A paper routine to simplify your life: Welcome to the final part of this five-part series that shows you how to create your own routines to put you back into the driver seat for managing your life, family, and home.
Paper comes in day after day after day and clutters up our homes: newspapers and magazines, incoming school papers, bills, invitations, receipts, coupons, recipes, letters, etc. It’s enough to drive you crazy!
If you’re reading this, chances are you know what I’m talking about.
This is the 5th post in a series all about life and home organization. So be sure to check out the other posts for organizing your family life, meal planning, developing a cleaning and laundry routine that actually work and finally, setting up a paper routine so that you never have to worry about all that incoming paper again!
Process over motivation
Before we set up an actual process of how to deal with incoming papers, this was what usually happened:
- All sorts of incoming paper landed on our kitchen countertop. We did look through it right away but did not do anything with it. Instead, it laid on the kitchen countertop until the pile got too huge to handle.
- We then moved this pile from our kitchen to a desk in the basement where it got merely forgotten and grew steadily day after day after day. Whenever I went down to do the laundry and saw this enormous, frightening pile, I felt guilty.
- Similar to this pile in the basement, my guilt grew with every new paper that entered our house.
- When I felt finally ready to tackle all the paper (or an urgent invoice forced me to), it usually took several hours to master this situation.
- What was even worse: in my mind I built up this anxiety in which I associated paper clutter with a very frightening and intimidating feeling which made me procrastinate paperwork in the future even more.
It took me quite a number of years to realize two things:
Firstly, we didn’t have a proper process in place that dealt with incoming paper from the moment it entered our house until it was either filed or thrown away.
Secondly, I had to overcome procrastination and provide my brain with another connotation for “paperwork” because short-term motivation alone was not enough to find a long-term solution for this problem.
At first, I had to come up with a proper process to tackle this problem. To do so, I was thinking about how we could possibly move incoming paper through our home so that nothing gets forgotten or – even worse – lost. When I looked at the incoming paper of an entire week, I could basically divide it into the following categories:
- School stuff
- Brochures, magazine, Coupons, etc.
Mail and school papers usually called for some form of action: either deal with it (pay an invoice, respond to a letter, make an appointment, etc.) or file it.
Brochures, magazine, etc. usually were for reading at a later point in time.
Baskets to sort incoming paper
As such, I created three baskets:
One for mail, one for action, one for any additional paper. These baskets are hidden inside my desk so that they don’t clutter up our kitchen counters but can’t get lost.
How to tackle incoming paperwork
As soon as the mail arrives, I go through it right away and divide it into one of the following categories:
- The two-minute-rule i.e., stuff that can be dealt with in an instant,
- Items that call for action but may take a little longer,
- Papers to file.
Whenever I go through my mail, some things can be dealt with in an instant. Those things comprise signing a school paper, making a call for an appointment, or filing and these get done right away as they usually only take a couple of minutes. This way, only items that take longer such as responding to a letter, documents that need to be read thoroughly and paying invoices land in the action basket.
The action basket
For dealing with papers in the action basket, I have assigned a special time on a specific day. For me, this is usually Sunday afternoon, when I also plan for the new week. Every letter that needs to be responded to, every piece of paper that needs to be read thoroughly and every invoice that needs to be paid: Sunday afternoon is the time when I will take care of it.
Of course, you could do this any day of the week, but for us, Sunday afternoons are rather quiet, giving me the peace of mind to tackle these tasks.
My filing system today is very easy: I use a filing cabinet which holds suspension files. For each important category I have a designated suspension file. Every piece of paper that needs to be filed falls into a certain category i.e., suspension file. The only thing I need to do is put this piece of paper into the file. This way, the newest piece of paper is always right in the front. This only takes a couple of minutes each day.
I am also very rigorous when it comes to filing: ONLY those items, that I will need for future reference get filed. Other items get thrown away immediately.
Incoming papers of my husband
I generally do not open my husband’s mail, only when he specifically asks me to. This may sound a little weird, as we certainly have nothing to hide, but we simply respect each other’s privacy. As such, all the mail that my husband receives goes straight into the mail basket.
When he comes home from work, he will take care of his mail the same way that I did earlier: take care of things that only take a few minutes, place more time-intensive items in the action basket and file everything that needs to be filed. He, too, will take care of any action items on Sunday afternoon.
This way, no tasks are building up and no paper is cluttering our house.
How I finally beat procrastination
As already mentioned, I associated paper clutter with a very frightening and intimidating feeling which made me procrastinate dealing with it as long as I possibly could. And, as you can imagine, this procrastination made the entire situation even worse.
What is procrastination and why we often procrastinate
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions and it has the following key attributes:
- It involves unnecessary delay.
- The delay generally leads to predictably negative outcomes, in terms of factors such as the procrastinator’s performance or emotional well-being.
- The delay is often—but not always—unintentional, meaning that it occurs despite the procrastinator’s intent to do things on time.
We often procrastinate because our drive to delay is irrationally stronger than our drive to act. This generally happens because our self-control and motivation are weakened by issues such as exhaustion and delayed outcomes and are opposed by a preference for feeling better in the short term, as well as by emotional issues such as anxiety and fear.
How to actually beat procrastination
If the past has taught me one thing: Burying my head in the sand usually made things worse. But when I had faced up to a situation and “taken the bull by the horns” usually things changed for the better.
By thinking about a process for my paper problem, I have – quite unconsciously – also solved my procrastination problem as I
- committed to a tiny first step,
- broke tasks into manageable steps,
- made it easier for me to decide how to deal with incoming paper,
- and made it easier for me to actually take care of my paperwork.
These little, manageable steps turned this ugly paper monster into a simple and successful routine that finally made me feel on top of things again.
In addition to sticking to this routine, whenever I sat down on Sunday afternoons, I tried to make this hour as comfortable as possible. I would treat myself with a cup of my favorite tea, I would play some peaceful music in the background and allowed myself to have a piece of cake or dessert once everything was finished.
Over time, while consistently sticking to this routine, my anxiety, frustration, and guilt eased until they disappeared completely.
Now its your turn to tackle your paper monster and develop a paper routine to simplify your life
My method for sure is just one of many out there.
The really important thing is this: Think about how you can make a task more manageable by dividing it into smaller steps and turning it into a routine. This routine will take brainpower out of the decision-making-process, which means you can accomplish your usual set of tasks without even thinking about them.
How this actually looks like is very individual and unique to your personal situation. There is not right or wrong, as long as things get done.