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Tackle that pesky paper pile problem

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MORE THAN a decade has passed since the prediction of a paperless society. Yet most people shuffle more paper than ever. We live in the Information Age, and even the shift toward electronic data requires “hard copies.”

With computers in 51 percent of American homes now, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, there is a growing need to control paper. But how? The answer is: Turn off the automatic urge to print. Be selective about what electronic information gets turned into paper. And when you do print — as well as open the mail and handle other household papers — there are three actions to take: File, act or toss (think FAT).

Start with “toss.” Get a large trash can/recycle bin and put it in a handy spot. There is a direct relationship between consistent use of the circular file and the amount of paper mess. So if it’s true that 80 percent of paper saved is never used again, why let it clutter your space at all?

Tip: Open mail near the recycle bin. Don’t allow things that you will eventually toss or unsolicited mail to gather dust.

Possible tossables
Afraid to toss? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this paper require any action? If you don’t need it, don’t keep it.
  • Is this paper recent enough to be useful? Old maps can be unreliable, and old price lists bad for the budget.
  • Would it be difficult to get this paper again? Is this the only place or form in which the information exists? The answer is often no. Tossing sooner rather than later will save you from a paper avalanche.
  • What are the tax and legal implications? Ask your lawyer or accountant how long you should keep specific documents.
  • Is there a specific use for this paper? Or is it part of the 80 percent I will never refer to again?
  • What is the worst possible outcome if I toss this? If you can live with the answer, toss the paper.

Time to act

Establish a system to keep paper moving with three containers (trays, bins, boxes, shelves or baskets):

  1. To sort, for paper you have not yet looked at (often called an in box).
  2. Out, for papers you are sending or taking elsewhere.
  3. To file, for papers that need filing for future reference or action.

File awhile

Filing is so much easier to do and maintain when you have the tools. You’ll need:

  • A drawer, a file cabinet or a variety of boxes (ranging from cardboard bankers’ boxes to plastic, desktop or freestanding ones).
  • Manila file folders (use colored files if it helps you stay motivated, but plain are less expensive).
  • Hanging files with tabs (letter or legal size, depending on your storage).
    Box-bottom hanging files if you tend to have thick files.

Tip: Remove paper clips before filing. They add bulk and can fall off or attach to other documents. Instead, staple related papers. Minimize bulk by unfolding papers and discarding envelopes.

To be an effective paper manager, stop feeling bad about yesterday’s pile and do something about today’s. Start with the mail, using FAT to help you decide. Forget the backlog for now — you’ll become more skilled as you practice on current paper.

From cars to your home, things deteriorate when not maintained, your filing system among them. Most of the homes and offices I visit have packed file cabinets, which makes filing a dreaded task. Here are my suggestions for file maintenance:

  • Purge files at the end of a project or while you are on hold on the phone.
  • Schedule a specific time for filing — 15 minutes a day, an hour a week, etc.
  • When you have a file open, check for papers you can toss.

Final tip: Reduce the paper inflow by having your name removed from mailing lists. Write to: Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008.