12 Feb 2016

The Paperwork Nightmare

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There you are, lying in bed trying to sleep. You can’t seem to fall asleep and it’s not the caffeine in the coffee you had with dessert. You didn’t hear a strange sound downstairs. It’s the paperwork piles in your office calling you.

…Did you pay that bill?…

…Did you remember to send in that proposal?…

…Did you sign your son’s permission slip for the field trip?…

Paperwork is the number one source of clutter in nearly all of the homes I go into. It seems that the paperless society we were promised is not going to appear any time soon.

Paperwork is one of the hardest things to work on since it takes a long time with very little visible difference. According to several experts in our field, a good rule of thumb is to assume that to make the decisions on 1 inch of paper will take 1 hour. That is why you can spend all day and it looks like you didn’t do anything. This can be distressing but is worth it when you need to find something quickly.

It is important to make sure you know what is happening with your money and your bills. Loss of a bill can cause late fees, penalties, and if it continues, a lowering of your credit score which can cost you even more. People with lower credit scores pay higher interest rates on almost EVERYTHING they need to buy and it can take a very long time to bring it back up.

In an emergency, having all your important documents at your fingertips can be very helpful. Are the medical power of attorney forms handy? What about the Do Not Resuscitate or Living Will paperwork? Do you know where the insurance company information is? You can see why you not only need to have these documents but why you need to be able to find them quickly.

There are many ways to file paperwork – not just one. You do NOT need to use the labels that come with your hanging file folders. You do not need to use the names that your mother used on her folders. You don’t even need to use file folders at all! Everyone is different and not all ways work for all people – no matter what anyone says.

The most important thing about putting away papers is the ability to put your hands on them when you need to, with a minimum of fuss.

Let’s look at file naming. This is important whether you are using actual file folders or a binder system, a pocket folder system, or any other method. The thing to think about is what word comes to mind when you think of that thing. For example, the mode of transportation I use the most is my car. I may think any of the following –– Transportation, Automobile, Auto, Car, Blue car, Maria’s car, My car, Camry, Toyota, Sedan, Hybrid, Work car, and there are probably a whole lot of other things you may think of. Pick the one that you think most often and name your file that. If you use an indexed filing system, all of these keywords could be entered into a spreadsheet and then your file name is searchable on your computer using any of them. This is very nice but much more time consuming up front – you have to think about what works for you. It is very appropriate if you don’t tend to call things by the same name consistently. You can even take your usual filing system and create a spreadsheet to allow you to use search terms to find where you put stuff. For example, I search for “Camry” and it tells me it’s in the “Car” file.

Assuming that you don’t have a ton of files and can remember consistent names, then the method of storing the info comes into play. Do you like to keep paper files around or would you prefer to scan as much as possible so you can have everything on the computer? Do you like file folders? Do you like your files going front to back or side to side in the drawer? Do you HATE file folders? If you hate them, do you like binders, pocket folders, in/out trays, Wall pockets, etc? Do you even know what you like? We hear this one a lot.

There are as many ways of handling papers as there are people that need to handle them. Almost any system will work – as long as it is fully implemented and consistently used. Ahhh….there’s the rub. Most people will put in PART of a system, decide it doesn’t work and then try something else. What you wind up with is a hodge-podge of systems that don’t work well together and the headache that negates all the effort you have put in to trying them.

Everyone’s brain works differently and so everyone needs to take into consideration what works with their patterns and needs. Some systems work better with different brain or personality types than others. Keep this in mind when you are looking at the different methods of paper management and you’ll make fewer mistakes.

There are some things that are fairly universal when dealing with paper.

  1. Expired coupons are generally trash. Yes, some companies –Bed, Bath & Beyond comes to mind – honor coupons of any age, but most don’t.
  2. Sale circulars are no good after a week and so are trash
  3. Magazines that you are going to look at “someday” are generally out of date by the time you will get to them.
  4. Trade publications are usually found online these days and the physical copy just takes up space. Within a year, most trade publications are woefully out of date.
  5. Your National Geographic collection will never be complete and even if it is, there really isn’t anyone who is going to buy it.
  6. Newspapers more than 2 days old are generally not worth the time to read. Let it go and try to get thru today’s copy and then move on to the rest of your life.
  7. If you have things saved on your computer, you don’t need it printed out and you certainly don’t need 5 copies of it.
  8. If you want to send a cartoon to someone, etc. sending it, or a link to it, electronically has a lot of advantages over sending a paper version, including the ability to increase the size so the vision impaired can read it more easily.
  9. Most items don’t need to be kept. The 80/20 rule applies here so if you can easily replace something when you need it, let it go.
  10. Not everything deserves to be scanned, either, so be judicious with your time and space. You are probably better off just letting it go.

These are just a few points but if you implement them, you will reduce the amount of work you will have filing in the first place and what you do file you will be able to find.

Put in the proper systems and you will tame those nightmares and you will be able to sleep at night knowing that you have taken care of all those paperwork problems downstairs.

© 2016 – Maria Spetalnik

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About the Author


works mostly behind the scenes at Conquer the Clutter, supporting Maria’s efforts to make the world a neater place to live.

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