Imagine walking into your house and seeing table space. Seeing countertops. No, not underneath stuff. Not hidden under mounds of papers that seem to rival Mount Everest. Actually seeing the hardwood table. Actually seeing the granite countertop. And a big expanse of it, not just a tiny corner!
Can you see your surfaces at your house? Or do you look around and wonder how on earth so many papers managed to come into your house? Is there a magnetic force field that only attracts papers coming from under that marbled granite countertop?
We’ve all be there! The crazy thing about papers is they can get out of control quick! And when they get out of control, they pile up. And when they pile up they create overwhelm and a sense that you’ll never win against the apocalyptic paper monster that creates more papers as fast as rabbits create bunnies!
Okay, maybe that one went a little far… But what do you do with it all? How do you keep the papers from piling up all over and getting out of hand? How do you reign in the papers when they do get out of hand? Where do you keep the important papers, the ones you need to actually do something about, until you’re at a spot where you can actually take care of them?
Tackling the piles of paper that have accumulated in your home can be extremely challenging. And the longer the piles have been collecting, the harder it is to get through them! But here’s the thing: It is possible!
Now, hear me out on this one: The papers on your counter or on your side table or wherever your paper pile is did not show up overnight. It took time for this pile to accumulate in the first place, so it will take time to get rid of it. You might be able to tackle and destroy your paper pile in an hour or two. Or, it might take a few days. Don’t get discouraged! Keep moving forward. Take intentional, purposeful steps – no matter how small they might be – in the right direction and you will get closer and closer to your goal!
Remember, it’s all about the progress in the process, NOT about perfection!
But what steps do you take to begin tackling these paper piles? It’s great to stand back and talk about it, but how do you do it? Well, my Friend, that’s why I’m here. Let’s not talk anymore about the pile. Let’s get to work destroying and overcoming that pile, shall we?
Let’s do more than simply cleaning the piles, though. Yes, we are going to work through how to clear the paper piles you already have but we are also going to create a system so those pesky paper piles do not come back! Let’s dive in!
PHASE ONE :: Observe
Step 1 – Find Your Paper “Hot Spots”
Where are your papers? This question seems rather basic, right? But here’s the thing: If you want to bring those paper piles under control and stop them from happening, you have to know where your papers are collecting in the first place.
Where is that paper magnet spot in your house? You know, the spot papers gravitate toward no matter how hard to you try to keep them away? Is it your kitchen counter? Is it in piles on your desk? It it on a side table?
Keep in mind, you might have a couple spots with this magnetic force field. You’re not doing anything other than identifying those spots right now, so try to find them all!
Step 2 – Identify the Final Storage
Now that you know where the piles of paper are collecting, let’s jump to the other end of the spectrum. Trust me, this will make sense in a minute! Where is the final storage place for your papers?
This question can feel tricky, so here are some examples to help you:
- Financial papers get filed in a drawer or filing system after the bills are paid.
- Important papers (not bills, but papers you need to keep) get filed in a drawer or filing system.
- Medical records get filed in a drawer or filing system.
- Artwork hand created by your child goes into a folder or a box for safekeeping.
- School papers and school records live in a folder or multiple folders in a filing cabinet. (Side note: If you homeschool, the final storage place for your school papers can look vastly different. For a look at how to create a quick and low-maintenance homeschooling paper system, check out this post.)
- Coupons go into a pouch or even live in your car so you have easy access to them while you’re at the store.
- Recipes live in a recipe binder or folder alongside other recipe books in the kitchen.
Now, your final storage place for your papers might not be exactly what is listed here. That’s totally okay! You will not have the exact same system as everyone else! You will have your own method and your own spot for storing your papers. The question to ask is not: Does my storage spot look the same as someone else’s? The key question to ask is: Where is my final storage spot for my papers?
Step 3 – Follow the Current Paper Trail
Here is where things start to make a bit more sense. You see, the best way to create a system or a flow is to start by knowing the beginning point and the ending point. These points are what you just identified in step one and step two. Next, you follow the current trail from your beginning point to the ending point. Once you know what that trail looks like now, you can adjust and change it to create a better, more efficient system that even requires less effort!
So, follow the current trail your papers take. When papers come into your house, what are the steps and stops they make along the way before they get to their final spot? Now, keep in mind, your papers might not have much of a trail they follow yet! It might be completely random and not look like a trail at all! Don’t despair! This is what you are working to fix and create, but you need to understand where you are before you start to change anything.
For example, let’s follow the pretend paper trail of your electric bill: You walk out to your mailbox and get the mail, bringing it in the house through the kitchen door. As you flip through the envelopes, you see your electric bill and open it to see the amount. Once you glance at it, you set the bill, the torn envelope and all the extra papers that came in the envelope on the counter. You walk away to help your child with something. Hours later, you realize the electric bill is still siting on the counter, but you get distracted before you can deal with it. You know the electric bill needs to make it to your desk so you can pay the bill, but when will it get there? How does it get there? Does it make it to your desk? Or does it get buried under more papers that land on top of it on the counter?
Do you have a path in mind for how your papers travel through your house?
- Papers enter the house through…
- Papers naturally gravitate to… Where do they naturally land?
- Papers are put in a place where they are addressed…
- Papers are addressed and then filed away.
Do you have this picture? Can you see the natural path your papers take through your house? Can you see where your papers naturally stop and collect? Great! On to the next step!
Step 4 – Determine Where You Want Them
Now, this question is very similar, but very different all at the same time: Where do you want your papers to stop? You won’t be able to stop papers from coming into your house completely or even stop them from collecting in certain places from time to time, but you can determine where those papers land! And what that landing spot looks like!
You see, putting papers immediately in their final storage spot is not always a natural thing. You need a landing spot. A holding zone. A quick and easy place to set the papers where you know where they are and can easily find them when you need them. Someplace very easily accessible that can keep the papers contained until you are ready to take care of them and file them away.
Where do you want your landing spot to be? Is it the same spot as where the papers are right now? Do you want to change the spot, creating a new place for papers to hang out? Remember, whatever spot you choose, you want it to be natural. You want it to be easily accessible. If it’s hidden away, it will never get used! Where will you create your landing spot?
PHASE TWO :: The Two Most Important Habits to Create
Let’s face it, systems are great! Systems help you streamline your life. They help you get more done in less time with less effort. But you can create the best system on the plant and have it be completely ineffective if you never use it!
As you step away from observing and move into doing and creating your system, there are two habits that are crucial to making your new system work. Are you ready? Here they are:
Habit #1 :: Sort your Papers Right When You Bring them In the House
Mail. Children’s schoolwork. Medical papers from a doctor’s visit. Random papers that show up. No matter what form the papers take, when they come through your door, sort the papers right when they show up!
This small, simple habit has many benefits! First of all, you can save a bunch of time! Think about it: When papers first arrive, you know what they are! You are able to quickly determine what this paper is, if it’s worth keeping, and where it goes. You don’t have to waste time in 3 weeks trying to remember what this paper is and why it came in your house before you can get it where it needs to go.
Second, you can eliminate a ton of papers very quickly! Take your mail, for example. When you bring your mail into your house, throw away all the advertisements and junk mail that you know you’ll never need or use. Open all the envelopes and keep what you need to keep (like your bank statement and your electric bill) and throw away all the rest. Just by taking the trash out of your mail you can eliminate half the papers that arrive in your mailbox before you even start sorting the papers that you do need!
This is the number 1, most important habit to get into!
Habit #2 :: Once You Create a Paper Landing Spot, Use It!
Let’s face it, even the best, well through-out, perfectly laid out organization system will not work if no one uses it! Once you create this landing spot for your papers to be sorted and wait for you to take care of them, you have to actually use the space and sort the papers each time they come into your house!
Simple, right? Absolutely! But completely essential!
PHASE THREE :: Deal with the Piles at Hand
Step One :: Sort it Out
Now that you know where your piles naturally collect, and where you want to create your paper landing spot, it’s time to tackle your existing pile (or piles) and figure out what papers are in the pile!
This is the sorting step. And, yes, you might get a few paper cuts along the way! This step actually serves a dual purpose. First of all, it helps you sort and eliminate those paper piles taking over your space. But not just by throwing everything away! By working through and taking care of all the papers in each pile.
Second, this will help you see what categories you need in your new landing spot even as you eliminate your current paper piles.
Before you start sorting at random, let’s create a couple general categories for you to start with. Now, your exact categories will be a little bit different than anyone else’s, but here are some common ones to get you going:
- Trash. No explanation needed! I do recommend having a trash can or trash bag nearby so you can throw away the trash without creating another step!
- Bills. Again, pretty self-explanatory. These are personal bills that need your attention and need to be paid: your electric bill, your mortgage, you get the idea.
- Important Papers with no action. Sometimes papers arrive that you don’t need to take any action on, but you do need to keep them. Things like your insurance policy statement or your voter registration card. Important to have, important to know where it is, but you don’t need to take immediate action on it.
- Business papers. If you have a business that you run from your home, give business papers their own category so that your personal paperwork does not get mixed up with your business paperwork.
- Medical Bills. Depending on the number of medical bills your family has, you could give them their own category or you could combine them into the general ‘bills’ category.
- Medical papers. These are statements from your insurance company (EOB’s) or your doctor’s office. Papers that do not need to have any action taken on them, but papers that do need to be kept.
- School Papers that need attention. These papers require you to do something – sign a permission slip, fill out some information – or it could be letting you know important information like what to bring for a bake sale.
- School Papers that need to be kept. Again, these came from school, but no action need to be be taken. They simply need to be kept and filed away.
- Artwork. Drawings, painting, and other artwork lovingly created by your children for you.
- Coupons and recipes. Enough said.
- Anything else. Try to keep this category empty! You might need a place to set a paper if you don’t immediately know where it goes, but do your best to keep this category empty as you will only have to go back and resort it yet again!
One easy way that I’ve found to sort through a lot of papers is to take over a large counter space or table top space for a while. You can even use the floor if you want! This allows you to spread out and get things into the right categories so you can then deal with each category, one at a time.
Here’s a bonus tip to keep your categories straight: Grab a pack of post-it notes and a pen. Write the name of your category on a post-it note, then place the post-it note where the pile for that category will go. Just make sure not to cover your post-it note as you sort or you’ll defeat the purpose of labeling it!
Now that you have your sorting framework set up, it’s time to sort! Pick a pile and start going through it one paper at a time, putting each paper into the category where it belongs. Don’t forget to keep going until you have made it through your entire pile! (Side note: Depending on how many paper piles you have, you may want to break this project up and sort one pile at a time or you could attack multiple piles all at once. This is totally up to you!)
Once you finish sorting all those papers into their categories, seeing them spread out like that can feel completely overwhelming. So here’s what I want you to do: Take a deep breath! If you want to (or need to), leave those papers sitting there for a moment and go get a cup of coffee. You’re not going to leave the papers there forever, but sometimes you need to take a moment to breathe before moving to the next step!
Step Two :: Determine Your Categories for Your Landing Spot
Now that you’ve taken that deep breath, take a look at those papers on your counter. Specifically, take a look at the categories. What categories did you use? What categories are empty? What categories are almost empty? Can you combine any of the categories? For example, if you have 2 papers in the ‘Important papers with no action’ category and only 1 paper in the ‘Medical papers’ category, it might be easy to combine these two.
These categories that you used to sort your papers are going to be the categories you will use in your paper landing spot. Do you see what we just did there? You not only started cleaning out the paper piles that you want to get rid of but you’re creating your new system in the process. That, my Friend, is multitasking at it’s finest!
Remember, the goal in creating your landing spot is to keep it as simple as possible! You want to have enough categories so you can go through your papers one chunk at a time, but you want as few categories as possible so you can very quickly determine where a piece of paper needs to hang out in your landing spot. Make sense?
In other words, what is the smallest number of categories you can create and still have this system make sense? You want to be able to find all your bills when you need them and not have them mixed in with school papers, but you don’t need the most elaborate system known to man, either! Remember, you want a system that is going to be easy to use. If you make it too complicated, no one will use the system because they won’t know how – including you!
Again, keep in mind this is your system! If having 3 categories for most of your papers and then a space for each child’s school papers works for you, great! If having 3 categories for most of your papers and then one spot for all the school papers works for you, great! Remember, this is your system. How will it best serve you?
Here’s the fantastic thing: If you start using this system for a while and realize that you have too many categories, remove a category or two! If you try it out for a while and realize that you need 2 more categories, add them in! Again, this is your system. It will not look exactly like anyone else’s. Adjust it so that it will best serve you.
PHASE FOUR :: Design Your Landing Spot
Now, I promise we will not leave these papers on your table (or floor)! But before you tackle all those papers, it’s time to think through the design of the new system you are creating.
You’ve already figured out:
- Where you want your papers to hang out before they go to their final storage spot.
- What categories you will sort your papers into as they come in the house.
- How many categories you have.
Now it’s time to figure out what your landing spot looks like!
Step One :: Where Will Your Landing Spot be?
Like I’ve said before, you won’t be able to stop papers from coming into your house completely, but you can determine where they land! We touched on this before, but now it’s time to officially pick the place for your landing spot. Where will your landing spot be? Is it on the kitchen counter? On the side table? On a shelf? Where can you place your landing spot where it is not taking over your kitchen or your living room, but it’s very easily accessible and a very natural place to sort all those papers?
Do you have that spot in mind? Great! On to step two.
Step Two :: The Look of it All
What do you want your landing spot to look like? Allow yourself to dream a little bit here and get an idea of what you might use. What will blend with the decor you already have in the space where you are creating your landing spot?
Here are some ideas to get your creativity flowing:
- Folders standing on your counter
- Stack of tiered trays, plastic, wooden, or wire
- Drawers, plastic or wooden
- Baskets – a single one or multiple baskets
- Paper trays attached to the wall, plastic, wooden, or wire
- Folders in a stand that gives them stadium seating
- 3-ring binder with folders inside
What do you want your final, completed system to look like? Let your imagination run wild! Dream a little! Remember, this is your system. Create something that makes sense to you and will work for you.
Step Three :: Create a Beta System
Now, before you go crazy and grab your keys and take off to Hobby Lobby or The Container Store, remember, you have those piles of paper still sitting on the counter! You don’t want those nicely sorted categories to get all messed up again, right? So here’s what I want you to do: Create a beta system.
A what? A beta system. Think of it like a trial run for your new system. Create a system with what you have on hand to keep your papers in their categories and not spread all over your counter. This is a trial run allowing you to test out the system you are creating and make sure that you have the right number of categories and the right categories before you invest time and money into the perfect containers.
There’s nothing worse than going to the store and finding the perfect set of 3 drawers only to realize two weeks later you really needed the 5 drawer set because you have 5 categories now instead of only 3!
If you already have something in your house you want to use for this system, fantastic! Start using it right away! But hold off on buying anything new until you live with your system for a week or two and make sure you have those details figured out – like your final number of categories.
If you don’t have anything specific in your house you want to use, here is the easiest way that I’ve found to create a beta system: Grab a few manilla folders. Label each folder with one of the categories you decided on. (Remember those categories we figured out in phase three, step two?) Now place those folders in the area where your landing spot will be so you can get an idea of your system – even if the look isn’t all there yet!
PHASE FIVE :: Make It Happen
Step One :: Getting the Papers into the Zone
Now it’s time to turn your attention back to these papers on your counter. I promised that we wouldn’t leave them sitting there! Now, don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed here! You’re going to take this one category at a time.
Choose a category that is sitting on your counter. What category in your landing spot do these papers belong in? For example, if you pick up your bills from the counter, what category do your bills go into in your holding zone? Put them in that landing spot folder (or drawer or container).
The big idea is not to deal with each paper individually just yet. The big idea is to take all these papers you sorted and bring them into the holding zone. This allows you to keep those categories sorted, to clear off your counter, and to be able to deal with and get those papers to their final storage spots once category at a time!
Now comes the easy part: Rinse and repeat! Once you put your first category from your counter into your landing spot, pick up the next category from your counter and put those papers into their correct place in your landing spot. Continue this until your counter is cleared off.
Congratulations! You have cleaned all the papers off your counter! Such a major accomplishment! Oh, and don’t forget to throw those post-it notes away if they are still hanging out on your counter!
Step Two :: Don’t Leave The Papers in the Landing Spot Forever
Now that you have all those papers sorted, off of your counter, and into your new landing spot system, don’t just leave them there forever! The whole goal of this system is to take the huge pile of papers and break it down into small, manageable pieces for you to deal with one category at a time.
If you never take the papers out of your landing spot category by category and deal with them, you will basically recreate your paper pile problem. The exact problem this new system is supposed to solve! So make sure that you are not just leaving the papers in the landing spot forever, but you are using it as a temporary holding zone to streamline your process when it’s time to put them away.
Step Three :: Make It Pretty
Remember how you created your Beta system? The one that was functional, but might not look exactly how you want your final system to look? Now’s the time to make your system pretty. Find those folders you want to use. Find that set of drawers that matches your decor. Make it look like a part of your home. Just don’t forget to use the system!! This landing spot is intended to be incredibly practical and functional as well as pretty!
And there you have it, my Friend! Simple steps to not only clear the paper clutter off of your counter, but to help you create a simple system you can use moving forward.
Keep in mind, your system will not look identical to anyone else’s! This is true when it comes to your categories and with the exact setup you choose to use. Your organizing system will be unique to you.
Remember, this is your system! And the best system for you is one that you help create and one that you can keep going. If you try something and realize it’s far too complicated, don’t keep it going just to keep it going! Adjust it. Change it. Simplify it. And try again. You can create a system that works for you.
You can do this, my Friend! Happy sorting!
- How to Organize Your Financial Papers
- What to Do with Your Financial Papers of Years Past
- My Quick, Low-Maintenance School Paper System
Elizabeth Tatham, founder of Inspiration in the Everyday, is a homeschooling momma of 5 who loves helping other homeschooling mommas create a unique homeschooling adventure your kids will love…without the overwhelm! Join in on the journey with 7 simple steps to make your homeschooling day go faster, easier, and with less tears here.