When you develop a system to manage paper influx, it's easy to stay in control. See how to organize files and important documents, plus learn the good habits that will help you tame the paper tiger, permanently.

October 29, 2015

home office

Central In-Box Designate one spot for all incoming paper -- mail, receipts, school papers, flyers, everything. A single stack, even if it's sizable, beats several smaller ones mushrooming up around the house.

Action File Go through your in-box daily to pull items that need attention. Sort them by level of urgency into a three-part "action file." Keep the file in the open so you'll remember to check it often.

Waste Station Keep a shredder, recycling bin, and trash can in reach so you can toss unwanted paper as soon as it enters the house, before it hits the in-box.

File Cabinet If space allows, have a file cabinet for papers that don't need action, just archiving. If not, collect papers to file in an easy-to-access box or folder. Transfer them to long-term storage, wherever that might be, monthly.

Organize Important Papers

Organizer Charlotte Steill of Simply Put Organizing has a slick system for identifying, storing, and dealing with papers that need attention, all in just minutes a day:

1. Set Up an Action File Decide which type of three-part file container suits your organizing style and available space. Label the sections "Do Now," "Do Later," and "Pending."

Tip: The system you set up for your action papers -- an accordion file, wire desktop sorter, stackable drawers, colored folders -- should match your filing style. If you're a piler, you need a visual reminder to deal with papers. Clear plastic stacking trays from an office supply store show you when you need to take action on each category. If you're a filer, you like everything in its place with minimal visual clutter. A desktop file box fitted with three labeled folders keeps action items nearby but looking neat.

2. Sort Your In-Box For each item in your in-box, ask yourself, What is the next action that needs to happen and when? The answer will prompt you to file it in one of the categories:

  • "Do Now" includes anything you need to act on in the next week. Examples: bills to pay, permission slips, party invitations with RSVPs
  • "Do Later" contains items you plan to act on within the next three months. Examples: vacation fliers, a refinance offer from your bank, a catalog containing something you plan to buy
  • "Pending" includes anything on which you are awaiting a response. Example: receipt for a mail-order purchase that hasn't arrived

Anything else in your in-box is likely an archive or reference paper. Archive papers, such as bank statements, belong in the filing cabinet. No home office? Conceal a filing cabinet under a fabric-draped console in your living or dining room. At tax time, make way for the upcoming year's papers by moving old documents to an accordion file; then move the file to out-of-the-way storage.

3. Maintain Your Action File "Think of this as a living, breathing thing, like a fish, that needs to be nurtured every day," Steill says. Here's how to keep up with incoming papers and those waiting in your action file, so nothing falls through the cracks:

  • Every day or two: Sort papers from your in-box into the action file. Also, open your Do Now file and take swift action on the most time-sensitive items.
  • Once a week: Visit your Do Later file and take whatever actions you can, moving items to other files within your system or to the recycling bin. Peek at Pending and follow up as needed. As items resolve themselves, recycle the paper or set it aside for long-term storage.
  • Once a month: Move archive papers to your long-term storage solution.

File Miscellaneous Papers

Don't let all those miscellaneous papers you want to save clog your in-box or stack up around the house. Keep them handy but out of sight with these ideas.

Articles You Want to Read Keep a document envelope in your car or bag so you can read while you wait.

Inspiration and Reference Pages from Magazines Store these pages in an accordion file folder with labels for each category, such as decorating inspiration or dinner ideas.

Coupons and Receipts Store a coupon wallet with dividers in your purse or car.

Kid's Art and Schoolwork A lidded box on a handy shelf is perfect for storing kid's schoolwork. Collect daily papers here as you decide whether they're keepers.

Instruction Books and Warranties Keep this information in the same room as the item, in a magazine holder if storing multiple manuals. Staple the receipt and warranty card to the cover.

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