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How to Tame the Paperwork Pile-Up

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by Seana Turner

Are you drowning in paperwork? This is one of the most common problems I run into as a professional organizer. In spite of the fact that we are supposedly becoming a “paperless society”, there is still a lot of paper out there!

A good place to start is to SORT what is out on surfaces. Gather all of the paperwork, bills, catalogs, schoolwork, etc. that are lying around on tables or counters and put it in a pile on a large, clear work surface, like a kitchen table or island.  Then go through piece by piece and make 4 piles:

1. Trash: if you are tempted to keep an item that you only “might” read later, challenge yourself to pitch it. Keep only the most recent issue of any given magazine. (any item with your name & address on it should be shredded. If you don’t have a shredder, you can pick one up at Staples for a fair price).

2. Long-term storage: this is for items that you need to be able to find reliably, but are not current. Examples would be previous year-end investment reports, previous year tax paperwork, medical history information, etc. Sort them by year and topic. Label manila folders for each year and category (e.g. 2002 medical records). These items can go into banker boxes, labeled by year and put in an attic, basement or even a closet. Be sure to label the boxes so you can find it when you need it.

3. Short-term storage: These are papers which you will need to access fairly regularly. Items here would include current receipts, insurance paperwork, current banking paperwork, current contracts with household service organizations, etc. These will need to find a home in a filing system, preferably a file cabinet. If you don’t have space for a file cabinet, freestanding file boxes with hanging folders also work well and can sit on the floor of a closet or under a desk. Every home needs filing! Appliance manuals can either go into your filing system if you have the space, or be placed in large, adhesive plastic sleeves attached to the inside of cabinet doors near the appliance.

4. Action items: Items which you need to take action can go into a desktop filing system. Any container which can hold 3-4 files will do. Group items by the type of action required (e.g. “read”, “pay”, “respond”, “follow up”). I like using attractive folders that matches the décor in my room. These folders should be cleared out weekly, with completed items moving into the short or long term storage locations.

Once you have cleared off your surfaces, now go through the same process for paperwork which has been shoved in drawers or cabinets.

Finally, once you’ve tackled the paperwork that is currently in your house, you need to keep the pile-up from reappearing. THIS IS KEY: establish an “invisible fence” through which no paperwork moves without permission. Ideally, you want to find a space not too far from the door where the mail comes in. Every day (yes, every day) go through the paperwork that has arrived and sort it into one of the four categories above. Read through the magazines right away, and then tear out any pages you think you’d like to keep. These can go into your short-term storage under files such as “decorating ideas”, “gift ideas” or “summer activities”. Items you want to purchase can move into your Action Items file.

Depending on the backlog of paper in your home, it may take several days to get through the initial sort. This is normal, so don’t be discouraged. Consider rewarding yourself with dinner out or a favorite movie if you need some motivation. If the task still seems too daunting, you can always hire an organizer to help you get started.


Born and raised outside Philadelphia, Seana attended The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a BSE. She moved to CT in 1989 where she worked in Marketing Consulting until deciding to leave full time employment to be home with her children. During this time, she often found herself being tapped by friends and family members to help them “get organized,” and consequently realized this could be something valuable to offer the marketplace.

Over time, Seana developed The Seana Method, and since her launch has found great joy in helping others realize the freedom that organization can bring to life. Her specialties include:

  • Listening… and customizing strategies for each unique situation.     
  • Helping clients discern what is necessary and beneficial in their lives vs. what is burdensome and wasteful.
  • Keeping clients motivated and on task, seeing their projects through to completion.
  • Designing floor plans and layouts to maximize the efficient use of space.
  • Speaking to groups about simple strategies for bringing organization into any setting.

Seana lives in the New York metro area with her husband and two daughters.