Taming the Paper Piles
I’m an organization-TV-show junkie. My favorite organizing show is “neat”, which really gets inside the head of the client to figure out what kind of organizational system will work best for them. I love how each person is treated as an individual, and no single one-size-fits-all solution is forced on anyone.
One tip I picked up from “neat” is how to effectively sort your stuff. They set out large bins clearly labeled “keep”, “toss” and “give away”. Everything goes into one of these bins. For me, the biggest bugaboo is papers, so I adapted their bin method for sorting my papers. As I mentioned previously, I tend to pile up my papers. I usually (though not always) pile related papers together, which does simplify the sorting process somewhat.
Here’s what I did to sort out my papers:
First I set out a paper grocery bag for paper that would be recycled. Any paper deemed not worth keeping went into it. (The exception was documents with sensitive information that I needed to shred before recycling. The “shred” pile got its own bag, with a nice big label.)
I gathered a bunch of boxes. (I make a lot of mail-order purchases, so I always have lots of medium-sized cardboard boxes lying around.) Each box needed to be the right size to hold a pile of papers. If a pile threatened to overtop its box (like a lake overtopping its levee) I’d shift the papers into a bigger box. Most boxes were between 4 and 8 inches tall. All were broad and deep enough to allow the papers to lie flat on the bottom.
Each box got a big label. I have plenty of scratch paper (I’m a bit of a paper collector), so I pulled out some bright violet scratch paper and stapled one sheet to each box. I wrote a one or two-word description on the violet paper with big letters, easy to see. “Art receipts”, “medical”, “financial”, “landscaping”, and “home” were some examples. Into each box would go all papers associated with that topic (or at least the ones worth keeping). Papers not worth keeping went straight into the recycle bag. If I found a paper (or, more typically, a pile of papers) that didn’t fit any of the existing topics, I’d make a new box and give it the appropriate label. And so on, until all papers (or at least most of the worst piles) were sorted into various boxes.
I should point out here that this method does require that you have some working space. That was a bit of a struggle, given that my previous filing system consisted of piles of paper on the floor (and of course every other available horizontal surface). I needed to get the piles out of the way of the boxes. It was a gradual process, and involved a lot of shuffling of boxes back and forth around the room. Hey, no one said the process was going to be pretty.
Finally it was time to decide what to do with these neatly boxed piles of papers.
One pile just stayed in its box. All the maps I found while cleaning out my studio I threw into a shoe box, and they fit so well that I just left them in it. That’s now my map storage system.
Other piles needed additional sorting. “Financial” needed to be broken up. Some financial papers were so old I just needed to dispose of them (shredding them first). Others needed to be archived somewhere secure, but didn’t need to be particularly handy (such as old tax documents). And yet others needed to be close at hand, like recent bank statements.
Eventually I had two types of piles: active papers that need to be close at hand, and papers that are more archival and might be stored elsewhere. The “elsewhere” things were pretty easy to deal with. Pick a suitable storage container, label it, throw all the papers in, and put it away somewhere. No big deal.
The hard ones were the active piles. Things I need to access often, quickly, and easily. I’ve already described my poor success with filing cabinets, so that method was out. Since I naturally tend to form piles, I settled on a more orderly system of piles contained in a horizontal paper-sorting box. The key here is still clearly labeling everything, including each individual slot.
You have to be able to trust your system. Ambiguity is anathema to good organization. Unlabeled piles of “miscellaneous” stuff are no good, you’ll quickly forget what’s in there. Everything, every file, every pile, every box, every binder, they all have to be labeled. That way it’s very clear whether any new paper belongs in an existing pile… or is about to spawn a whole new pile.
Entry filed under: Organization.