Case Study #5: Piles and Piles of Paperwork
Last updated in November 2017
My house is small: just under 1,200 square feet, not including a finished attic. That’s not a lot of space for our family of four. Between Goodwill donations and packing up too-small clothes for cousins and cleaning ladies, we do a good job of managing our belongings and space. But my avalanche of day-to-day paperwork is another story.
When I return home on workdays, I push open the front door and hear it sliding my mail across the tile floor. Lately the volume seems to have increased.
I try to sort and keep only what I might actually want, such as good credit card offers, bills, and the rare personal letter. But our kitchen counter is still ground zero in my paper wars, and it’s also where the kids unload their backpacks, piling up construction-paper light sabers, PTA flyers, and homework assignments. I have successfully managed to ignore it all for years on end.
Enter “E,” a professional organizer and disciple of the KonMari Method, the popular Japanese organizing style that basically makes you get rid of everything that doesn’t “spark joy.” I’ve signed on for four hours to kickstart the organization of my paperwork. E arrives on time, is tall (which, I soon find out, is useful for reaching high closet shelves), dressed in athletic wear, and looks ready to dig in. After brief introductions, we tour the house. E suggests how to better use vertical closet space (raise the closet shelf and hanging bar) and manage kids’ bulky art treasures (photograph then pitch). Afterwards we get down to the main event: wrangling all that paper.
E tells me we’ll organize based on category, meaning we start by scavenging the entire house for all paper. We go from room to room collecting old receipts, magazines, birthday cards, paid bills, catalogs, random bits of travel memorabilia, frequent flyer updates, bank statements, and credit card bills from nightstands, closet shelves, serving trays, drawers, and, of course, my kitchen counter. It all gets tossed into a garbage bag.
We empty the bag onto a table and begin to sort. E keeps telling me it’s not too bad, close to under-control, but at this point I’m feeling overwhelmed and disorganized. E grabs four paper grocery bags and labels them “recycling,” “shredding,” “trash,” and “e-recycling.” She asks questions about why I’m saving certain items such as receipts for jewelry I don’t even own anymore. Will I ever really need this stuff?
We sort the mound, with most things ending up in recycling. We ditch an unbelievably large amount of paper from quarterly statements, annual reports, and official notices from a 15-year-old IRA. Other big offenders include health insurance explanation-of-benefits statements; for each we file away the single detailed page and toss the other four or five sheets. And some things we find spark memories (before they go into the recycling): a handwritten mixtape cassette insert (that’s like a playlist for those of you too young to know) and postcards from college pals’ globetrotting adventures.
We form categories for the pile of papers to keep, such as “medical,” “car,” “house repairs,” “slow trash” (recently paid bills that should hang around a while before heading to the recycling bin) and “to-do.” Each gets a file folder. Photos, cards, vacation memorabilia are cordoned off for storage boxes and “sentimental” gets its own category. My “to-do” file includes sewing a button back onto a winter coat, paying paper bills, changing my name on an ancient rollover 401(k), and closing a child’s bank account that is at risk for going dormant—again. The amount that’s actually filed away for keeping is minimal and is really more about records.
Strangely, I don’t feel relieved after the session. Perhaps if I had started with another project in which the results are more visually significant, I might have felt more accomplished afterward.
Still, while I’m not inspired to continue organizing the rest of the house, I do now know what to do with incoming papers, and I feel that my piles in the kitchen are a thing of the past. I also now have a system for the kids’ artwork: Each one gets a large portfolio that has a finite number of pages, and the portfolio contents are now continually “curated” to make room for incoming works. Sculptures are displayed for a week or two, photographed digitally, then tossed.
The best part is, I have my kitchen counter back.
Cost: $280 for four hours of consultation and work
What We Learned:
- Attack the problem by category, not by room or counter space. I concentrated on paperwork, but you might round up all your toys, clothes, linens and bedding, sporting equipment, or memorabilia. Once you have all your items in one place, it’s easier to figure out what to do with all of them.
- Figure out what you’re holding on to but don’t really need. I thought I needed to keep the vast majority of my accumulated papers, but found most of it was available online.
- Paperwork probably is the most time-consuming stuff to sort out. Old family photos come in second. E says we could have cleared out five clothing closets in the time it took to organize just the paperwork.