Digging out of Paper Clutter - part 2

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We previously noted that papers must be sorted before they can be properly filed. Continuing from our last article, your sort has left you with two piles - 'to file' and 'to throw away/recycle.' You've tossed the garbage/recycling, so now you have a stack of papers to file. Let's finish the sort, and create a basic filing system. Keep in mind three things:

A filing system has one main purpose: to allow you to find & retrieve your information quickly and accurately. Your files are a lot like a library. When you go into a library, you want to be able to go right to the shelf and find the book you want. Imagine if the library had no filing system, and put books on the shelves randomly. How long do you think it would take you to get frustrated and give up the search? My guess is that you'd probably never go back to the library.

Your files are the library of your life. You may not need your paperwork often, but when you do need it, you want to be able to find it fast. It's about predictability. Surprises are great on birthdays. With paperwork, you want predictability and speed. And finding papers fast means having them in the right place.

To create your filing system, follow these steps:

1. Broad Sort - Sort your papers into broad categories, such as 'Insurance,' 'Utilities,' 'Investments,' 'Hobbies' and 'Travel' (Your categories will depend on the type of papers you need to file.) Get a bunch of supermarket bags, and label each using your categories. Grab a handful of papers from the stack, and drop each paper in the appropriate bag. Again, don't look for dates, amounts or other details ? you're separating things into big categories, such as credit cards, banking, taxes, etc. As you go through the papers, remove any item that involves an action, and set it aside, in a separate bag labeled 'Action.' Action papers are easy to pick out. They require you to do something by a certain date, and include bills, parking tickets, RSVPs, and forms, applications, etc. that have a deadline. When you're done sorting, you'll have a bag of banking stuff, a bag of auto stuff, a bag of credit card stuff, etc. Keep in mind that categories will vary from person to person.

2. Specific Sort - Next, sort the contents of each bag into more specific categories. For example, 'Utilities' might be sorted into 'Water,' 'Gas,' 'Electric' and 'Cable. 'Banking' could be separated by account #, or by 'Savings,' 'Checking' and 'Car Loan.' (Don't bother with the 'Acton' pile. We'll get to that soon.) Again, your particular headings will depend on the types of papers that you have. But the principal is the same. Each of these subdivided piles will eventually get its own file folder.

3. File - Now that the sort is complete, it's time to set up a filing system. Let's keep it simple. Bills, statements, and similar records will be filed chronologically, with the most recent bill in front. For example, take your Visa statements and arrange them by statement date, from oldest to most current. Get an empty folder, label it Visa, and put the statements inside. Do the same for each utility, bank account, and other pile from step 2. Major purchases will each get a separate file. So, if you buy a new washing machine, create a washing machine file. Put your receipt, warranty, manual, and other info related to that washing machine inside. If the appliance requires repairs, put those receipts in the folder too. Non-dated items, such as instruction manuals and articles will also go into appropriately labeled files.

4. Action Files - Remember the papers from step 1, which require your action? Let's sort them into two piles, and assign each pile to its own file. The first group will include items, such as bills that must be handled this week. Some people like to call this a 'tickler file'. I suggest writing each task on a to-do list, as you put the paperwork in the file. Put all items that must be handled within a month, but not necessarily this week in the second pile. Put these items in a file labeled '30 Day Action'. The idea is to review your 30-Day file regularly, and transfer items into the tickler file, as you reach the one-week deadline date.

Marc Rifkin is a Professional Organizer, and owner of OASIS professional organizers, which provides home and office organizing solutions to clients in Greater Seattle. For more info please contact the author at, or check his website,

?2005 OASIS professional organizers

May be reprinted with full author credit, bio, and all links intact only

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