Home & Garden

Getting out from under the paper weight

One morning you wake up surrounded by mounds of white stuff.

Early February snowfall?

Try reams of unsorted paperwork.

And though the blizzard-like state of your home office/kitchen counter/end tables may make you want to reach for the snow shovel, you’d probably be better served by some determination, a good filing system and a reliable shredder.

How much of a problem is this?

“Eighty percent of the paper we keep we never look at again,” said Jennifer Ford Berry, an organization expert who lives in New York state and has written the “Organize Now!” books.

Manufacturers have no shortage of products available to help you get a handle on your packrat tendencies, from designer stacking shelves to specialized file folders to elaborate electronic systems that vacuum up your paper odds and ends and spit them back in electronic form (or directly into the cloud).

We’ll get to that in a bit. Because, organizing experts agree, before you try to tackle any sort of household organization project, Step 1 is securing the right mindset. A good, healthy, properly grounded outlook is the No. 1 tool to getting the job done.

“Probably the best mindset is not to think of it as a whole-house project, but a room-by-room project, which is really what it needs to be anyway,” said Kasey Vejar of Simply Organized, a service in Johnson County, Kan. “You tackle one room at a time and more likely one closet, cabinet or drawer at a time within that room. If you try to organize your entire house at once you’ll end up picking at different areas, probably expending a lot of time and effort, without much visual impact.

“It’s going to take a long time, generally, for the whole process. But the payoff is well worth it.“

Mary Ellen Vincent of OrganizeMe, a professional organizing service in Kansas City, Mo., agreed that calm, cool determination is key.

“Pick a time of day — maybe earlier in the day when you’re more focused and have more energy — when you can pay real attention to it.

“Don’t overdo it – a couple of hours at most. Just whittle away at it, and see where that goes.”

When approaching an organization project, it’s also important to, well, organize.

“Write down your plan and then schedule time in your planner,” Ford Berry said. “Break up the project in bite-size pieces that take 30 to 60 minutes.”

When approaching the pile, ask yourself a couple of simple questions, Vincent said, such as “Why am I keeping this?” And “What am I going to do with this?”

No good answers? Toss. Shred. Annihilate. Expunge.

As with any problem, if you’re looking for a real solution, best to start at the source. In this case, the mail.

“In all honesty, almost all if not all mail can be sorted within 60 to 90 seconds each day,” Vejar said. That doesn’t mean the bill that came in the mail necessarily gets paid then. It just means that the bill is now in the bills-to-pay spot.

When it comes to managing the mail, a container or inbox is a nice way to keep yourself on track.

“When it’s full, that means it’s time to go through everything that’s in there,” Vincent said.

That kind of pattern is important to keep from falling back into the clutter trap.

“My response to how often to address it once you fall behind is as soon as you realize you’ve fallen behind,” Vejar said. Falling behind is “how bills don’t get paid or get paid late, appointments get missed and opportunities pass us by. If there’s one spot that’s the most important to get organized in the whole house it’s the papers.”

Losing something is also a sign it’s time to get back on the wagon, Vincent said.

“You’re losing efficiency if you’re losing things. … If you make managing your papers a weekly task, that should be enough.”

Naturally, don’t go over the top with your purge. A few documents, experts agree, need to be kept: anything official such as wills, birth certificates, Social Security cards. Anything that ties into real property such as home deeds, car titles or loan info, leases.

Some sentimental things should also be kept. Emphasis on some.

You don’t have to keep every item from your past. You don’t have to keep every masterpiece Junior drew.

“Everyone’s entitled to a great big box of papers from their own childhood,” Vincent said.

And when it comes to your kiddo’s artwork, be the parent. Set a good example.

“Children are natural little hoarders,” she said. “They don’t realize they’ll get more stuff. Compare things for them. Say, ‘Here are five pictures you drew. Which one is the best? We’ll keep that one.’ ”

Process taking too long? Don’t get discouraged.

“Also realize that organizing shows on TV are very deceiving,” Vejar said. “They have a huge team working for them behind the scenes.”

Tools for organizing

You can buy all kinds of organizing systems such as binders with rings that detach from the shell for easier storage and modular boxes and shelves for stacking. A shredder is necessary if you don’t want to throw out your papers intact – a possible source of identity theft.

Beth Freeman, general manager of a Staples in Kansas City, North, suggests a 10-sheet cross-cutting shredder that sells for about $100.

Shredding job too big? The office superstores and other retailers will shred it for you for a price.

The fancy stuff can be nice, but the simple options can be just as effective.

“Clear containers are the best for storage,” Ford Berry said. “Repurpose containers that you already have before you go out and purchase something new, which just adds more to your clutter.”

Vincent likes hanging files and manila folders. “It’s hard to make a truly cool new gadget. I don’t even like the color-coded hanging files. It seems like a good idea, and then you forget the meaning of the colors.”

One organizing product you might want to avoid? Bulletin boards, Vejar said.

“They quickly become a catchall for everything from theater tickets to coupons to photos,” she said. “So I recommend beginners and intermediates not use these. For most, it’s really just a cop-out to making a decision: ‘Hey, I’ll just shove it up here on the bulletin board so I don’t forget it.’ And then you forget it.”

Electronic storage

With the ever-shrinking price tag on storage volumes, consumers have a variety of choices, from wafer-like SD cards to the venerable CD- and DVD-ROMs to standalone hard drives to cloud storage.

Vejar’s quick advice: ditch the bulky packaging and invest in a space-saving zip-up sleeved pouch.

Of course, those options bring with them their own issues in terms of data lifespan and a new desire to hoard all sorts of digital media like camera phone pics. In short: electronic clutter.

And then there’s the NeatDesk.

This elaborate product that sells for about $400 on neat.com is basically a bill/receipt/document scanner that allows you to digitize all of the important papers you’re keeping and organize them in a proprietary electronic filing system. The scanner has text recognition, too, so you’re not just making images of your paper — you’re converting it for functional use in Excel, Quicken, Turbo Tax and other software.

Keep in mind that data can build up, though. And NeatDesk manufacturer The Neat Co. recommends having at least 1 GB of available storage for your files.

The ideal users, says spokeswoman Ashton Tupper, are “household CEOs/Supermom” types or small business or home office operators.

“If the user is familiar with an MS Office environment or is comfortable using a Web-based app, then they will have no problems navigating the Neat software or operating Neat’s hardware and mobile app,” she said.