I spent about an hour last weekend going through the pile of paper that collects on the counter under our microwave. This is where mail and magazines go when they come in. It is also where kid papers that get dumped elsewhere migrate.
I imagine lots of households have such a paper pile, and dealing with it can consume much time. Not dealing with it can result in other problems: not paying bills on time or missing things. These are such random things as the tickets our music school mailed us for the end-of-year recital. I hadn’t quite imagined we’d need tickets but if they come in, they must be dealt with. Or aggravating things such as a note from my old bank asking for paperwork to be filled out proving I owned a CD there. Or such vaguely interesting but non-actionable things as a report from our school district listing various options for how to accommodate the 1000 new students expected to be added over the next few years.
I can’t claim to have a perfect system, but here are the suggestions I do have for taming the paper beast:
Recognize that a stack of papers is a victory. First thing: if you’re corralling all this stuff in one place, it looks like a mess, but you’re ahead of the game. A school form in a central pile of papers can be dealt with. One that a child has tossed somewhere in his room, unbeknownst to the parents required to deal with it, cannot be processed. Designate a spot, and then celebrate that there is a central location.
Don’t aim for inbox zero. Remember when inboxes meant actual paper? Just as with email, paper processing and filing can take as much time as you’re willing to give it. You could always come up with a more fine-tuned organization system that is mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive, or whatever. But most things need not be dealt with immediately, and committing to getting to zero daily will take up time that could be spent doing other things. Aim for good enough. For me, that means dealing with anything that looks incredibly urgent when it comes in (maybe – or at least putting it on my desk so I’ll look at it again in the next few days) and going through everything once every few weeks.
Get at the source. Our elementary school has, mercifully, started sending most notifications electronically. It means I have to look at that email every week, but I can quickly see from the headlines which PDFs I need to look at and don’t. Put whatever bills you can on auto-pay and get them delivered electronically too. Whoever brings mail in from the mailbox should be empowered to recycle anything that doesn’t look relevant immediately. Put a bin for recycling things between the entrance and the paper stack. There are various services that will help you get off catalogue lists; maybe readers can share any that they’ve found effective in the comments.
Designate lines of responsibility and a system for “done.” That sounds complicated, but what it means in our house is that open mail has been dealt with. Most of our bills get paid electronically, but if my husband (who does a lot of our bill paying) opens a bill, that means he is actively paying it. I also put things that look like bills on top of the stack, so he can see them when he thinks to pay bills on the weekend. I deal with a lot of the kid papers, like permission slips. The kids also know they are supposed to bring me papers I need to look at from school. This is not a perfect system (they’re little; I need to follow up and hunt through the backpacks relatively frequently) but we’re working on it. Done means the form goes back in the backpack in the return-to-school folder.
Build a good-enough filing system. I have a big spot in the basement for kid school projects and art work that I’m keeping (for now — eventually I’ll go through all that, but I’m waiting until the little guy isn’t in danger of sticking a fork in his eye if no one’s watching him). In my office, I have a spot for tax forms and related stuff. I also have files designated house/cars, health forms, and kid school stuff. On my desk, I have a little bin for “active” stuff: contracts I still need to sign, tickets I’ve printed up for future events, etc. I welcome suggestions of other categories, and perhaps readers have the perfect system, but these categories accommodate about 90% of what I care about. The random-but-interesting stuff is never clear but oh well.
Get honest with the magazines. It’s OK to let them stack up. But when I go through the entire stack every few weeks, I try to be honest about whether I’m going to read them or not. Newspapers get dumped after a week. If I look at a magazine and think it truly looks interesting, I’ll keep it in the stack, but if the stack is getting tall, I’ll try to grab a few and skim them while doing something else (e.g. occupying the little guy in the morning). And I’ve realized it’s perfectly fine to recycle a magazine without reading it. I generally get enough out of my subscriptions to keep them, and if I get one good idea a year from each one, that is just fine.
How do you deal with the paper monster at your house?