Got stacks of mail and piles papers taking up valuable space on your dining room table, your countertops, your desk, or just about anywhere else in your space?
You’re not alone!
Paper is one of the most common forms of clutter, and many people collect piles to go through, only to have so much coming in that one pile turns into another… until your basement is stacked with bankers boxes full of forgotten rental agreements, decades-old university handouts, and utility statements for places you don’t even live anymore.
Yes, I know about the bankers boxes.
And the bins.
If you're one of those people who has a sleek, black filing cabinet brimming with papers and stuffed with olive green hanging files - or just piles and piles and piles of paper everywhere - there's definitely a better way.
Try one of these three filing methods to start making headway on your paper piles.
Any one of these methods can turn your countertops from an old-school mailroom back into the place you eat during your lunch breaks and where you flip through recipes looking for your next Pinterest fail.
1) The KonMari Method - Discard Everything
This technique scares a lot of people off, but it can be one of the most freeing things you do in your home.
It's also the most simple - keep only the most important (or in-process) papers and let everything else go.
The key with this method is to pick your must-have documents first.
Kondo has three categories of papers that she sorts by timing:
Currently in use
Needed for a limited period of time
Must be kept indefinitely
These three categories are then sorted into "papers to save" and "papers to deal with."
Saved papers go into a permanent filing system.
Papers “to be dealt with” all go into another area and are sent or discarded after you complete them (i.e. fill out the form, mail the card, read the article, etc.).
Simple as that.
The idea is that the papers that you don't need to keep indefinitely (like lecture notes, newspapers, utility statements) have a limited amount of time to be useful.
And an even smaller window in which you'll actually remember and take action on the information.
It's better to appreciate those papers for the tips and tricks you already received from them.
Let them go to make room for new information, entertainment, and knowledge.
You don’t have to squeeze every last drop of information out of a piece of paper to have gotten exactly what you needed from it.
And in case you want it, you have permission to let that piece of paper go.
Feels good, right?
2) Action - Reference - File
If you’re looking for a super simple and straightforward option, go for “Action-Reference-File.”
Categorize papers by their purpose and then group them together.
The three purposes are (you guessed it):
Action papers are just that - ones that need action to complete and then you can file them or discard them.
Reference papers are any documents that you want to refer back to later, such as specific articles, class notes, business brochures, large purchase receipts, and more.
File papers are your permanent documents and important papers that need to be stored and easily accessed later. Check out my Essential Guide to Organizing Your Important Documents for a list of documents that might fall into this category for you.
A lot less scary than throwing everything out, right?
If you got stressed out thinking about shredding and recycling, this method might be a better fit.
Try it out and see if you might be willing to let more papers go once you have a system you trust first.
As long as you go through your Action and Reference files weekly or monthly, you'll have an easy time sorting through every paper that comes through your door.
The chronological sort will be perfect for you if you tend to remember things by when, where, who, and how something happened.
If you go back through your planner or G-cal to confirm your documents, this is probably the right method for you.
Also very simple, the chronological method is to store all of your papers by month and year.
You get to pick what to keep or let go.
Examples of storage for this system look like:
An accordion file for each year with 12 slots for each month
A banker's box for each year with a folder inside for each month
A single folder, box, or drawer for the whole year that you add to as you go - no muss, no fuss
Whichever storage you like for your chronological papers, as long as they're grouped by the time you filed them, you'll be able to refer to any paper by its month and year.
After a certain number of years (that you feel comfortable with), you can shred the whole year's worth of papers to make room for the next one.
A tickler system is a future-thinking version of a chronological sort:
You have 31 folders numbered 1-31.
Papers go into the folders for the day you need them, no matter the month or year.
Check the folder for today's date and see if there are any forms to complete, bills to pay, tickets to collect, birthday cards to send, or any other time-based papers to take care of on that day.
Leave any papers that apply to months in the future in the folder.
Whether you sort papers from the past or prepare them for the future, organizing them by time gives you a good scope of what you received in any given month AND a simple deadline to get rid of them once they're outdated.
Remember, the key with any of these filing methods is to keep it simple and consistent.
Create a system that makes sense to you.
And for some bonus points (because I know you’re an overachiever):
Use labels and words you would use.
You get to pick between "Car," "Auto," "Honda," or whatever word will make you instantly think of the vehicle sitting in your garage when you need to find your title, maintenance, and insurance info.
Don't let that pretty, color-coded folder system lure you into using someone else's naming conventions. It rarely works because your mind might not use the same words as the designer who created that system.
Trust your instincts, use lists as a guideline to customize, and pick a system that's simple and easy to use.
Now go put those papers away.
You've got this.