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Saturday, May 19, 2012

A System to Get Your Paperwork- Finally!- Under Control

One thing that you should know about me- I will never, ever suggest anything for you to do in your organizing quest without explaining why I’m giving the advice that I am. First of all, you, the reading audience, deserve to know where I’m getting my information from. Second, I believe that a person can only truly learn & draw from lessons that are presented with real life examples. I can’t expect anyone to take my advice if they can’t even tell if I truly walk the talk. If someone doesn’t explain to me the reason behind performing a task, I’m likely to either forget it, or suspiciously wonder if they really know what they’re talking about. So I apologize to those of you who just want a “tip of the day” organizing blog to read- but I’m simply not that style of writer, nor that type of person. Hopefully though, I may be able to fill in gaps or omissions that quicker, less-thorough advice has been presented to you before. Bear with me- I promise, every word I write has a point to it.

When I started having “real mail” come to me in my late teens/early twenties, I knew nothing about filing systems or organization. What I did know is that I did NOT want to repeat my mother & grandmother’s habit of holding on to every paper they’d ever received in their life. I remember cleaning out one of my mother’s exploding dresser drawers full of papers back in the 1990’s, and finding receipts for items purchased in the 1970’s. Items that were no longer even owned by her, long thrown out or given away at that! My mother didn’t even know or remember that the receipts were there & thankfully for me, couldn’t care less that I chose to toss them. But the memory stayed with me. It took seven or eight hours without stopping per drawer to sort through the magnitude of her papers, because not only was her secretary-style desk full to bursting, but so were three out of four dresser drawers. Literally, my mother to this day only gets to use (or chooses to use) one drawer in her dresser for clothes- every other drawer stores unused mementos, small framed pictures she received but doesn’t care to display, hoards of photographs on the loose, and many years of daily mail that never got filed once the bill was paid or the statement got sorted through.

My mother doesn’t like living this way. She’ll gladly & logically throw out unneeded items if someone goes through them for her. But because she disregards a filing system & is lazy about daily, weekly, monthly & yearly sorting of mail, she loses immensely valuable real estate. She has trouble finding important documents, especially as she’s aged & her memory is not what it once was (nor is mine or anyone else’s that I know!) She gets easily frustrated, and couldn’t tell me even where her birth certificate is if it was needed. Fortunately…I know where it is.

I use my mom not as a cruel or catty example, but to explain that I really hate seeing her lose table space, the thorough cleaning which can‘t occur when surfaces are too cluttered to get to, cabinet space, many drawers, plus her sanity & clarity- and she loses it all to nothing more than a bunch of papers. I know that it raises her blood pressure & stress level every time that she cannot find something that she desperately needs, because she starts screaming & cussing whenever she can‘t find what she needs.

For this project, I thank Julie Morgenstern in advance for the awesome acronym of SPACE- Sort, Purge, Assess [what's leftover], Containerize & Equalize. I developed my own system through trial & error, but I will use her acronym to give you clarity on the process.

You must go through your backlog of papers first if you’ve got a hoard of them. This is the sorting stage. It is blended in this case with the purging stage in this case. What I recommend is working on de-cluttering & sorting papers one drawer, cabinet or file folder at a time, fifteen minutes at a stretch. After fifteen minutes, take a break of equal length & go do something else. I know it’ll be tempting to act as if you’re preparing for the test of your life, staying up all night sorting, but you'll probably just end up burning out. Your papers didn’t build up overnight, and they likely won’t be sorted, purged & stored well overnight, either. I’m not saying you can’t designate a day or two specifically to work on filing- but please take my advice & take breaks. Make sure that you’re drinking enough fluids, take time out to eat, get a little exercise- it’s really easy to start digging through papers & ignore basic needs for your health & sanity in that midst, if you‘ve set aside a day (or several) to do this. Often, amongst papers, you’ll also find photographs, paper clips, thumb tacks, and more. Right now, just continue sorting & purging. If you already have a place for such items, you can of course go ahead & put them in that spot. If not, we’ll set aside a place for them later. Keep like with like- photos in one pile, paper clips & binder clips in another, etc.

Here’s what you need- A trash can & plenty of bags for things that can be thrown out. If you have a mountain of papers, and many of them contain personal information, it may be worth it to also have a paper shredder. I don’t own one- I always tear up papers by hand into pieces as small as possible. But if you have more than a couple drawers worth of papers, a shredder may be a necessity to avoid excessive hand-aching, paper cuts & time spent tearing up items. You’ll need a file box or cabinet; this can be a simple, inexpensive snap-together model from an online store, an old-fashioned metal piece, a wicker file box, a rolling cart or a beautiful wooden addition to your computer desk. It should be something that you can easily open & see front-to-back, and the tracks that the files run on should be smooth & sturdy. If the file cabinet doesn’t open all the way or the tracks are off, please don’t use it. It’ll likely end up just frustrating the heck out of you. You need & deserve working office equipment & tools. Next, purchase a box of hanging file folders. They come in many different colors, and will be either legal size or letter size. Letter size works fine for most purposes, as of course an even larger document can typically be folded to fit into a letter size file. It’s up to you, though. A box of fifty or so is usually the most a typical home will need. After that, a box of manila folders is needed- I recommend buying a box of one hundred, for the average home. Again, these come in multiple colors now- choose something that is fun, BUT on which your written or printed labels will stand out on. If you are writing in black ink right on the folder, keep in mind that if the folder is a dark color, you won’t be able to see your own writing (not good!) A good, dark pen like a black fine-point Sharpie is an excellent labeling tool. Some people like using label makers, and if your handwriting is poor, you may want to go this route. It does look nice & professional to use such labels, but a label maker is an investment, and I personally don’t own one (or feel the need to).

Sort your papers BEFORE making labels up. I know it’s tempting to start w/ the labels, because you think you already know what you need to label. To an extent, this is true. BUT you really won’t know exactly what titles are best for your labels until you have sorted & purged your papers. As you sort, keep like documents with like- mortgage or rental lease papers together, bank statements & old check registers in another pile, anything related to your car in another, and so on. Try not to create TOO many different piles- general categories are fine for now. You can always get more specific when it’s time to label the file folders. Please go through all of the papers before you start labeling your filing system. What I recommend is keeping a pad of paper or Post-it notes nearby, and creating a list as you work of the file names appropriate for what you have. Some examples include- “[Your Name‘s] Health Insurance”, “Mortgage”, “[Your pet’s name] Vet Records”. If you have a photo album or photo box, put photos you come across in that, unless the photos aren’t worth keeping or got damaged too badly. Frame pictures if you want to- but remember, filing is your main job here, and you don’t want to get distracted with side projects until you’ve conquered the bigger monster in your life. For small little office supplies, store them, like-with-like, in your desk, a pencil cup and/or a utensil tray. I have some crystal pieces that were hanging around (most were inherited), really too small to use for food, and some were entertaining pieces. As a rule, though, I don’t entertain much. So I re-purposed these crystal pieces into paper clip holders, thumb tack storage, etc. It works great, and I was using what I already had, so no money was spent by me for that storage.

Finally, it’s time to label your files. This is the assessment stage. Start with the hanging file folders. This is where the list of file names that you made as you worked will come into play. When you hang them in the file cabinet, make sure that they are in alphabetical order. There will be little tabs all across the top of the folder’s back & front, in which you can put the labels to the far-right, center, far-left or in-between. I put all of my hanging file folder labels on the far right-hand side on the back of the folder. This makes them easy to read & sort through- when you move those labels around from space-to-space on the tabs, trying to keep them in a precise order from left-to-right, it’s a pain throughout the years when you must remove or add to the list of files. Once that hanging file work is done (again, work for fifteen minutes, then take a break for fifteen minutes to avoid burnout), it’s time to move on to labeling manila folders. These should be as generalized as possible while still containing enough papers to warrant being set aside as it’s own labeled file. Using “Health Insurance” as an example, here are some things you can use manila folders for to differentiate papers better- “Evidence of Coverage” (this is/these are very important to hang on to), “PAID Medical Bills”, “Medical Records”, “Medical Test Results”, “Durable Power of Attorney” & the like. The labels you choose should immediately tell you what’s likely to be in them, before you have to look at the content- if you title it, and cannot remember what’s in it by that title, it’s not a good name for the folder. If only one or two papers is needed per topic, try to find a more general manila folder name, and stick them together with a few more papers, instead. Don’t over-file, as it makes more work for you, now & later on.

Containerizing is something you’ve essentially covered, but you have to choose a place to keep your file box or cabinet. Be realistic about it‘s placement. You must be able to open it completely & easily when in use. It should be in a place with good lighting. If you know that you do all of your bill-paying, paperwork & so on at the dining table, keep your file box next to the chair you sit in to do this. If you work on them in your kitchen, put the box under your desk space in there. If you have a file folder in a computer desk, try to keep some space where you can still write out things long-hand on or near that desk. Keep a few extra, blank hanging file & manila folders handy. Place a trash can nearby, if there isn’t one already. If you have a shredder, this is also the area to put it in. I have a folder titled, “Folder Supplies”, which holds my extra hanging file folder clear label tabs & spare manila folders. Make updating simple & easy for times to come by having spare white labels, Wite-Out, a black Sharpie pen or your label-maker close by, as well. If you want to make the equalizing into a minimalist chore, you must have your tools nearby to keep filing a breeze. It is entirely up to you whether you want to also purchase an in-box for your paperwork area. I don't have one. The very few paper bills that I get sit right next to my computer, held in place by a book that I read from daily. I mark when they have to be mailed or paid online as soon as I get the bill. If it's something that's paid monthly, it's on my Google calendar as a recurring event, and an email reminder goes out to me on the same day each month from my calendar. Since most of my work is done online, a physical in-box would only be clutter to me. I'm not fond of in-boxes, I must admit. Too often they're used as a convenient catch-all place for stowing mail that really should've been sorted through & responded to already. The threat of it becoming a Hot Spot (one of those piles in your house that grows like wildfire if not put out daily) is high. If you're going to use a real in-box, please exercise discipline with it- commit to putting only things in it that you truly cannot deal with at the present. Go through it daily & take time to act on every item that you can. Toss unneeded envelopes (like the ones you tear open to see your bill) immediately. Sign up for online bill paying if at all possible, and go to receiving e-statements instead of paper ones, if available. Just as many people, if not more, will see your information if you mail your payments in to the company rather than paying online. A lot of hands touch your mail from the time it leaves your house until the time it gets to the payment center of the receiving company. Identity theft has made some people fear paying bills online, but the truth is that much of this theft actually occurs by those the victim knows personally. Many times it is one's own co-worker, relative or friend that opens accounts in the victim's Social Security number, typically because they have easy access to it via an unlocked file cabinet or desk drawer. I'm not saying that you shouldn't shred sensitive documents, pay for things online for companies that don't advise they're using protective measures for payors, or that you should use your credit card indiscreetly online. But please be assured that most companies you'll pay bills with have a tremendous amount of security set up to prevent identity theft or credit fraud. As long as you also have comprehensive anti-virus/worm/Trojan protection on your own computer (such as through McAfee or Norton), you will very likely be perfectly okay paying bills online. 

Equalizing is the part where you get to feel the joy of all of your hard work for the rest of your life! My rule is to clean out one manila folder or desk drawer a day. It sounds like a lot to do, but it really isn’t. Once you’re organized, this is all it takes to stay organized. When I de-clutter, I make sure everything is straightened up, made as pretty as possible. Sometimes I’ll realize that the entire file folder is no longer even relevant to my life, and it can be recycled for another time. I simply place a blank, sticky-back white label or use Wite-Out if I need to change the title of a manila folder. In six years of filing, I’ve only needed to buy two boxes of 100 manila folders, and I have many still left from the second box. Things that can be tossed after thirty days, like receipts for purchases that don’t have warranties & have been in working use already, will probably come up first for you to toss. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that, because you’ve already filed things, it means you don’t have any clutter to toss. I will frequently go through old file folders only to realize that I have a copy of a bill which was paid online, that I can get the statement & proof of payment off of the computer in a matter of minutes, and it’s an old enough bill that I have no other need for a paper copy. Sometimes, in printing off tax-related documents for example, “filler pages” of disclosures, mostly blank pages or things that may just have my name & address on them will be filed. Those, too, obviously can be shredded & tossed. You may think that there’s something you need to keep out of possibility, but find a few months or years later that there’s no need for it, and into the trash it goes. I promise you that if you don’t equalize daily or at least weekly, though, you'll be back in the same spot you were before, requiring hours of sorting & purging. I’d much rather spend three minutes a day, every day, just sorting my desk out to make it neat & tossing unimportant stuff than ever have to go through a day-long paper purge again.

You must go through your incoming mail at least every couple of days, responding to any correspondence immediately, paying bills when they arrive or as soon as the next billing cycle allows a payment (which can sometimes be an issue with credit cards), tossing junk & filing anything else. Any packages that you receive should be opened, the contents fully taken out of the box & put away, receipts filed if needed, and the boxes should be broken down and/or trashed immediately, as well (unless they'll be used for some other purpose shortly). Please take my advice & discipline yourself to DO IT NOW, as FlyLady has been telling me & her other followers for many years. I know the last thing that you want to do when you get home from nine hours at the office is write out a bill or type up a letter- but do you really want to leave it until the weekend, when you should be relaxing & having fun instead? Or put it all in a box, for that imaginary weekend that never comes, in which you have loads of time & energy to respond to it all? Have everything you need right at hand- address labels, contacts list, postage stamps, your favorite type of pen, etc., and I promise you that it won't be a big deal to send off a simple bill or thank-you note. Make your life easier by getting off of every do not call, mail, email, etc. list that you can, as well. Also stop any catalogs & magazines possible, remembering that some magazines have gone to offering online subscriptions as well as paper ones (Oxygen is one such magazine, for example). Take advantage of EVERY possible way to go electronic in storage & reading that you can. Here's a few links to start on the serious way to less mail:;jsessionid=C4967E501D55C2D3162248954004BEA2.tomcat2

Magazine sorters & storage come in many different options. I'm not a huge fan of using them because they tend to encourage some hoarding behavior. Paper catalogs are not your best friend if you're trying to eliminate excessive shopping from your life. Of all the things people get the most emotional or upset about letting go, paper items (National Geographic magazines, old bills, photos, etc.) are almost always at the top of the list. I like to read most of my literature online. If you choose to keep catalogs or magazines, please at least make a set date once a month to read & then purge them. You may discover that you do not have time to read everything that you'd like to, though. This is one of the realities of life that we all hate owning up to, that we just don't have time to read every article or paper put out these days. Consider carefully what literature you absolutely have to read for your work or lifestyle, and what can be dropped. Less paper equals less sorting, purging, containers taking up read estate, less filing...It is better for the environment. Many people eliminate the newspaper, catalogs and/or magazines only to find out that they never miss them. Believe me, there will always be new material to read & things to do which will fill your days. You cannot know everything. No one can learn every possible bit of information that is being produced today. What you need to know will find you, I promise. This time spent reading may be something that you enjoy immensely, and if so, that's great. But be acutely aware of literature you're subscribing to because you feel you "should" read it, not because you enjoy it. Let go of that which doesn't fulfill any needs in your life or that of your family without guilt.

Another suggestion: Blurry, out-of-focus or hated photographs are not worth holding onto. There seems to be some weird law in society that says we can never toss an actual photograph, but it's just not so. Beloved photos should be cherished, absolutely. But the bad ones? Scan them into your computer if you really feel you have to keep the image in some format (at least then it won't be taking up real estate space), then try to let the paper versions of disliked or unclear photos go for good. If they bring up bad memories, have people in them who've hurt you or just make you feel bad about yourself, I highly suggest getting rid of them in all formats- or give them to another party, if they actually want them. Fill your photo albums, if you have them, with images that bring you joy. Take new photos of the current great things in your life- a beloved pet, your garden, people you hang out with now & love. Put these new images in your world, and out with the old. You'll never look back once you do this. Be kind to yourself. Take down the images that drag you back into a past you'd really rather forget.

For more information on the SPACE system that Julie Morgenstern taught me, as well as a good organizing book to read, please check out her book titled “Organizing From the Inside Out”. It’s an “easy read” the first time through that is great to consistently use as a reference. It’s not the only book you’ll ever need on the subject, but it covers a fair amount of ground. FlyLady has a list of what papers need to be saved, and for how long, and there are several other websites & books that repeat that same info, so I won’t do that here.

If you have a scanner & know how to use it, I suggest that you scan your paper files which are a must-keep (a copy of your mortgage, your Social Security card, birth certificate, etc.) but not already on your computer, back them up on a hard disk, and store the disk in a fireproof, waterproof safe. This safe should not be in a place where others can find it & carry it off too easily, but enough that you could if you had to evacuate your home. A second-place storage space would be in a bank, stored in a safety-deposit box. (Some may consider this to be the best option- if you have family members who aren’t trustworthy & find out where your safe is, or live in an area with a fair amount of home robberies, this might very well be best.) Third-place is with an extremely-trusted friend or family member, but it is not my recommendation, other than perhaps giving a copy to your adult children, especially if they live out-of-state. Especially if they live out of state, family members can be good to store copies of documents with if you reside in an area prone to natural disasters, such as floods. That suggestion, of course, won’t apply to everyone. If you cannot scan, but can copy the important docs, then do that, instead, following the same safety guidelines regarding storage.


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