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Organizing Incoming Paperwork

I’ve been asked often about organizing paperwork. Although our world is becoming more and more technology oriented, there is still a lot of paper that comes into our house, and it is easy to become overwhelmed. This is the first in a three-part blog series about the basics of organizing those papers, and how to stay on top of them so they don’t get the best of you.

Most of us receive a lot of everyday paperwork: credit card, bank and retirement statements, important ‘to do’ items, bills to pay, magazines, solicitations, invitations, school papers – and the list goes on. Organizing this paperwork can sometimes seem like an overwhelming task. The questions you likely ask yourself are: Where do I even start? What’s the best way to organize and file everything? How will I get through all of this mess?

If you are behind in filing your paperwork, the best thing to do is start where you are. Don’t worry about the prior paperwork right now – create a system to begin organizing the current paperwork as it comes in. Once you have the system set up and are comfortable with it, you can start working on your backlog.

One of the first steps in getting a handle on organizing the physical paperwork that comes into your house is to create an ‘activity area’ – a corner of a desk, a shelf near the kitchen, or anywhere that the paperwork is initially looked at – to make one of three initial decisions: Recycle, file or act. In that area should be: 1) a recycle or shred bin; 2) a bin or folder for documents that need to be filed; and 3) a folder for items that need an action taken.

The first question is, do I need to even keep the document? To make that decision, think about the importance of the document. Ask yourself the questions, “What is the worst thing that can happen if I throw it away? Can I get another copy? Will I need to refer back to it in the future? Can I write the information down somewhere else?” Below is a simple matrix for the initial decision step.

Do I Need to Keep the Paperwork?

So, we really only have three options: recycle, file, or take action. Once you’ve made that initial decision, make sure you move the paperwork into its next stage.


What is the Next Stage?

For the electronic paperwork that you receive, follow the same decision making process and flow. Create a ‘To Be Filed’ folder and ‘Action Items’ folder on your computer desktop to transfer the electronic files into, and to take the appropriate action when the time comes.

Once you’ve created a system for what comes in on a regular basis and make filing decisions consistently, it will be easier to tackle the backlog of paperwork you might have, using the same steps.