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Sorting Through The Stacks

As Published In Smead Organomics
Sorting Through The Stacks

Publicity -- Smead Organomics

Organizing paper files is a task that will inspire even the most anal-retentive individual to procrastinate. (I know this from personal experience!) I call it “paperphobia” — the fear of having to deal with filing the stacks on your desk/countertop. While this can be a debilitating disease if not addressed in a timely manner — the cure is quick, easy, and painless. Welcome to “sorting therapy!”

Take One Step At A Time

The best way to tackle that monstrous pile is to pick a stack, any stack — and focus on JUST that stack. Go through each piece of paper (one at a time), and decide what to do with it. Don’t worry about the other stacks — we’ll get to them. Don’t worry about the rest of this stack — we’re just dealing with the piece of paper in your hand. When you’ve decided what to do with that one, we’ll move on to the next.

Ask Yourself If It Has Value

When organizing paper files, the biggest challenge is recognizing when you’re keeping something out of fear or habit, rather than reason. As you work your way through the stack, ask yourself some simple questions about each document:

  • Is the information still relevant to my life?
  • Has it become outdated or obsolete?
  • How easy would it be to replace if I needed the information later?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen if I got rid of it?

It’s time to break free from the paper shackles! Give yourself permission to let go of all the outdated catalogs, canceled checks from 20 years ago, ancient magazine clippings, old projects that will never be completed, and other clutter that serves no purpose in your life.

Make Use Of The Circular File

Your most important file is the little round one that sits on the floor next to your desk. About 80% of the paper that comes into your life is meaningless — junk mail, donation requests, inserts stuck in your utility bills, and even the envelopes that your mail came in can be recycled. Throw them straight into the bin as soon as you sort incoming paper for that day — that much less to deal with later!

Limit Your Decisions

A lot of people make organizing paper harder than it needs to be by creating too many categories. This first pass is just a “rough sort.” We’re culling junk and deciding what to do with the rest — you’ll create more refined filing categories later. For now, there are only four things you can do with any document:

  • refer it (give it to someone else to deal with)
  • act on it (things like “bills to pay,” “calls to make,” “articles to read,” “info to enter in your computer”)
  • file it (papers that require no action, and simply need to be stored away for reference)
  • toss it (trash, recycle, or shred it)

Create a folder for each. (Except toss — you know what file those go in!) As you sort, place each document in the correct file based on what you need to do with it. Then once you’ve gotten through the piles, the only step left is to empty your folders — to make your calls, pay your bills, file, and all that. How do you guarantee it all gets done? That’s for another lesson — today, just give yourself a pat on the back for finally clearing the desk!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and

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