How to simplify your paperwork

Bills, mail and other to do items arrive daily and demand our attention. To keep it all under control, establish a (very simple!) three-slot paperwork processing system. This system helps you process each of your incoming items into one of three operations so you can deal with it in a methodical manner.

Your three-slot system should be located in a convenient place in your house, such as the top of a filing cabinet or table – somewhere not too far from the front door. Below is an example of the paperwork processing area at my house:

Crystal's desk area

Here’s how the system works:

First, establish a set of three file folders, slots or trays. (I use a slotted organizer like this one.) Label them (1) ACTION, (2) FILE and (3) READ/CONSIDER.

Next, make a commitment to take 5 minutes to deal with your mail and paperwork, as soon it comes in. Here’s how:

  • Throw out junk right away. Each day, place any junk mail you receive either directly into the trash or directly into a bin designated for mixed paper. (In most towns across the USA, mixed paper can be recycled with your weekly recycling pick-up.) Whatever you do, do NOT set your junk mail aside for later, because it will only pile up.
  • Shred right away. To avoid identity theft, shred any credit card applications, credit card “convenience checks”, and anything with your social security number on it. I use this very tough shredder, which munches up 8 sheets at a time, and even does credit cards.
  • Identify actionable items, andslip these into the ACTION folder. Actionable items are those which require follow-up of any kind, such as bills to pay, appointments to schedule, letters to reply to, calls to make, forms to complete, etc.
  • Set a deadline. Use brightly colored sticky notes and a Sharpie marker to give yourself a deadline for taking care of the action and follow-up items. (Example: For a bill due on April 30th, label it, “Pay bill and mail by April 21.”) Arrange the action/follow-up items in the ACTION folder in order of deadline. In other words, the closer the deadline, the closer the item should be to the front of the folder.
  • Identify items for the FILE folder. These require no action but need to be filed away. Items to file might include items such as letters, notices, records and paid bills. Put these into the FILE folder.
  • Identify items for the READ/CONSIDER folder. These require no action or filing, but maybe you’d like to read or consider them later. Put these into the Read/Consider folder. Occasionally peruse your Read/Consider folder, and recycle things you know you’ll never get around to reading. How to keep your Read/Consider folder from getting out of control? Group similar read/consider items, and create clearly labeled file folders. File them in your cabinet (rather than letting them pile up!). That way, you can find and access them in the future while preventing them from getting in the way of daily life.

Finally, set a regular (and realistic!) schedule for yourself to deal with your Action items. Five to ten minutes of follow-up and filing every couple of days is a great goal.


Sparkleize Practical Tip:

Set an alarm on your clock or a reminder on your computer to go off – say, every two days – during a time when you’re typically at home (for example, 8:00 PM). When you get this reminder, stop whatever you’re doing and work on your Action and File folder for just 5-10 minutes. By chipping away at your paperwork little by little, you’ll make a big difference, yet it won’t feel overwhelming!

Ready to go a step further? Check out Crystal’s guide to creating an effective filing system.

Have more ideas to share? Post a comment or write to Crystal and let her know!