The first step to getting control is to make sure you have a home for it all. Even if the home is only a "temporary home", any home is better than none at all. You've probably heard the old adage that says you should only touch each piece of paper once. Well, in a perfect world, that would work, but in the world I live in - REALITY - a piece of paper is sometimes placed to the side to be dealt with later, then later picked up and put in a temporary home "such as a "to do" pile, then comes back out of the to do pile, and dealt with once and for all. We just don't have time to deal with every little thing the moment it enters our fingers. Sometimes, things just end up shuffling back to the surface. So take that old philosophy of "only touch it once" and throw it out.
With that out of the way, you need to deal with finding homes for things. As I said in the previous paragraph, sometimes you have to have temporary homes for things. It's okay! Don't panic! You are among the normal. I know you have work to go to, then kids to pick up, then groceries to buy, laundry to do, house to clean, dinner to make, dishes to wash, kids to clean up, family play time - if you're lucky, bills to pay, email to read, plants to water, and ... MAIL to sort!
Start out by getting some of those stackable trays (or whatever organizing gadget works for you). Label one "Inbox", one "Outbox" and one "To Do".
Your inbox is the place where all of your incoming mail, notes from school, magazines, catalogues, letters, etc. get dropped off. You can get every member of your household on board by telling them that if it doesn't make it into the inbox, it doesn't get looked at. All new papers go here.
Your outbox is the place for redirecting anything that belongs to someone else. It could be your husband's Sports Illustrated Magazine, coupons you saved for your sister, signed papers for your son's field trip that has to go with him to school. Some people have asked me, "why bother with an outbox, why not just deliver the item to the proper owner?" It is a great question and a wonderful plan, and if you can stick to that plan - GREAT. However, some of us can't handle distraction.
How many times do you get up to do something, get distracted for a moment, then go to do what you started, but realize you've forgotten what it was? Another common scenario is you get up to give your son his permission slip for a class trip, and on the way to his room, get sidetracked by your husband who wants you to help him find something (that is probably right in front of him in the closet). You put the permission slip on your dresser while you help the poor man, (note there are other papers there, because there are papers EVERYWHERE).
Three days later, your son comes to you and says if he doesn't turn in his permission slip today, he can't go on the trip. "Oops...now where did I put that down? I just had it the other day!"
Having an outbox prevents you from getting distracted and sidetracked. If you stop in the middle of your sorting process to deliver, you may never get back to it. Having everything in an outbox allows you to distribute everything at once rather than making multiple side trips.
This is where you put everything that requires your attention. When you run across something you need to deal with (file, call, read, sign, etc.), put it in your to do box and start on it as soon as you are finished sorting.
Conquer The Paper...
The best way to conquer the paper, is to tackle the project head on. Even if you put it off for a while and let things sit in the inbox, eventually, you are going to have to deal with it. There are basically three actions you must to when emptying the inbox. They are file, redirect or act.
Anything you need to keep for reference needs to be filed. The very best piece of organizational equipment you can have is a file cabinet. Also, if you do not have a fire safe, I recommend you get one (the filing folder size works great) or else you should open up a safe deposit box (but note that most bank safe deposit boxes are not fire proof - so be sure to ask prior to signing the rental agreement.)
There are some papers that are appropriate for a filing cabinet, and some that should be more protected and heavily guarded against things like fire, theft and loss from misfiling, clutter, etc. I have created a chart below for things that I feel are important to keep, and the places they are best kept:
Fire Safe or Safe Deposit Box
bills to pay
labels, paper, stationary
child's school papers
birth certificates & vital records
social security cards, passports, etc.
previous year's taxes
financial statements/stock records, etc.
extra / unused checks
rarely or "backup" credit cards
You should always keep a keen and protected eye on your personally identifying documents and irreplaceable or difficult to replace documents. The basic rule is, if you have papers that are hard to replace or contain personally identifiable and/or sensitive information, to protect your valuables and your identity, you should always lock them up in a fire proof place. Just because something is inside of your home, doesn't always mean it's protected.
Some people get elaborate with their filing systems, and some people are pretty basic about it. Regardless of your level of complexity, use a system that works for you. If you create a filing system that you don't really understand, or it doesn't make logical sense to you, then it isn't going to work. Why? Because we don't use things we don't understand or don't agree with. So make it as complex or simple as YOU want!
I highly recommend hanging file folders, sensible labels, and some invested time to figure out what you want and where. Keep in mind that every separate category deserves a folder and label of its own. Never group items together - it just makes it more confusing and difficult to find things later.
Redirecting paperwork is really very easy. It usually involves giving something to someone else to deal with (that Sports Illustrated Magazine for hubby, coupons for sister, and permission slip for son that I talked about earlier). It may also involve throwing things in the trash can or shredding.
Another piece of equipment that I feel is crucial for any household to have, is a paper shredder. In this high tech world, identity theft has become a very real and serious problem. Your best defense (aside from checking your credit reports regularly - go to Suze Ormon's website for more info) against identity theft is to shred anything that has your name, your address, or any personally identifiable information on it. If you just tear something in half and toss it in the trash, you are a prime target for identity theft, and it's easier than you think for even a dumb criminal to pull off.
rightful owner, things you don't need to handle can be delegated to someone else to complete, and as for the garbage/shredables - just take out the trash!
When you are going through your papers, decide what action you need to take on each item and either do the action, or organize it into piles/files so you can work on them when you have time.
Your action piles/files may be things like:
- Letters to write
- Calls to make
- Bills to pay
- Scrapbook additions
- Recipes to organize
- Things to read
You can check your "Things to read " file before you go the DMV and catch up while you are waiting in line, or take a magazine to the doctor's office while you wait.
If you have the time, and I realize you will most likely NOT have the time immediately, you can sign the permission slips, pay the bills, make the calls, and write the letters. Whatever you can't do immediately, can be filed away to tend to at a later time.
Conquer The Paper...
Whatever you do, remember that there is a natural order to things. As my financial mentor, Suze Ormon always says, "People first, then money, then things."
Don't allow your priorities to get backwards. Getting organized and staying organized is important, but don't allow it to stress you out and run your life. The whole point to organization is to reduce stress, not create more of it.
Make sure you do everything in moderation.
There's a time to file, a time to cook, a time to pay bills, and to read a book, a time to sort and a time to shred, a time to laugh, and go to bed!