Controlling Paper Chaos
(I found this in my archives from almost ten years ago and realized I need to revive this system, as my desk paperwork is again running amok. Do you ever realize you KNOW what to do but just need a reminder?)
The photos in this blog (well, in all my blog posts!) are candid shots of my life as it is. I didn’t clean the desk up to take the photos, so you see my real life, messy files and all.
I seem to constantly have piles to go through. In my lesser-organized days, my husband bought me a de-cluttering book; I lost it on the bedside table. Finally finding “homes” for our stuff has been immensely helpful, but I have a great deal of paper related to our ministries, my part-time work from home, and especially homeschooling. Here are some things I have implemented.
In my desk drawer, I have a purple hanging file marked Paper Management. It contains a file titled Bills, one marked To File (general), and Jim’s To Look/Discuss file (see earlier reference). Behind the purple folder are my dated Action Files.
In a perfect world:
When a piece of paper crosses my desk, I have to determine if I can throw it away or if it needs further action. Before I decide to keep it for reference, I ask myself if I will be able to easily put my hands on it from another source; if yes, I pitch it.
If Jim needs to see it, it goes into his yellow folder. He will look at it and either take his own appropriate action or put it into my Action Folder (or set it back on my desk!) so I know I can do with it what I need to.
If it is a bill, it goes into the Bills file. If it is a paper that needs filing for future reference, it goes into To File (general). If it needs action, I put it into the Action File.
The Action File
The Action File consists of twelve monthly folders and four weekly folders (some people do daily, but that is too micro-managed for me). A hanging file folder holds the four weekly folders: One is labeled 1-8, another 9-16, then 17-24, and 25-31. Items for the current month go into these folders, depending on when I need to look at the item again. If I don’t need it for a month or two, I put it in the appropriate monthly file folder (next hanging folder back). At the end of a month, I pull all the next month’s Action items from the next month’s folder and slot into the weekly folders, depending on what needs to be attended to when.
For example: Today is March 15. I receive an invitation to a wedding to be held May 5. I trash any extraneous papers (extra envelopes, tissue liner, etc), check my calendar to see if we are even available, pencil the date into my calendar just in case, and put the invitation in Jim’s yellow folder.
He looks at it, decides it is a possibility, and pops it into my 9-16 Action folder so I will look at it the next day (this is the Action folder closest to the front, so he doesn’t have to think, just pop it in). I check my folder, see that he has marked it Okay, Let’s Go. So I immediately Rsvp to the address on the envelope and put the reply notecard in the Outgoing Mail decorative napkin holder on the shelf by the front door.
Meanwhile, I jot myself a note to Buy wedding gift for Ben and Jenny (in my little notebook) and I pop the invitation in the May folder. At the end of April, that invitation will come out of hibernation in the May folder and get put into the 1-8 folder for use in May.
In the same drawer, I have a black file stand that holds about fifteen files upright. In this holder, I stand files for current projects so I can retrieve them easily.
Bigger projects merit their own boxes. For example, I have a big basket with pending HEAV speaker paperwork because I am currently knee-deep in the convention; individual speakers have files in a plastic Speaker Files box.
This whole process only works well if I regularly spend time filing the To File items, and purging old files, so I schedule time into my weekly schedule each week to work on filing and desk work.
Let’s Walk Through the Pile on the Desk:
How does this work when I process the mail or go through a pile to purge?
Let’s take an imaginary pile that might accumulate on my desk:
Sports Weekly renewal reminder: Do I think we might really renew this? If not, trash it now (I know where to find them online if I change my mind). If we want to renew, I plop it into Bills. If I can’t do it now but want to order for Jim’s birthday, I’ll put it in the August folder so I can order for his September birthday.
Outrageous Chocolate Cookie recipe, printed from a web site: Will we really make this? If so, either put on counter to make in a few minutes, or hole punch and add to Recipes binder behind the Desserts tab. If I’m really rushed and just want to quickly process the pile, I’ll drop into the To File folder for later (but you wouldn’t want to procrastinate, would you?).
Kids’ menu plans for next month: Drop into this week’s Action file for when I do grocery list. (If I were really good, I’d probably put it into the Household Management binder for when I do menus/grocery list, but I’m being honest.)
Foster parent letter: Foster Care binder (or To File)
E-mails about speaking engagement in July: Either drop in July folder or in a project folder specifically for that speaking engagement (ticket info, speaking topics, travel itinerary, other notes).
Summons for jury duty: Finished that last week, so I can trash it.
Photocopy of the front cover of a magazine for my daughter: Pop into an envelope now and jot her address on the envelope to be ready to go when I change rooms. (Do not seal; I may add to it in a moment.)
Notice of place that buys used cell phones: Put in Jim’s folder to see if he wants us to sell any. Or drop in next month’s folder to think about it for a while.
Ad order slip for our homeschool yearbook: Bills
Background investigation release forms: Put in Going-Out Cupboard near the front door, so I can take them to be notarized.
Rebate receipt info: File in monthly Action folder to re-visit in 2 months, when rebate should have been received (says Allow 8 weeks to process).
Magazine: Put where I read magazines (cubby in my desk-top organizer basket).
If you read in the bedroom, put your magazines there (in a container with a finite capacity, so you HAVE to purge).
Legal notice from somebody who needs a copy of a legal paper I have on file:
Photocopy the notice he needs now and pop into an envelope. Drop notice into To File, just in case (my handwritten notes from legal phone call are on the back of notice).
E-mail from someone about picking up books at her office: Going-Out Cupboard, so I can have the directions in the car.
Homeschool catalog: If I really might order, or need it for reference, it will go in the Catalogs [plastic magazine] holder on bottom shelf of bookcase (or in the bathroom reading basket!).
E-mail from my N.D. about herbs for an ear problem: Drop in that daughter’s medical file. (Or To File folder)
Scribbled notes about stuff I want to order from our food co-op: Drop in April folder, since that’s the next order time.
Scholarship info for military families: Going Out Cupboard, to take to support group meeting.
Order form for mailing labels: Bills folder.
INCLUDE YOUR SPOUSE.
[At the time I originally wrote this:] My husband works very long shifts (leaves by 4 am and gets home at 8-9pm) and I think of all sorts of things I want to tell him or ask him about taking care of, etc. – while he’s away. But when he gets home, he only has about 30-40 minutes to eat, relax, and head to bed to get up again at 3:00. During that time, I can NEVER think of all the things I wanted to say, and I’m tempted to keep chatting while he’s trying to fall asleep, or I get frustrated the next day about all the things I forgot to ask about.
So I have a bright yellow folder marked “For Jim (look/discuss)” in a spot he knows to look. Any mail he needs to see goes in there after I open it, any papers he needs to take care of, etc. After he looks at them or does what he needs, he pops them into the next folder, my Action file, (or sets them on my desk to finish handling) so I can take the appropriate action.
Bills go in there for him to see as they arrive, then he marks what to pay when and puts them in the Bills file (same location) for me to handle.
I also attached some paper to the inside left of the file folder and marked it, “Tell Jim.” During the day, when those little flashes of insight hit, I flip the file open and jot them down where he will look. As we discuss them, one of us crosses them off.
At the other end of the same flap (turn folder upside down), I have paper marked, “For Jim to do,” where I jot down things I need from the storage shed at his convenience, etc.
This puts all the communication info in one spot, where he knows to look, and keeps all the paperwork at my desk (since I do most of our family’s administrative work, at his request).
And all of this gives me a clean counter and a clear (most of the time) desk top — which helps me stay focused!
© Vicki Bentley 2005-2018
(Adapted from “I’ve Tried Filing, but It Just Keeps Piling…”from Home Education 101: A Mentoring Program for New Homeschoolers)