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The Ultimate Guide to Managing Paperwork at Home

If you are reading this right now, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve got piles of paperwork on your desk or around your office. 

Do you know that this type of work clutter has a direct impact on your ability to be productive while working? These piles and stacks could be adding stress and anxiety to your workday. New research proves that a messy desk causes the “clutter effect.” This study has demonstrated that clutter impacts a person’s ability to move, think clearly, and leads to a loss of personal satisfaction and happiness.

Who doesn’t want to reduce these feelings and work in a more peaceful and relaxed environment? 

Let’s kick that clutter effect to the curb! I will share my best secrets for good file keeping and office organization. If you are done feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, or guilty about the papers lying around your workspace, grab a notepad, and let’s get started.

Setting Up Your Filing System

Getting Started 

With any project, a good strategy beforehand will make the work easier. When preparing your workspace for filing and storage, begin with the end in mind. You will want enough cabinet or drawer space to fit everything nicely, without having to jam in files or papers. This will require that you take an honest assessment of your filing needs and then acquire the necessary furnishings for storage before you begin. I recommend a file cabinet with full-extension drawers that will meld nicely into your current space.

Be Practical

Your storage needs will not be one-size-fits-all. Think about your day. What files do you access often? Naturally, these need to be stored close to you, either in your desk drawer or in a cabinet within reach. Test out the process. You will want to make your new system easy and convenient. This will help you stay on top of the mess by making it easy to file things away immediately. Files that you access rarely but are required to keep can be kept in a file cabinet on another side of the room or in a storage area outside the office instead. In the effort to declutter, you may find it feels better to have these types of files stored in another closet or room, away from your busy work area.

Get the Right Supplies

You’ll want to invest in both hanging file folders and manila folders. Hanging file folders allow for easy movement within the file drawer, while manilla folders make it more convenient to retrieve your documents as you need them. The more organized your filing system is to use, the less time you’ll spend digging through drawers trying to find something you need. 

Should you invest in colorful file folders? Color is a great way to visually sort and organize your files. Just know that you may be inconvenienced while filing if you run out of the color you need or find it difficult to purchase or restock a color you are already using. 

Coming Up with a System

Tab Position

When you purchase that box of manilla folders, you’ll notice that the folders have three different tab options. However, I often recommend the Straight-Line filing method instead. Why? Your eyes will be able to scan information quickly if the folders are in a straight line, and you don’t risk your eyes overlooking something. The Straight-Line method also has a more organized and aesthetic appearance.

Straight-line filing can be easier when looking for documents

Using Color

If you want to make finding files even easier, use colored labels. Medical offices use this system because a person’s mind identifies colors faster than it processes words. This is a great way to break your files into smaller sections to get what you need quicker.

red file labeled to-do

Creating a red “To Do” folder can help you distinguish action items from reference information


Next, come up with an organizational system that works best for you. While filing alphabetically is a popular and common choice, it is not the only option available to you. 

  1. Broad Categories: For those who don’t want to get too into the weeds with their files, you might decide to break them up into broad categories such as finance, medical, personal, user manuals, etc.

  2. Alphabetical with Categories – Think of this as a bookshelf with many genres of books. Some individuals might shelve their books by genre or category and then alphabetize them by the authors. You could use a similar system with your files.

  3. By Date – Do your files expire? Do you regularly need to purge your files or shift them to off-site storage? You may want to file chronologically based on the expiration, purge, or relocation date associated with the files. This can also be true if you have files that you need to access monthly. By filing by month, you can establish a rotation routine to keep the files you need closer and easier to access.

  4. A Combination of Options – You may find a combination of filing styles works best for you. Feel free to create a system unique to you and your needs.

The key to selecting an organizational system that works is to slow down and pay attention to your thoughts when retrieving files. What comes to mind first? This will help you determine which filing system will work best for you.

Knowing What to Keep and What to Toss

One good way to tackle paper clutter is to get clear about what you really need to keep and what is okay to discard right away. As you are decluttering paper, here are questions you should ask:

  1. Are you legally required to keep it?

  2. Would it be hard to replace it if you got rid of it?

  3. Could you easily find this information elsewhere or online?

  4. If this was out of sight and out of mind, would you even remember you had it?

  5. Can it be stored somewhere else (memorabilia box, storage, off-site)?

  6. Would it be okay to scan this in and only keep a digital copy?

recycle bins on floor

Quickly sort through large quantities of paper by setting up ‘To Recycle’, ‘To Keep’ and ‘To Shred’ bins close by

Document Retention

I am often asked how long to keep documents. While there are plenty of opportunities to recycle paper you no longer need, there are some files you will need to keep – either permanently or for a specific period of time. 

When it comes to file retention, the type of paperwork determines the length of time you’ll need to keep it. 

  1. Personal Receipts – Keep for one month or until the end of the return deadline.

  2. Business Receipts – Talk to your accountant about retention recommendations. In case of an audit, you may need copies of these. I recommend keeping both digital and physical copies.

  3. User Manuals – Keep if you still own the item. Note: most manuals can be found online.

  4. Paycheck Stubs – 1 year. Ask your accountant.

  5. Utility Bills, Credit Card Statements, Bank Statements, and Quarterly Investment Statements – Ask your accountant.

  6. While Active – Contracts, insurance docs, stock certificates, property records, records of pensions and retirement plans, and property tax records disputed bills

  7. Keep Forever (and store in a safe deposit box or fireproof box) – birth certificates, adoption papers, citizenship certifications, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, records of paid mortgages, wills and trusts, death certificates, tax returns, deeds to properties, passports, social security cards, and titles to vehicles.

When it comes to legal or financial information, always check with your accountant and attorney before tossing anything out, just to be safe.

Develop a Filing Habit

Probably the most impactful secret I can share about good file keeping is the importance of developing a filing habit. Whether you train yourself to file papers away as they come in or schedule time each week to empty your filing basket, pick a method that’s most likely to stick. Spending time developing a system that works for you upfront will make this task quick and easy. 

It may seem like an enormous task initially, but this work will make your life so much easier. Managing clutter will improve your mood, save you time and energy, and reduce stress and anxiety.

This is just some of the value you can get when partnering with™. If you’d like more tips, advice or suggestions on how to be more productive and organized, book a 20-minute productivity assessment.


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