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Piles of PaperworkAfter a long bout of being unwell some time ago, I one day felt compelled to dig out and organize my desk, as I must so often do, and catch up with my filing so that I could more easily get on with my work.  Feeling inspired is one thing, but fortunately I know how to organize a year’s worth of paperwork, as organizing is my thing.  I jotted down how I did it as I went, so I might inspire or help someone else who has gotten a little (or a lot) out of control with papers piling up too.

My desk can need digging out after only a few days of neglect.  Although I do follow my own system for being organized, the sheer quantity of stuff landing on my desk every day soon piles up if not attended to.  Every day bills, forms, notes from the schools and the kindergarten, kids’ artwork, projects I’m working on and lots of little handwritten notes to myself (or sometimes really long ones) pile up on my desk, mixed up with ballet shoes to have ribbons sewn on them, toys to be fixed, and any random stuff for mummy to deal with – my desk is one big in tray and the organizing hub of my home.

This time there really was a year of un-filed and un-attended to papers, all mixed up, and all over my desk and the area surrounding it.  It was pretty bad for a while, and for someone who has written a book about home organization and writes articles about being organized and self improvement, quite distressing to me as well a source of teasing from friends and family.

Somehow the world didn’t end, and papers would be found when required.  It usually went like this:  Child reminds me that forms are due in tomorrow, I pick up the pile of papers I know it is in, and spend about five minutes going through the pile page by page until I find the forms, or remember that I have put them in a different pile.  My good habits had not completely left me, and many items were grouped or in folders, especially if I knew they were important, but the sight of it and the mess and the wasted time had got to the point where I really had to do something.

Some might be shocked that I could have had papers this out of control and so neglected; others might be in much worse situations.  How to organize paperwork is one of the most common questions I am asked in emails, and I think it’s a common area of neglect when we are unwell or not functioning well.  For some people it’s because they never learned to deal with this stuff in the first place.  Some people find themselves in this situation when a relationship ends, when formerly their partner did all the administrative stuff.

For some people who get themselves into this situation, the papers might be all around the house as well, or even in the car.  So the first step is to gather ALL your papers and put them in one place, preferably your desk or near your desk.

Perhaps you’re still not feeling up to the task of tackling the whole thing, but don’t let that stop you gathering it all in one place, and keeping it all in one place from now on.  You must first commit to this stage, and doing just this may be quite a hurdle for some who are in the habit of stashing papers all over the place.  Commit to the habit of putting it in the same place, always, every day from now on if you are not already.

If the only other place it gathers is in your purse, handbag, briefcase, bag, backpack etc, empty the bag of whatever papers are in there that you do not need to carry with you.  The only papers that belong here are for reference, such as your diary, planner or appointment book, and notes you refer to regularly whilst you are out, such as a list of errands, your shopping list, or forms on their way to be delivered, letters to post, that kind of thing.

I used the floor for sorting, but if you have a big enough table, you could use that.  If you have a cat it might be an idea to make sure it’s locked out of the room so it doesn’t run across the papers sending them flying all over the place, and close any windows if there’s a breeze, unless you have a large collection of paperweights you like playing with.

This may or may not be possible for you, but I got the job finished in one day.  Once you get going, things can be sorted surprisingly quickly if you are in the right frame of mind.  Getting yourself into the right frame of mind to tackle something is another story of course….

Ok, so this is how I did it, written as instructions:-

1. Get some big rubbish bags.

2. Get a big bunch of folders (and I bought some new suspension files too for my file cabinet – I didn’t have enough).  Have a suitable pen handy too for labeling the folders.

3. Get a big tub or box for stuff to be filed.

4. Get another tray, tub or box for items which need to be attended to.  This pile needs to be sub-categorized into:
- Bills to pay
- Important, urgent or time sensitive
- Not so urgent, just reading material etc
Within these categories you’ll need some folders so you can arrange types of reading material and documents to be attended to into sub categories.

5. If there is stuff already in folders which is out (i.e. not filed correctly in your file cabinet), identify whether it to be put away or to be attended to.

6. Get a cup of tea, put some music on if you like, take a deep breath, and get ready, ‘cause here we go!  If you got to this point and your kids or partner just got home, forget it, and come back to it again when you won’t be disturbed, or you’ll just get crabby.

Now the sorting begins:-

The first thing to do is grab a pile and start sorting it piece by piece into the categories you’ve just created, i.e. rubbish, (trash), filing, and stuff to be attended to.

If you’re going through stuff that’s very mixed up, you can just start by sorting it into these three main categories.  If you’re finding things which are already organized in some way, such as a pile of bills, or a bunch of forms all relating to one thing, put it in a folder and label it, and put the folder in the to be filed pile or the to be attended to pile.
Label all folders as you go along, and feel free to make plenty of new folders as you go along, when you see any patterns emerging.

Yes, you can multi-task it.  For example, you don’t have to have everything in the three main piles before you start sub sorting.  To do this, instead of a tub or box for ‘to be attended to’ you can use a dining table or the floor, creating sub piles or folders as you go.  You can do the same for stuff to be filed if you can find enough space to spread out in and you know you can get through it before your space is invaded.

If you have a lot of stuff in the piles which needs attending to, and you have a rough idea where some main items are, look for that first if it won’t take too long, especially if you think you might be spending more than one day on this.

Avoid getting distracted while you are doing this.  If you do find you got distracted and went off on a tangent, just bring yourself back to it.  Remind yourself that you made a decision to do as much as you can on this task right now, not other stuff, and just get back to sorting.

Chuck everything you can in the rubbish bag, but don’t spend too long deciding whether each thing is rubbish or not.  If you find rubbish in folders as you’re sorting, do take it out as you find it and put it in the trash bag, but don’t get bogged down in looking for every single piece of paper not needed.  It’ll get fine tuned later when you develop or go back to your good habits.

If your filing cabinet has had papers stuffed into it, and it is included in the area you are sorting through, look for just loose papers which are not filed or sorted first, and leave the filed stuff.  Don’t let it sidetrack you.

When your papers are all sorted into either of the three main categories, i.e. (I’ll say it again)
- rubbish, trash, to be shredded
- to be filed
- to be attended to
Then turn your attention to the ‘to be attended to’ pile first.  Is some of it already in folders now?  Did you make some folders as you went along?  Now, look for any duplicate folders, and make folders for the categories you don’t have folders for yet.  Yes, you can have a miscellaneous folder, but if it starts getting fat, sort it out into sub folders.
You might like to make a list of tasks as you see them develop from the folders you have just sorted and created.  Leave all the ‘to be attended to’ folders on your desk.

Then, take out the trash (it's a good idea to shred any documents with personal information on them) and do the filing.  

Got questions or issues about organizing papers?  Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with paperwork as the subject.  Don’t expect a personal reply, but do expect more articles about the topic.

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#4 Shawn 2010-06-20 22:15
Keeping on the paperwork can be a pain. My inbox can quickly turn into my indesk and then my inoffice. I have gotten into a routine of bringing everything back to empty each week with the exception of holidays or vacations. Those times I can typically go a couple of weeks without too much more buildup.
#3 Nadia 2010-06-02 19:13
I go through this about every 3 months - and once I get to it I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders!!;-)
#2 Mrs Fusspot 2010-06-02 18:46
Delighted to say I got everything into one room this year, and for the most part out of sight (bar pending stuff which hangs from a giant paper clip on a kitchen cupboard in order of date due and comes down as it happens). I have also found a cheap paper shredder invaluable to have to hand, to get rid of any financial or private information, converting it to bedding for the rabbit or kindling for the fire.

As always, thank you!

Mrs Fusspot
#1 Mary Jane 2010-06-02 17:47
Thank you so much. When I go to my email and there is one from you - I open it first to see what you are going to help me with now. Sometimes the chore is simple, it's just a layout of the steps I need to get started. Thanks again. Take care - Mary Jane


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