All about decluttering and organising paperwork

Paperwork is the single most annoying thing in most people’s homes. In this post I’m going to tell you how to be a paper warrior and to keep it simple. We’ll cover stopping paper and paperwork getting into the house, keeping it all in one place and taking immediate action, and dealing with it once a week. We’ll also look at filing, and emergency action when it’s all got out of hand.

Pile of mail. Thanks to Charles Williams (CC BY 2.0).

Paper and paperwork? It’s a force of nature. It’s often unrequested, and it gets dropped and forgotten. It ends up in piles and heaps all over the house and attracts more clutter as it goes. We’re talking about forms to sign, magazines, junk mail, bills, catalogues, newsletters, newspapers, letters, postcards, lottery tickets, raffle tickets … And all the rest.

Yes, paperwork when it’s out of control is annoying. And piles of paper are the thing we notice most often in other homes – long before dusty corners or unwashed mugs and plates.

What’s more, paper and paperwork when it’s out of control is very unrestful. That’s because it’s unfinished business. How can anyone relax with unfinished business about? They can’t.

What a long way from the paperless paradise we heard about a few years ago. Time to be a paper warrior!

Be a paper warrior and be strategic

Take control. This is the only way to prevent paperwork becoming paper clutter.

1. Stop as much paper and paperwork as possible from getting into the house.

2. Put all the paperwork that does make it inside in one place. Deal with as much as you can immediately. Put the rest in your in tray.

3. Set a regular time to deal with your in tray.

4. Have a simple filing system and use it.

1. How to stop paperwork getting into the house

Prevent junk mail

You can stop quite a bit of junk mail from getting through your letterbox by registering with these four organisations:

  • Mail Preference Service – a service funded by the direct mail industry to remove consumers’ names and home addresses in the UK from lists used by the industry.
  • Fundraising Preference Service – a service that lets you stop charities from contacting you.
  • Direct Marketing Association’s ‘Your Choice’ – a scheme to stop door-to-door delivery of unaddressed mail.
  • Royal Mail Door-to-Door – opt-out form. (Be aware that registering to opt out means that you will not receive leaflets from central and local government and other public bodies. This includes unaddressed voting and election material, and information about local recycling and so on.)

Review and reconsider

Review your subscriptions to newspapers and magazines. If you don’t read them then it’s time to stop them coming through the letterbox. You could consider a digital subscription.

Reconsider any magazines you buy in shops and from newsstands. Are they one-off or regular purchases? Once again, do you read them?

Manage your ‘paper and paperwork’ online

This is a good idea but, of course, it can generate more email. (Keeping that under control is a story for another day!)

Online, you can, for example:

  • manage your bank and other financial accounts
  • pay your council tax through a direct debit
  • manage your utility meter readings and bills
  • read magazines and newspapers
  • keep a ‘look book’ for design projects on Pinterest.

2. Keep all paperwork in one place and, if you can, deal with it immediately

All paperwork in one place

This will stop it from going walkabout in the house. Choose a place and use it. It doesn’t matter what you call it – ‘command centre’, ‘landing pad’, ‘my desk’ – put all your paperwork here and do that consistently.

paperwork
The bridge, the nerve centre of a tugboat

Deal immediately with as much paper and paperwork as you can

This takes away paperwork’s power to clog up your head with unfinished business.

  • Recycle immediately – junk mail flyers, unwanted catalogues, takeaway menus, other adverts, free directories, spare envelopes etc etc etc.
  • Shred immediately – charity request letters and other junk mail with your name and address on.
  • Open letters (I use an old vegetable knife to do this quickly and easily). Recycle or shred the envelopes and anything else you can.
  • Do what you can straightaway. Then it’s done and out of the way and out of your head! Sign school permission slips and reply to invitations, send money to school or other places. Note any important dates. Once again, recycle or shred anything you can.
  • Put the rest in your in tray. This will probably be paperwork to think about, file, scan and so on. (By the way, you don’t have to use a tray. I like using one because it keeps things straight and I know I’m going to go through it at the end of the week. For some people it means that things get buried. Choose what makes sense to you.)
paperwork
You can use whatever comes to hand as an in tray. Some people use this kind of paper tray. Some people use a cardboard box.

3. Set a regular time to deal with your in tray

Every successful paper warrior I’ve met sets a regular time to deal with their paperwork. It’s usually once a week and it becomes a habit. They focus on their in tray and whisk through it, quickly and effectively.

Work through your in tray.

  • Sort through it. I put similar things together so I’m dealing with them all at the same time and I don’t have to change gear.
  • Read paperwork.
  • Pay bills.
  • Reconcile accounts.
  • Write letters and cards.
  • Take action on anything else that requires your attention.
  • Recycle or shred what you can.
  • File what’s completed.

Some paperwork will need more information before you can deal with it. Other papers you may be undecided about. Put those back into the in tray for next time.

4. Your filing system

  • Know what paperwork you need to keep and for how long.
  • Have a filing system. Keep it simple.
  • Only file what you need.
paperwork
Neat and tidy files make it easy to find paperwork again but you probably don’t need to keep as much paperwork as this …

What you need to keep

There are some papers to keep because they are essential and other papers to keep because they may make life much easier for you in the future.

Papers that are essential – for example, birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies, examination certificates.

Other papers to keep (and this depends on you and your circumstances) – for example, school reports, current passports, business documents, some financial documents.

Filing system

The main thing here is to make it easy for yourself, so choose a system that will be easy to use! You want to be able to file paperwork quickly and without fuss – and to find things again quickly and without fuss. Depending on your circumstances, you could choose a filing cabinet, a concertina file, a banker’s box (these are the right size for files or folders) or other boxes.

paperwork
Thanks to Hiro (in the banker’s box) and Mitch Barrie for this image. CC BY-SA 2.0

Set up simple main categories that make sense to you, and label each folder or file accordingly. You could have one for each person in the house, each animal in the house, bank and other financial institutions, health, and business, for example. And each main category can be divided into sub-categories, if necessary.

5. Emergency action

This is for when your house is awash with a sea of paper. Or perhaps it’s the house of someone who is ill or has recently died. Emergency action is required.

Walk through each room and collect all the paper and paperwork. Put it into a bag or box.

Find a space where you can sort it. Sort all the paper and paperwork into three piles:

  • Anything you need to keep. You can get to this later.
  • To shred. That’s unwanted paperwork with names, addresses or financial details.
  • Recycling. That’s everything else.

Good luck with decluttering and organising, Paper Warriors!

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