Compared to when we were young, we deal with a lot less paper. Bank statements, bills and many reminders come via email or are available online. Can you remember the last time you received a handwritten letter in the post? Yet despite this, there’s still a decent amount of paper that makes its way into the house, and can cause clutter and chaos if it’s not properly dealt with, as I’ve learned from experience. For years I‘ve had piles of paper lying round, waiting to be dealt with, but after missing an important medical appointment, I realized I needed to get my act together and develop a system that would ensure that never happened again.
When working out how to deal with paper, the key mantra is the simpler the better. In the book The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin states that “a successful system is one that requires a minimum amount of searching time and is transparent to anyone who walks in the room” (p. 319). In developing this system, I used this as my end goal. So here is a simple, easy and effective way to deal with your household paperwork. It’s not a touch it once system. It’s not always even a touch it several times system. But it keeps it contained and under control, and best of all, you manage it according to how much time you have, without ever missing anything important.
Before you get started though, you need to do a bit of prep work.
- Set up a physical inbox. Place it in a visible, but unobtrusive spot, ideally close to where you do your planning and organising. A nice basket works best.
- Have a family calendar and / or your own planner (physical or digital- whatever suits you).
- Decide how often and on what day you want to sort your paperwork. There’s not a lot that comes in these days that’s urgent, so I only do this once a week on a Saturday. Yes, it goes against the “only handle things once” philosophy, in fact some pieces of paper get handled multiple times, but some things are just better batched.
Now you have these you’re ready to start the system.
- When you get a piece of paper, pre-sort it, by opening mail as you stand next to the rubbish bin. Anything that was is not urgent, not important and not a keeper, should get put into the rubbish or recycle bin immediately. Items in this category include circulars for stores you never go into, generic letters to the head of the household that contain no relevant information, and fliers for events you have no interest in attending.
- Every other piece of paper that comes into the house goes into the inbox. This includes circulars for stores you do frequent, invitations, magazines, notes from school, receipts, and tickets. I often scribble notes to myself as well, like the names of shops I want to check out, or other reminders. Into the basket they go.
- Once a week, grab the inbox and sort everything into one of four piles based on the following matrix:
a) Important and urgent.
These are items that you have to do within the next week (this is one of the reasons I like to do it on a Saturday). This pile might include things like bills due in the next 7 days, school permission slips and urgent appointments.
b) Important but not urgent.
These are things you have to do but there’s not an urgent time frame on them. For example, the tickets you got for a concert that is next month, or a reminder that your pets are due for vaccinations soon. Also put your receipts in this pile.
c) Not important and not urgent but things you want to keep and still need to engage with.
These are things like the magazines you subscribe to.
d) Not important and not urgent but need to be filed or kept.
These include things like warranties, cards, and other memorabilia that you want to hold on to.
Anything that doesn’t fit into this is probably rubbish or recycling. For example, most receipts can get binned after a few days. However, when you get rid of paper, please remember to take reasonable steps to protect yourself from identity theft. This article from the FTC has some solid advice .
- Take the urgent and important pile. Work through each piece in order. That means:
a) Pay the bill. Write the date you paid it on there and put it into your filing pile (if you keep them)
b) Sign the permission slip. If the trip is not next week, put it in the second pile. If it is, write it in your planner, along with any gear needed, departure and arrival time and any other key information.
c) RSVP to the event. As above, if it’s not next week, put it in the second pile. If it is, write it in your planner, along with anything you need to organize prior, such as a gift.
d) Make the phone call to book in the urgent appointment and enter it into your planner. If the place you want to call is shut, write it into your tasks for Monday.
- Now if you’re crazy busy, all you need to do now is take all the items in the filing pile and put them in a zip lock bag. Then you put everything back into the basket (including the bag).
If you’re not crazy busy, it’s time to tackle the items in the second pile. To, set your timer for 15 minutes and see how much you can get done in this time frame.
Accepting an invitation is only a small part of the job. You need to also organize travel, accommodation, a gift, your outfit and boarding kennels or other arrangements for your furbabies. Sorting the accommodation, travel and kennels is best done as soon as possible, so make a note to get that sorted within the next two weeks (sooner, if the invite has been in the basket for a while!). Your outfit and the gift are best sorted three or four weeks before the occasion so there’s plenty of time for things like shipping and possible returns if you’re ordering online. Pop these tasks into your planner for the relevant week.
As a teacher, I’m often surprised at the number of parents who return the whole permission letter, and I wonder how they are going to remember all the details of the trip. Get your planner or your calendar and write the date and time of the event on it. If there is a list of gear required allocate the time required that you need to sort it (for example, if you need to go buy special equipment you’ll need longer than if you just have to pack a rain jacket in the morning) and write that in your planner as well, along with what it is you have to sort. Keep the letter clipped into your planner for the week prior to the trip if it’s super detailed. Otherwise you can throw it away.
Take a photo of your receipts then move the photos into a labelled album or dropbox file. Otherwise email them to yourself and save in a named folder in your inbox.
Scrawled reminders to yourself.
Transfer these to the appropriate place in your planner or page in your bullet journal. Consider also getting a small notebook in which to write down things you need to do when you’re in town (like checking out a new store as I mentioned above).
Follow the steps for invitations as applicable, and clip into your planner for the week in which the event is happening.
Other random stuff.
If you don’t have time to deal with these, read them, note what actions need to be taken, write them onto a post it with a time frame and stick it on the paper until you are ready to deal with it.
- The filing bag is the only one left now. I recommend filing once a month, or when the bag gets full. It really doesn’t take much longer to file 15 pieces of paper than 5, so it’s not worth making it a weekly task.
As for memorabilia, some people are ruthless about throwing this stuff away. However I definitely advocate keeping things within reason. At a minimum, I recommend keeping all special messages plus the last communication you had from that person (so when you file it, you can throw out the last one).
With this super easy system, you have a central storage area for all the paper that comes into the house, and a regular method for dealing with it. You can prioritise your time and either just do the bare minimum while still feeling in control, or kick it all out of the park. Best of all, it meets the criteria I set at the beginning of this post- it’s easily described (put it all in a basket and sort it according to the matrix once a week), and anyone who walked into the room with paper in their hand and then saw the basket would know what to do!
Tried this system for dealing with paperwork? Have other great ideas? Let me know!