Anna, a quiet girl from my college dorm, said something which, at the time made me laugh, but in the years following, I’ve reflected on many times. Anna was going on a first date and declared that she needed to prepare by cleaning her dorm room so she would be calm on her date. As a college student, I didn’t yet understand the power of order in my environment on my mental and emotional health, but fast forward about 15 years, and Anna’s words began to make sense. There’s so much I can’t control about my life, but when I can control something like the clutter in my house, it gives me momentum to be able to handle other challenges.
Many years removed from college, I was a working mom completely overwhelmed by life, and I began to crave order. Any little bit of order was comforting - even if it was just that my bed got made or I cleared my bathroom vanity. An empty kitchen sink suddenly became a source of energy and made me wonder how it might feel to really have it all together with a system to organize my home.
When I decided to stop longing for order and do something about it, I searched for a magic formula to give me more time with my kids, declutter my house, develop creative storage systems, track my spending, file my paperwork, and curate my memorabilia. I read productivity books and listened to organization podcasts looking for the answer. There are certainly many, many tools and frameworks to help us, but all of them have one thing in common - you have to DO the work!
I decided to start with the thing that bugged me the most - PAPER! Even in this digital age, "adulting" has a lot of paper involved- bills, statements, magazines, health and insurance documents, coupons, invitations, kids' school papers and artwork. Choosing paper as my first organization challenge certainly gave me a lot of material to work with! I started with a period of trial and error which included various shapes and sizes of baskets that I simply relocated all the paper into. It wasn’t until I came up with a system of how to actually process the paper that I really saw results. I took bits and pieces of various organizational gurus' systems and made my own. Everyone’s system will be (and should be) unique, but I hope learning how I do things might give you an idea or two to use in your own system. Download the printable visual diagram of my process and then read on for more explanation.
Paper comes into our homes from all directions, and we have to control it so it doesn’t control us. As each piece of paper comes in, I do one of three things: trash it, display it, or put it in the inbox. I don’t spend a lot of time deciding on what to do with each item. If it's obvious junk mail, I trash it. If it's something that refrigerator-worthy, it goes there right away. If there’s even a small possibility I want to keep it, I put it in the inbox. I can always trash it later. My inbox is a vertical file organizer that hangs on the end of my kitchen island. It has three slots - one for each kid and one for everything else.
I take my inbox to my desk and empty out a section at a time. I go through each kid’s section, pick out what I want to save, and put the rest in a trash pile. If it makes the cut, the paper goes in the appropriate kid’s shallow plastic container for the school year that is kept in the chest of drawers near my desk. I don't spend a lot of mental energy deciding what I want to get rid of. If I might want to keep it, I do. I know I’ll go through the whole container at the end of the school year and purge it further, so there’s no need to worry too much about paring down the memorabilia at this point.
The third slot in my organizer is the most labor intensive. I empty the bin and separate into a do today pile, a file pile, a defer pile (anything that doesn’t need to be done this week, and I’m not in the mood to tackle), and a trash pile (separating out what needs shredded vs. recycled/trashed.)
Step 1: Do Today This includes tasks like paying bills, reviewing the family budget, clipping coupons, placing orders, filling out forms, writing and addressing birthday cards, etc. After the task is done, then I either add it to the file pile, the trash pile, or put it into my new staging pile. The staging pile is for things like letters to be mailed or completed permission slips to go back to school.
Step 2: File I used to have hanging file folders stuffed full, and my drawers were brimming with paper, most of which I didn’t need or ever look at. I took some suggestions from Lisa Woodruff of Organize 365 and made binders instead. In a later post, I’ll go through my binder system in detail and talk about how I purged and archived all that paper that used to be in my desk drawers. I have 5 different colored binders in my desk’s filing drawer where I file all paperwork I need to keep . If I don’t need it, I shred or recycle it. My binders are separated into these categories: Finances, Health, Property, Personal, Fun. I also have ONE hanging file folder where I put any document that may be needed for my income taxes so it’s easy to find at the end of the year.
If there are any keepsake items or photos in the file pile that aren't for the kids' memorabilia boxes, I put those in plastic bins that I keep on a shelf in my closet. I have a very rudimentary organizational system for that. Non-photos go in one box and photos are separated by major life events like before marriage, between marriage and kid 1, between kid 1 and kid 2, and after kid 2. I'm guessing our next big photo separating event will be when the kids go to high school or maybe college.
Step 3: The Later Box I have a cute little box on my desk that is my “later box.” First, I look through what’s in the box already and pull out anything that needs completed this week (or that I am just in the mood to do.) Then I put the rest of the items back along and add items from my defer pile. I then repeat steps 1 and 2 for the items I took from the "later box."
Step 4: Staging I created a staging pile in step 1, so at this point in the process I put everything in this pile in its temporary home. That could be my purse, my husband’s work bag, one of the kids’ backpacks, a magnetic clip, the bulletin board, or in the mailbox. I have twomagnetic clips, one for each kid, that are color coded (everything for my oldest is blue and youngest is red.) The clips are for things specific to one kid that are done but can’t yet be delivered to their final destination (example: soccer picture form or fundraiser money that’s not due yet.) Anything in a similar state that is not kid-specific goes on the bulletin board as well as papers that are for reference like sports schedules.
Step 5: Trash I shred, recycle, or trash the piles on my floor!
Step 6: Repeat next week! I hang my inbox back up in the kitchen to start gathering more paper.
This system has been life changing! I’m not as annoyed with paper covering every surface of my house, and I don’t forget to do things or spend as much energy trying to remember to do them. Since everything is in one location and I regularly go through the inbox, even if life happens and I miss a week, it’s not the end of the world. The next week’s review might take a little longer, but there is rarely anything that can’t wait a few more days! What is your system for processing the paper in your house? Share with us in the comments!
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!