Organizing Papers, Part I: Get Out Your Circular Files

Declutter and organize papers

Organizing Papers, Part I: Get Out Your Circular Files

Why is it that our papers cause us so much consternation? When people ask me for help with organizing or filing papers, they’re often surprised when I tell them that no one needs a complicated filing system to be organized. Rather, each of us only needs about three files. Paper is often the easiest category in the home to organize because we can throw almost all of it away.

I recommend using the KonMari Method to declutter and organize papers. You will free yourself from the burden of filing and the mental clutter that comes from the physical clutter caused by papers. It’s unlikely that papers—bills, receipts, coupons, etc.—spark much joy for you. And you don’t actually need to keep those things—it’s 2019, after all!—so, getting rid of them can noticeably improve your well-being!

The ultimate goal with papers is to discard everything except what you absolutely need, such as insurance policies; paperwork for taxes; Social Security cards, marriage license, birth certificates, etc.; as well as sentimental papers you want to keep.

Take out all your papers

To start, take out all the papers you have responsibility for from all parts of your home. If your significant other has responsibility for any types of papers, you can ask in advance what they may want to do with papers of that type. But if you’re not the primary decision-maker, don’t plan to make decisions about those. Try and segregate them from what you’re working on without disrupting their locations, if your significant other would not appreciate your efforts.

On the other hand, if you have little kids and you’re in charge of their papers, then those would be in scope.

Do your best to sort papers into subcategories as you take them all out.

Make decisions about what to keep and discard

Remember, the rule of thumb is to discard everything you won’t need. I recommend you discard material from courses and lectures, credit card statements, manuals, checkbooks, and paystubs. The rationale for that approach is that: (1) You could get most all of the information included in those papers from another source; (2) You will almost definitely never need the information; or (3) Your papers are likely both of those two things!

For papers you decide to keep, sort them into one of these categories:

Papers to store forever: Not many papers fall into this category other than birth certificates, Social Security cards, marriage licenses, and other things of that sort. You’ll know them when you see them!

Papers to store for the medium term: Think of this category as including papers that you need to keep until a matter is closed. This category can be a little tricky because the papers that fall into it will be a little different for everyone. Try to digitize what you can—it can actually be safer than keeping a physical copy, assuming you have your documents password-protected on the cloud. Along those lines, if you have access to your accounts or the information online, you should discard the paper copies. (I’m looking at you, insurance policies!)

But if digitizing isn’t your bag, this category of papers could include things like unexpired warranties, tax records, originals of current leases and contracts, and medical records for a current issue.

Papers that require action (including a subcategory of papers to digitize): This category can include papers such as receipts for returns you need to make, invitations that need a response, and anything else that you need in order to check off something on your to-do list.

During your sorting and decluttering process, you may come across papers that you can throw away but that you must first digitize, so those go into this category until that task is finished.

Handling Sentimental Papers

Decisions about papers are easy because papers generally don’t spark joy. If a paper doesn’t spark joy and you don’t absolutely need it, but are having trouble throwing it away, you may need to put it into this sentimental category. (Dave Mathews Band tickets from 1999, anyone?)

Keep these papers in a separate group and tackle them at the end of your process—preferably after you have used the KonMari Method to declutter all of your other belongings.

In the next post, I’ll cover storage for the papers you keep and how to handle discarded papers. (Please don’t buy any organization solutions yet!)

For ideas on how to handle kids’ artwork, you can check out these related blog posts:

Pint-Sized Picassos: How to Organize Kids’ Art

Get Organized for Summer