Before we get started, we need to have a chat about zones. I’ve mentioned their value before, but I can’t stress enough how effective they are for helping you FIND things and PUT THEM AWAY. Zones are defined as areas where you do specific activities. In your kitchen, you’ve got an eating zone, a food prep zone, a food storage zone, and a cleaning zone. Although your zones may overlap, they all have a primary purpose, and you organize each zone a little differently in order to make it the most effective. For example, you would never keep your dish soap in the food prep zone. You’d keep the soap in the cleaning zone because that’s where you clean. Your files deserve the same consideration.
You are going to establish three zones for your printed papers: temporary, seasonal/annual, and long-term. While some files might move in between the three, for the most part, these three zones will help you know where to begin your search when you need to locate a document and where to file something new that enters your home.
Temporary files contain actionable tasks and belong close at hand. These documents will move in and out frequently, with items living here no more than 30 days at a time. Some folks choose to keep these files in command centers. Others deal with them immediately and completely skip the need for any temporary files because “out of sight” equals “out of mind” for them. You need to find what works best for YOU and stick with it. Once you've completed whatever action was necessary, toss the item or, if completely necessary, file it. Temporary (actionable) files typically include:
- Bills to Pay/Checkbook
- Coupons (only if you ALREADY have a system in place to USE them ---- otherwise, toss the coupons)
- Invitations/Announcements to Mark on Calendar
- Magazines/Subscriptions to Read
- Names of People in Home Receiving Mail That You Don’t Open (rare)
- New Recipes
- School Papers to Sign
Seasonal/Annual files change less frequently and may rotate every three to twelve months. You need them close at hand, but you don’t need to be dropping them into files or pulling them out all the time. Instead, these can be kept in a notebook with plastic sleeves or slash dividers. These documents will include reference items that you cannot quickly find online. (Any document that can easily be found online, should be tossed.) Files you might find in a home management binder or notebook include:
- Birthday Lists
- Current IEP for the School Year (special ed)
- Current Year Tax Documents/Donation Receipts
- Frequently Used Contacts/Menus
- Home Maintenance/Cleaning Schedules
- Medical Information for Family Members/Pets
- Monthly Statements for Investments
- Recipes (that you actually use)
- Sports Schedules
Important (difficult to recreate or high sentimental value) and vital (extremely difficult to recreate) files change very little and are rarely accessed. Sometimes your annual items will get transferred to your long-term, such as tax documents and IEPs. These items do not need to be stored close at hand and can be stored in filing cabinets, bankers boxes, or fireproof boxes kept in home offices, closets, attics, or basements. If you’re computer savvy, please strongly consider converting your long-term files into electronic files. Scanning is a pain, I get it. But the amount of physical space you stand to save when you convert long-term documents into electronic files is unfathomable over a lifetime. If you find you like it, and you regularly access computer documents in other settings, you may consider converting your seasonal/annual files too. Long-term documents might include:
- Banking/Credit Card Information
- Birth/Death Certificates
- Home Improvement/Mortgage Information
- Insurance Policies
- Investment Year-End Statements
- Kids' Old Cards/School Papers (if you're sentimental and can't part with them)
- Marriage Licenses
- Medical Information
- Tax Documents
Based on the information above, let’s take a second look at all the files you created.
- Are there any similar files that should be combined? If so, combine them and update the folder name if necessary. Remember that names should be simple, broad enough to cover a large category, and based on retrieval so you know what you’re looking for when you go searching.
- Are there any files that are so large they should be subdivided? If so, look again. The only folders that should be bulging are taxes, investments, and possibly medical and special ed paperwork. Subdivide these by year, sort in reverse chronological order so that the most recent is always first.
- As you pick up each file, sort files that are constantly changing into the Command Center pile, files that you regularly need to reference into the Home Notebook pile, and files that you need to keep and rarely change into Long-Term.
Containing Your Files
Organizing the limited number of files for Command Centers and Home Notebooks is relatively easy using the file names you’ve already come up with. Long-term storage requires two more steps to make it as efficient as possible. I recommend taking your long-term documents and sorting them into 4-5 broad categories and assigning a colored hanging file folder to each category. These categories might include: Education, Finance, Health, Home, or Vehicles. If you're keeping your kids' stuff, I would recommend setting up a memory box for them using one hanging file per grade level (K5-12th), one file for preschool, sports, and college. This will help you maintain an organized stash of sentiment as well as set healthy limits on how much you keep.
Now that you’ve got everything sorted, filed, and ready to be stored, take a few minutes and measure. One of the biggest mistakes I see all the time is clients buying containers BEFORE they know what’s going in them. Papers are no exception. Your command center may look very different from the person’s next door, so wait until you see what form you need to best fit your needs. The same is true for seasonal/annual storage and long-term storage.
Resources & Recommendations
- Basket – Good for those who don’t have many files (3 or less) OR file any reference, important, vital documents as soon as they come in the door and only need a holding area for actionable items. The basket provides you a “drop zone” to hold your temporary items as you hang up coats, get dinner on the table, and take care of other tasks. You can trust that your bills will be patiently waiting for you to deal with them in the next few hours.
- Slim Hanging File Box – Good for those with 6 or less files. You can quickly sort the paperwork as it comes in and deal with it at the end of the day or once a week, like on Thursday nights.
- Standard Hanging File Box – Good for those with less than 10 files. If you have more than 10 files, you may consider making one of those a “Reference” file to hold the documents you aren’t interested in putting into a Home Management/Reference Binder.
- Hanging Files – Single color is best for such a small group of files.
- Form Over Function – Typically I would tell you function always trumps form, but when you’re storing your papers in plain sight, invest in a container that you enjoy! If you don’t like the container, you most likely won’t use it no matter how efficient the system is.
Family/Home Notebooks or Accordion Files
- One Binder – Depending on the number of documents you need to keep here, you might use a 1-2.5” binder. I use a 3” binder on occasion, but they’re rather bulky.
- Multiple Binders – Good for those with a lot of documents to reference. You might use a series of 1” binders. Go for a uniform look to make the space feel more organized even though you’ve still got a lot of papers on hand.
- Binder Accessories – I recommend using slash dividers, plastic sleeves, and a sturdy 3-hole punch when working with binders.
- Accordion Files – Good for long-term projects with different parts to reference. I like to keep all information related to home improvement in an accordion file divided by room. It makes it easy for me to find paint colors, carpet samples, and landscape designs. I do not recommend accordion files for Command Centers just because they can be annoying to hold open while accessing multiple tabs, but to each their own. Find what works for YOU.
- Filing Cabinets – These come in a variety of styles, depths, and sizes. Most homes don’t need more than a two drawer. I often recommend using a plastic container that can easily be moved. Rolling files are great too!
- Bankers Boxes – Good temporary solution. They are easy to move around, but the files don’t always hang/slide with the ease of filing cabinets. If you don’t plan on using hanging files, these bankers boxes will work perfectly with your manila folders.
- Fireproof Boxes – Perfect for vital records. You can also keep copies of credit cards in here just in case your wallet is stolen and you need to know exactly what was in there to cancel/recreate. These boxes have a key. Be smart about where you store your key. If the point of the fireproof box is to survive a fire or other severe event, keep your key in a place that will SURVIVE those events and can be easily found. Some folks choose to leave the key in the lock so that the two will remain together.
- Hanging Files – Color coding hanging files are great for creating categories in your long-term storage.