It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?
-Henry David Thoreau
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Herding Papers into the Filing Cabinet

I have a vision of trying to herd cats – with them flying in all directions!  I’ve only met a few people who actually enjoy filing, and the rest of us try to manage it.  This can be especially challenging if you have put off handling your papers once you’ve finished the action they needed – as well as if your filing system is over-full from lack of purging.  When you are facing this situation you have a decision to make about what your first step will be – do you begin with thinning your filing system or by corralling all those loose papers?

First some questions: (familiar from my “Paper Pyramid”)

  1. Do you currently have a system for your papers?
  2. Is there room within your system for adding papers? (i.e. is your filing cabinet or whatever stuffed full or not)
  3. Are you happy (relatively speaking) with your current system?
  4. How many papers are waiting to be added to your system?

If you can answer yes to the first 3 questions, then your progress can move forward more easily – how much so will depend on your answer to the final question.  (If you answered no, check out the link above to Paper Pyramid.)

The most satisfying first step regardless of your answers is typically to get all those loose papers together.  Toss all those that you don’t need or want to keep – as long as it’s obvious quickly; otherwise wait to decide until you get farther along.  There will be more opportunity for purging in the process.

Just like if your answers from above were no, the foremost consideration as you look at each piece of paper is whether you will need this in the short-term or not.  Depending on the amount of papers, this might be all the distinction you need – 2 piles of papers: needs action and to file.  It’s critical that you keep all papers that need your attention separate and together through this process – until they can be tossed or moved into a pile for organizing/filing.

Hopefully if you answered yes, you’ve already made the decisions about how long to keep papers that are exempt from governmental guidelines.  If not, there’s still hope – you just need to think about and decide for yourself how far back you need to keep certain records.  There are many opinions out there about how long to keep your papers (besides property and tax related) – which I talk about some in Paper Retention.  Remember at this stage it’s fine to add all papers to their pile, the decisions can be delayed for the time being.

Depending on your answer to the last question, “How many papers are waiting to be added to your system?” the next probably step is to subdivide.  For instance, get all your financial papers together, all the instruction manuals, everything that can fit into a category – make sure the pile of papers is relatively small so that the filing process can move along smoothly.

Since you answered yes to the first three questions, consider another question:

  • When was the last time you purged papers from your files, even if they are not overflowing?

If you don’t know or it’s been more than a year – as much as you might not want to hear it, this is the ideal time to organize your files.  This is not about emptying the file drawer and surrounding yourself with piles of papers.

It is about taking the best opportunity to make sure only papers you need and want are taking up the valuable space in your system.  Therefore, you have a pile of financial papers ready and waiting to go into their file.  Pull out the file – completely out of the filing cabinet.  Look through it, this doesn’t need to take much time once you’ve decided how long you’re keeping each type of paper – and remove all those papers that are older or no longer relevant.  Then add the sorted papers you’ve gathered from around your house into their appropriate file.  Continue with each file.

One of the things I’ve done to streamline the purging of older papers is to place a single tabbed divider between each year in every file.  This means that at the beginning of the next year I pull out all papers in front of the first divider and shred them, and move the tabbed divider to the back of the file and add all current papers behind it.  This makes regular purging a simple process that requires virtually no thought.

Remember that one of the things that can break a filing system down is having too many papers in one file.  There’s a fine balance between too few and too many papers in one file.  And to state the obvious, if we don’t purge the papers from our files, they will overflow – or more likely we’ll stop doing the filing to avoid dealing with that cramped file.  Any way that you can make purging papers an easy part of the process will save you time, energy, and most importantly – your sanity throughout your life.  Your files will no longer threaten to explode and any resistance to getting those papers into the filing cabinet will come more from just the dislike of the filing process than actual problems.

Getting papers from around the house into the filing cabinet should not at all be like herding cats.  Ideally it’s not a chore, it’s something that can happen fairly easily.  Although I admit, filing remains a chore for me.  It’s still not like herding cats – I have an inbox designated for papers that need filing in a discrete place that also has limited room for growth – the paper corral.  If my papers have moved past any necessary action, they go directly to the “inbox,” and this is where they stay until I manage to get them into the filing system.  This means my papers are in one of three locations only: action needed, the “inbox,” or in the correct file.  It’s only the last step that I can still struggle with – yet it’s completely organized as it is.  It’s all about finding what works for you – so herd those papers into the filing cabinet and regain control of your space.

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