Vital Organizing

(Something everybody needs.)

Vital Organizing: Something everybody needs. Home and office organizing based in Washington, D.C. Economical, customized, small space solutions and one-on-one organization services.

Organizing Papers

One of the projects I regularly tackle with clients is organizing papers. It’s that backlog of mail, bills, and general nonsense that people often have stacked precariously all over your house. 

Here is an infographic that will help you quickly put into action all the stuff I say below. But keep reading for more detail.

I think that dealing with papers is an overwhelming process because:

  • We want to be responsible, but don’t know what that means in the context of papers – what we should keep, what we can trash – and that uncertainty leads to indecision and inaction; and,
  • Papers keep coming, even if you haven’t dealt with the existing heap.

Hopefully, this post will help you learn about responsible paper management and show you a way to deal with the backlog and then stay current.  The process for getting on top of papers is basically a larger scale version of how you will keep current with papers going forward.  Check it out!

Step 1: Collect and pile

Collect all the papers from whatever basket or stack they’re in, and bring them to one central area.  (You may find it helpful to keep the stacks as they were, as their piles may have some meaning to you and will make subsequent sorting easier.)

Step 2: Create the filing system

Most people need three basic paper categories: Inbox – Action – Archive.

1. Inbox: This isn’t a file per se, and is the easiest file to set up.  It’s just an inbox (it could be a spot on a shelf, or an old school wooden desk inbox) where you will dump papers as they come in so that you can sort it at a point convenient to you.

  • The inbox MUST be gone through at least once per week.  Completely emptied.  Action items go in the Action file; magazines in the magazine rack; other items shredded/recycled.
  • If you want to be a next level paper ninja – don’t have an inbox.  Simply go through your mail every day when you pick it up – recycle the crap, and put items that need attention into the Action file.

2. Action File: This is where you will store the papers you need to deal with – bills to be paid or double checked, health insurance statements to review when you are sufficiently caffeinated, letters to which you need to respond. 

  • For many people, the Action File can simply be one box.  For others, a few folders may make sense – for example: Action – Kids, Action – Bills, Action – House.
  • The Action File needs to be dealt with regularly.  Once a week is ideal.  This means take the inbox, sit at your desk, or on your couch, and go through and deal with the papers in there.  Pay the bills, return the calls, write the letters in response.  This is a “human system” – and is essential to staying organized.
  • If the action is completed, you may be able to recycle the paper.  If you want to keep it (for example, to make sure a bill payment goes through), you can file it in the Archive File.

3. Archive File: This is where you store papers you may need to refer to.  This should be as streamlined as possible – which is one area where people get stuck, and why they end up with way too many papers.  Don’t fall into the habit of keeping papers “just in case” – have a reason for keeping it.  Odds are that you will never have to refer to any particular piece of paper so be judicious in your paper preservation.

  • Where to store?  Almost no one needs a big file cabinet.  You can get away with one to four “desktop” files, like these beauties. 
  • What to keep?  I cannot give you legal advice about what papers you should keep.  However, here are a few pieces of guidance from reliable sources:
    • Taxes: The IRS has some guidance out there on which tax documents to keep, and for how long. 
    • Financial Statements: Anyone with investments is familiar with the large stacks of papers they receive, annual prospectus and the like.  In general, these are mass produced public records and available online should you need to reference them at a future date.  Once reviewed (or, let’s be honest, glance at), you should be ok to toss.  Here is more information from an expert. 
    • Paid bills: If you have paid a bill and want to make sure the payment goes through, it’s fine to keep it.  I recommend keeping it in completed action items (see below).  There should be no need to keep bills that are auto-paid or otherwise unlikely to ever be an issue.
  • What categories to have?  Categories depend on what’s going on in your life.  The simpler the better.  Here is an example of the Archive File for a parent who owns a home and is an independent contractor or small business owner.
    • House: This is for any paperwork related to the house.  The tabs could be: Completed Action Items; Original mortgage paperwork; record of home improvements – may go in annual taxes for that year; Deed/Purchase Records
    • Family: Completed Action Items; Birth certificates; passports (if not in a safe deposit box); health records; school records; legal records; banking information; Warranty and Purchase records (for big purchases only); Instructions for foreign products only (most instructions available online)
    • Business: Completed Action Items; Tax records – current year; Filed tax returns; Business contracts; Banking Information
  • How to keep Archives current: There are some great guides online about keeping your Archive File current.  However, the goal with this Inbox-Action-Archive is to keep it simple so you will actually get your filing done.  To that end, I recommend going through your papers once a year and getting rid of things that are no longer relevant (e.g., warranties for product you don’t have).  Filing the papers that are newest closest to the front of each section will make this easier - stuff towards the back is more likely to be outdated and chuck-able.

Step 3: Initiate

Once your Action File has been set up, it’s time to go through the heaps you made in Step 1.  Each piece of paper you have needs to go into one of these categories:

  • Recycle/shred
  • Action
  • Archive - put into proper Archive section
  • Unsubscribe - as you are going through the papers, if you are receiving papers that you can receive digitally or from which you can unsubscribe, take the time to do that.  The earth thanks you.  The Paper Karma app is a helpful resource for unsubscribing from catalogs and other junk mail.

Step 4: Stay Consistent

Going forward, your process is:

  1. Place incoming papers in the inbox;
  2. Sort the inbox into recycle/shred and Action items - place Action items in the Action File;
  3. Handle the Action items regularly;
  4. File required records in the Archives.


That’s it!  Once you have gone through the backlog – and it may take a while – you will find it easier to stay on top of incoming papers with your new inbox/action/archive system.

Note: This article is about papers, specifically, but to a certain degree can be applied to email and digital files.  I will post again soon about digital organizing.