Despite the increase in digital records, the volume of paper that many of us accumulate in our daily lives can certainly become overwhelming. Various reasons exist for the persistence of personal paper records. Some utility providers insist on sending paper bills; some people are just more comfortable paying will a physical check. A simple medical procedure can result in stacks of Explanations of Benefits, statements of payment from insurance, bills from the provider, and test results. We each have a number of vital records, including birth certificates, marriage certificates, Social Security cards, and perhaps naturalization records or divorce decrees.  And what about items of personal interest, such as birthday cards, clippings from magazines, and family recipes, or that document family history, such a photographs?

How should you organize it? 
What should you keep?
How should you safeguard it from damage or destruction?

All are important questions to take into consideration when attempting to attack the stacks of paper that accumulate in our homes. This post will begin a series by tackling the first of those questions.

I've noticed three primary mindsets on managing personal paperwork:

1) Keep It All. Sometimes this mindset results from uncertainty over what should and should not be kept, but often it is the default result of feeling like there is no time to go through it all. (Full confession: even I have been guilty of letting a stack of paperwork accumulate on my desk at home.) The problem that results from this method is that personal paper records are not organized in a meaningful way, and it becomes difficult to locate these records again without considerable digging. This may not be a major issue you encounter on a regular basis, but what if you need to evacuate your house suddenly during an emergency? Do you and your family members know where birth certificates, social security cards, and mortgage paperwork are, or what family photographs should be grabbed on a moment's notice? Do you know where you medical records are so they can be quickly located during a medical emergency? 

2) Destroy After Reading. This can the complement to the mindset mentioned above; rather than saving paperwork to deal with later, all but the most important records are thrown into the recycling bin/trash/shredder. Sometimes this is a result of dealing with the stack that accumulates during a period of Keeping It All. It is easy to justify brushing off our responsibility of maintaining our personal records by assuming that if someone else created the record, then we do not need to keep a copy of it. The trouble is that everyone makes mistakes and our personal records can provide evidence of our actions. Although there is no need to be excessively paranoid, what happens when Traffic Court insists they have no record of the payment of your parking ticket when the time comes to renew your vehicle registration? 

3) Routine Management. This mindset takes the most momentum to establish, however, like any other household chore it becomes routine after a little forced initiative. I use the phrase "household chore" because that is what it should become: a small task you incorporate into the management of your household to preserve conditions of stability and livability. It may take a larger effort at first to overcome the Keep It All mentality and dive into the existing stacks of paperwork, or it may take a small investment to to more than Destroy After Reading by purchasing a filing system to start keeping what you need to keep in a consolidated place. 

Some tips for establishing a method of Routine Management of personal paper records are: 
- Tackle existing stacks of paper in increments. Time yourself for 15-30 minutes at a time and try not to overwhelm yourself. You'll be more likely to stick with the change if you are able to keep a positive attitude about it.
- Establish a single location for important paperwork. When new paperwork arrives in the mail or you bring paperwork home, put it in that place. Even if you do not get around to filing it right away, you will know where it is all should be in a hasty situation. 
- Use folders and label your folders. If you can't afford or don't have the space for a filing cabinet, use a filing box. I've stored one in a closet, under my desk, and under a coffee table when I was living in apartments and short on space. A consolidated location with labeled folders will make the filing process much easier. 
- Incorporate filing paperwork into your home routine. If you find yourself having difficulty finding time to file new paperwork after tackling the existing piles, schedule a regular time for yourself to deal with new paperwork. Even just putting ten minutes into it once a week will make a considerable improvement in your ability to managing your personal paper records.

Check back with our blog for additional advice on managing both paper and electronic personal records. Best of luck with getting started on organization!