Closed September 2017

THE RULES about Paper

Paper trays2 I was in the bookstore recently and ran into that book that was popular several years ago called, "The Rules." It was about how women are supposed to behave to attract and keep a man. I remember disagreeing with it… but regardless, spotting it on the bookstore table made me think about how there are rules about so many things in life.  I recently worked with a client extensively with paper issues and it made me think about what I would like to sum up and say to her about "The Rules" for paper. I will probably add to this and think about it some more, and I am sure my organizer colleagues will chime in with their comments and additions too. But here's my first stab at explaining it this way.

1. Think prevention. Try to keep the mail and other papers from coming into your house in the first place. Unsubscribe, opt out, decline, leave the papers there, get them electronically instead.

2. Don't let the mail get taken to a "second location!" Bring the mail in to one spot (your main household "inbox") and leave it there until it's officially processed. Don't let one person take it over to the kitchen and casually leaf through it, leave it there, then shuffle through it yourself later and strew it further about the house. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Leave the mail there until you're ready to process it.

3. Think about your inbox the same way you think about your kitchen sink. What is your tolerance threshold for doing dishes?  Can't go to bed with dishes in the sink? One day? Two days? You should have that same nagging feeling about processing your mail, because it's exactly the same as your dirty dishes–it's going to keep piling up more every day until you deal with it. Decide what your tolerance threshold is and process that mail, whether it's every day or every three days. It's got to be done.

4. Always have your preferred disposal methods nearby when handling your paper:  Shredder, recycling bin, just plain old trash can, or all of the above. Just like you'd have your hot water and dish soap ready to do dishes.

5. Pull out all reading material first to make the pile more manageable. Don't get distracted by it–make it your reward when you're finished processing. Keep your reading material corralled in a centralized spot as much as possible based on where you read it. Use a limiting container for the magazines and catalogs so that when it's full it's your cue to clean it out.

6. Your first job in processing is quickly deciphering what exactly each paper is telling you or asking of you. Skim for the highlighted parts, the bottom line, the bolded sections. Say it out loud to yourself if that helps, something like, "This paper is telling me to pay my car registration fee by the end of this month." If you have giant backlog piles, start with the most recent and work your way backward.

7. Separate Action papers from Reference papers and Trash. (Think A-R-T, Action-Reference-Trash.) Anything that requires action, pull it out and sort further from there. "What is the next action?" as David Allen would say. Is it a bill to pay, a phone call to make, a form to fill out, an order to fill? Get in on your calendar or task list and into your system to make sure it gets done. That system is whatever works for you…files, trays, piles… as long as it gets done on time and you're happy. Group action papers together if they relate to a bigger project, and make sure you always understand the next actions required.

8. If there is no action required, you might need to keep it in your files as Reference. If you really must keep it and can't get it electronically or any other way, either file it immediately or put it aside in a basket "To Be Filed." Remember that the 80/20 rule applies– 80% of what you file will never be looked at again. Be smart about this fact.

9. Practice safe disposal! Shred anything that will damage your identity, your privacy, your finances, or your reputation. 😉

10. "Lather, rinse, and repeat." Like it or not, paper is an inevitable part of our lives and appears that it will be for a long time to come. Denying it, ignoring it, postponing it… none of that works. Keep processing your paper regularly and you'll soon have it under control. Make it fun– Dave Barry says, "I like to cheer myself up by pretending that my mail actually screams when I throw it into the wastebasket."

And those, my friends, are The Rules. Anything to add?

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Genny Esterline

Great advice! I would say this apply in the virtual world as well. Nothing worse than having 500 emails in your inbox with no place to go.
Connections for Women


A friend advised me to have a small plastic box to keep all my “to be shredded” papers in. Then when I’m in the mood, I pull out the shredder and get to work. Sure is a lot better than have pieces of paper with “TO BE SHREDDED” written on it scattered all over my kitchen.
I have a similar problem with too much electronic paper. I’ll start reading an article, decide I don’t have time to finish it and bookmark it for later. My bookmark folder is overwhelming to open. HELP!!!

Ilene Drexler of The Organizing Wiz

Lorie: Loved the “rules”. I could not have articulated them better than you did!!
One suggestion…The “To Be Filed” basket has not worked well for my clients. My experience is that this category can quickly get out of control and become a large unweildy pile. Seems that in the time it takes to file the paper in the To Be Filed basket, it could also be filed in it’s permanent home. This of course assumes there is a filing cabinet in the area where the mail is being opened. Food for thought…..

Tim Haughton

Awesome rules. Particularly keeping things in one place. I know before we set course for paperless paradise our paperwork kinda spread, like fungus.
If anyone’s interested in taking ‘paperless’ one step further, swing by our website.

Leslee Downer

‘Don’t let it in the door’ is my primary rule. I ruthlessly cancel my name from all mailing lists. If I get a catalog, I call their 800 number right away and get my name off the list. That way they aren’t sending me unwanted mail plus selling my address to other companies. If I want to shop with them, I go online. If you just have to have a certain catalog, most companies are agreeable to sending you only one per year if you communicate to them that you want less mail.

NY Organizer

Rules about paper are great! I like your articulation… ” Don’t let the mail get taken to a “second location!” Bring the mail in to one spot (your main household “inbox”) and leave it there until it’s officially processed.”
I’ve found it’s best to have the mail come into one central same location and when you open it you complete the cycle by filing it away, trashing it or whatever is the “official” processed place for it.


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