How to Organize Files So You Can Actually Find Important Paperwork

Get piles of paperwork under control with an easy-to-follow filing system and learn how to organize those important documents.

Paperwork has a tendency to pile up fast. Mail, receipts, school papers, bank statements, tax documents, and more can quickly clutter countertops and desk surfaces, creating a mess of papers that feels unmanageable. Luckily, creating a file system to help you manage all that paperwork isn't as difficult as you might think. We'll walk you through exactly how to turn chaotic stacks of loose papers into an organized file management system that's easy to keep up with.

First, you'll need to designate a spot for gathering any new papers that come into your home. This will be your main paper management center where you sort through incoming mail, documents, receipts, invitations, and other paperwork while deciding what to do with each item. Then, you'll create separate files or folders based on the action you need to complete next and when it needs to be done. This will help you prioritize the items that require attention now, such as bills, and carefully store things like tax documents that you might need in the future. By laying out a specific process for managing paperwork, you can prevent big pile-ups with small steps each day. Use these tips on how to create a file organization system that works for you.

paper storage on wall
Cameron Sadeghpour

Essentials Components for Organizing Files

Choose a convenient spot within your home to set up a paper processing center, which will be the main hub of your filing system. This could be located in a home office, kitchen, dining room, or entryway. Wherever you place it, make sure you have enough space for these items:

  • Central inbox: Designate one spot for all incoming paper, including mail, receipts, school papers, flyers, and more. A single stack, even if it's sizable, is more manageable than several smaller ones spread out around the house.
  • Action file: Go through your inbox 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 within reach so you can toss unwanted paper as soon as it enters the house before it hits your inbox.
  • 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.
petite bookshelf desk combination
Jason Donnelly

How to Create a File System for Important Papers

Professional organizer Charlotte Steill of Simply Put Organizing has a smart system for identifying, storing, and dealing with papers that need attention, all in just minutes a day. Follow these steps to create a file system that makes managing paperwork easy.

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." The system you set up for your action papers (which could be an accordion file, wire desktop sorter, stackable drawers, or colored folders) should match your filing style.

If you tend to let things pile up, you need a visual reminder to deal with papers. Clear plastic stacking trays show you when you need to take action on each category. If you're good about filing things away, you can organize papers with minimal visual clutter. A desktop file box fitted with three labeled folders keeps action items nearby but looks neat.

2. Sort Your Inbox

For each item in your inbox, ask yourself: What is the next action that needs to happen and when? The answer will prompt you to file it into one of the categories:

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

Anything else in your inbox is likely an archive or reference paper. Archive papers, such as bank statements, belong in the filing cabinet. If you don't have a 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 inbox 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.
Organized desk with items on wall
Adam Albright

How to File Miscellaneous Papers

Don't let all those random papers you want to save clog your inbox or stack up around the house. Keep them handy but out of sight with these ideas for different types of paperwork:

  • Articles you want to read: Keep a document envelope in your car or bag so you can read while you wait. Or find the article online and bookmark for later.
  • Coupons and receipts: Store a coupon wallet with dividers in your purse or car. Check dates on a regular basis and toss expired coupons.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Kid's art and schoolwork: A lidded box on a handy shelf is perfect for storing kids' schoolwork. Collect daily papers here as you decide whether they're keepers.
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