January 10, 2019

The biggest mistake you can make when decluttering papers and files


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Decluttering papers and files can be daunting, and resulting in you giving up and declaring defeat. In this post I share with you the common mistake most people make when they tackle their file monster. 

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The Status Quo

Even though we live in a world of computers, cell phones and digital files, paper in all forms (flyers, newspapers, pamphlets, invoices, letters etc) is still flooding our homes.

Over 40 years ago the prediction was that we soon have the paperless home and office, I wrote about this already here but so far it got worse instead of better.

If we are not careful this file monster (how I call it) takes over the kitchen counter, kitchen table, our desks and any other surface that presents itself as handy to pile the papers.

Can you relate?

I bet you can. I hear it from friends and family and I experience my clients struggling with the file monster when they don't know how to make sure it doesn't take over their home and life or where to start when decluttering papers and files. 

Why we don't know what to do

Just like how to handle money, how to save, how to budget, how to have a rainy-day fund, how to deal with papers and files is not taught in school. We are left to our own devices to figure it out.

Often we copy what our parents do or did, whether it's about money or files. If the parents were organized and responsible with money, chances are you learned from them how to be and do the same.

But if your parents struggled with money and papers, and you didn't learn it in school, it was up to you to figure it out and that's often where things get chaotic and messy.

Dealing with paper work can be overwhelming

If it wasn’t already overwhelming enough to deal with paperwork in our private life, having your own business adds a whole new dimension to it.

Now you have not just private bills, letters, flyers etc flooding your home, now you also get all kinds of promotional stuff and advertising geared towards your business. This besides all the additional invoices, contracts, policies etc that come with having your own business.

And so the file monster grows...and costs you more and more time to find thins and it costs you money. Yes money, too. 

Paper clutter is a waste of time and money

I read about a study with the conclusion that the average business owner spends at least 400 hours per year searching for paper documents. 400 hours, that’s almost 17 days (at 24 hours) or 50 8-hour workdays!

Now this study was only talking about paper documents, I wonder how much time we waste searching for digital files? That is a topic for another blog post, in the meantime just make sure you have a backup of all your data!

The problem is that it’s not just time we are wasting being unorganized and having to search for papers and documents, we also waste money.

Some say time is money, which is true, you could do something that earns you money in the time you frantically search for papers. But also, some of those papers that you have scattered all over your home, do represent money

Just think about it:

  • You can’t clam misplaced and/or lost receipts, as a result you pay more taxes
  • Due to the mess you have you might file your taxes late, which often results in fines, penalties and charged interest.
  • Because you are unorganized your accountant has to work on your taxes longer which results in a higher fee you will have to pay him or her.
  • Or you might bring your paperwork to the accountant late and now he charges you a “rush-fee” to file your taxes in time or with a little delay as possible

It doesn’t have to be that way

Instead of feeding your file monster by wasting time, invest some time to tame it, read on and I will show you how. 

Record keeping does not need to be fancy or time consuming, and it does not require expensive technology or tools either. 

The best part is, 

If you hate paperwork you must get organized!

because when you are organized you are dealing way less with papers, you are spending way less time on it. You will reduce overwhelm and frustration, no frantically searching for papers anymore. 

But before you run away from reading this and start tackling your paperwork, let me tell you...

Don't make this common mistake when decluttering papers and files

The biggest mistake you can make (and most people make) is: 

trying to tackle your existing piles of papers - your backlog - first.

This is where most people start, but it’s backward, it's not the route that gets you (or them) organized. Let's explore why: 

Chances are you have piles of paper in the “to-keep” or “to-file” category now, even if those files are sorted (in to individual piles) if you start decluttering now, you will simply create new piles.

Yes, you might get rid of some papers but the ones you want to keep and file are still in piles. Soon you forget what pile was what category..

Also, if you are looking for something you have to go through the whole pile (best case scenario) or through every single pile (remember the 400 hours?)

What you are doing is setting yourself up for overwhelm and frustration, and most likely you will break down and give up.

What to do first, before anything else

So what should you do then instead of tackling your piles of papers? Well, you need to 

Create a system first.

A system is simply a process or habit that delivers you a predictable result every time. When dealing with papers this means

  • Your papers need a home: first a temporary home where they wait to be processed (you could call this an Inbox) and the ones you want keep need a permanent home.
  • Establish a simple sorting/processing system
  • Then most importantly: put the newest papers through this system first

In next weeks blog post I will go more into detail how you can create and implement such a system. What I want you to take away today is,

Don’t start sorting and decluttering your papers before you have a system in place! Read next week how to implement such a system.

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