The organization of your files, mail, and bills can get easily disheveled if you don’t keep up with it or if your system isn’t working for you. It can also be extremely overwhelming to start to organize if you’ve got a big backlog–it can seem like you’re never getting anywhere.

My favorite technique to get on top of a paper problem is to ignore the backlog. At first. This technique allows you to follow this smart-alecky adage: If you’re in a hole, stop digging.

How to stop digging

Step 1: Prepare

You will need to accomplish the following, in whatever form is right for you, and remember you can change these things at any time:

  1. Identify and make a place to collect incoming paper
  2. Identify and make a place to process paper that needs action
  3. Identify and make a place to put outgoing paper
  4. Identify and make a place to file reference and vital documents
  5. Identify and make a place to deal with recycling and/or shredding
  6. Decide how often you want to process your mail

What’s right for you will be influenced by how much and what kind of mail you get, in addition to your schedule and personal preferences about dealing with your mail. Some folks do well with daily mail processing; others attend to it once a week. It won’t do itself, however, so go ahead and decide specifically when you’re going to do this task.

Step 2: Get out of your way

Take your backlog from wherever it is currently living and put it in banker’s boxes.You will probably have to gather paper from more than one location. If you have a filing cabinet or a file box that’s unruly or you’re not using because it’s too full, box that up, too. Label the boxes as best as you can. It’s not going to be in this state forever, but for you to work with your new system, you need to get it out of your way temporarily.

Step 3: Start fresh

Set up your new system. Start using your new system right away. Use it for a couple of weeks before you change anything to discover things that need fine-tuned.

Step 4: Deal with the backlog

Now you can start sorting your backlog, shredding old financial documents, and scanning or filing the stuff that’s worth keeping. Not sure what to keep? Checking with your accountant or lawyer is always the safest. Here’s what the IRS recommends for taxes. For more general recommendations, check out sites like Suze Orman, The Pricacy Rights Clearinghouse, and Consumer Reports.

A final word of advice

Paper takes an extended amount of time to deal with, so be compassionate with yourself. It will seem slow, but that’s because it is slow. 

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