The Art of Paper Organizing – Part One

Organizing paper can be a daunting task. What do you keep? For how long do you keep it? And how do you keep it all orderly? This month, we’re tackling those questions in a two-part blog series all about PAPER.

Many organizers can give you a few tips on the dos and don’ts of paper, including our team of compassionate, knowledgeable organizers at theNeatNiche. But few organizers have been organizing as long as tNN founder Erin Leigh, who started theNeatNiche over a decade ago in her quest to help others streamline and systemize the chaos of life. 

Knowing she’d been around the paperwork block, we thought, “What better way to share paper organizing advice with our awesome readers than to ask the expert herself?”

Here are her answers to some of the most-asked paperwork questions we hear as organizers.[/box]

Interviewer: Let’s start out easy: What do you recommend most when it comes to paper?

Erin: [chuckle] That is an easy one. What I recommend most is getting rid of as much paper as you can. The less you keep, the less you have to store and deal with. 

I: Makes sense, the old “less is more” concept. So instead of keeping physical paper, you recommend people go paperless and use electronic storage?

E: Electronic storage options have definitely changed the paper game, but I’m not actually talking about converting all your paper into electronic format. It’s actually a much bigger question than that. 

I think that the larger question is: Why are we keeping so much information? 

I’ve asked many clients this question, and the answer I usually get is, “You’re supposed to, right? That’s what I was taught.” A lot of people – most of us, I’d argue – end up keeping so much more than we will ever need because we simply don’t stop to think why we’re keeping those things. We just are.

This isn’t a judgment on anyone. It’s just what we were all taught. But it’s not serving us. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many people still drowning in paper, even in this Information Age we all live in. 

It’s time to teach ourselves differently, and that’s why theNeatNiche exists. We are not just moving around stuff; we are creating systems while also teaching our clients new thought patterns and habits. 

I: Can you give us an example of what you mean?

E: Sure. When it comes to paper, so many times we hold on because we aren’t sure if we’ll need it. We default to “I might need it someday, so I’d better keep it.” This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but over time, those papers pile up. 

To turn this thought pattern on its head, I encourage folks to ask themselves, “What is the worst thing that could happen if I didn’t have this paper/document/file?” 

I invite them to walk down that path until they reach a real answer. Most of the time the answer is, “I can find it again online,” “I could call somebody and get the answer, ” or, “nothing bad at all would happen if I didn’t have this.”

If those are the answers, chances are you’ll be looking online or calling a friend, not searching through pile after pile of paper to find that one bit of information. 

In short, we don’t really need to keep that information in paper format. 

I: Wow, that makes it so easy. Just ask that one simple question, really answer it honestly, and ta-da! Now you know exactly what you actually need to keep.

E: To illustrate, here’s a fun statistic: As of the early 2000s, in an average filing cabinet, only one out of every 10 pieces of filed paper are ever looked at again.

That’s a 10% revisit rate. That means that 90+% of what we file could just go away and never be filed. We won’t be looking back at it anyways! 

I: And if that statistic is from 10 years ago, that number is probably much lower now.

E: Yes. More and more information is available online now, giving us easy access without filing physical paperwork. There’s very little we actually need

However, there are a few very specific things that we do need to hold on to. Figuring out which they are doesn’t have to be hard; you can use the same question as before (“What’s the worst thing that could happen if I didn’t have this?”). If you get a different answer to the question than “nothing bad,” “I’ll have to look it up online,” or “I’ll have to make a phone call,” like maybe you determine that if you don’t keep a specific paper or document, then you’ll end up owing the IRS tens of thousands of dollars… Well, now you’ve probably found that one paper or document out of 10+ that’s actually worth keeping. 

For example, if I didn’t have the title to my vehicle, I would have to jump through a lot of really annoying hoops to get another one. I don’t want to lose that paper; it’s important (and arguably would be better stored in a safety deposit box than your file cabinet, but that’s your choice!).

Those are the papers you actually want to hold onto and file appropriately. If not, the consequences won’t just be slightly inconvenient. They’ll be painful, challenging, or dire.

I: Great advice. Get real on the possible pain, and use it to ensure we’re keeping the right things. So for those few things we do really want to keep and need to file, how do we do that? 

E: Before I share a system with you, I want to say one more thing. There’s an element to paperwork that has nothing to do with statistics or systems. It’s a question of how you personally feel about paper. 

Some people love the internet and keep everything online. Some people don’t like screens. They like paper. They want to touch it, see it, feel it. 

If that’s you, you may decide you want to keep more than is strictly necessary inside your file cabinet. And that’s okay… as long as it doesn’t become a massive, overflowing mess that keeps you from actually accessing and using that information you’ve collected.

I: So some of us will have more paper than others. Understandable. But if we’re keeping papers of any kind, how do we determine the best way to keep them?

E: To answer that question, here’s an important distinction: There is necessary filing, and then there is sentimental filing. These are two very different things.

Sentimental papers include things like report cards, old college papers, or your kids’ artwork. They are special to you, but they do not contain current, relevant information. You will never go to your file cabinet to reference your kid’s finger painting masterpieces. So, those kinds of papers should be treated differently than your “necessary filing” – things like your monthly bills or tax and legal paperwork. Most often, they belong in some kind of memory bin, not the file cabinet (unless you have a second or separate file cabinet just for these kinds of papers).

I: Okay, so what are the kinds of “necessary files” that you recommend people keep?

E: So if I outlined it, it would probably look like this – a set of high-level categories, some of which have subcategories within them:

  1. Health/Medical
  2. Financial 
    • Financial accounts
    • Checks & credit cards
    • Large purchase receipts (up to you where that threshold is)
  3. Insurance
    • Home, life, car, etc.
  4. Legal (divorce, adoption, custody, etc.)
  5. Car/vehicle
  6. House
  7. Taxes
    • Prior years (current IRS rule is to keep for three years, no longer seven!)
    • Current (a place you can collect this year’s tax-related papers as they come in)

If you’re in business for yourself or responsible for keeping the paper records of a business, you’ll want an area just for those papers, too.

Lastly, though you could argue it’s not strictly “necessary,” I will sometimes include an “ideas” or “fun” folder that gives people the opportunity to hang onto ideas and fun dreams. The key with this folder is to revisit it often, not only to keep your dreams alive but to get rid of stuff you’ve already done or which no longer has the same appeal it used to.

The goal is to limit yourself to around seven broad, high-level categories. That may sound like too few, but remember, you want to keep only what’s necessary, not every paper you receive. More than seven categories, and you risk confusing yourself or over-complicating the system. If you need clarification, you can always sub-divide within a category.

Stay tuned as we go deeper with Erin in our next blog, The Art of Paper Organizing – Part Two!

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