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Getting Organized

Manage Paper without Arson, Part 2

Vicki Norris
Restoring Order

CBN.comPaper comes at us at mach speed. It comes in junk mail, snail mail, and e-mail (because we love to push the “print” button). We haul it around in our briefcases, back packs, handbags, and purses. From receipts to advertisements to file folders to take out menus, very few of us know what to do with the variety and scope of paper we receive on a daily basis.

In my last column, I shared with you the nature of our paper, what our paper mismanagement is costing us, and the need for good organizational systems. Here I want to share with you the five paper management systems everyone needs at home and at work. In my work as a professional organizer, I’ve named them all to start with the letter “p” so that you can remember and practice them more easily. Below are the five “P’s” of paper management:

The traditional “inbox” doesn’t work. People just stack all their incoming (and current) papers into it, and it just becomes a receptacle. The processing system is the most important system you will establish in your home or office and it will change the way you deal with paper.

Your processing system will provide a place to pre-sort your mail and incoming paper. This system is the first point of contact paper should have with your home or office. At home, you can locate this system in your kitchen (if the mail lands here first) or the home office. At work, every individual should have a processing system within easy reach at his or her desk.

The paper processing system should be located on the desktop, very close to the user. I like using trays to capture paper in most processing centers I establish. This way, the user can see right into the system and note that there are still items there to be dealt with.

In your processing system, you will sort paper—not by what it is—but instead by what needs to happen to it. In other words, you will ask yourself “what do I need to do with this piece of paper?” Do you need to read it, pay it, do it, file it, or take some other type of action? Once you see some common types of action needed, you can make labels accordingly. (TO DO, TO READ, TO FILE, TO DECIDE, TO CALL, etc.). The types of paper to be processed (and the corresponding label) will differ greatly at work from home papers. Work categories will be tailored to each person’s job description.

I call this system the “runway” because as I like to joke with my clients, “there ain’t no parkin’ on the runway…only landing and taking off!” The point is: paper should land here only temporarily and then be quickly moved on to action.

For more information on how to process paper, you can see the “Action Center®” description on my website.

The processing center “runway” is best for managing quick-turn-over incoming paper. But what about the paper that has a shelf life? Paper that you can’t just pay and toss or speedily deal with? You need “short term parking”!

It doesn’t make sense to put your current papers into a filing system, where they will reside among reference papers. We often forget about paper we stick in a file drawer, and there are certain pending projects that we need to keep in our radar. We all need a system to manage those projects.

I like to use file folders to store projects, and I think it’s important to keep them upright in a system on your desktop within your view so that you can see them.

Project papers may include current items that must go into a holding pattern until a decision is reached (like a file on options for summer camps for your kids). The upcoming trip to Disneyland or a client task are also examples of projects. Project papers are distinct from actionable processing paper because a project usually incorporates several steps and multiple pieces of paper.

For more information on how to store projects, you can see the “Project Center®” description on my website.

At home and at work we need a way to transfer paper to others with whom we live and work.

At home, each family member might need a mail slot to capture incoming mail and papers. I’ve used trays, file folders, and mail slots for this purpose, depending on preferences. Each file or section can be labeled with each family member’s name. A people paper management system must work for the unique needs of each family. This system can help teens learn how to manage paper, like permission slips, church camp materials, etc. Organizational systems equip kids with better self-management skills.

At work, we need to communicate with management, peers, and subordinates. A people system is needed to capture information and paper related to co-workers and any collaborative work. Rather than constantly self-interrupting and shuttling paper to our co-workers, we can capture meeting notes, articles, and other paper in one place for each person. On my desk, I have a file for each employee so that I can store items I want to discuss with them.

A people system is also excellent for capturing meeting information, particularly for recurring staff or departmental meetings.

None of the systems above will last if you don’t have a good filing system. Everyone needs “long term parking” for their permanent paper. One of the great mistakes people make is to neglect this part of paper management, probably because it takes the longest to set up, and requires many decisions.

A proper filing system should only have 3-6 categories and be simple to maintain. Common categories for home filing systems to manage permanent paper include: “Personal”, “Household,” “Financial”, and “Health.” Common professional categories may include “Financial,” “Sales,” “Marketing,” “HR,” and so on. It is essential not to impose, but instead to discover these categories by going through all the paper in your home or office and seeing which categories emerge. Name your categories something that make sense to you (“Interests” might make more sense to you than “Personal”.)

Filing usually is set up in file folders and hanging files, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be housed in binders, on vertical desktop files, in accordion files, in portable containers, or a myriad of other possibilities.

The last “P” of paper management is the paper that hangs around forever. Perpetual paper is stuck in your junk drawer, tacked to your fridge, taped inside your cabinets, and stacked up on your surfaces. It’s the take-out menus, business cards, school information, and team rosters. It is the paper that you frequently reference, but doesn’t necessarily relate to each other. I’ve created a Household Reference Binder that I use with my clients to help people gather and organize all this perpetual paper.

Hopefully these five “P’s” of paper management will give you a place to start tackling your piles and stacks. Remember, organizing your paper isn’t just about making it look better; it’s about creating systems to run your life more smoothly.

Some parts adapted fromRestoring Order™ to Your Home a room-by-room household organizing guidecopyright © 2007 by Vicki Norris (available in bookstores and at  Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR.

About the Author: Vicki Norris is an expert organizer, business owner, speaker, television personality, and author who inspires people to live out their priorities. Norris is a regular on HGTV’s nationally syndicated
Mission: Organization, and is a recurrent source and contributor to national lifestyle publications including Quick & Simple magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, and Real Simple magazine. Norris’ premiere book Restoring Order : Organizing Strategies to Reclaim Your Life™ (copyright 2006) is also published by Harvest House Publishers.


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