Hacking Your “System” of Paper Piles

By Megan Nye

March 18, 2016   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

You grab the mail as you’re returning home at the end of a long day, your stomach is growling, and your kids are poking each other in the eye. Noticing an electric bill in the mail, you toss the envelope on your kitchen counter as a reminder to pay it later. Nana sends you a birthday card with a juicy check inside. You chuck the card on your dining room table as a reminder to write a thank-you note and drop check next to it as a reminder to cash that sucker. Since he’ll be out of town, your boss hands you two tickets for next weekend’s big game. You lob them onto your coffee table as a reminder to arrange for a sitter and go! If you’ve been there, you know two things. One, your house contains lots of piles whose contents are grouped together for some reason, though you can’t remember what that reason is or what’s in each pile. Two, you’re sitting in the dark, your grandmother thinks you don’t love her, your check (which ironically could have paid the bill) is uncashed, and you missed out on the game of the year. Your paper-pile “reminder” system is broken. Problem: You’ve gone blind to your reminder.

Presumably, the reason that you dropped the bill in your kitchen was so that you would notice it later when you actually had time to deal with it and you’d act accordingly. However, once you’ve glanced at and walked past that counter enough times, you truly stop seeing the paper. In fact, you’d probably notice the void if someone moved the bill from its home on the counter. The stuff that you wanted to stand out has become part of the background of your life.

Solution: Give everything a place to live that makes sense.

If incoming mail has nowhere to go, it will wind up wherever it’s most convenient for you to drop it. If you’re not actively going through, sorting, and purging the mail when you pull it from your mailbox, set up a tray or bin to catch it somewhere near the door you enter. Then, have designated, out-of-the-way places specifically for bills, personal correspondence, retailer’s ads, and more once you’ve sorted all of the incoming paper. File cabinets and magazine holders are great ways to corral, organize, and conceal the papers of your life until you’re ready to tackle them.

Problem: There’s no timetable for your paper pile.

Even if you can still see that you have a bill on your counter, your system doesn’t allow you to prioritize that against that note to your grandmother, those sports tickets, or the cable bill that’s on another counter that’s due even sooner.

Solution: Schedule time with your stuff by category.

Maybe you’ll take ten minutes before bed to sift through your mail pile, toss the junk, and categorize what’s left. Set up a date with yourself and your incoming bills folder every Wednesday evening. Commit to reviewing your ads and coupons on Saturday mornings. Keep a list of family and friends you plan to contact and do it in one batch every other Sunday afternoon.

Problem: You don’t have time to deal with it all.

By creating a system that makes sense to only you – and maybe not even that – you’ve forced yourself to shoulder the paper pile burden single-handedly. God forbid you’re temporarily incapacitated without explaining to your spouse that the lopsided pile next to the bed is for permission slips, unpaid utility bills, lost socks, and puzzle pieces.

Solution: Create an uncomplicated system that works for the whole gang.

If you create a drop box for your kids’ school paperwork, they won’t be sliding it under the bathroom door while you’re trying to shower. They’ll know where to put their class memos, and both you and your spouse will know where to find them before the morning rush. The two of you can switch off seamlessly when it comes to paying the bills, since they’re conveniently stashed in a folder and not strewn across mountains of mystery paper. Getting everyone on board with your paper system spreads out the responsibility and allows for easy delegation.

Megan Nye

Megan Nye is a professional freelance writer. She offers expert advice on making your time, money, and home work for you on her blog, Prioritized Living.

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