A simple system for controlling paper

Back in the newlywed days, our idea of a fun outing together was attending a Franklin Covey seminar about organization.  At the time, this presentation about reducing clutter and making a system for paper just went in one ear and out the other.  For the next couple of years, we still allowed all of our mail to grow in piles, only to be sorted through when it was embarrassingly bad.  Our desk area was generally overflowing with piles, and our file system was nonexistent.  Thankfully, we somehow managed to keep on top of our bills and important paperwork.

After Lewis was born and the bustle of having a newborn settled down, I started to look at the house from the eyes of a full-time homemaker.  I was really excited by the prospect of using all of my skills, gifts, and talents to make our home and family blossom.  Unfortunately, organization wasn't one of my natural "gifts".  Eventually, even though I didn't have the natural tendency to organize, the clutter got to me.  I was determined to act.  No more paper piles!

What really put me over the edge was a particular ledge in our family room.  When we would come in from garage, this clean ledge became a dumping ground for mail, among other odds and ends.  It looked terrible.  This cluttered ledge would make our whole house look messy, even if everything else was picked up.  The other thing that really motivated me was a desire to have a clean desk when we had company over.  Our desk is right next to our kitchen table, so we would have people over for meals and they got to look at an overflowing mess of bills and magazines while enjoying enchiladas.

One day I just sat down, went through all of the papers, and developed a system that made sense for our lifestyle.  Here is what we do now:

1 - Deal with paper everyday.
We used to bring in the mail and stack it in piles until they got big enough to spark a two hour session of organizing our stuff.  This didn't exactly motivate anyone to stay on top of bills and filing.  Now we bring in mail everyday, open it immediately (which is generally only one or two envelopes), and put it in it's designated location.  I love this system because it keeps papers from piling up and I can get to important documents when I have more time.

2 -  Put paper in it's designated location.
I have 5 locations or categories for paper items that enter our home.  Almost everything fits into one of these categories...

  • Bills or action items - These items go into a file on our desk.  I pay them once a week or once every two weeks.  When they have been paid (which I do online so there is nothing to mail), they are moved to the "to file" section.  Other examples of action items might be invitations, appointment reminder cards, or checks to deposit.
  • To file - These items which also go into a file on our desk might include paid bills, health insurance statements, special notes someone has written us, ultrasound pictures, and other papers that we don't want to throw away.  I only file about once every 3-4 weeks. *of course, this requires that you have a filing cabinet or another long-term storage solution 
  • To read - These items go on our bedroom  nightstand or on the refrigerator.  I found that we needed to take magazines, news articles, ministry updates, or other things we wanted to look at in more detail and store them in a place we would actually see them.  When they were just dropped on our desk, we would lose track of them for weeks or months.  Now if either of us has something on our nightstand like a Pottery Barn catalog or the latest issue of "This Old House", we just read it before bed and I throw it away within 1-2 days.  Brad has a harder time letting go of magazines than I do, so we don't have a perfect system for disposal yet.  :-)
  • Trash - This is pretty self explanatory.  One thing that helps us decide what to save versus what to throw in the trash is a "rule of thumb" we learned at that Franklin Covey seminar.  The question is..."how easily can I find this information again if I need it?" For instance, maybe you got an ad from Target or a flyer about a neighborhood 5K you are interested in.  That ad or flyer could clutter your desk for weeks while you have good intentions to do something with it, or you could just toss it and look it up online later if you need the information again.  This applies to almost everything...there is little need to keep a bunch of paper.
  • Coupons - Anything that is a coupon goes into a basket on our desk.  I try to clean out the basket once every couple of months and throw away coupons that are expired.  Having our coupons in one place allows us to do quick searches when we want to go out to eat because we are only looking in one location.
3 - Clean the desk once a week.
Inevitably, no matter how good we are at dealing with paper, random clutter still builds up on our desk.  Generally our bibles, books, pacifiers, and other commonly used household items end up making it look messy.  As long as I take everything off the desk and put things back where they belong about once a week, this mess doesn't get too out of control.

There you go...3 steps.  Easy!  If we didn't have a super simple system, we wouldn't keep up with it.  Everyone is different, and I wish I was savvy enough to have a brilliant and gorgeous system for organizing our papers, but I really don't.  It's just functional and keeps things under control enough to prevent major piles.  Of course, it's imperfect and from time to time we get lazy and let it build up until I re-instate all rules and we go back to a relatively clean desk.

I don't know what would work best for your family, but I can tell you it feels awesome to keep paper clutter to a minimum and know where important documents are...and that's coming from someone who isn't really into organization!
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