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.
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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?