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The big eight places to put paper

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Q: I’m setting up a home office. How can I best manage paper?

A: Bottom line: You can put every piece of paper, or the information on it, into one of eight places:

1. Action files
2. Reference files
3. To-do list
4. Address book (little black book) or database
5. Calendar or PDA
6. To-sort tray
7. Tickler file
8. Circular file

The paper we keep falls into two categories: Action or Reference. Action papers include those that need your attention. You need to do something, either as soon as possible, or in the near future.

Examples of action files include:

Pay – For bills, orders, or donations. Payment coupon books belong here too.

Copy – Before we can mail an article on, we need to copy it.

Write – When writing a letter is the next action to take and can include greeting cards, thank you notes, or business/personal letters.

Database – This includes information that needs to be entered either in your address book or computer database. It’s an effective use of time to group these entries and do a bunch together.

Discuss – Often we can’t take action before discussing something with a spouse, child, service provider, or friend. To be effective managers of paper requires communication with key people in our lives.

Projects – Small projects can be grouped in one file. For larger projects, such as remodeling, keep separate files.

To file – Much of what comes through the mail can be read quickly and sorted for filing one time a week.

This is a starter list to which you can add. It’s important to customize your system.

Reference files – These are for information that you may need or want to refer to in the future. Example of reference files are insurance, specific hobbies, travel, car, gardening, etc. Research shows that 80 percent of papers filed aren’t used again. In a four-drawer file cabinet that’s almost three drawers of wasted space. Visualize this to help you choose what paper to keep.

To-do list – Your list is one consistent place to download your brain; to free your mind from distractions. It will eliminate many scraps of paper that tend to get lost. A to-do list provides satisfaction of crossing it off (I like to mark it off with highlighter) when completed. If you find you are not getting to something after a week, check in with yourself to find out why. There may be another action that you need to take first, or it may not be so important after all, etc. Avoid putting large projects onto this list; instead put the next single action needed to keep the project moving forward.

Name and numbers – For paper-based systems, write in pencil. It makes address changes so much easier. If you’ve already started in pen, apply a blank white address label over the previous numbers to provide a fresh writing area.

“To sort” tray – In practice, you can use a basket, box or space on a shelf, table or desk. This container becomes a temporary spot for papers you have not yet sorted — the mail, papers given to you by family members, papers from your brief case, papers from your doctor appointment, receipts. Got “to sort” piles all over the house? This is where a change in habit begins. Use one sorting spot consistently and frequently. If the sorting tray is beginning to house papers permanently, you need to sort more often.

Calendar – This is another tool that eliminates scraps of paper from our purses, desks, wallets and dresser tops. By entering the information you need from the paper into your calendar (dentist appointment, haircut) generally the paper can be tossed. A calendar is a freedom tool because you don’t have to clutter your mind with those details. Use one calendar for your one life consistently and you will have a greater success rate of being where you need to be.

Tickler File – This accordion type file has slots numbered 1-31 representing the days of the month. This is the place to store tickets to the game, play, concert, as well as directions, medical records and bills, according to the event date or due date. Behind the daily slots are more slots for each month, for long-term planning.

Circular file – Who wants to spend Saturday afternoon when the sun is shining sorting through old papers? If you can learn to toss unneeded paper as you receive it, you will save yourself lots of hassles and reach more of your goals in the process. Say “yes” to the circular file by using it with enthusiasm. There’s very little paper that you can’t live without.