It's a fact of life: despite the "digital age" papers accumulate. Mail comes in, the printer spits up, we find something in a magazine that we just know we'll use. Knowing what records, tax paperwork, bills, invoices and contracts to keep is the first step in coping with the flood of paper. Decluttering your paperwork can reduce the load a lot. But once you've pared down your records to the essentials, what's the best way to organize it all? Our research turned up these helpful tips.
Get inspired to organize
Picture yourself needing a certain piece of document -- that letter you want to answer right now. You know where it is, you reach for it and you're ready. Ten seconds. While you're imagining this pleasant state of affairs, use it as motivation to wrestle your records back into control.
1. Have a dedicated spot for this week's to-do items
Make yourself a rule that your most accessible file drawer is reserved for papers you must have for action you truly intend to take within one week. All other papers and files go elsewhere -- a lower drawer for "next week" and more remote storage for other papers and archival items. This puts you in charge of your paperwork; your mind can stay clear and focused. You can maintain this with just one weekly sweep through one or two uncrowded file drawers.
This is a good starting point because you'll have one paperwork place that feels friendly to you, and if all your other papers are in boxes or piles out of sight, so be it. You're started.
2. Try color coding
Color coding is great because it boosts morale as well as speeding file retrieval. Use your favorite colors for file folders (or just buy colored labels for the folders you have). Even a simple color code that separates financial, work and personal files can be a big help. Color coding can be as elaborate as you want, integrating with a task management system such as "Getting Things Done." If you want to plunge into a complete paperwork makeover, you can buy all new colored folders or even use the Viewables Color Labeling software to print colored labels on special Viewables folders.
3. Consider shelf storage rather than file cabinets
Offices often store client files on open shelves, using folders with tabs on the side instead of on front, because this halves the needed space. This can be a good home solution too, for a room where shelves fit better than a filing cabinet. You can always put a portable file box in a closet or on a shelf, but for files you need often, shelf files are a good bet. You can get dual-system file folders to use both ways.
4. Try binders for certain items
Looseleaf binders come in beautiful colors these days so you can fit them into your color coding. You can also just add a colored strip or sticker to the spine of a white or black binder. This is useful for reference papers. It's also a lovely way to save papers with intangible personal value -- souvenirs from a special trip or birthday, for example. You can get archival inserts that fit postcards, photos and discs.
5. Put it where you can see it
"Out of sight, out of mind" can apply to your papers even if they're crucial. If you like visual reminders of your records, post important papers on a big bulletin board (on an easel if wall space is full) -- along with some encouraging images. To keep current folders in view, try a desktop riser stand like the Fellowes Wire Step File (*Est. $12) or even a rolling file cart.
More resources for getting your paperwork in order
"Organize Your Filing Systems: A Four-Step Formula That Really Works" gives a great overview with detailed tips.
"Organize Your File Cabinet and File With Style" offers a step-by-step guide that suggests specific groupings that would be great for color coding.
We found the largest collection of useful tips on organizing paperwork at Smead.com, where questions are answered that you didn't even know you had.