So Much for Paperless

Action files for paperwork

In spite of the arrival of the digital age, everyone faces the daily onslaught of paperwork. Having an effective paper management system is critical for keeping the paper under control.  But what is the best way?

First, establish a “hold” zone for all incoming paperwork. Remember, paper arrives from multiple sources. Mail is the obvious culprit, but paperwork also comes home in school backpacks, briefcases, purses, etc. The temptation is to dump it wherever we can when we walk in the door: the kitchen counter, the entry table, the desk, etc. This is a bad habit because it means we will have to “round it up” later which wastes time. Designate one place (bin, basket) to put all paper until you can sort it, and train family members to unpack all paperwork into the hold zone as they come in.

Second, set aside time each day for sorting your hold bin. This does not mean processing each piece of paper, but rather getting it out of the hold zone and into the next stage of a paper management system.  Committing to do this daily will give you peace of mind to know that you haven’t missed anything critical.

Here are the three steps:

 1. Trash/recycle anything you can. This includes catalogs, advertisements, offers for credit cards, requests from charities you don’t wish to support, etc. It also includes the advertising that is stuck inside of your bills. Keep only the bill and the envelope, pitch the rest.

 2. Shred anything with personal information. It is helpful to have a shredder near your hold zone so that you can shred in real time. If you can’t fit it there, place the items in a bin (e.g. a small extra trash can) labeled “to shred” and shred when you have a few minutes to kill.

 3. Sort the remainder into categories that make sense to you. Depending on your space, you can set up a hanging folder for each category or stack them into a horizontal sorter. Here are some categories to consider:

  • To Act: This would include any paperwork that you need to take action on, such as an invitation or a permission slip. Later, when you work through this file, remember to schedule anything that you plan to attend directly into your planner. Include the time, location & details of the event, and then you can pitch the paperwork.


  • To Pay: The most obvious item here is bills, but it includes any item requiring payment, such as school tickets, membership renewals, donation payments, etc. If it requires a credit card, online payment or check, it goes here. If you come across something that needs to paid immediately (e.g. a late bill, a field trip check due tomorrow), flag it with a post-it note or clip it to the front of the To Pay file and keep it out so you won’t forget. Once you have paid a bill, move any accompanying paperwork/receipt out of this file and into a detailed filing system in a filing cabinet.


  • To Read: Here is paperwork you need to take some time to read in detail. An example would be a rental agreement for a vacation home, a contract, a report, a letter from a teacher, etc.  Remember that later, after you’ve read an item, you will need to move it to another location in your system, probably into “To File” (see below.)

*** A word of caution… 

Many of us have a tendency to pile up catalogs and magazines. Most catalogs can be accessed online, so recycle them. If you enjoy leafing through catalogs, do it quickly, tear out the page of any items you are interested in, circle the item, and then move the page to the “To Pay” file. Get the catalogs out of your space as quickly as possible. Likewise, most people cannot keep up with more than 2-3 magazines a month. Cancel excess subscriptions, and if a new issue arrives before you’ve read the previous one, recycle the old one.

  • To File: Here are items you need to keep, but don’t necessarily need to act on. Receipts, health records, investment statements and the like should go here until you have the time to get them to their final destination, which should be a detailed filing system, set up to suit your needs.


  • To Review: This file holds paper that you aren’t exactly sure what you need to do with but you don’t have the time at the moment to figure it out. Put it here, with the promise to yourself that you will review it in depth later.

Sorting through the day’s paper shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes, and will ensure that papers won’t get lost or mixed up. Once paper is sorted into action folders, schedule time to look through and process the contents, ideally at least once a week.

Do you triage paperwork as it comes in? What tips do you have for taming the paper beast?

1 thought on “So Much for Paperless”

  1. Pingback: A Better Desk | The Seana Method Organizing & Productivity

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