Ask the Experts

Dear Organizing Coach: How Can I Manage My Paper Without Forgetting Important Things?

Junk mail, school notices, receipts… Despite the digital revolution, we’re definitely not living in a paperless world just yet. Here, our organization coach offers tips on wrangling the stacks and clutter into submission.

Q: “I’m looking for any and all suggestions on how to tame the piles of papers that come into the house, from both my life and my spouse — whose ADHD tendencies are similar to mine except not treated with medication. How can we manage the piles and the endless, scattered to-do lists that just grow and grow?” — LibraMom13

Q: “Paper! I try to come up with a realistic plan to keep it organized, but within a week paper has piled up again. The problem is I leave papers out as reminders to do something: I’m afraid if I tuck them away somewhere I’ll forget them, and writing reminders in my calendar seems so bothersome.” — ADDmom

Hi LibraMom13 and ADDmom:

Ah, the dreaded paperwork. It just doesn’t stop piling up each day, right? It feels like you need a life jacket just to keep from drowning. Hang on! I’m here to rescue you.

The key to staying on top of paperwork is to create easy and efficient systems that work for you. How do you know what works? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I a filer or a piler?
  • Do I need to see things to remember they exist?
  • Do I like things color-coded?
  • Where do I have ample space to store files and papers?
  • Do others need access to these papers?

[Free Expert Podcast: ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, Now!]

By asking these questions, systems will naturally form. For example, if you tend to pile instead of file, choose open baskets or inboxes as part of your system instead of hanging folders hidden inside a file cabinet. The best method is one that you can comfortably set up, access, and maintain.

A few strategies to get you started:

1. Sort by Past/Present/Future. Create three locations for loose papers to land according to when you’ll need them:

  • PAST represents papers that you need to keep but don’t need to access regularly. Think taxes, insurance policies, old health insurance documents. These can be stored in file cabinets, boxes, or binders and placed in storage.
  • PRESENT is what you need and use now. Current bills, medical info, and travel plans would fall into this category. These items need to be located in prime real estate: desktop files on your home office desk, baskets on your kitchen counter, or even a rolling cart that you can move from room to room.
  • FUTURE consists of papers you’ll need to access eventually but not right now (like future travel plans or home renovation plans). Store these where they’re easily accessible. I like to create binders with clear plastic sleeves to hold my future materials.

2. Use your airspace. It’s literally my favorite way to contain and organize papers for those with ADHD. Hang magazine racks or wire files on the wall to organize your mail or other papers. Using your airspace helps you to keep important papers visible and top-of-mind — no writing in your calendar necessary! Label the hanging files to make organizing fast and simple. Or employ your wall space to create a message center. Use magnetic, cork, or dry-erase boards to hold papers you need to remember to take action on, keep to-do lists in sight, and make schedules quickly accessible.

When in doubt, throw it out. Before any piece of paper gets into my house, it is sorted over the recycling bin or the shredder. Be ruthless: Most paper isn’t personal, so don’t treat it as such. Make hard cuts and get rid of what you don’t need before it ever takes up space in your home.

3. Go paperless as much as you can. Pay your bills online, scan receipts, and sign up for a mobile app that will store all your medical records. Create folders on your computer the same way you would your file cabinet. Any way you can think to reduce the paper coming in will reduce the stress of organizing it later.

4. One in, one out. This rule applies to EVERYTHING we own (yes, even paper).  Once we designate homes for all our stuff, maintaining our organizing systems naturally follow.

Lastly, a special tip for tackling the to-dos: Get rid of them! Try index cards instead. I write one or two to-do items on the front and then the specific tasks I need to accomplish to complete that item on the back. What I love the most about them is that they’re portable…and not overwhelming!

[Free Handout: Clean Up and Get Organized in One Weekend]

Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions here!

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