Digging out of Paper Clutter - part 1

Digging out from under stacks of paper might seem like a daunting and insurmountable task. Let's face it, paper can be intimidating and overwhelming. It comes relentlessly and without warning, and it never stops coming - bills, insurance policies, faxes, to-do lists, invoices, tax information, user manuals, receipts, itineraries...Add in the magazines, brochures, drafts, booklets, letters, drafts, etc., and it's easy to see how paper molehills become paper mountains. And here's the worst part - somewhere in this ever-growing mound of chaos lies your business - important phone numbers, bills that have to be paid, clients that need attention, receivables that need collecting?

Before I help you to dig out of the paper clutter, let me assure you of two things:

1. You are not alone.

2. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

My goal is to "unbury" you, by helping you to pare down and organize your papers. Before we start though, let me suggest that you don't try to do everything in one day. Work in 1-2 hour chunks of time.

The first step is sorting, To sort, we'll need some containers (I use laundry baskets or milk crates, but any boxes will do). Label the containers accordingly:

-Take Action ? anything that requires you to do something within the next two weeks. Includes bills, appointments, meetings, etc.

-Read ? includes any paper, newsletter, announcement, magazine, etc. that might contain information you want to read. The secret here is to cut it out the article, and throw away the rest of the publication.

-30 Days ? includes things that must be done within 30 days, but are not as critical as Take Action items which must be done within two weeks. Includes bills due, appointments, events, to-dos, etc.

-File ? These are archived items that require no action, but must be retained. Includes contracts, bank statements, receipts, warranties, product information, tax information, etc.

-Throw Away ? anything that is six months old and requires you to take no action.

Now that we have our containers, let's start. Grab a stack of papers, and sort through it, placing each paper into the appropriate container. Since you're sorting by general category, it should go pretty fast. Be thorough, but quick. The key is to touch each piece of paper only once, and not to read each paper. Just glance at it, and quickly put it into the correct container. We will do a more specific sort later. For now, we are doing a general sort, and discarding trash.

Of course, the biggest question is what to throw away. The simple answer is to throw away anything you don't need. You need to ask yourself, "Do I really need this, and what is the worst thing that can happen if I throw this away?" I worked with one person who published a local, specialized newspaper. He needed to keep one or two copies of each back issue, but when we sorted his paperwork, we found 40-50 copies of each. We also found records of events he was involved in years ago, wedding photos, some of his children's artwork, DVD rental receipts, last year's to-do lists, his son's birth certificate, the title to his SUV, etc. We also found owners manuals and receipts for items he no longer owned, stacks of bank statements from the 1980s, and so on. Remember, this is your workspace. For you to be most efficient, effective and professional your paperwork needs to be in order.

By now, you've gone through each stack of paper. You sorted correctly, you have five containers or boxes of papers to be filed, and (most likely) a lot of discarded paper for recycling. Congratulations on your hard work and progress. Stay tuned, and I will discuss how to set up a filing system, and what to do with the papers you sorted.

Marc Rifkin is a Professional Organizer, and owner of OASIS professional organizers, which provides organizing solutions for homes and offices in Seattle, WA. http://www.oasisorganizers.com

©2005 OASIS professional organizers

May be reprinted with full author credit, bio, and all links intact only

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