We are continuing with part 2 of our Stop Paper Clutter series!
Do you have a place in your house that always seems to accumulate papers? Your piles might even be sorted into categories. But then each time a clear space is needed, the papers are stacked and the once sorted piles disappear into a massive mess.
Then the sorting cycle repeats again before any action is ever taken to work through the paper. Today we are working on ridding ourselves of the giant paper pile and shuffle before it even begins.
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Monthly Challenge: Stopping Paper Clutter
In Episode 27, we started our new monthly challenge focusing on getting rid of unwanted paper. We shared 3 small easy steps you can take to keep paper clutter out of your home, you can read more about those 3 steps here.
Once you get a little less junk mail arriving at your door, let’s turn our focus to the mail we actually have to take care of. Paper can be a problem area for many so here are a few things to keep in mind when work with paper:
Process mail immediately
As much as possible, try to process your mail “immediately.” Of course there are kids and pets that might need your attention first but don’t let mail sit for too long or the task can become a clutter magnet. Once you create a home for each of your action steps, processing your mail wouldn’t take much longer than a minute or two.
If it takes 2 minutes or less, do it now!
One of the greatest takeaways from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, is the 2-minute rule. He states if you can do something in less than 2 minutes then you should do it now and not put it off. The reasoning is 2 minutes is the “cutoff point where it starts to take longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it is in your hands.” (Read my review of the book in this post.)
Stay focused on one task until completion
Use the 2 minute rule to take care of quick tasks as you sort paper but stay focused on the main goal, processing the mail, or you’ll be sidetracked and the mail pile will still be there cluttering up your home.
Sort your mail by your trash/recycling bin
Be ruthless, question what you truly need to save and act on. If you receive a lot of junk mail, check out the 3 tips in Episode 27, Stopping Paper Clutter before it Starts.
Increase productivity by doing similar tasks at the same time (batch process)
One of the main benefits of sorting paper, deciding the next action step, and creating a trusted holding place is that you are able to batch process your next action steps. For example, you can file all paper you need to keep long-term at one time. I’ll go into more details about my action files a little bit.
Be decisive! Don’t put off decisions until later
When sorting paper, put your decisive hat on. The main cause of paper clutter is postponed decisions. When you go back and forth about what you’re going to do next, paper tends to pile up.
Each paper becomes a visual reminder to make a decision. Then it’s all too easy for that postponed decision to become buried under another postponed decision. Eventually you end up with a huge, overwhelming pile of paper and a load of undecided next steps.
Many of us avoid putting in that mental energy, especially after a long day. But to quote David Allen, “You have to think about your stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.” Forcing yourself to make those decision on the spot is a skill you can build and develop and not as hard as we think!
If you do need more time to think about a particular item, or if an item requires a next step, such as discussing it with someone else or checking your calendar, create a specific holding place for those items. Your holding place could be a pending file, a tickler file, or any place you can come back to at a later date without cluttering up your home.
Creating a TRUSTED paper system
Now that you have a quick tips to help you stay focused while sorting paper, it is time to create a place for all this paper to be stored.
Let’s make a trusted system that you will use! A system is no good if you don’t use it! No matter how elaborate or well intended a filing system is, if it’s not in a space where you will use it, it won’t help you stay on top of your paper.
I organize my everyday papers in my action files. It is the same general idea of a launch pad or a command center but when I read about Action Files in the book, Taming the Paper Tiger, I loved the descriptive title for paper you are going to take action on and I have adopted that term.
Action Files, also called Working Files, are simply files that are current and need action taken on them weekly or biweekly. They differ from reference files typically housed in filing cabinets, which contain more permanent records (bills already paid, pay-stubs, insurance info, other archives, etc).
Here is a video of how I use my action files daily while going through paper.
Action Files will reflect your own personal needs, but here is a snapshot of my categories and what I use them for. There are 7 Action Files, along with the trash and recycling bin of course, right where I sort any incoming papers.
reference papers to file the long-term filing box. These are items that do not need action but instead are papers I need to keep for archival purposes. I file these every other month or so.
Weekly grocery ads and recipes, I clean this out weekly when I do my meal planning. When I get the grocery ad, I store it in this file until I make my shopping list.
Any bill to be paid or really anything with a firm deadline goes in here since most bills are automated or I pay online however there are still a few that trickle in. After the bills are paid they immediately get moved to the “To File” folder to be stored in our reference files if necessary.
For any paper I need to reference in the short-term or that might need a follow-up. If you are familiar with the book Getting Things Done, it could also be called an Incubation file. This file is temporary storage. Examples are an event I am thinking about attending, a form that I need to gather more information to fill out or an issue waiting for someone’s response on. It is also used for any miscellaneous paperwork regarding my to-do list, like a prescription to drop off or a dry cleaning slip.
Having a permanent spot for these items makes it easy to delegate errands. If my husband is going to pick up the dry cleaning he knows right where to look and doesn’t have to wait until I get home to get the slip out of my purse. In order for this file not to become a vortex of unfinished tasks, I record pending file tasks in my planner. I schedule time to take care of lingering papers every Wednesday.
Big purchases or items I might return are kept in this file. All food receipts are trashes. Important receipts that I need to keep for the long term (health, auto, home repairs) are put in the “to file” hanging file.
I use to use this file more while going over the budget but now I do that mostly online. I do add a separate folder for Christmas receipts or business receipts to keep all those receipts handy for reference.
This is divided into store coupons and coupons books from the newspaper. I use a version of Whole Insert File System found on This Frugal Life. To find out even more, check out these detailed coupon basics at Frugal Fun and Fortune and becentsable.
This is technically a basket that I have by the couch but if there are any catalogs/magazines I want to spend longer than 2 minutes skimming over I throw it in my to read basket. But be honest with yourself, are you really going to read it? Or would you just like to read it but know that you will never really make time for it?
Since this file system is used daily it allows me to quickly sort papers and find them when needed, which is the main goal of any filing system.
- Open mail and unfold it flat so it is ready to file and store. Get rid of envelopes and those unwanted solicitations included with your bills. If you stuff mail back into the envelope, you are making more work for yourself since you will have to start the process all over again when you come back to the envelope.
- Keep in mind how much info is available on-line. If you have a ‘to read’ basket or file be selective about what makes the cut. Empty the basket often. Stagnant piles will soon become clutter.
Now, here is the fun part, getting the supplies that will help you process your paper! You most likely already have something that will work.
**Remember, you want to stay away from storage with lids or drawers. It needs to be as easy as possible to get paper in and out. Removing a lid doesn’t sound like it is a big deal but it can mean the difference between putting something away and placing a pile of paper on top of the lid.
Here are a few of my favorite go-to supplies:
I try to make things as simplified and uncomplicated as possible. I don’t like a lot of binders, plastic expand-a-file, or small letter dividers which start to look sloppy quick.
To get started taking action, schedule in time to go through today’s papers. Keep it simple and record a few action categories as you sort, types of paper you would typically handle on a day to day basis.
Ask yourself “What is the next action to take for this item?” Make a place for 4-5 categories in letter trays or file folders. Some example categories are-Read, Discuss, Data Entry, Current Project. In the podcast, I shared I sometime take an action item straight to my desk to work on. I have an inbox in my desk drawer for current, long-term projects I am working on.
Do you sort through your mail daily? or do you let a few days pile up? What tricks do you use to stay on-top of your paper piles? Try setting a timer the next time you sort through your mail. Challenge yourself to get through that pile in 3 minutes or less!
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If you are curious about how to conquer kid’s schoolwork, check out Episode 5 Kid’s Paper: Finding the Keepers amid the Clutter