Get Organized: Tips for Paper Sorting and Purging
Updated: Jan 16
January is a month of fresh new beginnings, an opportunity to change habits, routines and attitudes. It's long been known for crowded gyms full of people focused on improving one's physical wellness. But let's not overlook the opportunity it provides to Get Organized which can thus improve one's mental wellness and productivity.
As we enter into 2020, if you are someone who desires to get more organized then consider starting that journey with focusing on your paper clutter. The start of a new year is a great time to purge unnecessary paper and establish storage systems to hold your paper throughout the year. If you are loooooooong overdue for a paper purge than you will need to start with a Macro Sort of those papers but if you are just working through your 2019 papers then you can probably skip ahead to the Micro Sort section of this blog post.
Follow these easy steps to organizing your paper and then consider applying this same process to other categories that need organized.
If you are overwhelmed by the volume of papers you need to go through then take these 3 easy steps to get you past the paralysis.
1) Before you get too far ahead of yourself thinking about how you will set up your file system, focus solely on cutting your mountain of paper in half. When statistics tell us that 80% of paper that is filed away NEVER gets looked at again then WHY KEEP IT? So, take a first pass through the papers with an eye of scrutiny. Purge all papers that you can't think of a reason you'll need to reference it in the future. Don't keep it just to keep it, you must have a purpose for it. Otherwise, throw it in a recycling basket if you don't see any identifying information on it. Place it in the shred pile if you do.
2) For those papers you are keeping, separate them into categories that are large in scale and scope. Most people get too detailed with their sort and before long they are overwhelmed by the number of piles they've created. Don't set yourself up for failure. If your papers date back a few years then your high level sort will likely be separating them by year before you separate them by topic. That second sort will come in the next phase when you perform a Micro Sort.
3) After you've separated these papers into macro categories, you should consider the type of file systems you'll want to store them in. Do they belong in long-term storage that can be kept in a storage closet, attic or basement, away from the areas you need to operate in on a daily basis? Or will it be sufficient to keep them in a reference file storage location, which might be in a file cabinet that is conveniently accessible but not necessarily next to you on a daily basis? Lastly, is it paper that needs your attention? If so then it should be placed in an action file storage system to ensure these papers won't get lost and will receive your attention sooner than later.
It's okay to sort into more specific categories/topics when you are working with a more manageable pile of papers. If you had to start with a macro sort then I suggest you take a day break before tackling the micro sort. This phase requires a sharper mental focus. I go in to greater detail about each of these categories when I'm working with clients who don't want to or can't go through this journey alone. But, here I will briefly highlight 3 steps including accessibility, categorizing and labeling to complete your sort on a more detailed level.
1) Accessibility- Decide which of your paper storage systems your remaining paper would be assigned to (long-term, reference and action files). Then focus on one at a time, perhaps moving the long-term storage papers into another workspace so they can receive your undivided attention. It also allows you to focus only on how you would need to access these papers one year, 3 years or 7 years from now. If it's for an audit then would you be able to quickly find what you need? To ensure easy access, use boxes labeled by year. Within the box, use large envelopes or section dividers to separate by category (i.e. expense receipts, utility bills, invoices, etc.). The same should be considered when setting up your reference files. How will I need to access these documents in the future (i.e. insurance policies, sales records, resources, etc.)
2) Categorizing- Once you've thought through how accessible these papers need to be moving forward, then consider how you will likely remember the document after much time has passed. Do not expect yourself to remember account numbers or dates that things occurred to locate the document. Furthermore, don't anticipate being able to recall names of people or businesses; why should you take up space in your brain remembering those things long term? Instead, lump things into broader categories such as "Print Marketing" instead of creating a file for each project or graphic designer or promotional company you've worked with. This way it only takes a few seconds to look up the amount you spent on brochures or the name of the graphic designer you paid to design that ad last year. A "Shipping/Postage" file can contain anything you want to reference from USPS, UPS and FedEx as opposed to keeping separate files for each. Hopefully, you follow where I'm going with this.
3) Labeling is a key step to this process for long term success of your paper storage system. Think two or three years from now when you are considering how to label your files. If you attach a year to your label then it really narrows down what can be filed into that folder. This is fine to do for papers, such as payroll records, that will eventually end up in long-term storage stored by year. But non-tax related papers such as "Product Manuals" or "Memberships" as well as topic specific paperwork such as "Pediatric Diabetes" or "Commercial Property Marketing" where you can file the papers you collected at the last professional conference you attended.
Join me and the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (NAPO), in celebrating GO Month! Who doesn't want to #getorganized2020 in #napogomonth ? There's no better time than the present. If you find yourself in need of support through this process, I offer virtual organizing sessions for anyone, anywhere. While I'm available to work by your side if you are in Lexington, KY or surrounding areas.
Carrie Downey of Clarity Co., LLC is a professional organizer and productivity coach in Lexington, KY who is ready to help you create Clarity in your office, digital world or life. Visit clarityco.org or call 859-535-0718 to get started with a free phone consultation.