Paper Organizing Strategy: The Backwards Method

If you haven’t read my last blog post, How To Create a Filing System that Really Works, do yourself a favor and read it first. Over the next several weeks, I will be breaking that post down into more detailed, action-oriented steps. Follow the steps and be free from paper purgatory for life!

I know, I know, you have tried to get a handle on your papers before, but nothing ever seems to work. And every day, you are bombarded with new stuff. The junk mail, emails, backpacks full of schoolwork, work obligations, health concerns, summer camps, sports – the list goes on and on. If you allow all those new papers to blend with stuff that has been lying around for weeks, you greatly increase your chances of important papers getting lost in the existing piles of irrelevant, outdated paper.

How to Organize PaperThe result: you drop the ball on something that is important. Once the ball drops, you may get frustrated, berate yourself, and eventually tell yourself it’s your fault for using a bad system or giving up. Never fear – there is a solution. Use my “backwards method.”

Today’s focus is about managing the current paper you have cluttering your countertops and dining table. Organizing new paper first gives you a system to stem the flow as paper comes in, hence referring to it as the backwards method. Work backwards from now towards those old tax files from 1996, which are less of a priority.

Supplies You’ll Need to Get your Paper Organized

To get started here are the suggested supplies you should prepare:

  • Post – It notes (don’t worry about color)
  • A sharpie
  • Manilla folders (new or used)
  • A shredder (or box for papers to be taken to a shredding service)
  • A place for recycle paper (if you plan to recycle)

How to Set up Your Mini-File

Every time your hand touches a new piece of paper, there is a decision to be made, a new habit that you need to establish and a process that needs to take place.

Organized FilesEach piece of paper you review will fit into one onto one of four categories: to dispose of (trash, recycle, shred), pending (an item that needs to be filed once the date passes), to file for reference and action (anything that you need to take action on, such as filling out a form, paying a bill, making a phone call, or putting dates onto your calendar).

To set up your mini-file, create three temporary stacks. Label one “action”, the second “pending” and the third “file”. If you are a visual person, the action area can also go onto a tabletop inbox that is more visible, rather than a hanging file. You may create some project files as you go, but but start with those to begin with. Now you’re ready tackle your paper!

Doing the Work of Organizing, Piece by Piece

Start by collecting all of the recent paper together and pick up one piece at a time. In order to make a decision, ask yourself which of the four categories it falls under. Here are examples of each category:

  • Action paper is something that requires you to do something. That might be signing a child’s field trip permission slip, a bill to pay, or the receipt for something you want to return
  • Pending paper might be a save the date card or a flier advertising an upcoming event you are interested in attending. Similarly, a receipt for an item you prepaid for and want to make sure you receive (think of a child’s yearbook or school photos) until the item arrives.
  • Filed papers would be anything that you want to keep for future reference, and can be short or long term files. Examples would be receipts for work done in your home, donations made to a local charity or the sports packet for your child’s summer camp. Once you have done your initial sort, begin to create individual files for specific filed categories, such as “2019 taxes”, “renovation project” or “business plan.” These can live in your mini-file if you get into them often, or into a longer term storage filing area if not.
  • To Dispose of / Shred includes junk mail of course, but also anything that you know that you will never need to look at or refer to again. If it’s something you want to remember but don’t need the paper, jot down the information and toss the paper.

Work through each piece of new paper until you are done!

Now that You’re a Paper Organizing Pro, Adjust Your Habits

Once you are able to think of each paper as having a category and have used the consistent process for each piece, it’s time to create a new habit. Review all incoming paper in this same manner every time you deal with it. I recommend every day, or at least once a week to keep it from piling up again.

For example, deal with trash and recycling right away, every day. Placing a recycling and trash can right near where mail piles up can be very helpful. Anything that needs to be shredded should be shredded on the spot. If you do not have a shredder, make sure that you have a place to put items to be shredded. If you do have a working shredder, promise yourself that you will shred as you go, starting with all new items. That is what working backwards and forming new habits is all about.

Over the next couple of weeks, all of your paperwork should be disposed of or filed in one of the above four categories as it comes in to your home. As time allows, work on your action items. Once complete, dispose of the paper or move it to “pending” or “to file” category.

If your paperwork is out of control (and my guess is that it is, or you would not be reading this) promise me you will practice this technique over the next couple of weeks. While you are working hard at managing all the new paperwork that comes your way, I will be working hard on my next blog post where I will go into much more detail about sorting and creating a temporary file system that will sustain you until you reach your final destination – a happy place I call paper nirvana.

Until then, happy sorting!

Melinda Miller

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