The influx of paper into our homes and our businesses is one of the most annoying things we face on a daily basis. There is what comes through the snail mail, forms and responses that people walk into our offices and our homes, all the things you print off on a daily basis and let’s not forget the files and drawers full of the stuff.
It’s easy to see how just letting the paper flow go for a few days can be enough to crash the best organized among us. The trick is to continuously manage the flow – and that’s not as difficult as it seems with a simple system in place that you use to the point of it just becoming a habit you don’t even think about and it happens spontaneously.
There are three basic pillars to my system – point of entry, point of action and point of storage or disposal.
Point of Entry – this one is the source of it all – how and where is the paper entering your household of office? The best management starts at this point. Whether it’s snail mail, email or hand delivered pay attention to how it enters. When it enters you should do one of three things – identify if it is something that will require action now or later? Is it something that just needs to be kept for documentation? Is it something that needs to be discarded or recycled. If it falls into the discard or recycle category it can be dealt with right here and its journey has ended and it won’t end up in a pile. (I always note that you should take the proper precautions when it comes to discarding or recycling items that may contain personal or confidential information – a shredder or a shred box are a very good thing!)
Point of Action – once you know what you are dealing with it’s a matter of dealing with it. Is it something that you can act on immediately? Is it something you need to set aside for action at a specific time or on a specific date? If it is something that I can deal with immediately I set it aside to handle as soon as I’ve completed the process for all items – in other words finish your sorting and then deal with these items immediately and move them to the storage phase. If it is something that requires action –at a later time or date it goes into my “Action” file or bin.
Depending on the volume of items in your action bin or file you can get very original and creative here – it almost depends on how organized you want to be. You can have a master file that you separate into days of the week – placing each item in the corresponding file for the day of the current week you wish to deal with the item. You can have an additional folder that says next week – and at the end of each week pull items and place in the day to be completed as next week becomes your current week. You can also have an additional file for the current month that then feeds into the next week and current week files. You just need to get into the habit of moving things through the files each day and each week and month – it seems a bit complex on paper – but you’ll quickly find you spend a small amount of time each day managing the system. It’s important to note here that you need to keep the action file or files separate from your files you place things for storage – the third pillar of the basic system.
Point of Storage is likely the point where most systems break down – the distinction here is remembering storage and action are two very different elements. Your Action file/folder should not be confused with storage or you’ll quickly become overwhelmed and not be able to find anything. I break my storage into two principle categories. Short term (one year or less) and Long term (more than a year and things that need to be kept for varying reasons.)
My Short Term system is one file drawer that contains files and folders for all of the things that I access on a monthly basis. For example I have files for utilities, credit card accounts, medical files, mortgage, autos, gym memberships etc. As I pay bills, reconcile accounts etc. paperwork is filed in the appropriate folder – once a year I go through and purge these files (So for example in my utility files I have the statement for each month with notation of when it was paid. I always have the complete prior year in each file. – So in January I remove anything from the folder that is more than a year old – so when 2017 started I purged anything older than January 1, 2016.) Some people no longer even keep the previous year of statements with so many things available electronically – but I’m old school and want a little bit of security.
The Long Term files are documents that you need for reference – some of these are actually kept in a fire proof safe – information on life insurance, home owners and auto insurance polices – retirement account information – files to collect information for the upcoming tax year, etc. This is also where you can keep any information you need from previous employers, etc. I move files from my short term system to this system when they need – for instance if you close a credit card account but want to keep information on the account just incase you need it in the future. I then review and purge these files on an annual basis.
It’s important to remember there are no hard and fast rules to how you set up your system what’s most important is that it works for you and that it is something that you can easily master so that implementing it isn’t difficult and becomes second nature!
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