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Paper Piles, Paper Piles…Here’s An Easy Way To Control The Clutter
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Paper Piles, Paper Piles…Here’s An Easy Way To Control The Clutter

by Vanessa Hayes

in Around the House,Organizing

It seems lately that my friends, clients and family are stressed about all their papers.  Yes, papers.  They seem to pile up and multiply. You check the mail…and you set it on the counter…you’re too tired or too busy to get to it…so it just sits on the counter…then it gets moved from one place to another…and before you know it it’s time for bed and the mail is never opened.  The next day you bring in the mail again…and that pile of mail gets set on top of the other pile…now you’ve got two days worth of mail to sort.  Then the next day you repeat the same actions and before you know it, you’ve got a huge pile of mail and have no idea how you are going to get through it all!

I wrote a post a while ago about how to set up an action file to manage your daily influx of mail and papers but I thought I’d explain what an action file is again and how to set one up.  If you find yourself drowning in papers I highly recommend starting with this simple system to help you gain control of future paper clutter.  Basically, an action file is simply  a small filing system that helps you sort, organize, file and take action on your daily influx of  papers and mail. It’s usually a small, portable hanging file box that has folders set up for you to organize and take action on your papers.  It only requires that you spend about 5 minutes a day (or less) sorting and organizing your papers so that you don’t miss appointments, bills, special events and so on.  Here’s how you set up and use an action file:


1. Get a hanging file box and around 6-12 hanging file folders. You don’t want a really big file box nor a really small one…probably one that’s about 3-8 inches wide to fit those 6-12 hanging folders…that’s it!

2. Label at least 4 of your folders in the following way:





3. Label the remaining folders to fit your needs.  For example:





HUBBY (put your spouse’s name here)

KIDS (can label one folder for each kid or member in the household to put things in it like: lunch menus, Boy Scout and Girl Scout projects, sports schedules, school calendars, notices, etc.)

4. Then place this folder wherever you naturally sort your mail and papers or where everyone in the household naturally congregates to…usually the kitchen!

5. You’ll want to have a pen, paper, sticky notes and a calendar (paper or electronic) next to your action file.  And if possible, a trash can, recycle bin and shredder nearby too.


1. SORT: When you check the mail or bring papers into the home…sort them right away and EVERY DAY.  It usually takes less than 5 minutes and no more than 10 to go through your daily mail and  papers.

2. DECIDE: Make a decision on what to do with every piece of paper. You’re going to do 1 of 3 things with your paper…keep it, trash/recycle it, or shred it…that simple.  You are not going to let it pile up ;o)  Here’s how:

Put documents that you need to keep but don’t require action in the TO FILE folder. Things like health records, tax documents, statements verifying receipt of payment, etc.

If there is something you need to read later like a policy change on an account, a new magazine, or a brochure, put it in the TO READ folder.

For bills that need to be paid, put them in the TO PAY folder.  Be sure to highlight or write the date you want to pay the bill on the top of the paper (usually 2-3 days before the due date).  For example, if you have a bill that is due on the 22nd of the month, write on the top of the bill, “Pay on the 20th.”  Better yet, write the date on your calendar or schedule it on your electronic calendar….right then and there!

Items that you need to act on go in the TO DO folder: “Call the vet to set up appointment for Scruffy”…”Call dentist to question billing statement”…”Schedule a follow up appointment with doctor”…”Call teacher to discuss progress report” etc. Be sure to write the action you need to take and a due date if applicable.  I always recommend setting up a due date even if there isn’t one.  Remember…this is an action file, not a long-term storage file or “I’ll eventually get to it file.”

Of course, the other folders are self-explanatory (receipts, coupons, kid’s and spouse-related stuff go in their respective folders)

Trash or recycle anything you don’t need like unwanted ads and empty envelopes. Please don’t leave the trash on the counter to take care of later.

Shred any important or personal information like your address and account numbers.  Again, do this after you’ve sorted your mail.  This is part of the clean up.

3. CHECK YOUR TO DO AND TO PAY FOLDERS DAILY: If you don’t have your TO DO and TO PAY items on a calendar, then you need to make sure you check this folder every day so you don’t miss bills or appointments.  If you do have these items already put on a calendar, then you know this is the folder where you’ll retrieve those documents that you need to take action on.

4. PURGE IT! I recommend purging (cleaning out your files) either on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis.  A great time to do this is when you do your bills or balance your accounts.  Some folks pay bills and balance their checking accounts every two weeks or once a month.  This is a perfect time to take your action file and get rid of outdated papers and receipts and either move, shred, toss or recycle them them.  This is also a great time to take the items out of the TO FILE folder and transfer them into your personal/long-term filing system.


1. This is just temporary storage…not long term storage. You should be moving important records and documents to your personal filing system.

2. You should tackle your mail on a daily basis…make this part of your daily routine.  Five to ten minutes a day is all it takes!

3. Check it daily. Use it daily. Take action daily!

4. Adjust as needed.  Customize your folders to fit your needs.  If you don’t need one of the folders…take it out.

5.  Purge regularly.  Your action file should never get full.  If it does, clean it out!

I hope this system will work for you.  It is one of the first things I recommend to clients, family, and friends to help them with their papers.  It’s an easy solution to conquer those papers piles.  Check out one of my client success stories for inspiration and please…let me know how your action file works for you.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

tina August 12, 2012 at 12:08 PM

I have boxes and boxes of old mail and paperwork. I am afraid to just toss it but it will take weeks to shred them. Any ideas how to get rid of masses of paperwork safely?

Vanessa Hayes August 18, 2012 at 10:47 PM

Good question, Tina. Don’t you just hate when old paper just piles up! If you let it get too far along there’s no way you can shred it all with one of those home office shredders. The good thing is that there are now many businesses that offer services for bulk shredding. Even places like OfficeMax offer secure shredding in their stores, but it’s best to do a search for secure shredding services in your local area. Just Google “secure paper shredding” & your zip code and you’ll likely have lots of great leads. Some services even come out to your home! Hope this helps!

Reggie Adler January 25, 2014 at 10:29 AM

How do get the courage to discard sentimental papers? I have my children ‘s ” firsts”, their report cards, honorable mentions, Mothers Day cards,etc. I also have too many photographs, pictures of ancestors of my parents, the family tree information. You name it, I have saved it ! I have tried to use file folders in a filing box but the papers just end up in a large pile on top of the box.. I even had cubbies built so I could separate topics but that system has not work out either. I am not lazy except when it comers to what and how long to save papers for taxes and especially
how to throw out paper that are just sentimental to me.. Help!!!

Vanessa Hayes March 3, 2014 at 9:40 AM

For kids keepsakes, here is a video that might help you out.

As for your piles of papers, the best thing you can do is to create a routine of sorting and filing your papers daily. Routines are what keep your piles from piling up. You also need to edit on a regular basis. You can’t keep everything…you just can’t. I recommend editing your papers on a monthly, quarterly or at a minimum…an annual basis. No kidding, make an appointment with yourself (a weekend perhaps) to go through your piles and edit what you don’t need or use. You can either check with your CPA or tax advisor or look up household paper retention guidelines to help determine what to keep and for how long.

Bottom line…tackle your papers daily…don’t let them pile. And be sure to edit them often…yearly at a minimum. That way you can control your clutter.

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