No idea what to do when you’re overwhelmed by paper clutter? I can help!
We’re really moving along in our series (Home Management 101) on refining the way you manage your household. And by refining, I mean figuring out a way to manage it at all in the first place.
If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, I’ve linked them all at the bottom. Basically, up to this point we’ve:
- Gathered a box of mythical desk creatures (aka office supplies),
- Avoided the shame of a backpack devoid of empty milk cartons (by learning to use a planner).
Note to Self: Clean Owl Droppings Off Roof
Now let’s talk about how you handle that never ending influx of paperwork that forces its way into your life on a daily basis.
Directing the flood of paperwork efficiently used to outright flummox me. What was I supposed to do with those insidious receipts, documents, forms, letters, flyers, coupons, and school papers?
Like a scene from Harry Potter, they bombarded my house every day.
I Did Not Call You “Witless,” Honey. No, It Is Different.
They didn’t fly in through the mail slot or the fireplace.
I assume because we don’t have either one.
Instead, my unwitting husband would toss them haphazardly onto the always-obliging kitchen counter, where they taunted me from their deceptively innocent-looking little envelopes.
Or they sneaked in, crumpled up in the bottom of school backpacks. Sometimes, they hitched a ride in my car or my purse. Occasionally, the most blatant among them even greeted me smugly from the front doorknob.
There’s a Reason Hanging Was THE Punishment In the Old West
I tried piling. And I tried filing. Neither worked on its own.
I think what trips some of us up when we try to set up a household management system is not realizing there are (at least) two different types of paperwork. Basically they are:
- Stuff You Need To Deal With
- Stuff You Don’t
When I kept the papers that I didn’t need (much) any more right alongside the ones that required an action or were waiting for something else to happen, that’s where the trouble lay.
So, even though I do file, I don’t file everything together. Trying to treat all my papers as equals, filing all of them in the same system doesn’t work for me.
The hanging file part is only for the archives (aka Stuff You Don’t). And honestly, a box that collects those archive papers is sufficient for now. Just get it all away from the Stuff You Need to Deal With.
So grab a box that’s big enough to hold all those archive-worthy papers. The Stuff You Don’t Need to Deal With. And hang tight.
We’re going to handle those other papers. The ones that don’t go into these files (or the box you’re using to collect them).
You aren’t going to file:
- The school picture form you need to send back with your kid next week
- The list of contractors for your basement remodel
- Anything you need quickly as you’re running out the door for a meeting you’re already late for.
So take a deep breath and don’t freak out or doubt yourself. This system isn’t going to defeat you like the jerky files of your past life. This combination system set me up for success. I know you can see the same results.
Some Papers Whine More Than a Tired Four-Year-Old
The bane of my existence used to be those other papers. The ones with an agenda. You know which ones I mean. They demand: “sign me,” “file me,” “send me,” “copy me,” “read me,” “order me,” “pay me”…
Or worse yet, the ones saying “don’t do anything at all with me right now…or now…or now….wait for it…wait for it…NOW!”
That’s okay, you can just lay me down right here. Yeah, right here on the counter. I’ll be just fine. Don’t worry about keeping track of me. Mellow out. Have a glass of wine. After all, you won’t need me until next month, which is so, so far away. By then, I plan to make my way around to visit all my paper friends. Then I’ll trick you into inadvertently hiding me in the most logical spot, you know, the one where you will NEVER FIND ME WHEN YOU NEED ME. And then I will have won because I will be free forever!” [insert evil laugh here]
At Least I Opened the Window First. I Do Have Some Self-Control
Those papers are the devil.
Like the lab order received in March for a June test (hooray, at least it made it into the house!), that I needed to grab FAST on the way out the door to my appointment. There wasn’t time for the frantic (and fruitless) search that ensued.
Or how about those handy-dandy helpful reference papers? Like the class list, rolling on in in September to be used for Valentine’s cards?
I have to hold onto this for five months! Are you kidding me?!
This needier, more demanding paperwork inevitably led to file failure. File failure is my technical term for carefully opening a window and gently tossing an entire file box through it.
Believe me, separating the two types of papers saved countless untold file boxes from defenestration.
A Black Hole Is Not a Filing System (But A Filing System Can Be A Black Hole)
Nowadays, I keep a separate box for all those papers that need coddling. I call it my Action / Pending Box. Well, that’s what I’m telling you I call it. When I mention it in my house, I just call it “the box.”
As in, “did you look in the box?” “I put it in the box.” “I said, look in the box!”
If it’s up to me to do something with it, it goes here. Even if that something is just opening a piece of mail.
Anything that doesn’t need immediate attention goes in the box. Nowhere else.
Later in the series you will see how I handle what’s in the box. Until you get to that post, go through the box at least once per week and add items that need attention to whatever To Do list system you currently use.
By the way, reference documents also belong here. Soccer snack schedule, class list, etc. This is because some reference documents serve double-duty as reminders, at least until you really have your paperwork act together.
They might pretend to be something you’d file, but they are lying to you.
Get Ready For the Call From the Attendance Office
Okay, so you have your two boxes ready. And you’re ready to deal with those stacks of mail here and there, the pile of coupons on the microwave, the takeout menus stuffed in a kitchen drawer, the receipts on hubby’s dresser, and the lab form you’re keeping in the car for fear of forgetting it when you get your blood test one day in the future (stop putting that off, by the way – the doctor ordered it for a reason!).
I know it’s tempting, but resist the urge to go running around finding all your papers and immediately piling everything into these boxes.
Originally, I admit that I was going to advise you to do that very thing. But then I thought better of it.
If you do that and then get distracted or have to stop, the bits and pieces of systems that have already been keeping you afloat will break down. Consider this scenario:
- You tack an absence note for your kid on the fridge using your current, somewhat-working-for-you visual system.
- In your burning (and, most likely, impulsive) desire to start anew, you dash through the house, pulling papers from everywhere and tossing them joyfully in a laundry basket to take to the box.
Including the absence note.
- Life intervenes.
And what if you don’t get back to the sorting until next week? Or next month?
Or Overflowing With Unfolded Laundry In the Living Room. Been There.
I assume you already have some sort of system. Granted, it’s probably not working the way you’d like it to (otherwise you wouldn’t be looking for a new solution).
But if you do have a visual system, or any system, that works for you even a little bit, then read on.
And for now, leave the laundry baskets in the laundry room.
Using Sticky Notes As Stunt Doubles
As for the visual cues you currently use…
If you have anything that needs a direct action in the upcoming weeks and currently use a visual system, replace the item with a post-it note for now (from your unicorn box).
For example, put a sticky note that says “absence note in action box” in place of that absence note on the fridge. This will help you transition without a gap between systems. The visual reminder is still there, but the actual paperwork is in its proper place.
Then gradually, instead of piling every paper in the house into one big laundry basket to sort into the two “stuff” categories (Stuff You Need to Deal With and Stuff You Don’t), sort each pile as you come to it.
Get rid of anything you can get rid of as you sort (unless shredding seriously distracts you, in which case I’d suggest a shredding box).
This will keep all the chaff out of the Action / Pending box.
Eventually, the chaff won’t matter much. You’ll have a system where you know exactly what’s in the box and what to do with it.
For now, though, while your system consists of sifting through the box regularly trying to figure out what to do, we don’t want anything extra in there.
- Have all your paperwork sorted into archive papers and papers that need any attention whatsoever and
- Have all the trash and shredding out of the Action / Pending box
…you are ready to move on.
The next post in the series introduces you to my Weekly Paperwork Review.
It sounds scary, but it’s not. I promise. If I can get the hang of addressing each week head-on, you can too.
See you in the next post.
P.S. I’m excited to say the entire series is finished and posted.
What To Do When You’re Overwhelmed by Paper Clutter
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