How to organize paper clutter

Simple steps to taming your paper clutter forever.

A few years ago, an editor called asking if I could fax her a copy of some interview notes I'd taken.

"Sure," I said, looking around desperately at the piles of papers on my desk. I was pretty sure the first two pertained to my novel, but the interview notes could be hidden in the third pile. Or in the five or six piles of paper surrounding my desk. Or in the eight or nine piles on my kitchen cabinet, or the two on my bedside table. I had paper everywhere, and I had no idea where those notes were. I wound up finding them at three in the morning in a pile of papers in the bathroom. Don't ask.

Since then I've reformed. Now I can find any paper I need in the space of five minutes, be it a medical bill, a credit card receipt, or a contract.

Getting to that point wasn't difficult, but it was a bit time consuming. If you're tackling the paper monster, the first thing to remember is that you didn't create the mess in a single day, and you won't fix it in a single day, either.

Rather than planning a miserable marathon weekend of sorting and filing, instead set aside just fifteen minutes a day to start working on the problem. When the fifteen minutes are up, stop working and move on to a more enjoyable activity. In four days you'll have put in an hour. By the time a week goes by, you'll have put in close to two hours and by now should be seeing some serious results.

You'll want to begin your project by developing a simple filing system. I use hanging files with labels like "Apartment," "Car," "Credit Cards," "Health Info and Insurance," "Pets," "Taxes," etc. Other hanging folders contain information about companies for which I'm currently writing, old contracts, research for my novel, expenses and income, etc.

Your files may be completely different. They may not even be files. A right-brained friend of mine uses shoe boxes she decorated carefully. Another friend of mine uses manila envelopes.

Whatever system you decide to use, make sure it's an easy one. If you have to spend twenty minutes looking for the appropriate file, chances are you'll give up and go back to the "piling" system instead. Setting up your filing system may take a couple of weeks, and that's all right. Just remember that slow and steady wins the race. The more solid your filing system, the more likely you are to continue using it.

Once you have a filing system set up, you're ready to utilize it. Gather all your piles of paper and put them in one large box. Then, go through the papers in the box one by one and decide what to do with each. You have three options: take action, find a home for it, or shred it. (In these days of identity theft and fraud, simply throwing away an item with your name and address on it is no longer a good idea.) Suppose, for instance, the first thing you touch is your phone bill. First, you need to pay it. Then decide if there's any reason to keep the bill. If not, shred it. If so, file it in the appropriate file. Do this for fifteen minutes every night, and in no time at all, your paper monster should be tamed.

But, you say, now that I've got my file system up and running, what about the new pieces of paper that come into the house every day? The emails I print out? The snail mail that comes through the slot in the door? The stuff my kids bring home from school? Aren't they just clutter waiting to happen.

Only if you allow them to be. When new papers arrive, deal with them immediately using the same steps outlined above: take action, find a home for them, or shred them.

Set aside fifteen minutes per week to take care of any stragglers or strays, or to make necessary changes to your filing system.

Once per year--around tax time works best for me--set aside thirty minutes to an hour to examine your file system. Are there files you never use? Files that are full to bursting? Take some time to weed out papers you no longer need and retool your system to meet your current requirements.

Nothing is more frustrating than paper clutter, and nothing is more rewarding than creating order out of chaos so you know where your important papers are and can find them when needed.

© High Speed Ventures 2011