Paper piles! They are in every home in America and seem to be a universal object that we all struggle with on a daily basis. And it’s no wonder…think about all of the sources for incoming paper that you have in your life. Paper comes from in through the mail,  from work or school, from emails that you receive and print – the list is endless. If you don’t have a good system in place to manage all of this paper, it can quickly build up. Sadly, paper piles can make us stressed because paper becomes clutter. Psychology today reports that “Clutter causes mental stress and excessive stimuli, is a distraction and steals our focus, increases anxiety, causes feelings of guilt, inhibits creativity and productivity, [and] increases frustration because we can’t find what we need (Psychology Today, March 2012). So, once and for all, reduce the clutter and the stress of paper (or electronic data) by following these three techniques.

Only Handle It Once

Every time you touch a piece of paper or some type of electronic data, move it forward in some way. Remember, clutter is postponed decisions, so make a decision on the next step for the piece of paper or electronic data. Practice the four D’s…do it, defer it, delegate it, or delete it. Do it refers to an action step such as calling and RSVPing to a party invitation that was received, paying a bill, or making an appointment or sending an email. Defer it means you will save the paper or electronic data in a pending or next actions folder to complete at a later date (set the date on your calendar). Delegate it refers to passing the paper or electronic data on to another individual to complete. Finally, delete it refers to recycling, shredding, or deleting the paper or data.

Pro tip: Think before you print! This is one way to reduce the paper that lives in your home.

Create a system to save data in electronic folders.


Think of Paper as Action, Reference, and Archive

In order to handle paper one time and move it forward, it’s helpful to think of paper or data in three broad categories: action, reference, and archive. Deciding on the category that the paper or data fits in to may help determine how you move it forward. Paper or data that are “action” in nature require something to happen immediately, such as reports/documents to sign. For this category, it’s helpful to have a landing area for incoming paper/data, an area to process, and an outgoing area as well. You may want to subdivide your “action” papers/data into a few categories such as “to pay,” “to file,” “to email,” or “to call.” Keep your subcategories broad so you don’t get confused on where to move the paper.

Paper or data that are “reference” in nature are items that you may need to refer back to for important information. Typically, these papers/data are not looked at on a daily basis, however, they should be easily retrieved for access. Examples of reference paper/data are meeting agendas, schedules, and contact information. For this category of paper/data, you will need a filing system, file cabinet, binders, or a cloud based program such as Dropbox or Evernote.

Papers or data that are “archive” in nature are the least frequently accessed, but are critical documents/data that must be kept and stored long term. Examples in this category include legal documents and contracts. For this category, you may need the following supplies: file boxes, safety deposit box, hard drive, or a cloud program.

Five Spheres of Proximity

After you determine the type of paper you have and the appropriate next step to move it forward, you will need to determine where the paper/data should live. When organizing, remember the age-old advice of a place for everything and everything in its place. This definitely applies to paper and data. Where your paper or data lives will be influenced by the frequency of use and the urgency when access is needed. The five zones of proximity include: within arm’s reach, same room/open storage, same room/closed storage, same building, and off site.   Here are a few examples to help you with this concept.

Example One: Paper that is in the category of “action” such as a bill will need to live in a container that is within arm’s reach or at least in the same room in open storage. Most likely you place the paper in this area because you will “defer” the paper to a date on your calendar when you pay bills. Once complete, the next step is to shred the paper or file the paper. At that point, the paper can live farther away, perhaps in the same room, closed storage, or in the same building (your home), but in another room.

Example Two: Paper that falls into the “reference” category such as contact information, a take-out menu, or your child’s sport’s schedule will likely live in the same room closed storage or same building. If you determine that you cannot delete this item, you will likely store it so that it can be accessed when needed, most likely not in an emergency situation.

Example Three: Paper that falls into the “archive” category such as a birth certificate or lease or will, will live in a container that is in the same room, closed storage, same building, or off site such as a safety deposit box. These documents are very infrequently accessed, however, when they are it may be for urgent reasons and therefore for some people they’d rather have it in the same building versus off site.

For all of these examples, remember that there are times where the paper can be stored more efficiently and effectively as electronic data. Keeping papers in this format can reduce the amount of physical storage. When saving information electronically, it’s important to consider a good naming convention so you can easily access the data when needed. No matter what system you create, it’s crucial to maintain the system long term. Ask yourself what’s working, what is not working, how often do I want to review my system, file paper, cull, and purge paper or data. Certainly, if you put this much time and effort into creating a system, you definitely want to manage it long term! While this entire process may seem daunting at first, remember that paper piles like any form of clutter, can you make you feel as if your work is never done. Additionally, a good paper system will save you time and anxiety. It’s definitely worth your time and energy to create a good, long lasting paper solution!

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