Mindful and Efficient Paper Sorting in 10 Steps (including breaks!)

One of the biggest challenges for anyone tackling a large organization project is paper. Paper, PAPER!!

What to do with your paper, whether to keep it, how to store it, when to toss it and how? These are the questions attached to this not glamorous, but oh-so-necessary task, making it feel so daunting that we put it off for days or months… Or years.

Wherever you fit in on that scale, these are tips that I put into action whenever I tackle my personal paper piles and those of my clients.

Presenting: Mindful and Efficient Paper Sorting in 10 Steps (including breaks!)

  1. Wrangle. The first step is wrangling your various paper piles that need to be sorted. Yes, all of them. The one on your desk, the two on the kitchen table, next to the stove, in the drawer, the one next to your couch, the ones on your bookshelves (how did they even get there?), under your bed. If you’re like most people, these will probably include lots of mail (probably unopened), catalogs, lists, bills, and receipts.
  2. Consider space. Now that you’ve consolidated your piles, consider how much space you’ll need for sorting the pieces into categories. If you have a large table for this process, great! I don’t! That’s also cool. I live in a small, Brooklyn apartment and I use my floor. Whatever works, as long as it gets done, right? (But, like, sweep first maybe…)
  3. Take a break. Make a cup of tea, drink a glass of water, have a snack, do some stretching. Sorting paper can be dusty and dehydrating! Reward yourself of tackling this project by taking care of your body, drinking plenty, and maybe listening to some Erykah Badu. 😉
  4. Categorize. By now, you should have a good idea of the categories of paper stuff you’re dealing with. For instance: to shred, to recycle, first-class mail, receipts, personal notes and lists, bills, medical stuff, subscriptions, taxes. To keep your piles on track, write your categories on post-its that you place above or below your category piles. You’ll notice I’ve factored the pending paper purge into the sorting process by including shred and recycle piles. (I actually put the pieces directly into the recycling bags or bins that I will use to put out the refuse!) Some paper will be a no-brainer to scrap the instant you come across it. Other paper will require more consideration, which you can give when you sort each category, but not right now. Efficiency is key! Let’s take one step at a time. Which brings us to–
  5. Sort, sort, sort (+ breaks)! Set a timer for 25-minute intervals that you work through. Don’t worry about opening the mail, or finding the article you saved the magazine for, just put it in its designated category pile. You’ll sort the piles later. Every 25-mins, take a water break, make a cup of tea, roll down your spine and touch your toes, or take a walk. This can be tough work, so factor in self-care! On a personal note, I know it’s really easy for me to get in a zone and go for hours sorting files. I always end up cramped up and thirsty. I’m committing to following my own advice with you!
  6. Repeat till you’re all categorized, then take a longer break. Once you’ve sorted all the bits and bobs into their category piles, feel free call it quits for the day, or keep powering through! Either way, take a break.
  7. Sort, sort, sort (+ breaks)! Part 2. Next up? You know it– Category pile time! Now that you’re sorting through each category pile, you might realize that there are subcategories, so do yourself the favor and sort these out, too. In a “bills” category, gas will be separate from electric and water. In a “mail” category, your unopened utilities bills will make a new separate pile from unopened fundraising letters and your unopened 401-k information. Now it’s appropriate to open any mail that needs it. I recommend opening every envelope in one fell swoop. It’s more efficient than opening each letter and taking out the contents separately. Keep weeding out the paper that you don’t need. Get rid of the envelopes if not the contents, too. A rule of thumb: if you can find the information easily online and has nothing to do with your financial, business, medical, or tax life, you can probably recycle or shred it. By now you’re hopefully starting to feel accomplished. GO YOU! Keep going by organizing the subcategories of your keeper piles into alphabetical or chronological order by date. I prefer reverse-chronological order so that the most recent information is on the top.
  8. Repeat (+ breaks). Repeat this for all category piles, taking breaks and hydrating as you go!
  9. File the keepers. Find a proper home for the paper you are going to keep in file folders, boxes or binders. If you don’t have a filing system in place, stay tuned! This is definitely something I will post about in the coming months. If you are still having trouble figuring out what to keep, here’s some sound advice from the NYTimes.
  10. Shred and recycle. Be responsible with the paper you purge and recycle it!! Be kind to the earth, because climate change is real, fam! You can take this a step further by switching those bills and bank statements you never open to paperless. Make a list of the companies and providers that offer paperless communication, ditch the hard copy stuff, and make the switch!

If you do not have a filing cabinet, file box, or another filing system already in place, I can’t stress enough how important it is to do the sorting BEFORE you purchase your file solution. That way you’re buying based on the space you need for documents you need to keep, not how much you have when you start.

BEFORE paper sorting pic! (The afters will come when we’re done with the room.)

I spent the whole first day working with my mom on her dream space paper sorting.

This is the exact method we used, and after four hours of work, we had four bound piles of magazines to recycle, a recycling bag full of non-sensitive paper to recycle, a large shopping bag full of sensitive info to shred, and the categorized, reverse-chronological-order, easily-fileable keepers, which my mom committed to filing in their permanent homes ASAP!

What keeps you going through file organization? Share your tips here!

| Next Up: Mindful and Efficient Book Sorting! Dusty, but worth it. |

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1 Comment

  1. In the midst of paper wrangling. Got the shredder busy, which helped a lot. Sorting things into recipes, quilt patterns, taxes (not yet filed, but easy), medical, and outta here now. The top of my computer desk has now been verified by archaeological excavation .

    I’ve decided to live on the first floor for a while after the knee replacement, which means rearranging the living room. I hope that my insurance will allow me a hospital bed for a few weeks– hauling my regular bed downstairs is not a happy thought.

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