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How to Organize Life’s Most Important Documents

May 24, 2023May 24, 2023

If your home office documents, family medical records, bills, and kids’ school reports dance between a pile on the kitchen table and an unmarked box in the garage, it's time to develop a proper filing system.

Be prepared to spend at least 15 minutes on the task to make some progress. Don't be surprised if it takes you a few cumulative hours over a weekend to get everything organized. The good news is, once your documents have a proper home, you’ll only need a few minutes a week to maintain the new system.

Below we walk you through how to organize your paper files. Here's a hint: Use it as a time to think about ways to reduce your paper mess more permanently. As you organize, keep a running list of bills, notices, and other documents that have an option to go paperless, and set aside time to set them up. (And yes, we’ve got some advice on how to organize your digital library, too.)

First, determine your end goal. Do you want to organize every document in your life? Or do you prefer to get rid of as much paper as possible? Then, touch every document and decide where it should go. Divide those documents into piles that make sense to you. As you sort, keep each pile organized with sticky notes. Here are some category suggestions:

Give each file folder a recognizable name, such as Immigration, Medical, or Taxes [year]. Then, collect everything into document binders or hanging file folders for a file bin or cabinet. Individual three-ring binders work best for smaller piles of documents, such as your Actionable stack with this month's bills and receipts. (You can also store these in a 1-gallon freezer bag and sort through them later.)

Place your filing system in a secure location that is easily accessible but out of the reach of messy kids. Don't store that fireproof document safe in a corner of your cluttered garage. "Being organized is about finding what you need when you need it," said Ashley Hines, a holistic home organizer and founder of Thee Tailored Life.

It's important to not let yourself get overloaded. Our experts say decluttering affects the head space as much as it does the physical space. "It's important to recognize that [the] goal is to simplify things and make things more efficient," noted Katrina Green, a licensed interior designer and professional organizer with Badass Homelife.

If you’re stressed, consider breaking the task into manageable chunks and limit your work to just 15 minutes a day. Or take time to tackle it while watching an episode of your favorite show.

If you feel like you still aren't making progress, professional help might be the way to go. "Organizing doesn't have to be a lonely process," Green added. Trade groups like the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, and National Association of Black Professional Organizers can help you find certified professional organizers and productivity experts in your area.

This article was edited by Brittney Ho, Amy Koplin, and Sofia Sokolove.

Kaitlyn Wells

Kaitlyn Wells is a senior staff writer who advocates for greater work flexibility by showing you how to work smarter remotely without losing yourself. Previously, she covered pets and style for Wirecutter. She's never met a pet she didn't like, although she can't say the same thing about productivity apps. Her first picture book, A Family Looks Like Love, follows a pup who learns that love, rather than how you look, is what makes a family.

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