Municipality accounts, marketing material, expense slips (receipts), marketing letters, notes from a meeting, letters from school, party invitations…. Apparently, we’re living in a world that is more and more virtual, but with all this paper it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re in the electronic age!
Left unchecked, your paperwork can get out of control. How do you get it back?
We would like to start by saying that not all documents were created equal. There’ll be some that you can just downright throw away, others, need to be saved, but not necessarily in any specific order, still others, like expense slips for your business, need to be both specifically organised and filed.
Our approach to paperwork can be described in two words: TOUCH ONCE
This principle teaches us that when a paper lands in your hand, you have one of only three options:
- Trash it
- File it
- Action it
By aiming to handle each piece of paper only once, you avoid becoming a paper ‘shoveler’; tirelessly moving a paper from one heap to another and never dealing with the task.
When you’re trying to get your paperwork under control we find it’s best to tackle it this way:
- Get all the paper together
Gather them from everywhere – your handbag, your laptop bag, drawers, your jacket pockets, heaped on your desk, stacked on the little table by the front door or the nook in the kitchen (yes, we know about those spots…) – and place them in one big pile.
- Now sort them chronologically using the Touch Once Principle
When you pick a paper up, decide whether you can just discard it immediately (and we’ll talk about how to do that responsibly a bit later) or whether you need to action it or archive it. Make a separate pile for those papers that need to be actioned and after you’re done organising, sit down and schedule the actions in your planner. If it gets scheduled, it gets done. For the rest, depending on how far back the papers go, organise year – by -year, otherwise go directly to month-by-month.
Past – Relevant now or forever?
In each year you’ll have papers that are relevant to that year only, for e.g. expense slips, license renewals or tax returns. Other papers will be ongoingly relevant, for e.g. birth certificates, insurance policies or product guarantees. Put the ongoingly relevant papers in a separate heap to be handled together with all these types of documents you find from other years.
For the rest, if you have papers older than a year, the chances of you needing them are very slim and we suspect it won’t be worth your time organising them now. We suggest putting them all in one box/file and, should you ever do need to recover something from it, take the plunge and search through them then.
Present – there’s a fine line between being organised and productive. Keep it simple.
When it comes to sorting papers, it’s important to remember the fine line between being organised and being productive. Keep it simple by putting all the papers of the same type and/or same month together in one envelope or plastic filing sleeve. For e.g. all the slips for fuel purchases in May in one envelope and all the slips for fuel purchases in June in another envelope and now just putting the May envelope with the May telephone bill and the May electricity account into a plastic filing sleeve labeled MAY. Have one sleeve for each month and then 2 – 3 additional sleeves for paperwork not related to a month, for e.g. the car’s renewed license, your passport and your updated insurance policy. Keep these ‘open sleeves’ to 3 max, as you don’t want to make searching for a paper too broad and also, you want to keep yourself from just stuffing paper in there instead of putting it in the correct month’s sleeve. At the end of each year, you go through these ‘open sleeves,’ remove all irrelevant papers and carry them over to the next year.
Whether you save the monthly sleeves in a file, box or drawer depends on you. Just remember that your aim here is to be able to reach a certain piece of paper relatively quickly should it ever be needed. And the important word here is should. What are the chances of anyone requesting that piece of paper from you? If they ever do, then you’ll know where to reach it easy enough, but if they never do, then at least you didn’t spend 5 hours organising, colour coding, gluing and filing papers in a complex archiving system.
Future – Make it easy to stay on top
It can be hard keeping on top of the papers going forward. Again, the key is simplicity. The easier you make it for yourself, the better you’ll maintain your system. We suggest sticking 2 plastic filing sleeves to the inside of a relevant cupboard, like in the kitchen or by the door to your office. Near those places where the papers accumulate naturally anyway. Label one with the month and the other ‘ongoing.’ Now as the month progresses, keep the touch-once principle in mind. Should you find a paper that needs to be actioned, place it in your diary so it gets scheduled. Should you decide something just needs to be archived, place it into the correct sleeve depending on whether it’s relevant only to the month or whether it’s ongoingly relevant.
At the end of each month, or as close to that as possible, remove the month sleeve and store it in the file/box you’ve allocated for that year. Whether you want to go through the papers and organise it further before putting it away, depends on your needs.
If the papers you’ve discarded contain no sensitive information, you can recycle it by giving it to children to use for art projects. If it’s a very large pile, take it to your nearest recycling plant.
If it does contain personal information it’s better to shred before discarding or, if you won’t be in any violations, burning the document.