Hey hey hey! Whose up for organizing long-term reference papers? That’s exactly what we’ll be doing in Week 3 of the Summer Shred Challenge! If you’re new to the challenge, be sure to check out the assignments from previous weeks and schedule a time in the future to complete those assignments.
In Week 1, we set up a system for managing the mail. We began our quest to conquer our household reference papers in Week 2 by creating a binder to store the reference papers that we need to access frequently/quickly. Today, we move onto the long-term reference papers that we keep “just in case” we ever need to refer back to them.
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Warning: this is typically the largest and most daunting category of papers to organize, primarily because we tend to keep way more of these papers than is necessary. Sorting and purging your reference papers may take several weeks to tackle, so do not be discouraged if this is the case for you. Tackle it in bite-sized chunks over time, if you find yourself being overwhelmed by completing the task by the end of the week.
Step 1: Sort into Categories
There’s no “one size fits all” scheme for sorting reference papers, since your papers reflect your unique life circumstances and interests. I created a File Category Starter Template that I use with my organizing clients to begin the process of creating their custom reference file structure (it works for either a paper or digital file). I invite you to use at a starting point to create a file structure that accurately reflects your papers and the way your brain naturally categorizes them.
When creating file categories, keep in mind that broader is generally better. If you start to drill down too much and use a ton of file folders, your system becomes increasingly complicated and you will end up not filing papers away.
If the thought of creating a reference file structure from scratch is daunting to you, then I suggest you look into the Freedom Filer system. I highly recommend Freedom Filer and use it regularly with clients to create customized household reference file systems.
Step 2: Purge, Purge, then Purge Again
So much paper clutter is generated by the challenge of not knowing what it is that we need to keep. Unfortunately, the answer to “What do I need to keep, and for how long?” is not cut and dry. The answers to these questions are closely tied to your tax situation and are best answered by your tax professional.
That being said, there are countless document/record retention guides that can be found via a quick internet search. Smead offers a useful set of guidelines to determine what you should keep or discard. If you choose to implement the Freedom Filer system, you won’t have to be concerned with “what to keep and for how long?” decisions, since these purging decisions are made for you via the file system design.
Keep in mind the “80/20 Rule” when deciding what to keep: 80% of the paper we file away will never be retrieved again.
You heard me right. Therefore, be as ruthless as possible when purging your existing files. Some questions to ask yourself during the purge process include:
- Do I need this paper for tax purposes?
- Is there a way I could obtain this paper again if I needed it in the future?
- Is the information on this paper outdated or easily retrievable online?
Now is also the time to consider migrating some (or all!) of your reference paper categories to digital format. Some of the easiest papers to start “going paperless” with are financial statements for bank/investment/credit accounts and utility bills.
In order to further reduce the bulk, I strongly suggest setting aside manuals to store separately from other reference papers. We’ll address some options for storing these in Week 7. I also suggest exploring methods for digitally storing papers in your “Lifestyle” paper category. Consider scanning these papers and using Evernote to store this type of information.
Step 3: File Away What’s Left
If you don’t have one already, you’ll need to identify a permanent place to store all of your reference papers. Although you can use a traditional file cabinet for this purpose, there are other options. Here’s just a few:
You will need to weigh the pros and cons of using hanging files alone or hanging files with manila folders. Manila folders are not necessary, but can facilitate subdividing into categories within a hanging file. Using manila folders requires more space for files, and adds to your cost and maintenance time.
I highly recommend straight-line filing, in which all the tabs are lined up together on the same side (either left or right). Research has shown that this method is easier on the eyes compared to staggering or alternating tabs. It also requires less time to maintain since you won’t need to constantly shift tab positions around each time you need to add files in the future.
For some people, using color coding in their filing system is helpful, but for others, it can be a distraction. Oftentimes, color coding can prevent people from properly maintaining their files because it adds one more step in the process (e.g., you run out of green folders, so you’ll need to wait to file certain documents until you have time to purchase more).
If you believe that color coding could be beneficial for you, I highly recommend using colored labels (or even a variety of Sharpie colors to label your files) instead of colored file folders or hanging files. The Freedom Filer system uses color-coded labels to help you readily identify various file categories.
Step 4: Maintain It
File Incoming Papers
Schedule a time to file the papers from the “To File” folder of your action file into your reference file storage system. This can be included as part of your weekly paper administration appointment, or as a less frequent separate appointment (I schedule a recurring monthly appointment on my calendar).
Purge Files Yearly
If you created a system from scratch, you will need to schedule a regular time each year (e.g., tax time, back to school week, 1st of the year) to devote to purging your files. In order to keep this maintenance task as painless as possible, perform a quick “Look See” each time you access a file throughout the year to see what can be culled out and discarded.
The good news for Freedom Filer users is that you do not need to devote much time to this dreaded activity! Once the system is set up, it is “self-purging”, that is, it cues you when particular files need to be purged.
If you have not yet read the overview of the challenge, do that first before proceeding to this week’s assignment
Your Assignment for Week 3: Organizing Long-Term Reference Papers
1. Gather all long-term reference papers
2. Determine your file structure categories
3. Sort papers into categories/sub-categories
4. Consult with your trusted tax adviser to create your personalized document retention guidelines
5. Purge papers according to your retention guidelines
6. Select a storage container for your reference files
7. Set up your files within the container (tabs, labels, etc.)
8. File remaining papers
9. Establish a regular time to file incoming papers and purge filing system
I want to hear about your progress and field any questions you may have! Drop me a line in the blog comments and let me know which organization method you’ll use for organizing long-term reference papers in your home.
This post is part of the 13-Week Summer Shred Paper Declutter Challenge
Just discovered the Challenge? I invite you to read the Challenge Overview post first. You can then begin to work your way through the weekly Challenge assignments below:
Week 1: Mail
Week 2: Handy Reference
Week 3: Long-Term Reference
Week 4: School Papers
Week 5: Kids’ Art
Week 6: Memorabilia
Week 7: Manuals & Warranties
Week 8: Catalogs & Magazines
Week 9: Receipts
Week 10: Business Cards
Week 11: Lists & Notes
Week 12: Recipes
Week 13: Coupons
~ Happy paper decluttering!