5 Basic Rules for Paper Management in the Digital Age
Raise your hand if you thought you wouldn’t have as much paper to organize in the 21st century. Who thought paper management would be relevant, let along a problem, in this modern era? Believe it or not, we still print and consume as much paper as we did 20 years ago.
We consume more information than in the past because we use multiple formats: email, multiple forms of social media, websites, newsletters, etc. which is why we are completely overwhelmed. We have more decision fatigue from having to decide what to keep and what to toss because of the increased information consumption.
Paper and mail management is a constant question I get from clients because there is just so much information to sort, filter, file, and shred. Here are my 5 basic rules for paper management to help you get a handle on your paperwork in the digital age.
Get an actual inbox for incoming mail.
This is for mail that you want or need to read. Junk mail is like junk food and has no business being in your house. Put it in the recycle bin before it has a chance to infect your desk or countertop.
Use a pretty basket or tray for putting the mail in to make it more intentional. While you still have to read and process the mail, it needs an initial landing spot. Otherwise it will end up everywhere.
Have a place to store home/ personal papers with a basic filing system.
The simpler the system the better and everyone will have their own unique needs. The basic categories you’ll need are:
- Life Documents (passports, birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc.)
- Employment (where applicable)
- Kids’ names (where applicable)
- Pets (where applicable)
You’ll create more detailed subcategories as necessary such as: Home Receipts for large purchases, Home Repair, Home Insurance. Under “Auto” you might have separate folders for each car in your household to keep copies of Titles, Auto insurance policies, major repairs, etc.
The important thing to remember here is to not get too granular. The more detailed the system, the less likely it will be followed. Start with broad categories and subdivide as necessary.
Get a folder and label it “Tax Deductible” for your filing cabinet.
This folder should be at the front so it’s easier to drop those tax deductible receipts you gather throughout the year from donations, charitable giving, ad valorem (in the state of Georgia), etc. These receipts tend to live on the desk because people know they are important but they aren’t sure where to put them. Do they go with last year’s taxes? This year’s doesn’t exist yet….So create a folder to gather these paper receipts so that once tax season approaches, you can lay your hands on them quickly and easily.
Don’t use your email inbox as a to-do list.
While this one doesn’t really have to do with paper, I find that email becomes its own dragon to fight (or windmill depending on your perspective). If you’re leaving an email message in your inbox as a reminder to do something later, it’s the same as leaving papers on your desk as a reminder. When you receive more and more email messages, the “important” one gets shifted lower off your screen, away from immediate view (i.e. lost).
Be proactive and make a To-Do list that addresses that email action item. You can always search for the email if you need the information contained in the message but you’re not relying on the message’s presence to remind you that you need to deal with it.
Active papers on your desk go in a vertical file.
This way they take up less real estate and thus eliminate visual clutter. The more your eyes see, the more they have to process which creates stress in your brain and decision fatigue. If you’re going to be using the same papers for a while for a current project, store those in a vertical file so you can easily see them. If the papers are stacked up on your desk, or, worse, spread out, they take up more space and aren’t easy to find.
Everyone’s paper situation is different but I hope these basic tips help everyone get started on their own management system. Simpler is better when it comes to files and “no” is probably the right answer when it comes to making a decision about keeping it. You’ve got to find what works for YOU.