This Tip Will Make Sorting Paper Much Easier

Piled Up Paperwork

As much as I love de-cluttering, I have to admit that sorting through stacks of paper can be daunting. There are a couple of valid reasons why we might put off dealing with accumulated paper:

  • Paper is relatively small, so it can be piled up for a long time before it interferes with the use of our home or office.
  • Sorting a stack of paper can feel less rewarding than clearing out a closet or room because it may not free up significant space.
  • Dealing with accumulated paperwork is likely to add items to our “to do” list, such as shredding, filing, responding, calling, deciding, and following up.
  • Some paperwork represents tasks we do not know how to perform, and is intentionally being avoided.

In spite of these difficulties, sorting paper is worth the effort. Getting our paperwork in proper order often brings a sense of peace. When paperwork is filed, rather than piled, we have confidence that we will be able to find what we need and won’t overlook anything important.

So how can we tackle procrastinated paperwork without getting overwhelmed or discouraged? Here is a suggested approach:

1. Set up a location where you will sort paper. This “station” should have:

  • a container for recycling
  • a container for shredding
  • a folder labeled “to file”
  • empty hanging file folders and tabs
  • a folder labeled “FOLLOW UP”
  • a pen
  • Post-it notes

2. Bring a stack of accumulated paperwork to the station, along with your “to do” list. [Note: any “to do” system (e.g. digital app, journal, etc.) will work, as long as you trust it and use it.

3. Begin sorting paperwork, disposing of unwanted paper into the appropriate container (shred or recycle). Be sure to shred anything with a signature, account number, social security number, credit card number, birthday, or medical information.

4. When you come across anything that needs to be placed into a hanging file, put it in your “to file” folder. If you don’t have an established hanging file for the category into which this piece of paper should go, create one using your hanging file supplies.

5. When you come across something that requires you to follow up in any other way, write down the next step you need to take on this piece of paper on your “to do” list. Then, write this task on a Post-it note, adhere the Post-it note to the piece of paper, and put the paper in your “FOLLOW UP” folder.

6. Once you have reached three items on which to follow up, stop sorting.

7. When you are finished sorting:

  • Return any remaining paperwork back to the original stack
  • Take your “to file” folder, along with any hanging files you created, to your filing area (filing cabinet, bin or box), and file paperwork.
  • Decide when you will perform your three action items.

The secret to this system is to stop sorting when you reach three action items. The temptation may be to keep going, but odds are you will suddenly have too many follow up items to realistically act on, and therefore may end up procrastinating dealing with any of them. Limiting yourself to three action items gives you a manageable amount of incremental work, maximizing your odds of making real progress. Furthermore, by having a folder designed specifically to hold the “current” pieces of paperwork, it will be easier to find what you need when you are ready to take action.

Once you complete the needed tasks for the first three pieces of paper, you are ready to start sorting again.

*     *     *     *     *

Processing accumulated paperwork is more of a marathon than a sprint. It is important to keep moving forward, but at a pace we can sustain.

Do you have a pile of paper you’ve been avoiding? Do you think this approach could help you finally get it under control?

24 thoughts on “This Tip Will Make Sorting Paper Much Easier”

    1. I think almost everyone has a stack of paper somewhere that needs sorting! Maybe a cold winter day and a cup of tea are the right setting to knock it out:) Happy President’s Day with your girls!

  1. Yes we talked about dealing with paper in our recent group session. I really love your steps and especially to stop after 3 actions that need to be taken. I definitely need this on my to do list. I will be saving this info for my next group session.
    Kim recently posted…Week 7 – Now What?My Profile

    1. Thanks for the affirmation, Kim. I do think that we quickly become overwhelmed by all the required follow-up steps. I’d be interested to hear how the group reacts to this “limit of 3” idea!

  2. When I was taking night courses, I’d come home each week and add my notes and handouts to a big pile on my desk, where they accumulated for months, maybe longer. I’m quite sure I don’t have any of that material anymore, but somehow it felt like I needed to keep it for at least a while. Even now, I’ll come home from a workshop, and tuck the handouts in a file folder on my desk, only to be forgotten. Why is it so hard to just throw things out right away?
    Janet Barclay recently posted…How much is email worth to you?My Profile

    1. I think we all have this idea that we will “go back and refer to” a piece of paper in the future. Sometimes we do, and most of the time, we don’t. I’m like you… I like to get papers filed as soon as I come back. So for me, much of the paperwork I need to clear out is actually in files.

  3. This post really breaks down the steps for clearing the paper clutter. Great job!

    I recently when through the recent to do pile on my desk and weeded it down to only three different tasks that are still pending. I’m glad it’s not overwhelming any longer.

    I also found over the years, using the wide 2-inch hanging folder and manilla folders inside works best for me. Every year, I pull out the manilla folders and transfer them to the long-term section or recycle them. Then, All I need to do is replace the manilla folders. Easy. I found that doing it this way; I don’t need nearly as much hanging folders which take up less storage room. =)

    1. Yes, I love this system. It makes it so easy to clear out files at the end of the year. My husband likes to keep all the paper when he clears the files, so the project we have is to go through boxes of paper in the attic. I need to keep inviting him to do this with me:)

  4. Absolutely brilliant, Seana! Stopping at 3 actionable items keeps it manageable and more likely to be accomplished. I’m always a fan of your suggestions, but this one is my favorite so far. Brilliant!

    1. I was inspired by a client who is processing her father’s estate. We were trying to clear paper, but it was just turning into more than she could handle. We needed to scale it back: reach 3 “to do” items, and we’ll move onto another category!

    1. Agreed… everyone needs a shredder! Of course, at this time of year, if you happen to have a wood-burning fireplace you could also toss it all in there. A nice option if you have a large quantity!

  5. When I was in grad school and also teaching at the time, I had huge stack of papers everywhere, with everything from notes to journal articles to stacks of past student exams. Somehow I managed to usually know where things were even among the chaos but it was definitely not ideal and people used to comment about it all the time!! I still have this problem but I have become more organized using some of the methods you shared – still have much room to approve though 😉
    Jessica Norah recently posted…Travel Photography: 6 Ways to Take Great Couple Photos while TravelingMy Profile

    1. Paperwork is an albatross to many! I can only imagine the stacks you must have had being in grad school and teaching. That’s a lot of paperwork! What did you major in? Organizing is sort of a lifelong pursuit, and a skill we can improve our whole lives long:)

  6. I will just say I am getting better on this task. However in this “paperless society”, I find I have more paper than before computers!

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