We are forever trying to get in front of all the paper we bring in to our lives. NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) estimates the average American will bring in 49,000+ lbs of paper in their lifetime. One hundred sheets of paper weigh about one pound. So that sounds about right. Paper is endless similar in nature like social media and we rely on it in so many ways. Magazines, bills, newspaper, receipts, taxes, contracts, notes, to do lists, etc. How do we decide what to keep and what to get rid of?
If you are in the government, medical field, legal or accounting field, you are required to keep a certain amount of paper by law. How do we make sense of it? Where do we store the darn stuff? When can we get rid of it for good? Is there such a thing as "True Paperless"? Some folks fear to get rid of some paper is similar to removing the label from a mattress for fear it may come back to haunt us.
Do not fear! We are going more paperless and some day we will be virtually paperless. Even the IRS is accepting some forms of digital receipts. But don't get excited, they are the deciders of that final call.
So if your clean desk is over run with paper, the floor has taken on the wall to wall paper carpet effect, how do you get control?
Do you feel overwhelmed? Should you just toss it all and try to start with a clean slate? I never recommend the slash and burn method. You never know what treasure you will find in any pile of clutter, weather it is paper or clothing, the organizing method is similar. Remember those folks who lived during the depression used to stack money in magazines and books, so do not underestimate the benefit of going through each pile of paper.
Here are some tips to get started and get through it.
1. Remember, it probably did not get there in one day. Do not expect it to go away or file itself in one day.
2. Have a vision. I say this with all of my projects. Its a puzzle. See if you can outsmart the puzzle. Can you fit it all in one location, file cabinet or file box?
3. Know where the paper came from?What happened that turned the clean office, or space into a cluttered space. Perhaps there was a medical emergency or accident that caused you be distracted from the organized filing system into a heap of papers that has overtaken the desk or even dining room table. Medical bills are one of the biggest causes of paper clutter.
4. If you do not know where to start, try today. So put the papers in order by date or year. This year in one stack, last year in another and so on. Start organizing this current year. After you are done, organize last year and so on.
5. Label, label, label. Post it notes are great way to just differentiate piles of paper. After you separate piles by year, try to separate piles by category. Keep breaking down the piles until you are satisfied. Use manila files, post it notes, and rubber bands for bigger piles.
6. Toss envelopes and propaganda that accompanies most bills if you know its not needed. You will be surprised how much trash you can get rid of. Trash should always be considered when organizing anything.
7. Know what you can keep and what you can toss or shred. If in doubt, keep. Remember shred and trash are two different things. Never mix the two. If you are shredding. I always recommend fold the paper in half and toss it in a shred box. Then shred the box of folded papers. If you are working on a busy desk. Folding papers in half and placing them in a pile makes it easier to identify them at the end of the day to put in the shred bin or basket. Do not randomly shred a pile while having a conversation with someone. You might not be paying attention enough to identify an important piece of paper. Be sure as you are working, that you do not accidentally shred something, because there is only so much glue can do if you make a mistake.
8. Now that its organized, have a plan to keep up with the next wave of paper on a regular basis. Its like a diet, you have to maintain it or it will come right back. Simple accounting boxes and hanging files work great to keep items in order. Boxes and files bins are also handier than large file cabinets if you need to evacuate or transport the files. If you keep them in file cabinets, have a smaller bin or box to transport most important irreplaceable files in an emergency.
9. Also if you are dealing with VA, Medical, Insurance, or IRS papers, that you seek those professionals or websites to guide you as to what you can shred and what you must keep.
10. Professional organizers are always helpful and recommended when dealing with the above agency paperwork. Professional organizers are there to help organize, and make sense out of the endless paperwork those agencies generate. It is easy to get overwhelmed by receipts, forms, updates, and legal contracts. Do not hesitate to reach out for assistance. As a former US government employee, I understand the amount of paperwork that can be generated by life's moments like birth, death, accidents, and acquisitions. You are not alone and there is life beyond the pile of paper. And just think, some day future generations will say, "What's a paper-cut"?