Battle Plans for the Paper Piles

Piles of papers on your desk, kitchen island, floor, every possible horizontal surface? Does the constant influx of papers lead to overwhelm? Whether at home or at the office, most people have a never ending battle with papers. Ready to win the paper pile battle?

Battle Plan One:

Implement Stuff-flowâ„¢! Briefly, stuff-flow is the idea that stuff comes in, you do something with the stuff, and then most of the stuff leaves. In the home, take all of the papers that accumulate for a week. Divide them into four groups: action, read, file, trash/shred. Every piece of paper has to go into one of these categories. You will immediately notice that deleting some of the papers decreases the paper overwhelm. Take the action papers and see how many you can take care of in the next ten minutes. You may have to pay a bill, add an event to a calendar, or take some other action. But again, paper overwhelm will decrease as you make the decisions, especially if some of the actions result in the paper being tossed or shredded.

You can follow the same method in the office. The basic idea is that to maintain your current feeling of paper overwhelm, one paper must leave for each piece of paper that enters. This means, of course, that if you are starting with big piles, you probably need to delete several pieces of paper for each new one. 

Battle Plan Two:

ARM yourself. To corral those papers, you need the right knowledge and tools. First the knowledge. The fact is that there are three types of paper. Understanding this makes processing documents much easier. A is for Archive. These are papers that you have to keep for legal reasons such as past years taxes, divorce decrees, closing documents on all previously owned properties, etc. Such papers must be available if you need them, but not accessible enough that they should take up “prime real estate” in your space. For instance, my archive documents are in a file cabinet in my attic.

R is for Reference. These are papers that you look at more frequently. You may refer to them on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Examples include bank statements, medical test results, credit report, etc. You should have a good method for filing these papers, but they don’t need to be “out and about” because they are only for reference. I have a file cabinet in a bedroom for my reference papers and a four category; color coded filing system with a file index for easy filing and retrieving.

M is for Motion. These are papers that have some action attached to them. For instance, bills to pay, invitations to respond to, people to call, articles to read, etc. When someone claims that papers that are out of sight are out of mind, they are referring to “motion papers” not reference or archive papers. To find out more about document retention guidelines, please see Your Important Papers: What to Keep and Where. 

Now for the tools. For your Archive and Reference papers, you will need some type of filing system. This system must be easy to implement and maintain. There are many decisions to be made including type of folders, color coding, tab position on folders, type of label, filing container, location of files, and method of filing. Your Motion papers require a landing pad and a processing place. Make sure that you establish a system for exactly what happens when paper enters your space. Two important aspects of this line of attack include having a means to track tasks and being able to calendar events and activities. If you get stumped about what to do with a piece of paper, ask yourself: What needs to happen next? This power phrase will help you take the appropriate action. This is just a high-level overview of tools with which to ARM yourself; there are additional resources listed at the end of this article.

Battle Plan Three:

Ruthless elimination. Paper overwhelm is a direct result of having too many papers! There are two basic ways to not have so many papers: purge papers frequently and don’t allow them to enter in the first place. Barbara Hemphill states, “Paper clutter is postponed decisions; paper management is making decisions.”  These decisions will include: following the document retention guidelines mentioned above and processing paper on a regular basis. You will also need to set a boundary for what type and how many papers to keep when they don’t fall into the document retention guidelines. School papers, artwork, articles, jokes, and the like multiply very quickly and if you don’t have a good way to house them, you will not be able to find them when you need them. Furthermore, with the information highway being what it is, many articles “expire” very quickly.  

There are ways to prevent certain types of mail from coming into your home. While it takes a little effort to get off the lists, the payoff is great! I have about one day every other week when I don’t receive any mail. What a feeling! Here are some ways to reduce incoming papers:

  • Decrease magazine subscriptions. From the pure perspective of time to read, most people can only read one weekly and two to three monthly magazines.
  • Subscribe to the newspaper for the weekend, the weekdays, or just Sunday depending on which sections of the paper apply most to your professional and personal life.
  • Don’t sign up for credit cards store that offers you a discount on your first purchase. This will automatically place you on a variety of mailing lists, not to mention the fact that now you have a new bill that will come in the mail to be processed.

As wonderful as reducing incoming mail is, it is even better to eliminate it all together. Here are some methods for permanent paper elimination:

  • Single source to eliminate credit card offers
  • Eliminate other mail through the Direct Marketing Association. Make sure to send in a form for each variation of your name.
  • Convert utility, credit card, and all other bills to electronic notices. Similarly, have any financial investment statements and prospectuses delivered in electronic format.


Battle Plan Four:

Recognize connections. To paraphrase a familiar saying, “No paper is an island unto itself.” There are two connections that need to be identified and systemized. The first is the relationship between paper management and time management. The ability to manage your papers is directly tied to your ability to organize your time so that you have the ability to process the papers. Whether it is five minutes, 20 minutes, or one hour, you need to establish regular appointments with yourself to work on your papers. You can create wonderful archive or reference filing systems and your active or “motion” papers may be in a great system, but unless you take the time to actually do something with the papers, they will continue to accumulate. The second connection is the link between electronic documents and papers. Every email you print out is another piece of paper to handle. Be very stingy with your printer! Not only will you save money by not having to purchase as many ink cartridges, but you won’t be adding to your paper overwhelm.

If even the suggestions in this article lead to overwhelm, time to pick your battle! The war with your paper overwhelm won’t be won all at once. You start with one battle and then move to the next. Don’t forget to enlist other “soldiers” in your battles: family members, personal assistants/concierges, professional organizers, etc. Time for you to take back your horizontal surfaces!

Janice is available to speak throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, including Atlanta, Boston, Calgary, Chicago, Denver, London, New York City, Montreal, Ontario, Paris, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland (OR), Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis, Seattle, Vancouver, Washington, D.C., and the Triangle area of North Carolina (including Apex, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, Fayetteville, Morrisville, and Raleigh).

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