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How to Declutter and Organize Your Paperwork

Outsmart the paper avalanche. 

pink tray with office equipment and supplies
Photography by: Kana Okada

Shoved into drawers or heaped into piles, snail mail and documents can quickly crowd a workspace—and stifle productivity. While the rest of your home may be easier to sort KonMari style, we’re betting bills and photocopied forms don’t quite bring the same joy. But that’s no reason to put off decluttering your paper piles for another year. Here’s how to do it once and for all: 


 
Follow the “touch once” rule

As the age-old, goldemn paperwork rule explains, for every sheet you come across, either act on it, file it, or recycle it. While it may seem easier to convince yourself that you’ll “just do it later”, this also has the tendency to create an even longer to-do list in the end. And if this rule seems like too much to handle just yet, the productivity coaches at Gateway Productivity, suggest an “Every time you touch it, move it forward” mentality. 

 

[DIY: Our Best Office Organization Ideas]

 

Know what to save—and for how long

Often times, we end up saving everything simply because we don’t know what we’ll need and what can be tossed. In her new handbook, "The Martha Manual: How to Do (Almost) Everything", Martha suggests saving paid utility bills, annual investment statements, and copies of checks for non-tax-deductible items for one year. Any IRS tax records, bank statements, and records of deductible expenses should be kept for up to seven years (IRS-recommended). Contracts, home-improvement receipts, mortgage records, and deeds should be kept for as long as they’re active. Items like marriage papers, education records, and passports should be kept indefinitely.

 

[LEARN: How to Keep Snail Mail Under Control, Finally!]


 
When it's time to toss, shred any papers that list your name, address, or phone or social-security numbers; old insurance policies; and receipts (with the exception of those for larger purchases that have warranty policies in place). Bonus recycling points: while shredded paper can be mixed with the rest of your household recycling, it also makes a great addition to your compost!

 

Go Digital 

Minimize the amount of paperwork you have to sift through—and be more eco-friendly—by reducing it at the source. Switch to online billing for credit cards, cell service, utilities, and bank statements. Then, scan any must-haves document with apps that use your phone camera, such as Scanbot or CamScanner. These apps allow you to enhance, annotate, and crop documents; bundle them into a single PDF; and share them via email or social media.

 


You can then organize these digital files through designated folders on your computer or upload them to Cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive. These services, contrary to popular belief, are safe to use, thanks to redundancies—systems store multiple copies of data, all in different places—and user-specific encryption. For extra protection against hacking, set up two-step verification. This will require you to enter both your password and a code sent to an additional device (like your phone) to achieve access to Cloud-stored documents.

 

Centralize Your Papers

The more places your papers are scattered, the greater the chances are something gets lost. Whether it’s a shelf in your home office or a filing cabinet under your desk, try and keep everything in one place. This not only helps maintain an order, but will make your workspace less of an obstacle for actually working. That said, consider a few small touches that can make the space more appealing, like cheery stationery essentials and a good work lamp. Shredder an eyesore? Hide it in a tall basket. And don’t forget to spring for a comfortable chair—you don’t need another reason to avoid the task. 

 

[SEE: How to Transform Any Space Into the Perfect Home Office]

 

Keep The Routine Going

After you’ve set up the decluttering system that works best for you, vow to actually follow through with it. This can be as easy as setting aside a little time each week (try sticking to one designated day) where you sift through the week’s worth of paperwork, filing and purging as you go.