Filing Cabinets Don’t Work for ADHD Minds: Help for Paper Pilers

Did you think we would still be dealing with paper in 2020? Me neither. I was sure that the “future would be digital,” yet here I sit with stacks of paper around me and more paper in every room. If you’re wondering how to organize paperwork, start with this management system.

Businessman holds pile of office papers and documents. Documents and file folders on table. Routine, bureaucracy, big data, paperwork, office. Vector illustration in flat style
Businessman holds pile of office papers and documents. Documents and file folders on table. Routine, bureaucracy, big data, paperwork, office. Vector illustration in flat style

Paper is a Hard Habit to Break

Ours is a paper-based society.

Paper-dependence starts with birth certificates and Social Security cards. In short order, kids become paper producers. From precious handprint turkeys to report cards, they bring home so much paper that is heart-wrenching to discard. Some you keep as memorabilia; some you save for a while to remind you of an action item — like an upcoming field trip or project.

When I realized I would never be paperless, I changed my goal from eliminating all paper to having less of it.

How the Paper Pile Starts

There are two ways most people process paper. Stacks of paper is usually the first. It starts with a small pile of mail on the kitchen counter. Items you need to reconcile or pay. You don’t file these items because they need action, so you leave them in plain sight.

Only things don’t get done, and they gather paper friends. Papers to be filled out, rebates to be sent in, coupons to use, and correspondence to read. The last paper to pile on is the to-do lists, reminders to yourself, and notes scribbled on envelopes so you “don’t forget.” We all have these stacks. We let them go until we can’t stand it anymore. Then we sit down and process as much as we can until things are more manageable again.

[Free ADHD Guide: How To Tidy Up Your Home Like A Pro]

The second way to manage paper is to file it. I have met only a handful of people who effectively use and maintain a home filing system. The rest of us are doomed. For me, once paper is filed, it is forgotten. We file papers because we have them and we worry we will need them some day. In most cases, we won’t.

How To Organize Paperwork

Step 1: Recognize that you need both active (piles) and reference (file) papers

Paper is here to stay, but not all paper is created equally. Understanding the difference between active paper and reference paper will make management easier.

[Read This Next: Should I Just Purge All of This Paper?]

Step 2: Create reference paper binders

Since 85 percent of the contents in our filing cabinets could be shredded or recycled, let’s start there. Go through five to ten files each night and discard as much as possible.

Reference paper is the easiest to process because the action that needed to be taken has already been done. You bought the toaster, this is the manual. You had the car’s oil changed, this is the receipt. You took your dog to the vet, this is the bill.

Almost all of your reference paper can be shredded or recycled. In the reference paper category, you can get close to paperless if you want to. Then you can digitize what is left or make binders.

Once I’ve culled as much as I can, I put the paper that is left in binders. Binders are easy to update, easy to share with a spouse or housesitter, and easy to take to a doctor, lawyer, school meeting, or with you in an evacuation. Portability and ease of use are key. However, if you and your family are good at maintaining and retrieving digital files, you may want to digitize the papers you have left.

Step 3: Create an active paper-management system for your kitchen counter piles

Instead of hoping you will complete the pile’s tasks and eliminate the pile, embrace the physical reminders of routine tasks.

The key to making an active paper-management system work is to set aside a specific day and time to work through your paper. Do your sorting on the same day each week, and defer the tasks you cannot complete until your next session.

Just like laundry, dishes, and cleaning house, your active paper pile needs to be managed each week. A weekly paper-management system (and culling your files into a few select binders) will reduce your paper anxiety and lighten your load.

How To Organize Paperwork: Next Steps

Lisa Woodruff is the founder and CEO of Organize 365. She is a teacher, professional organizer, podcaster, motivational speaker, and productivity expert. Lisa’s new book is The Paper Solution. (#CommissionsEarned)

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