Eliminate Those Mystery Paper Piles! (a.k.a. How to Create an Action File)

Have you ever heard the organizing rule, “Touch each piece of paper only once”?  Well, it’s a myth.  But the kernel of truth inside the myth is this:  If you sift through a pile of mail, or any other type of papers, and if you don’t decide the first time you touch it what ACTION needs to take place next, you will just have to sift through the pile all over again later.

So, here is an easy way to eliminate what I call mystery piles of paper – and the missed deadlines and opportunities they represent – and get stuff done!

  1. Get yourself an Action File.  I recommend a vertical table-top file, the kind that takes letter-sized hanging files, only 6” deep, with no lid.  You will need 5-7 files.  Keep in mind that these files are for temporary use, not for permanent storage.  Label the files with ACTION words such as PAY, CALL, FILE, WAITING, etc.  Your personal categories will become clear as you sort your own mail. If you have a spouse or roommate, you might want one that says ASK SO-AND-SO.
  2. Sort your mail as soon as you bring it into the house.  It will only take a minute, really!  Toss junk mail directly into the trash or recycle bin, which should be co-located with your Action File.  Immediately shred credit card offers and other unwanted mail with sensitive information on them.
  3. What goes in which folder?  Unpaid bills go into the PAY folder, unless you have a question about one of them, then it would go into the CALL folder.  Later, when it is time to actually pay the bills you have collected, you can remove the entire PAY folder, take it to your bill-paying spot, and pay them all at once.  Invitations requiring RSVPs would first go into the CALL folder.  Then, once you have RSVP’d – and entered the event on your calendar – you can toss the paper, or keep it in the WAITING (or “pending”) file for the directions or other info you will need when the time comes.  Another example of WAITING would be a rebate you have applied for and are waiting for the check to arrive.  Nothing should go into WAITING until after you have entered a follow-up date on your calendar.  Statements, paid bills, and anything else you want to file go into the FILE folder.
  4. This is the time for sorting, not doing.  You may have dinner on the stove, or perhaps you’re sorting your mail at midnight, or other inappropriate time for making calls.  You don’t need to worry about when things will get done if you have scheduled a regular time to pay bills, make calls, do your filing, etc.
  5. Maintain your system.  Keep your Action File in a very prominent place, so you won’t forget to use it.  (Hint: Where does your mail tend to pile up now?)  Schedule time to accomplish the actions.  Don’t let the folders get so full you can’t open them to put papers in, or remove them from the file easily.

Now, enjoy your clutter-free counter and getting stuff done!

Related tool: The Paper Clutter Flow Chart, available here.
Copyright 2007 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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3 Responses to “Eliminate Those Mystery Paper Piles! (a.k.a. How to Create an Action File)”

  1. One Simple Method for Taming Paper Clutter - The Cheerful Caregiver Says:

    […] couple of weeks ago, I ran across this blog post by Hazel Thornton at Organized for Life. Hazel’s a professional organizer in Albuquerque, and […]

  2. Hazel Thornton at org4life.com Says:

    Thanks for including my tips in your blog post, Elizabeth! It makes me happy to hear I inspired you to take action!

  3. oldinformation917.soulcast.com Says:

    Excellent post. I will be experiencing some of these issues as well..

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