If you stopped buying stuff altogether (food and hygiene excluded) and didn't bring anything into your home any more, there is one category that would always make its way into your home anyway. PAPER.
Paper is an enormous source of anxiety for many people. It's overwhelming, because paper feels IMPORTANT.
The only way to take control of paper and avoid it taking up valuable real estate is to get rid of most of it. Read on, I will show you how.
A few truths about paper organisation:
Most people don't enjoy organising paper.
You cannot organise other people's paper without involving them.
It's not always easy to make decisions on what paper is important.
Many paper records we keep are now available online.
The best paper management and filing systems are the simple ones.
MANAGING INCOMING PAPER - SYSTEM IS KEY
Before you even touch any of your existing paper clutter, you will need to figure out how you will manage incoming paper from this day forward. Incoming paper is anything ranging from bills, school art work, tax authority correspondence, junk mail, etc.
Go around your house, notice and mark (hint: use post its) any areas that are your "paper clutter zones". Where does paper naturally accumulate? Is it the hallway, kitchen, dining room table (a big NO NO), your desk... Think of your routines and that of your family members', like for instance: who usually picks up the mail, where do you enter the house, where does paper get "dumped"?
Now identify ONE place in your home that will be the INBOX. Any paper that comes into the home first goes in the inbox. It can be a set of trays, ideally placed close to your front door, so if you get mail or your kids come home from school with art work, this is the place it all goes. If you have kids or perhaps partners who are a bit like kids ;) you can label this place and make it absolutely clear that this is where everything goes. Training is key here. Just like you'd train a new employee on the job, you'll need to train your family members to use the inbox.
Now that you have your inbox, you need to make sure that it gets SORTED regularly. The smaller the pile, the less overwhelming its is and I would definitely recommend a quick 2 minute daily routine.
There are only 3 options you have to choose from at this point: TRASH, ACT or FILE.
TRASH: coupons, newsletters (unsubscribe!), not-so-precious kids' artwork etc. Discard these immediately and you already have one less thing to worry about. Please discard responsibly: shred if your personal data is on it and always recycle if possible. If you are struggling with kids artwork, ready my previous blog post on kids' paper.
ACT: a bill that has to be paid, RSVP for a school event, meter readings that have to be provided, etc. This is also an easy category - you know you have to take action. This can to go straight into your ACT tray, located wherever you will actually deal with it, e.g. office. In our case, I put it by the stairs to take up to the office on my next trip. Our act tray is sitting on our office desk, but you should put it wherever is most convenient for you. The ACT tray should be dealt with regularly as well, since bills and any correspondence usually have a deadline. One acted upon, the item can usually be filed or discarded. Read on.
FILE: this is the most difficult category, because it requires more than just dumping the paper on your desk or in a cabinet. You will need to think if this particular document needs to be kept LONG TERM or SHORT TERM, DIGITALLY or HARD COPY. Is it an ACTIVE file, something you need regular access to like school calendar, or an INACTIVE file (archive) like your property deeds, sentimental paper, prior tax years records that you may or may not require. You can choose to file these immediately or have a "to file" tray/file box. I have a vertical filing box and I usually only actually file our documents once a year or when the it fills up. More on this in the next section.
So now you have established a INCOMING PAPER SYSTEM that should be simple and easy enough to manage regularly.
But what shall we do about all that paper that you've been collecting for years?
A SIMPLE, ROBUST FILING SYSTEM
OK, so by now we have established system to manage incoming paper. Trash is discarded, you have clarity on what needs action and you have identified what needs to be filed.
A paper filing system is good only if you (and/or your partner) can locate any record within minutes. This means, in case of emergency, you can easily grab your vital documents and run. It also means you know exactly where to find the pension statement issued by your previous employer in 2007 and so on.
How you categorise your records is entirely up to you and I will give you an example of how I categorise ours, just to give you an idea, but the key question to always ask yourself when planning a filing system is WHERE WOULD I LOOK FOR THIS DOCUMENT?
We lived in / have affairs in 5 countries in the past 15 years and most of our files are therefore very conveniently stored by country. If I need to access anything, I know exactly which country it is related to, that's where I look - we have one binder per country and everything goes in there from house rental contracts, utilities, banking, tax, receipts and warranty of high value products, etc. I usually then separate everything further down by years, only because it's then super easy to get rid of the records when we no longer need them. If we didn't move so often, then I would probably have a different categorisation e.g. Property, Medical, Tax, Education etc. Remember, whatever makes sense to you. I would recommend following the same structure for documents stored digitally, on your computer or in the cloud.
In addition to these country specific binders, we have one VITAL DOCUMENTS binder which is stored separately, it has all our birth certificates, citizenship documents, tax numbers, university diplomas, etc. If we have to evacuate, this is the one binder we bring with us. So my advice to you is: make a vital documents binder, storing any official documents that are difficult to replace. I would also suggest scanning copies of these to store digitally.
Once you created your vital documents binder you can move one level further. How do you file all the rest? It's helpful to think about your documents in the following ways:
LONG TERM vs SHORT TERM RECORDS - how long do I need to keep this record?
DIGITAL vs HARD COPY - can this record be scanned and stored just digitally?
ACTIVE vs INACTIVE - is this a record I need to access and refer to regularly or can it just be archived?
Based on the above principles, this is my structure:
VITAL DOCUMENTS - as I wrote above this is one single binder, ready to go and digitised too.
ARCHIVE - a binder per country, containing anything that we might need to access at any point for tax purposes, etc. but doesn't need to be referred to on a regular basis. Due to different tax legislations, we keep out tax related files for 10 years. Property or valuables documentation for as long as we own it. Warranty documents for the duration of the warranty period. You get the gist. If there are some documents that I can keep in a digital form, I scan and then toss the original. Old employment contracts are a good example. GO DIGITAL whenever you can.
SHORT TERM - current year utility bills, payslips, bank statements, insurance policies, school calendars, receipts and anything that is either recent or we need to refer to during the year. I keep this in a vertical filing box by our desk and I only archive them once a year (which is also when I scan/discard as many of them as I can).
SENTIMENTAL - I will cover this in a separate article, put it all aside in a box for now
Make a structure that you can begin with, you can always adapt as you go.
THE METHOD - HOW TO DECLUTTER
Now that you've developed a system to manage incoming paper, and you have a structure for filing it,
you can go on to doing the big job of actually decluttering and organising.
There are two ways of doing this and I tried to give them some creative names :)
Only the first step will differ, otherwise the method is the same throughout.
Step 1: MARATHON - You go through your entire home and collect paper from everywhere, bringing it all into one room (preferably a room that is not used frequently). ALL OF IT. That is your starting point. It's overwhelming, but you see it all in one place and you slowly start working your way through the piles. This can take days or weeks, so be prepared
or SPRINT - Alternatively you can start by clearing just one room or one folder, depending on how much time you want to dedicate to the project. A good place to start would be clearing all the paper from the hallway or kitchen for example.
You will probably end up doing a combination of the two anyway. I recently went through all our paper, I took everything to one room, put it all on the floor, but then I went through it folder by folder over a course of a week. and organised binder by binder.
Step 2: Use post its to create piles: TRASH / ACT / SCAN&TOSS / FILE / SENTIMENTAL
Step 3: go through all the paper and put them into piles, then work through each pile. Involve any relevant family members, as you cannot make decisions on their behalf.
Step 4: label your binders and pockets inside in whatever way suits you. Index stickers, dividers, you can make it as simple or as fancy as you want, no need for a label maker for it to be organised.
Tip: Please don't go and buy any products just yet, chances are, as you declutter, you will be able to reuse what you already have and if not, see what you need first, then buy any missing organisation products.
Paper enters our homes and our lives constantly, don't expect it to be gone overnight, but with a brutal approach and a little effort, you can definitely free your space.
For us this is the end result. 15 years are now down to this little cabinet. And we will keep adapting as the world goes more and more digital. I reused all our old binders and file boxes, I didn't want to purchase new ones just for the looks. Perhaps it could do with a few labels, which I will make.
If you feel you still need help, please do not hesitate to contact me, I offer virtual services wherever in the world you may be.