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Home Organization: Expert Tips on Managing Household Papers

Published on: March 23, 2012

Tips for organizing your home filesIn this day and age of digital information processing and storage, you would think that our paper piles would be far smaller and more manageable than they used to be. However, for many families, that is just not the case. Do you have towering mounds of paper around your house, blanketing every available surface? With tax time just around the corner, take the opportunity to start some new filing habits. To get started, follow these useful tips. 

Decision time

Do you become catatonic over deciding what to do with your household paper? Does your state of indecision lead to tossing the paper onto an ever-growing pile? Keep it or toss it? Making the call can be hard, which is why people often end up with piles.

The next time you come across a piece of paper that has you heading for your personal paper pile, resist and instead ask yourself, “What’s the next action related to this piece of paper?” If the action is something you can do quickly, in two minutes or less, do it. If the next action requires more time or effort, place it in a file that you can come back to and process later. (IMPORTANT: Block time on your calendar to actually come back to it!) I recommend keeping "action files" for these types of papers, so called because they state the action that needs to be taken with the paper. Some common action files are: To Do, To Pay, To Read, and Waiting On.

Need more help when it comes to deciding what papers to keep and which to toss? Refer to Innovatively Organized's handy Paper Retention Checklist.

Paper zones

When setting up a high-productivity filing system, it is best to create "zones" that correspond to items' frequency of retrieval. Once you’ve recycled or shredded the papers you don’t want or need to keep, your remaining papers should fall into one of these filing zones:

Active files: These files house papers you use or reference often (daily or weekly). They are also papers that represent an "action" you need to take. Examples: bills to pay, invitations requiring response, permission slip that needs a signature. These files should be kept in an area that is easily accessible.

Reference files: These files are papers you may access regularly, but do not require an immediate action — meaning they don’t have a "due date" associated with them. These documents should be sorted into categories for easy, quick retrieval. Examples: warranties, insurance papers, manuals. These files need to be accessible, but your prime file real estate should be reserved for your active files.   

Archive files: These files are for papers that you need or want to keep for historical or memorabilia purposes, but that you don't need to access more than once a year. Examples: past tax returns, old medical records, special artwork or schoolwork kept for sentimental reasons. These files do not need to be as easily accessible since they aren’t referenced often. Just be sure if you store these files in an area like a basement that you choose an appropriate container that will protect them — pick a sturdy and water-tight file container.

Files, not piles

How's that for a mantra to live by? Your retained papers need a home, and you’re in luck because there are many filing products out there that can work for any person and space. Take some things into consideration when selecting your filing products. Are you a visual person? If so, a file cabinet may not be the most ideal option for you, especially for your active files, which need to remain in your view. Also, think about your space. Do you have a wall that can be utilized to house a filing product? If so, choose accordingly. Here are five filing options to consider:

1. Traditional file drawers: Great if you have a lot of files and/or you prefer to have your files out of sight.
2. Accordion files: A good option if you prefer something that’s portable. Hint: Use this to file monthly receipts.
3. Wall sorters: A great choice if you want to utilize wall space.
4. Magazine files: Not only for holding magazines, these can also contain project files that are "works in progress."
5. Vertical sorters: These keep your active files at eye level, and since they are "out" they are great for people who tend to be more visual.

Once you have you paper management system in place, the most important tip I can give you is to use and maintain it! Remember, the key is that you actually file your papers, not pile your papers.

Well, there you are, standing on the path to better paper management — just take that first step! For even more tips on managing papers, download Innovatively Organized's Paper Management 101 webinar. ParentMap readers can downlad the webinar free by entering the code PAPERMGMT. You can also join us on April 5 for our Paper Management 201 webinar.

Elizabeth Bowman, Innovatively OrganizedTo read more tips from Innovatively Organized and organizing and productivity expert Elizabeth Bowman, check out the Innovatively Organized blog, where new tips, tricks and info about the latest apps and organizing products are posted regularly. Innovatively Organized is a Seattle-based organizing and productivity firm that provides effective organizing solutions for busy professionals, teams, and families to better manage their time, increase productivity, and gain control of their spaces. Contact Elizabeth Bowman via email at, Twitter at @iOrganized or visit

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