How to tame the paper beast

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?



7 thoughts on “How to tame the paper beast

  1. I’m an “out of sight, out of mind” person when it comes to paper, so two things help me. I put the approximate dates for all recurring bills on my Google calendar, and I mark them paid after I do so. Also, I set up 12 folders, one for each month, to hold documents I’ll need in the future. On the first day of the month I check to see what’s upcoming. I just bought concert tickets for September–without a designated spot for those, I’d never see them again. It’s also very useful for my older kids’ activities, for which I receive some notices very far out (e.g., we got the June band schedule last September!).

    The best thing about these two systems, besides their simplicity, is that once I complete an action, I don’t have to think about it again.

    1. @Marie- definitely getting anything time specific on the calendar is huge. I see I am supposed to fill out some health forms for a camp this week. I see that because I put it on my calendar for this week several months ago. Not entirely sure I’m going to get to it (I don’t really feel like it…so maybe I can procrastinate more?) but hey. At least I know it’s supposed to happen!

  2. I’m glad I’m not alone on this one. Between our two girls (a soon-to-be a kindergartner and second-grader) and the mail that we receive every day, we accumulated tons of papers. Both of our girls love to write and to draw, I let them use the back side of every paper that they brought from school as a scratch paper, then I decide which one goes to the trash or go to their “art folders.” When it comes to mails, I open them right away and throw any junk mails or ads. I have a separate folders for bills, my husband’s pay stubs, and other important documents. We don’t have a magazine subscription,though. My husband is not fond of it. So I just go to the library if I want to read one.

  3. I would suggest unsubscribe to all magazines. It is cheaper to purchase a year of subscription, but I rarely read all of it. The stress of the pile is not worth the savings. You could still buy it at the store whenever you like. You might find that you are only interested in few issues a year.

    I set up 2 shoeboxes – “pending” and “reference”. Pending is for active items I must deal with: bills to pay manually, car registration renewal notice, and letters awaiting response. Reference is for bank statements, pay stabs, kid’s school newsletters, warranty… things I can go back to later.

    I sort them right away when I get them. If I can’t be bother to sort, they all go into “pending”.

    Pending pile require weekly attention. There are usually just 3-6 items. I just let the reference pile grow. This is the easy, good-enough system. I used to do “43 folders”, took too much time.

    1. @adora- I agree on 43 folders being a bit too much. “Pending” and “reference” are good categories. I separated out the reference because I found it hard to find stuff when there was too much in one box. But depending on volume, it could certainly all go together.

      I like magazines! I don’t go to the store all that often necessarily, although I do wind up in airport book stores, where they are readily available. So I guess that could work.

  4. I’m an in-box zero devotee, but weekly, not daily. Sunday AM is when I typically sort through all the mail while the kids watch sesame street or are entertained by Josh. The piles don’t bother me as long as I know I will deal with them before anything becomes pressing (and weekly is generally enough for mailed items).

  5. With mail, as with email, as soon as it comes in, I get rid of whatever I can easily categorize as junk. That eliminates about 75% of mail! I have a recycling bin near my kitchen, which is where I usually sort through the mail, so this is super easy and quick.

    Then on the side of my fridge, I have a chip clip that holds discounts (Kohl’s coupons, Bath and Body Works coupons, etc.) and a clip that holds bills.

    I pay most stuff electronically, but things like medical bills do still seem to come in the mail and they usually require a call.

    Every so often, I go through all the papers on the fridge and do a bill-paying session plus an expired-coupon-tossing session.

    I’m not perfect at this and I do occasionally lose track of papers. But I feel like the immediate junk-culling is probably the most important thing I do, because then I know the stuff that’s left is probably stuff I need to deal with.

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