7 Tips to Get Out from Under a Mountain of Paperwork
Whoever said that going digital would usher in a paperless era was sorely mistaken. For many of us, paperwork (account statements, bills, receipts, tax forms, etc.) still pours in every day. The longer we put off dealing with this mountain of pulp, the higher it rises.
Here are seven tips for reducing your paper pile — and for bringing some order to your life and small business.
- Keep what you need and recycle the rest. We tend to hang onto paper documents for future reference, which is largely unnecessary. Consult with your attorney, accountant, and financial adviser to figure out what to keep and what to recycle.
- Divide and conquer. Start by separating paperwork into two piles, "action items" and "reference items." If the item requires action on your part, keep it easily accessible. If it doesn't, file it for later reference or recycling (and see tip #1).
- Store important documents away from the rest. Avoid the worst-case scenario of being unable to find vital legal papers and insurance files when you need them. Store valuable documents on-site in a fireproof safe or off-site in a safe-deposit box.
- Create a filing system that works for you. Get rid of existing files you know you'll never need, and then sort what you have to keep into broad categories, such as "finances" and "employee records," so that you can easily find what you're looking for later on. Other filing tips: Design a master sheet of categories for easy reference. Use staples, rather than paper clips, to keep papers together. File mail and bills as they arrive to avoid losing them in the shuffle.
- Shred it! Don't let paper that cries out for shredding accumulate in yet another stack on your desk. Keep your shredder within reach and immediately eliminate unneeded items or documents that contain personal information.
- Schedule a time to open mail. Instead of going through your mail at random moments, schedule a regular time to open correspondence, review its contents, and act as needed. Put your financial obligations first: pay bills and balance the checkbook before tackling other issues. Throw out the advertisements, fliers, and other junk that comes with the bills. Staying on top of this daily chore will free up valuable time for other tasks.
- Stem the tide of junk mail. Do you still receive magazines that you never read? Did you sign up once for a catalogue and it's never stopped coming? Cancel your subscriptions and instruct businesses to stop sending those catalogues. DirectMail.com offers a National Do Not Mail List, where you can register to stop getting mail you don't want. The list is supplied to mass mailers so they can check it against their mailing lists and remove the names that appear on both lists.
One paperwork-reduction expert advocates the "FAR" approach: file, action, and recycle. Store what you'll need for later reference in one file, keep action items in another, and recycle the rest. Whatever system you use, addressing the mountain of paperwork now means a lot less stress and wasted time later.
Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.