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Old 05-17-2005, 03:41 AM
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Digging Out of Paper Clutter

by Marc Rifkin

Digging out from under stacks of paper might seem like a daunting and insurmountable task. Let’s face it, paper can be intimidating and overwhelming. And all of the chatter about a ‘paperless society’ is just that - chatter. In fact, the fax machine, copier, home printer, daily mail delivery, and other paper wielding invaders, just about ensure that we are headed in the opposite direction.

Paper comes relentlessly and without warning, and it never stops coming - bills, insurance policies, faxes, to-do lists, invoices, tax information, user manuals, receipts, itineraries...Add the magazines, brochures, drafts, booklets, letters, drafts, etc., and it’s easy to see how paper molehills quickly grow into paper mountains. And, here’s the worst part - somewhere in this ever-growing mound of chaos lies your business: important phone numbers, bills that have to be paid, clients that need attention, receivables that need collecting...

Before I help you to dig out of the paper clutter, let me assure you of two things:

1. You are not alone.
2. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

My goal is to "unbury" you, by helping you to pare down and organize your papers. Before we start though, let me suggest that you don’t try to do everything in one day. Work in 1-2 hour chunks of time.

The first step is sorting, To sort, we’ll need some containers (I use laundry baskets or milk crates, but any boxes will do). Label the containers accordingly:

Take Action - anything that requires you to do something within the next two weeks. Includes bills, appointments, meetings, etc.
Read - includes any paper, newsletter, announcement, magazine, etc. that might contain information you want to read. The secret here is to cut out the article, and throw away the rest of the publication.
30 Days - includes things that must be done within 30 days, but are not as critical as Take Action items which must be done within two weeks. Includes bills due, appointments, events, to-dos, etc.
File - These are archived items that require no action, but must be retained. Includes contracts, bank statements, receipts, warranties, product information, tax information, etc.
Throw Away - anything that is six months old and requires you to take no action.
Now that we have our containers, let’s start. Grab a stack of papers, and sort through it, placing each paper into the appropriate container. Since you’re sorting by general category, it should go pretty fast. Be thorough, but quick. The key is to touch each piece of paper only once, and not to read each paper. Just glance at it, and quickly put it into the correct container. We will do a more specific sort later. For now, we are doing a general sort, and discarding trash.

Of course, the biggest question is what to throw away. The simple answer is to throw away anything you don’t need. You need to ask yourself, "Do I really need this, and what is the worst thing that can happen if I throw this away?" I worked with one person who published a local, specialized newspaper. He wanted to keep one or two copies of each back issue, but when we sorted his paperwork, we found 40-50 copies of each. We also found records of events he was involved in years ago, wedding photos, some of his children’s artwork, DVD rental receipts, last year's to-do lists, his son's birth certificate, the title to his SUV, etc. We also found owners manuals and receipts for items he no longer owned, stacks of bank statements from the 1980s, and so on. Remember, this is your workspace. For you to be most efficient, effective and professional your paperwork has to be in order.

By now, you’ve gone through each stack of paper. You sorted correctly, you have five containers or boxes of papers to be filed, and (most likely) a lot of discarded paper for recycling.

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.

Congratulations on your hard work and progress. You have succesfully "unburied" yourself from paper clutter!

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