Three colourful lever arch files on a desk

By Lea Schneider

It’s so easy to be spoiled working in a company office. A variety of people handle various tasks related to paperwork, and most likely, those tasks do not all belong to you.

In a home office, all of the various jobs are most likely yours—even if you don’t want them to be. If you are running a business, working from home for someone else or just trying to manage your personal finances, you need a routine to prevent paper chaos.

The start of a new year is a great time to start a new routine. You can easily adapt some professional organizer methods for paperwork, including setting up an easy-to-use file system for personal bills and papers.

Start with Now

It’s tempting to think you’ll work to clear up accumulated messes and then come up with a new plan for handling paperwork. If you dig into the stacks and piles on your desk, credenza and file cabinets or the boxes under the desk, you are likely to never get around to the here and now.

As you work to file away papers from a year or two ago, more papers will arrive. You’ll never catch up. So as tempting as it is to get rid of the old stuff first, think like a pro. Begin by creating a system for handling current projects, today’s finances and incoming papers.

Hit the Three Zones

Set up a physical location for incoming papers, projects and current files.

  • Incoming Papers: Have a designated location for incoming mail, projects or to-do items. Wall pockets use vertical space and are great to hold incoming papers until you can get to them. This keeps them from getting mixed in with something you are currently working on and have spread out on your desk.
  • Projects: It’s likely that you’ll always have a project that you’re working on, so it isn’t possible to always have everything put away. A more realistic goal is to have a specific place to keep active and ongoing project paperwork. Instead of stacking or piling the things you are working on, get in the habit of using an upright desktop file. It makes it easy to locate what you need and clears out a work area on your desk.
  • Current Files: Remember you are starting with now. Label a set of file folders for the current year. Use a basket to hold new items that need filing and file often. It will be quick because you are only handling fresh, new items to file.

“Tickle” To-Do Items

You need a way to remind yourself about to-do items, from bills to pay to project deadlines to invitations. You can easily tickle your memory with a “tickle file.” Either an empty desk file drawer or a hanging file organizer is the perfect spot.

Label 31 file folders with the numbers one through 31, representing the days of the month. Label another 12 folders with the months of the year. Arrange them in your file organizer or drawer.

Now clear your desk of all the to-do items. Decide when each item needs to be handled, each bill must be paid or each follow-up phone call is needed. Drop each item into the day or month file when it needs doing. Add plenty of notes to yourself as reminders. Begin each day by checking the folder for that day or month and seeing what needs to be done.

Clear Up Older Files

Once you are in a routine for handling current files, to-do items and incoming papers, you can begin to tackle old papers you let accumulate. Follow these easy tips to get those sorted out.

  • Don’t allow old papers to get mixed up with current projects. Either work on old papers on a clear desk or set up a folding table and use it only for sorting older papers.
  • Ask yourself why you would need to access old papers and let the answer be your guide for how to sort them. If you’d be looking for old client projects, then separate all the client information from your finances. If you’d be looking for receipts or bills from a certain financial year, then sort those by year.
  • A hanging file crate makes a great temporary spot for sorting papers. Use sticky notes to create temporary labels. Create file categories as you sort.
  • Once the papers are all sorted, they can be moved into file cabinets or storage boxes.
  • Keeps momentum going by working a set amount of time each day—say 20 minutes.

Remember that if you need to keep papers, you don’t need to keep them in the room with you. Store them in the attic or spare closet, or even send them to a storage company.

As a professional organizer, Lea Schneider has a wealth of knowledge on how to keep your paperwork organized to help reduce the clutter and save you time. You can find the desk organizers and storage solutions that Lea talks about in this article at The Home Depot.