Friday, November 21, 2008

30-Day Organizing Challenge: Prioritizing Paper Management

Day 27's goal: Tame the paper.

To wind up the organizing challenge, we'll be spending two days this week on paper paralysis. Today, guest blogger, life coach and feng shui consultant Alison Marks will talk about getting your paper organized. Marks is also the author of The Little Book of Sanctuary: A Beautiful Home is Simply a Choice and the forthcoming and workbook set, “From Clutter to Order in 8 Weeks.” For more information, please visit or email her at alison at InsideOutDesignCoaching dot com.

I’m a collector. And a piler. So what am I doing writing about organizing paper?

Over the years, I’ve become obsessed with systems. Having elegant systems doesn’t change my inherent nature as a piler and collector. It does, however, serve as a protective line of defense that keeps me shielded from chaos and overwhelm--at least most of the time.

A lot of people think that their world of paper is an endless black hole. The truth is that no matter how much you have, there’s only so much of it. If you learn to think in terms of systems, it’s not so hard to get organized enough to have a clear desk and be able to get your hands on anything you need quickly.

Here’s how to start:

Decide what the big chunks are.

Think about the different kinds of papers you have based on how you use and interact with them, not based on content. They really will only fall into a few (3-5) major categories – what I call “big chunks.” Most people have these big chunks:

- Active papers and files – includes anything you interact with frequently
- Storage files
- Reference files – information about topics you are interested in, sort of like a personal library
- Great ideas – used especially by business owners and people working on big projects

This will serve as the big framework for your organizing system. Now you know the first question to ask yourself when you want to find something or put something away: “Is it an active item, a reference item or a storage item?”

Do a gross sort.

Gather all your papers and sort them into the big chunks. This means all your papers – yes, every single sheet. Your mail, magazine articles, old files, old letters, great work ideas, conference notes, random business cards, post-it notes, financial files and papers – ALL of it.

I recommend investing in some bankers boxes for this task. They are easy to drop things into, easy to temporarily label, easy to stack up when you need to take a break, and usable for storage once you get things further sorted.

As you’re sorting, you’re likely notice that you want to start creating subcategories. By all means go ahead and do that where it will help you right now (for example, you may want to have a box for things with a deadline that you need to tackle soon). Otherwise, don’t get caught up in sorting within the big chunks yet.

Map it out.

Where does it make sense for each of your chunks to live? Think in terms of how you work. Your long-term storage files can go in the garage, while bills to be paid should be kept together at hand near your desk. Physically move the boxes to that area.


Now that you’ve gone through all your papers, you have a sense of both what kinds of things you have and how much of them you have. Now your job is to find the best home for each group of like items. Containers are anything that hold something else – files, boxes, binders, desk drawers, racks, shelves, sections of things, boxes, etc.


There’s something magical about labels.
Even if you’re the only one using the space, labeling all the homes with a description of what lives inside will help you locate what you’re looking for and will ensure that your system stays in good working order. Labels also help you recognize when your papers are creeping over and above their containment zone. That way, you'll know when you need to make changes in the system to accommodate your constantly changing reality.

Set up a good in-box system.

Practice good time management habits that help you stay on top of current to-do items and maintain your system over time. There are many good systems out there – one I like is David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

There are a lot of ways to make this process more complicated, but it rarely needs to be. Being aware of how your systems support you and following these simple steps will help you get a handle on your paper once and for all!

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