How to conquer your paper backlog

Have you been tossing your receipts, documents and miscellaneous paper into boxes, to be read or filed “someday”? When “someday” finally arrives, here’s how to efficiently deal with them.

No, I’m not going to tell you to just light them on fire.  You might want to, and I did have a client suggest that (I’m pretty sure she was joking), but there are probably at least some papers in there that you should save or digitize, so setting fire to the whole batch might be unwise.

This process is a guideline, designed for situations in which many different types of documents need to be sorted out. The picture below is from a project in which the client had more than 40 different types of documents to eventually be filed, plus assorted other papers destined for the shred bin, all mixed together in the same boxes. Since my table wasn’t big enough, nor my arms long enough, to comfortably manage that many piles at once, I worked the project using multiple sort levels, as described below. If you have a more manageable number of document types, you may be able to do this in fewer steps.

Let’s do this!

The familiar maxim, “handle each piece of paper only once”, is generally sound advice for routine, ongoing paper management, but if you have a significant backlog, trying to do that will just frustrate you and prolong the process. You will get through the pile(s) faster and more efficiently if you take a multi-stage approach.Document project in progress

First, sort the documents into high-level categories

SORT.  Start with a quick, high-level sort through all of the papers. The idea is to quickly separate most of the junk from the gems, without scrutinizing each document. For some papers, like old grocery store receipts, dividend check stubs from previous years, or expired coupons, it will be immediately obvious that they are trash. Put those papers right into a “shred” box or a “recycle” box, whichever is appropriate for the document. If you aren’t sure if you need to keep a particular document, don’t let that derail your progress – treat it as a keeper for now. For documents that aren’t obvious trash…

CATEGORIZE them as you go, making a pile for each type of document. At this stage, use broad categories and don’t try to put the papers in order.  For example, a homeowner might have piles for “cars”, “medical”, “taxes”, “investments”, etc.; a business owner might have piles for “invoices”, “project documents”, “employee records”, etc. If you have medical records for several family members, or HR records for multiple employees, don’t try to separate the records for each person at this time, just put them all in the same “medical” or “employees” pile.

TIP >  If you need to suspend work on this project before you’ve finished sorting and categorizing, you can make temporary folders for your “keep” piles and put them in a box (as in photo above), so you don’t have piles all over the place until you are ready to continue.

Next, refine your categories with a second sort, if needed

REFINE. After you’ve finished your first pass through all of the documents, it’s time to refine your categories. One pile at a time, for each category pile that needs further division, separate the papers into piles for each sub-category. For example, if you have two cars, you would separate the “cars” pile into two piles, one for each car, if you want to file them separately. Not all of your piles will need further division, but some probably will. As in the initial sort, don’t worry about putting the papers in order within the piles yet, just get all of the piles broken down into the sub-categories you want.

Now, assess which documents need to be kept, and file (or digitize) them

ASSESS and FILE. Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Once you see what documents you have of each type, you can better decide which ones you need to keep. For each pile, first order the records in a way that makes sense to you – often this is by document date, but sometimes it’s alphabetically or by some other criterion. Then take a closer look at each document and make a final assessment as to whether it should be kept or discarded; for example, you can usually shred quarterly investment account statements and just keep the year-end statement. Finally, file the remaining documents, creating or relabeling file folders as needed. Or, if you’re digitizing the records, scan them and electronically file them in appropriate folders in your records management system.

TIP > Once you’ve filed the last pile, give yourself a nice reward. And promise yourself that you won’t let your papers pile up like this again!

Develop a process to effectively manage your records going forward

PROCESS. If you haven’t already done so, help yourself keep that promise by developing a process for managing your records on an ongoing basis. Decide how and where you’re going to keep them, how often you’re going to file them, and when you’re going to purge them. If you’re managing business records, document the process, including who is responsible for each task.

TIP > Recognize that those boxes weren’t filled in an hour, and they’re not going to be emptied in an hour either. Depending on your tolerance for the work, and on how much of a backlog you have, you might need to spread the project over several days, working for a few hours at a time.

Do you have a process for handling and storing your records, and for purging them when they are no longer needed? Do you know that digital records also need a records management process?

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2 comments on “How to conquer your paper backlog”

  1. Lois Hoffman Reply

    I have an ongoing problem with papers despite having most of my bills online. This will give me the will and the push to get my papers organized (and hopefully stay that way)!!!

    • Pat DePalma Reply

      Thank you, Lois, I’m so happy to hear that. You can do it, I have no doubt! Let us know how you make out.

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