos and Memorabilia
Display a few and organize the rest into boxes or albums. Photos are one of those things that can really consume your walls and accumulate around your house. It IS fun to have a display of people, places and things you love. Why not have a big corkboard and rotate? There are also strip and string-type temporary displays that are also great for notes, receipts, or things that require your immediate attention. Find tons of bulletin boards and other organizers for displaying and managing memos, notes, and miscellany here:
Incidentally, photos are another paper item you might consider putting in albums or digitizing for computer or web use. Digitized photos take up less space and are more easily shared using digital means like social media. Also check out our blog post on photo archiving.
If you have questions about organizing your papers, feel free to contact us on Facebook or write Harriet Schecter (Ask Our Organizer) for free professional advice about your organizing projects. Harriet is one of the pioneers of professional organizing and has authored several books on the topic. Plus she’s really nice! She is also a product expert and has written about every kind of organizing product you can imagine.