The 80-20 rule of paperwork still taunts me. I know I will not retrieve 80 percent of what I have filed, yet when I look back through the paperwork, I am reminded of parts of my life I have forgotten. I laugh at a fictional short story I wrote back in college. I don’t understand the goals in an old performance review from a previous employer. I enjoy re-reading special cards and notes from old friends. I am not ready to get rid of it all, but it is time to enjoy the memories and to weed it down.

Because of my interest in simple living, people sometimes think I am in favor of “pitching it all.” I am not. It is okay to be a “saver,” if you set up your filing system so that you can retrieve, enjoy, and use your information (or stuff) when you want it. Frankly, if a filing system isn’t functional for its owner, then the filed paper might as well have been recycled instead of saved.

Here are ideas for tweaking your long-term filing system:

First, gather all paper of a particular type into one location. I’m infamous for tucking away related paperwork tidbits in many different spots—a craft article in a nightstand, a related magazine in a bathroom “reading” basket, a piece more in a kitchen drawer, and a pile in a labeled folder in my file cabinet. I can’t weed it down or organize it until I’ve gathered it all together.

Second, if there is paperwork you know you don’t really need but you have trouble parting with it, think about why this is the case. If the information means something to you, maybe you could save a few representative samples and journal about the rest. If not, try to get “sentimental” and “historical” information out of the regular household files by creating separate folders for them: you could label them “Special cards,” “High School Memories,” or “Previous Jobs.” The goal is to preserve the memories without clogging the filing system. On a rather morbid note, I think about my children having to go through all of this stuff some day.

Third, review your file labels. Your life changes over time, so your filing categories need to be updated too. The only filing constant is that categories will change, so I label files in pencil! Sometimes a folder gets too thick despite my efforts to weed it out, so I create two folders with the same label followed by a numeric designation. In other cases, it is time to create two slightly different file categories and sort my paperwork a little more specifically. My bulging “Travel” folder turned into “Minnesota Travel” and “Outstate Travel” Sometimes I also use several “mini” categories or smaller folders (8 1/2”x11”) within a legal-size  (11”x14”) folder. My large folder might be “Insurance” and within it could be sub-folders for the house, auto, and life insurance.

Fourth, create wiggle room and “spare” folders: Household filing isn’t an exact science. I like to have enough extra space in each file drawer to allow easy filing and wiggle room. I also like to keep a few extra folders and file labels on hand to accommodate life changes like new hobbies or interests. This may sound like common sense, but for me, it encourages better filing behavior and it prevents me from just shoving new information into a drawer or piling it on a desktop. Any pile can become a file.

Finally, I would like to share my two cents on cross-referencing and indexing. For years, I thought either topic was over-kill in a discussion about household paperwork. That was my opinion before I conducted a frantic search for a piece of paper that turned out to be in a safety deposit box and before I had three different folders in my cabinet that all contained the same kind of information under different headings. Cross-referencing can be as simple as putting a piece of paper in the “Insurance” file that says a certain document is in the “Vehicle” file. Indexing can be as simple as a list at the front of your filing system that shows all the folder labels (If I had indexed sooner, I wouldn’t have had these three folders: “Christmas Crafts,” “Holiday Ideas,” and “Seasonal Activities.”).

Try a paper management book to get ideas and to help keep you motivated for this tedious task. I am a fan of: Taming the Paper Tiger by Barbara Hemphill (Random House, 1992), and The Office Clutter Cure by Don Aslett (Marsh Creek Press, 2008), and File Don’t Pile by Pat Dorff (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1986).

I don’t want to be overly zealous about household paperwork. Summer is short. I just want to save time for things that are more fun than hours spent frantically hunting for a piece of paper.


Barbara Tako is a clutter clearing motivational speaker and author of Clutter Clearing Choices: Clear Clutter, Organize Your Home, & Reclaim Your Life (O Books, 2010), a seasonally organized book of clutter clearing tips that readers can pick and choose from to fit their personal style and needs. Sign up for her free monthly clutter clearing tips newsletter at www.clutterclearingchoices.com.