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Organize Your Paperwork: Maintenance

Organize Your Paperwork: Maintenance

Now that you’ve got your filing system set up and your action items in their proper places, it’s time for maintenance. Some tips on maintaining your filing system:

Monthly Calendar
  • If you have temporary files, file them by month and year, which allows for quick archiving.
  • Purge your files regularly—I recommend at least annually.
  • File at least weekly, more often if you are a paper-intensive home.

Document Retention

How do you know what to hang on to, and what to shred? Different documents have different expiration dates.


Permanent: These things should be kept forever, like your social security card.

Lifetime: Keep this paperwork for the life of the item. Ownership documents like car titles and deeds belong in this category.

Temporary: Keep this paperwork according to their document retention guidelines, like supporting tax documents, medical records, and receipts. Consult the IRS, DMV, your insurance company, your CPA, and lawyers for the most accurate information on document retention. You can use our guide as a starting point, but please consult your professionals to confirm the specifics for your situation.

Using these maintenance strategies will help keep your paperwork to a minimum, so you can find what you need when you need it.

Ready to get started organizing your paperwork? Check out our Virtual Organizing services!

Organize Your Paperwork: Filing

Organize Your Paperwork: Filing

Filing paperwork is crucial because it allows you to find things quickly and easily. Here are some tips for creating a great filing system.

Naming Conventions

Having a standardized terminology for your files keeps search time to a minimum, with both digital and physical files. For physical files, use consistent dates and names. For digital files, include multiple search terms in your file name to allow for faster retrieval.

Paper Files: 5-20 Items Rule of Thumb

Use cascading hierarchies when creating your paper files. For instance, you could keep all your insurances together in one hanging folder and have the paperwork for the individual policies in separate interior folders.  

If you have fewer than five items in one category, that’s a sign that you could condense it with another. More than twenty items should be split up into subcategories. For instance, say you have files relating to places you want to travel to. If you only want to go to New Zealand and visit Lord of the Rings locations, you only need one folder. If you want to go to every state in the US and have paperwork about each state you want to visit, then a folder for each state will be helpful. This helps avoid overstuffed folders that are difficult to look through and avoids having unnecessary folders as well. Using labeling, color coding, or different locations for these categories makes them easy to see at a glance.

Digital Files

Filing systems aren’t just for physical folders! Digital files can use all the same principles to make your workflow easier. Here are some tips for working with digital files:

Dates: Use “yymmdd” dates at the beginning of file names to keep them in chronological order.

Labels: Use specific labels in file names if you have multiple types of files in one folder to cut down on search time. Use cascading hierarchies minimally on your computer. Extra clicks into folders waste time. The 5-20 rule of thumb does not apply to digital files because the computer search function is so useful. You can keep all the paperwork for all your policies in one folder as long as they are named appropriately. A quick search for the type of policy you are looking for pops it right up.

Automatic Filing: Check out an automatic filing and naming tool like, which specializes in document management.

OCR: Scanners with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) can automatically name files based on their content. 


Scanning paperwork eliminates a lot of clutter. Invest in a scanner with a smooth document feeder, as well as software that manages files after scanning, so you can add or delete pages, rotate, and so on.

Be sure to check out options for presets in your scanning software. Presets let you decide in advance a job type’s resolution, paper size, color mode, and so on, and save that set of options so you don’t have to select them all each time you scan.

Keep these tips in mind when filing paperwork to better organize your workspace!

Ready to get started organizing your paperwork? Check out our Virtual Organizing services!

Organize Your Paperwork: Action Items

Organize Your Paperwork: Action Items

Action Items

Action item alarm clock.

Action items are a type of paperwork that needs attention, like reminders of appointments, or a bill that’s coming due.

One common mistake people make when organizing their paperwork is keeping action items out to help them remember. Put away the paper and keep the reminder. Keeping an action item on your desk leads to clutter. Have a specific place for action items, so you know where to look for them when it is time to take that action.

Have a reminder system in place. You can set a reminder on your phone, write it in a paper planner, or use one of the action item systems below, and put the paper away.

Use the 2-minute rule – if it will take less than 2 minutes to do it, do it now. It’s not worth your time to file it. Set the reminder, and find it again – just do it!


I have four suggested methods for prioritizing paperwork in increasing complexity: an in/out tray, a 3-level priority system, Steven Covey’s quadrant method, and tickler files. Use the one that suits you best and is going to be the easiest for you to maintain. Remember the point is not to organize the paperwork, the point is to take action on your paperwork.

  • In/Out Tray: An in/out tray is a very simple way to keep track of action items. When you have a task to complete or a reminder of something due, it goes in the In tray. Once completed, move it to the Out tray. You can always look in your In tray to remind you of what you need to accomplish.

  • 3-Level Priority System: There are many ways to do a 3-level priority system, according to what works for you. Create three folders and label them based on level of importance or urgency. Hot/Warm/Cold, Do Now/Do Soon/Do Someday, Today/This Week/Next Week, and Red/Yellow/Blue are just a few ways to label these folders.

    This kind of system breaks down action items into easy-to-understand categories. That way, you can see at a glance what needs your attention.
  • Tickler Files: Tickler files – file folders labeled with dates – are a great way to keep action item paperwork accessible and organized. Here are two ways to use them:
    • 8 Folders By Week: This system consists of one folder for each day of the week and one folder for the next week or later. As you go through the week, complete items in the appropriate folder. Once a week, review the items in the “next week” folder, then decide when to do them in the coming week.
    • 43 Folders By Month: This is a more detailed system consisting of 31 folders (one for each day of the month) plus 12 folders (one for each upcoming month). At the beginning of the month, review all items in the monthly folder and sort them depending on which day you want to do them. Complete items in daily folders daily to keep on top of your action items.

  • Stephen Covey’s Quadrant Method: Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, had a simple way of categorizing tasks based on urgency and importance, and this works with paperwork too. The infographic below shows how to use this system.
Action Items: Covey Quadrants

Using these strategies, you can organize your action items and work more effectively.

Ready to get started organizing your paperwork? Check out our Virtual Organizing services!

Organize Your Paperwork: RAFTS

Organize Your Paperwork: RAFTS

Why organize your paperwork? Organizing your paperwork clears piles of paper cluttering your space, helps you find information efficiently, keeps you on top of bills and to-dos, and avoids late fees, missed deadlines, and wasting time. Organize your paperwork to reduce stress, have a clear mind and focus on what matters.

The first step toward fully organized paperwork is to sort. When we are clearing someone’s desk, we use the RAFTS system: Recycle, Action, File, Trash/Treasure, and Shred.


Any paperwork you no longer need that doesn’t contain sensitive information can be recycled. This includes things like advertisements, takeout menus, old Post-It notes, or junk mail.


Action items are anything that needs your attention, like a bill to pay or a letter to reply to, or phone calls to return.


Paperwork that contains things you will need later should be filed. Statements, school records, and policy documents fit into this category. I recommend getting electronic copies first to skip the paper step.


Go through your paperwork and decide what’s worth keeping, and what’s worth letting go. You can store Christmas cards from family in a keepsake box, but if you’re holding on to something you can’t remember receiving, consider recycling or trashing it to minimize clutter.


Anything with account numbers, social security numbers, or other non-public information that you no longer need should be shredded. You don’t have to shred items with your name and address because that’s public information.

Once everything has been sorted and filed, you’ll be left with your action items, and much less paperwork!

Action Items Article

Ready to start organizing your paperwork? Check out our Virtual Organizing services!

Organize Your Desk: Tools and Supplies

Organize Your Desk: Tools and Supplies

We’ve discussed how to keep things off your desk, but what tools and supplies should you keep near? These are my suggestions:

Your favorite writing implement

Some people prefer a certain pen, or pencil, or fountain pen. If that’s you, make a space for it that is its home. Put it back as soon as you’re done with it and it will always be there when you need it. (P.S., secret – (whisper) that’s true of all your belongings.) In fact, keeping track of one pen is easier than keeping track of many. This is the secret to minimalism. Having only what you need is part of the secret to sustainability. Choosing to live more simply with less allows you to have favorites. It allows you to have better-quality things in your life that will last longer. Having less in your life makes it easier to get and stay organized and that allows you to have a certain peace in your life.


It usually makes sense to put your printer/scanner on the dominant hand side of the desk. It’s easier to operate that way and if you have it just in reach, you still have space for project items in front of you. It’s also okay to place it slightly out of reach so that it gives you a break from sitting.

Charging station

There is nothing more annoying than needing to make a phone call and your battery being out or needing to finish a project and your laptop running out of juice. Set up your workspace so you have your charging cables or wireless charging station where you need them. Keep the length of wires on your desk as short as possible to avoid a tangle of wires. Utilize cable management (velcro wraps, ties, cable sleeves, cable clips, donuts) to keep the wires under control and avoid the dreaded spaghetti tangle.

Good lighting

Natural light is always best, but it is not always possible to arrange your desk to take advantage of natural light, and let’s face it, sometimes we work when it’s not light outside anyway! Lighting professionals recommend having a general overhead source of light, supplemented with a desk light to provide task lighting. The best position for the task lighting is on your non-dominant side to avoid shadows cast by your hand while you are writing. Also consider having color control with your lighting to allow you to adjust your lighting according to your task needs. Adding warm colors to your lighting setup gives your eyes a break, especially if you happen to have fluorescent lighting overhead.

Place for files

Set up your filing system, whether it is paper or digital. Develop a naming convention for your files that you communicate to everyone who uses the system. Your system is only as good as the retrieval time. If you’re constantly spending time searching for documents, either you need to file or you need to address your naming convention. It should take 30 seconds or less for you to locate the item you are looking for. Some estimates say Americans spend about 45 minutes a day looking for things. Your time is much better spent putting things away as you go along. You can relax knowing that you’ll be able to find it easily later.

Office supplies

Other office supplies that you may need during your day—tape, stapler, extra note paper, etc. can be stored in drawers, shelves or other storage within reach for the items that you need frequently. Items that you need infrequently can be stored elsewhere. Again, think of having to get up out of your chair or move from your desk as a mini-break to get moving again.

Each solution presented here may not in and of itself be a huge difference to how you operate and think about your tools and supplies, but combined, they make for a desk that is pleasant to work at and distraction free.

Ready to start? Check out our Virtual Organizing services.

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Organize Your Desk: Optimum Desk Arrangement

Organize Your Desk: Optimum Desk Arrangement

Optimum desk arrangement not only makes work easier and more enjoyable, it also makes it better for your body. Too often, pain or discomfort can unconsciously distract you from your work. A well-thought-out arrangement of your accessories can make working easier and more efficient.

Ergonomic computer screen and keyboard setup

Keeping a straight spine helps with proper functioning of the body. A computer screen set up at the right height keeps your chin level with the floor, which also helps your posture. A keyboard at the right height helps avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.

If you’re working on a laptop, consider getting a stand for the laptop and an extra keyboard so you can position everything optimally. It’s also good to remember to get up from your chair at regular intervals; or consider a standing desk.

Clear space in front of you

Keep a space in front of you clear from distractions or extra clutter. That gives you space to create, and a place to put materials relating to the task at hand. If you are working digitally on several projects, consider using different desktop views for different projects. Look for tools such as VirtuaWin for Windows or Spaces for Apple. Keeping all the programs/documents etc. you need for one project on one desktop or space allows you to quickly resume where you left off without cluttering your working space with other projects.

Quick notes

Have a system for taking quick notes. Whether to capture an idea that just popped into your head or make notes during a phone call, you need a way to quickly record things you need to remember later on. Either keep a notebook just for notes handy, use post-it notes, or try an electronic notepad. I like using post-it notes. I use post-it notes to record actions I need to take or to record details of a conversation that I’m going to permanently record elsewhere (like jotting down someone’s email when I’m talking to them on the phone.)

The trick with using post-it notes is to only record one note or notes relating to one project on each note, then once the action is complete or the information is transferred, you get rid of the post-it right away.

Arranging your desk in these ways will help make your working day easier and less stressful. In the next post, we’ll discuss the best tools and supplies to keep at hand.

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Organize Your Desk: Mail and More

Organize Your Desk: Mail and More

In this post, we’re going to discuss how to organize mail, and some ideas for dealing with paperwork.

Incoming mail

Developing the habit of sorting and acting on incoming mail immediately dramatically reduces the amount of work it takes to manage your paperwork. Be brutal with the advertising that comes to your home. Unless you’re actually going to use something, not just think you might, recycle it immediately. Set aside a short time every day to manage your incoming mail. Depending on the volume of mail, you may want to take action on the incoming mail each day, or set aside some time each week to manage anything that has come up. Do not skip a day. Do not let it pile up again! It will become easier and easier to stay on top of it.

Clear your desk between projects

Clearing your desk between projects allows you to focus on each project without distractions. This applies both in real life and on your digital desktop. As you are coming up to the end of the time that you’ve allocated to complete a task, give yourself a minute or two to clear any paperwork and close any windows on your computer that are related to that task so you can move on with clear space for the next task.

Project Paperwork

Store paperwork related to a particular project together. This applies to your digital notes as well as your actual paper notes. When you keep all the paperwork together for a particular project, it allows you to return to that project quickly and easily, without having to shuffle through paperwork to find the notes that you wrote last time you worked on it. Store papers in folders or in hanging files near your desk. Be sure to label the folders so that you can find the project again easily.

Complete, Complete, Complete!

Keep your focus on completing tasks so you can clear them out of your workspace and out of your mind regularly. Allowing tasks to linger creates a backlog that clutters up your thinking. When you complete tasks you can stop thinking about them. Letting them go out of your mind allows you to keep a clear mind as you move forward with the tasks at hand. The same applies to the paperwork associated with the tasks. Filing everything to do with that task allows you to keep your desk clear. This can be done digitally as well as in real life.

Managing paperwork is a continuous task, but if you keep on top of it you will find your desk a lot less overwhelming.

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Organize Your Desk: Common Traps and RAFTS

Organize Your Desk: Common Traps and RAFTS

Dr. Katherine Macey

Hello! I’m Dr. Katherine Macey with Organize to Excel and over the next four blog posts we’re going to explore how to organize your desk so you can be as productive as possible. We’ll be covering the following topics:

  • Behavioral strategies you can use at your desk
  • Tools and supplies you can use to make it easier to work at your desk
  • Where to position your printer and other office supplies
  • How to create a clear workspace so you can be as productive as possible

We’re going to create some clear space for you so that you can have a clear mind as you do your work. Fewer things cluttering your workspace allows you to focus more effectively. If you have extra items around your workspace, your brain has to work to ignore them.

We’re going to make sure that the things that you need often are handy, without cluttering up your space. Let’s organize your desk!


Some of the traps that people fall into are wanting everything at hand. It’s actually okay to have to get up from your desk to get things occasionally. It’s good for you to be moving and not stuck sitting at your desk the entire time.

Another trap people fall into is leaving incomplete projects sitting around. You’ll learn in upcoming posts how to set up a space where you can collect the incomplete projects so that they’re not cluttering your space.

A third trap people fall into is not clearing the paperwork at the end of a project. Endless drafts, scribbled notes, and supporting documents all lead to extra clutter that does not need to stay on your desk.

Keep these traps in mind as we discuss our first major topic: paperwork!


To help organize your desk, it is best to stay on top of your paperwork. You’ve seen executive’s offices without a paper in sight. Perhaps you know someone who is never behind on their paperwork. If you are not those people and you have a little to a lot of backed-up paperwork, you probably have some piles around. Typically these piles of paper include reminders of things you need to do, records that need to be scanned or filed, advertising and more. The piles make it look like you have a lot to do and it feels overwhelming. Usually when we go through people’s paperwork, less than a third of the paperwork actually represents actions that need to be taken.

When you’re drowning in paperwork, use RAFTS

We use this system when clearing someone’s desk:

Recycle any paperwork that you have scanned that doesn’t have personal information, like advertising, old post-it notes, etc.

Action items need your attention. They are a reminder of a bill to pay, a letter to write, a phone call to make and so on.

File items are items you may want to refer back to at a later date. Any statements, school records, policies, etc. I highly recommend getting electronic copies in the first place so you can skip the paper step.

Trash/Treasure might be memorabilia or that little thing you picked up that you’re not quite sure where it came from but you’re keeping in case it shows up as missing, but you’ve had it now for a couple of years…

Shred anything that has account numbers, social security numbers or other non-public information. It is not necessary to shred anything that has your name and address since that is a matter of public record and can be found anyway.

Once you have sorted your paperwork and shredded, recycled, filed and tossed everything in those categories, you will be left with your action items.

Store papers vertically

A long-time organizer friend describes papers as either lying down asleep or standing to attention waiting to take action. I like that analogy as it encourages you to complete actions associated with any paperwork. It also takes up less space on your desk. Utilizing file folder organizers keeps the folders vertical. File cabinets or file boxes are a very efficient way to store papers vertically, but I do recommend using hanging folders to store related categories together and keep the folders from sliding under each other. As much as possible, reduce the amount of paperwork you keep by scanning documents. And for goodness’ sake, don’t print anything that you don’t have to!

Develop a prioritization system

If you have a backlog of action items, it’s best to develop a prioritization system to manage them. Use a combination of due dates and level of importance to decide what to tackle first. Your system can be very simple (do the item in front first) or more complicated depending on the volume of paperwork you need to complete. Here are some ideas for your system in increasing complexity:

  • Do what’s in front first
  • 3 folder system – Folder #1 for hot/red/do now items, folder #2 for warm/orange/do soon items, folder #3 for cold/blue/do someday items
  • 8 folder system – time based. Decide which day of the week you will be doing which items and drop them into the corresponding day of the week. The 8th folder is for anything that is not being done this week.
  • Keep a running list, inventory style. A numbered concertina file is best for this with a list of which slot each action item is in.
  • Tickler file. A system of 43 folders, one for each day of the month and one for each month. Decide when you will be doing the action and drop it into the corresponding day/month. This requires diligent action be taken each day to complete the tasks allocated for that day.

The more complicated a system, the more time it will take to maintain it unless you stay on top of it.

I hope these tips help you organize your desk by managing paperwork effectively. Next time, we’ll discuss common types of paperwork and how to deal with them efficiently.

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