Papers, Papers Everywhere – Part One of Two

Papers, Papers Everywhere – Part One of Two

September 9, 2020 Organizing 0

What’s your biggest organizing challenge? Many people say “papers,” as left unattended, they seem to grow and grow. Let’s look at how to handle both the daily influx of papers and those stacks scattered around the house: you know, the ones that seem to cover every horizontal surface.

Before you begin, spend a few minutes defining your challenge. What you may think of as a “paper problem,” instead may be difficulty with: time management (trouble getting started, difficulty with setting priorities, and/or just plain too many other things to do), an attention problem (those other things are much more pressing and/or paperwork is so boring) or a space problem (you haven’t yet chosen one specific place to process and store all your papers).

If your main challenge is with time and/or attention, try making a fifteen-minute daily appointment with yourself at a time of day when you are not tired and are not likely to be interrupted. Do this at the same time each day if possible. For most of us, fifteen minutes usually is enough to keep up with new incoming papers. And knowing you are committed to spending only fifteen minutes shouldn’t be too daunting.

If your primary difficulty is with space, look at how you are now handling your papers. Do you usually deal with them just “wherever,” that is, spread out across the dining room table, on your bed, or on your lap while watching TV? It helps to designate one place where you always will do your paperwork. You will be storing your papers adjacent to this area, so it will work best if the space is not routinely used for another household function, such as eating or sleeping.

Do you have a desk but just can’t see the top? If so, you can clear everything temporarily into a carton and set it nearby. If you don’t have a desk or work table, you can create one in a nook in your house (under a staircase, in the corner of a guest room, or by re-purposing a closet). Or you can use a rolling file cart, or even a portable file box that has room for desk supplies.

Next, designate one specific place, such as a basket, box, bowl, or cubby, where you (and your housemates, if any) will put those papers that require your prompt attention. This place either can be right on your desk, or at the point of entry, where papers come into the house. Deposit every single incoming piece of paper and mail in the same place, every time.

At the time you have appointed for paperwork, take the papers in your in-basket to your office, work space, or portable desk. Have on hand a small trash can, a large recycle bin or bags, a bag or box for papers to be shredded, and, until you have cleared the backlog and have your system up and running, also have two sturdy cartons for papers you are going to process or file.

Using the S.T.O.R.M system (Sort. Toss. Organize. Review. Maintain) discussed earlier, you will start with a SORT. Pick up the first piece of paper. Forget that adage you’ve heard about handling each piece of paper just once. That applies only if the “once” is to toss it into the recycling bin.

Each piece of paper requires only one initial decision: keep it or toss it? Some are not difficult to determine: a flyer from a supermarket you don’t frequent, offers to clean your chimney if you don’t have one, or a catalog for gourmet steaks if you are a vegetarian. (If you want to eliminate or reduce the catalogs, you can visit the nonprofit site Other papers may be more puzzling – you might have to read them before you can determine whether or not to keep them.

So, look again at the paper you are holding. Is it clearly trash? Then into the recycling bag it goes, or, if it contains your social security number or the number of a current bank or brokerage account, it goes into the shred box, to help prevent identity theft.

If you are still holding it, you will need to make one more decision: act or file? That is, do you have to do something with it – pay a bill, answer a letter, make an appointment, respond to an invitation, order from a catalog, read a magazine, send a donation, discuss it with someone else, or even just read or review it in order to determine what you should do with it next? What about those papers kept specifically to remind you to do something, like that greeting card from an old college friend you’ve been meaning to answer? Even though you may toss the card once you’ve replied and noted the new address, for now it goes into the “Act” box.

It may be very tempting to start taking action on, or reminiscing over, these papers as you sort. Don’t do it – it will just slow you down. Again, if you need to read or review something before deciding, that’s an action, so into the “Act” box it goes.

If this piece of paper does not require any action from you right now or in the foreseeable future, but you need or want to save it – your child’s diploma, a paid credit card bill that lists tax-deductible expenses, the results of your last medical checkup, or your homeowners’ insurance policy, and you cannot or don’t want to access it online, then it goes into a second box called “To File.”

Repeat with the next piece of paper, and so on. When you have finished, typically, at least 50% of your papers will be in the trash or shred boxes at the end of this first round of sorting.

I welcome your comments and organizing questions. Please write to me here or at

About the author

Gail R. Shapiro Gail Shapiro is pleased to bring you her experience, education, and energy to help you create harmony, efficiency, and systems that work. Gail first worked as a Professional Organizer in the mid-1980s, after many years in the development field, and before founding a non-profit community women’s center. She brings her clients more than 40 years of teaching and organizing skills garnered from her work as a director of development, project manager, grant proposal writer, executive director, workshop presenter, writer and editor, and strategic planning consultant, as well as a lifelong volunteer and board member at several charitable organizations.


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