When it comes to how you want to spend your free time, “organizing paperwork” probably doesn't rank high on the list. But there are a lot of good reasons to do it anyway.
For starters, getting organized can reduce your stress when it's time to pay taxes, review a contested invoice, prepare a major presentation, and more. Instead of wasting time and energy hunting for the necessary documentation, you can focus on the main task at hand. Maintaining a file storage system also reduces clutter, which can facilitate concentration and productivity. It also creates a more pleasant environment to spend time in—you probably don't need us to tell you it's hard to feel relaxed when you're surrounded by mountains of clutter. Here's our list of file storage ideas to clear the clutter.
File Storage Ideas to Establish an Organizational System
- Assess and reduce all paperwork
Before you file, it's important to clarify what needs organizing in the first place. Start the paper organization process by going through each and every loose paper in your office or home. Consolidate these papers into distinct categories such as insurance records, tax records, pay stubs, invoices, reading, and so on.
Next, go through each pile and weed out anything that doesn't need to be kept. (If you're not sure how long to keep sensitive documents, brush up on your knowledge here.) Shred and recycle anything you don't need to hold onto.
- Create a file system
There are a lot of options here, so take the time to identify what kind of office filing system may work best for you. Start by filing everything in its appropriate category, and then customize it. Here are a few popular file storage ideas:
- Store papers alphabetically or chronologically.
- Store documents in a file cabinet or in magazine storage files. (If you don't have a file cabinet or another means of file storage, now is the time to invest in one. A filing system is among the most critical small business supplies.)
- Color code your files so each category is represented by a different color. This makes it easy to know, simply by looking at the folders, where to find or deposit a paper.
- Scan and digitize as many files as possible so you don't need to retain hard copies.
- In the case of files that don't need to be kept for more than a year (or a few years), label them with an expiration date so they can be removed promptly when their time is up.
Once you develop a system that makes sense for your office, use a labeler for folders, shelves, and so on. This will further reduce confusion over what belongs where.
- Develop a protocol for processing new papers
It's a major accomplishment to get all your existing papers organized. But until you figure out how to process incoming papers, that organizational system won't last long.
The best approach is to commit to processing and (if necessary) filing any new document that crosses your desk the same day you receive it. If that's not your speed, consider placing an inbox on your desk. (An outbox is also useful for holding outgoing documents until you're able to deliver them to the appropriate recipient.) View this inbox as a holding space for papers you will process within 24 to 48 hours, not as a storage system in itself.
Each time you process an incoming piece of paper, apply the same rules you used in step one: First, determine whether the document should be kept or if it can be shredded or recycled. If it needs to be filed, then place it in the appropriate category using whatever office storage ideas you chose in step two. To facilitate these efforts, make sure you have folders and labels on hand at all times.
- Invest in extra safety measures for the most important documents
Some documents are so important that they require a little extra care. This includes items such as birth and marriage certificates, Social Security cards, wills, tax documents, estate planning documents, and any other information that would severely complicate someone's life if lost or stolen.
There are a number of ways you can ensure the safekeeping of these documents: a fireproof safe, a password-protected disc, and/or safe-deposit box for anything that is highly important and difficult to replace.
- Commit to weekly maintenance
Once you have your filing system in place, it's important to commit to regular maintenance. To that end, consider setting aside one hour each week to process papers and make sure your filing system stays organized. If multiple people maintain the office file storage system, make sure everyone is on the same page regarding the protocols you developed. When everyone pitches in, the office has a much greater chance of staying organized.
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The more papers accumulate around your home or office, the more daunting it will feel to organize them. In contrast, the more you commit to processing and filing paperwork as it arrives, the less of a chore it will be to organize. Employ the best file storage ideas for your needs and maintain your system on a weekly basis to enjoy a clutter-free workspace and greater peace of mind.
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Laura Newcomer is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. She has taught environmental education to students of all ages in both Pennsylvania and Maine, and prioritizes living an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. She's a big proponent of creating self-sustaining communities and accessible healthy food systems that care for both people and the earth. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.