Even if you usually run a pretty tight ship, paperwork probably makes you groan. Sorting through it seems so daunting, so time consuming, so incredibly boring. So you put it off, the stacks grow, and before you know it, you’ve got a serious paperwork problem.
Here’s how to take back control of your paperwork without tearing out your hair.
Crucial: Take it a step at a time and I promise it won’t be overwhelming. Try to do it all in an afternoon and I guarantee you will be overwhelmed.
Slow and steady wins the race, so take it step by step and holler if you decide you want in person help.
1. Gather all the loose paper
Collect your papers in one spot. If you have 76 boxes of paper in the attic, a dozen more in the basement, and stacks more in the garage, ignore those boxes for now and let’s deal with the random piles of paper floating around your living space first.
Where are they hiding? Some of it’s in plain view on counters and desks but some of it tries to fade into the background. Look on top of the microwave, behind the couch, under the couch, in your bedroom closet. Find all the sneaky places your paperwork has spread to and scoop it up and bring it all to a place where there’s some room to sort. If the dining room table’s full, try clearing off a bed in a spare room. You want a flat surface where you and your papers can spread out a little.
2. Grab some boxes
Head for Walmart, Target or whatever the big box discount store is near you, and pick up a pack of 10 bankers boxes. It’ll run you around $20.
You’ll be tempted to just use some of the odd boxes you have piled up in the basement or the garage and that works great if they’re all the same size, if they each have a lid, and they’re all in good shape. Otherwise, stackable bankers boxes are the way to go.
Pick up a thick marker pen while you’re there too, if you don’t already have one.
3. Assemble the bankers boxes and label them
If you’ve done this before, it’ll take you less than 30 seconds per box but if you’ve never put together a bankers box before, you may want to check out this clip. I don’t know who this person is, but he does a great job of unraveling the mysteries of bankers box assembly.
Once you’ve put a few of these boxes together, grab your marker pen and label your boxes.
Box 1: medical or health or whatever word works best for that area of life for you
Box 2: financial or money or your choice of words that mean that area of life for you
Box 3: sentiment or memorabilia – for all those pieces of paper we keep because they make us smile
Write your chosen label of all four sides of the box to save future irritation.
Put the boxes in the room with the paper.
4. Set up your work space
Nearly there! Gather a large recycling can and a large garbage can, empty them both and then set them in the room with the piles of paper, the flat surface to work on and the assembled, labeled bankers boxes.
5. Start sorting: Here’s how
Set your timer for 20 minutes and let’s do this.
Take a handful of papers and look at the first one. What is it?
Without spending ten minutes reading it through and worrying about it, give it a category. Is it something to do with your health? Stick it in the health box.
A bank statement or some other piece of paper about money – maybe a credit card offer or a receipt? Put it in the box about money.
Get a big picture assessment about what the topic of each piece of paper is.
If you start trying to act on each piece of paper as in comes up in this first sort, you’re going to get overwhelmed. Making the decisions and taking the actions comes later, for now you want to sort your papers in broad categories.
I gave you a few to start with – health, money, sentiment – but you’re going to have specific categories of your own.
Maybe you just bought a house, so house paperwork is a good box for you.
Maybe you’re running a business, so a separate box for business receipts, letters, and notices will be useful.
If you’re working on a particular project, set up a box for that project’s papers.
Tax refund to collect all paperwork to get that refund from five years ago.
College applications for all the catalogs and forms your senior has amassed.
Photo albums, if you’ve got a bunch of old photos you want to organize.
Keep sorting each piece of paper into its broad category. When the timer rings, take a break and either stretch for a few minutes and then come back or call it done for today.
If you find something that seems like obvious trash/recycling, that’s what those empty trash and recycling cans are for. Grocery flyers older than a week or school notices from a couple years ago are good candidates. If you’re not immediately sure whether something can go, add it to the right box and deal with it later.
Aim for the broadest categories you can think of. Right now, you could put all the papers in a box labeled paperwork, this is narrowing it down just a little.
A box should be fairly full, not just have a couple of papers floating around in it. If that happens, see if you can fold the papers into a broader category. If you start off with a box for each family member for medical, for example, and quickly see that you only have a few papers in each, put them all into the medical box.
Don’t overthink this. You’re doing great!
Keep sorting papers, twenty minutes at a time, until you have all the papers distributed into bankers boxes. Could take a while or it could take twenty minutes, depending on how much paperwork you’re sorting.
This could be the end of the process for you if you’d like – your papers are no longer jumbled into piles, you’ve organized them by category. Now if you want to find a bill, you know to look in the money box. If you feel like keeping all this year’s Christmas cards, you can toss them in the sentiment box. Congratulations on making life easier for yourself!
6. Drill down
If you’d like to dive deeper, pick a category to work with. Your choice.
Financial? Great, let’s take the financial box (or boxes, depending on how much you found) and see what’s in there. We’re trying to make smaller categories, so look for common threads.
You might have some bank statements, some credit card statements, some credit card offers, some old checks, some investment records, some tax papers. Those are the usual suspects but you’ll probably have a few extra categories of your own too.
Take the papers out of the money box and sort into those categories. Put all the bank statements together, all the receipts together, all the prospectuses together. If money was the broad category, what’s the next level in?
Don’t get stuck in the weeds trying to separate out every thing by individual category. if you have a stack of paid bills, that’s one category – if you separate it out by service, you’ve suddenly got at least five and they’re all basically the same thing. We can sort further later, but to avoid overwhelm – always the goal – keep those categories fairly inclusive.
Put these smaller categories into the file folders you got yesterday. Label the tab with that fine-line marker pen so it’s easy to see at a glance what in there.
Don’t forget to use your timer and work in twenty minute increments. Take as long as you need to sort your big box broad categories into more specific – but not ultra specific – categories.
Please take it steady, and go at a pace that works for you without becoming a burden.
7. Getting to the heart of it
We’ve made it easier to see what we have by creating broad categories and then breaking those down a little into smaller categories. We could just go ahead and put everything in chronological order within each file and call it good, but that’s not going to serve you well or for long. Organized chaos is still chaos.
Consider why we keep any piece of paper and it comes down to two main reasons.
1. To prove something
You paid a bill, the house is current with the mortgage, you got that degree, your mother loved you – look at the letters she wrote you.
2. To remind you to do something
You need to pay a bill, you want to dispute a transaction, you need to call someone. You’re thinking about whether you want to apply for a loan or a credit card. The decisions are hard to make so we put them off but keep the paper to remind us.
So as you sort through these smaller categories, think about why you’re keeping a piece of paper and if it’s because you need to take an action, pull it out and set it into a box you label take action. You can make a separate medical – take action, financial – take action, etc if you have tons of decisions to make. It all depends on how much of your saved paper is proof or prompting.
If it’s proof, how badly do you need that proof?
Paid bills from the Seventies to show the new owner of your house one day are irrelevant these days. No need to keep the proof of how much heating it cost back then.
Proof that you paid your taxes last year? Invaluable. Keep it and never let it go, no matter what your financial advisor tells you.
Proof you studied – will you still have the knowledge and wisdom you accumulated through your studies if you let the old notes on how to learn German go? If you refer to them often, they get their own folder, learning German, but if they’re there to remind you you once learned German, are they earning their keep in your filing system?
How about paid bills? Grab that folder and before you start sorting any further, ask yourself why you’re keeping these paper copies? Is it habit, from days gone by? When I first started working in the business office of a newspaper a million years ago, my boss taught me that whenever a subscription invoice was paid, we wrote the date, the check number and the amount on our copy of the invoice. That habit stuck with me and I continued to do that with every paid bill that came into my house long after I was actually paying bills online. I’d pay them online but keep the paper copy. And if trouble came in the form of a payment question, I’d go to the online bank statement to sort things out. Meanwhile, my paid bills folder continued to bulge. Are you keeping something you don’t use or need, just out of habit? Consider not keeping the paper bills any longer than it takes you to use them as a reminder to pay the bill.
Bank statements are another over-kept category. Before you automatically hold onto a bank statement, check whether you still even have that bank account. Do the statements detail anything more thought-provoking than a surprising number of stops at Target and King Soopers? In other words, why are you keeping them?
Even if your goal is to check every statement with the bank account – awesome idea to do this in real time! – are you going to go back and reconcile years past? If you didn’t tackle that project during our covid downtime, it’s just not going to happen and for good reason – you don’t really want to and there hasn’t been a need for it. If you’re holding onto receipts or statements to verify an improvement for your house, they belong with your house paperwork.
Find the bumpf
So, the general idea is to go through each folder with an eye to whether there’s any reason to keep what’s in there. Look out for what we call bumf [noun INFORMAL•BRITISH useless or tedious printed information or documents. “most of his mail was just bumf, bills, and Christmas cards” Oxford Languages ]. You know it when you see it, it’s all those little ad flyers and pages telling you how to get help in seventeen different languages. Those are all generic and you don’t need to keep every last one or even any.
Sort the content of the folder into things you don’t need (recycle or shred them if they have identifying information on them) and things you want to hold onto. Leave it at that in the paid bills example. It’s much quicker to leaf through that folder if you need to than to create a separate file folder for each bill. If you want a little more organization, always put a new addition to the folder in the back of the folder, so it’s chronological.
Whew! Did that feel a bit much? Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this all at once and you don’t even have to do it – keeping your paperwork sorted by these still-broad categories will serve you well, the rest is just organizational icing.
8. Five file folder categories that’ll make your life so much easier
Every time you get a notice or a relevant receipt, pop it in a file folder call Taxes 2021. When it comes time to do your taxes in 2022, all the documents are right there. Create a new folder for every year.
If you keep receipts to maybe return things or in case they break, it’s much easier to keep a single folder of receipts called Receipts and go through it if need be than to create separate folders for each coffee maker, garlic press and sharp knife set and then wonder whether you filed the receipt you need in warranties, manuals or kitchen appliances.
A folder per kid
Instead of separating out bits of paper into different folders, give each kid one folder. If you’re saving paperwork for a substantial issue to do with that kid, label it Jason – IEP and keep it with the file called Jason where you keep his school reports and karate certificates.
A folder per pet
Do the same for each pet. A folder named Baxter is going to be easier to go through than wondering whether you put that piece of paper in medical records, dog tags or vet visits.
Create a file folder for each person’s medical records and name it medical records – mom, medical records – Jason, etc. If you’re looking for a copy of your mammogram report or your son’s eyeglass prescription, you’ll think medical before you think person, so label it first with the category and then the person. Keep it simple – one folder per person unless there’s a substantial medical issue, in which case it gets its own folder, medical – mom – brain surgery which you’d tuck behind medical records – mom.
Instead of searching for the car title in one place and your birth certificate in another, create a folder called Vital Records and store it somewhere easy to grab if you have to leave the house quickly. Mine contains birth certificates, car titles, passports and a small album of copies of my absolute favorite photos.
Paperwork Q & As
1. Shouldn’t I Be Scanning All This Paperwork?
Only if you love tedious tasks with no visible reward. What I’ve found is that even when people scan in important (and not so important) documents, they’re still reluctant to let go of the original paperwork. And so you end up with digital clutter as well as tangible clutter.
Since scanning paperwork is so boring and time-consuming, the project rarely gets finished. I once hired my preteen who was desperate for money to scan some photographs for me, and she quit after half an hour. She wanted the money but not THAT badly. The time will come when you realize how deeply you’re resenting the time and effort scanning takes and you’ll abandon the project. But which papers have been scanned and which haven’t? It gets confusing and you end up keeping it all just in case. My suggestion: skip the scanning.
If you still want to scan, try this reality check: do you keep up with your shredding or is there a big bag or pile waiting for you to get round to it? Both shredding and scanning are tedious, boring tasks you won’t do. No reflection on you, life’s short – sort the paperwork and take the shredding to a professional shredding company and be done with them both.
2. How Do I Organize Files in My Filing Cabinet?
I got quite a few questions from people asking about the placement of their files in the cabinet. Shouldn’t it be alphabetical? Alphabetical by category and then within the category? To which I say, if that pleases you and your brain works that way, go for it. And if it doesn’t, trying to keep up that system will be work – which means you’ll put off filing in the future.
My suggestion is to group your files by categories within your filing cabinet. So if you have a four-drawer cabinet, the top drawer might be for categories you use fairly often. It’s convenient, no bending down, you can just open it and see what you have.
Paid bills, ongoing projects that have been gathered together in a file folder such as Jason – IEP, this year’s tax folder, would all be good candidates for that drawer. Think of it as your active storage.
The second drawer might be for medical files. The third drawer for financial papers you’ve saved, and the bottom drawer would be a good place to store past tax returns.
Within each drawer, you can arrange the folders alphabetically if you like but if you don’t, you’ll still be able to find things. You have the category assigned to the drawer and your brain will soon get used to the fact that Baxter is two-thirds of the way back with a right-hand tab in the second drawer.
Same goes for color coding folders and labels – you can do all that if you enjoy it but it’s not necessary for an efficient filing system. The important thing is, once you’ve decided where something goes, stick with it.
If you keep rearranging and tweaking your system, your brain will have a hard time keeping up and you’ll stop filing. Let your system be simple enough to maintain and remind you of the value of good enough organizing.
3. Don’t I Need an Index?
If your categories and file folders are too detailed, yes, that would be useful. And difficult to maintain. Instead, I suggest you consider broadening your categories so you know which general area of your filing cabinet to look in.
If you have a separate folder for each different possible house you might want to buy and label it with the street address , but each folder has only the flyer you picked up when you walked by it, you’ll have an easier time of it if you have one folder for all those flyers and call it something like Should I buy this house?
Want some in person help with this?
If you’d like to work with me to slay the paper monster, we can do that.