Imagine for a moment that all your information is organized...
You can find everything you need easily and effortlessly. You pay bills on time, have systems in place to remind you when they're due, and as a result, you're more productive, peaceful, and prosperous.
An accumulation of paper and digital information can be the cause of a lot of stress and affect your financial health. If that's the case for you, read on as I share my seven steps to organize your paper and digital world and get you closer to living the calm, organized life you dream of.
You can easily remember these seven steps with the acronym CHANGES: Collect, Harmonize, Assign, Narrow, Group, Evaluate,
Step One: Collect
Collecting is very straightforward and very important.
Grab a box or bin and gather all the loose papers from all over your home into one spot. Make sure to include the papers in your junk drawer, office, kitchen, bedroom, living room, and yes, even your son's report card you left in the bathroom yesterday, while you were multitasking.
If you don't have a container and prefer to put them in a designated area, that's fine too, though I highly recommend the box or bin method.
If there are papers neatly stacked, filed, or that already have a system in place for organization, leave them where they are. You don't need to run down to the basement, up to the attic, or empty out your file cabinets for the purposes of this step. This is simply about focusing on the stuff floating around, cluttering up your spaces.
To do this digitally, the step of collecting will involve taking an inventory. This doesn’t need to be a detailed inventory spelling out every Google Doc you have and every image on your desktop, but it's an overall picture of what you have and how much you have in each space.
Take an inventory of your computer, desktop, downloads folder, cloud services, Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, One Note, external drives, flash drives, etc. What do you have and where is it? Get an idea of what types of things you put there and how much of it you’ve got.
Step Two: Harmonize
The harmonize step will prepare you for success.
I encourage you to let go of any perfectionism and focus on one step at a time, without worrying about what will happen next.
In this step, we're going to stop the inflow of information both paper and digital as much as we can.
Now is the time to decide if you will shred things yourself (get one if you don’t have one) or if you’ll set papers aside for drop off to a shredding service. Either way, grab a box and label it "shred".
This is also the moment to stop the influx of junk mail, newsletter subscriptions, and mindlessly downloading things to your Downloads folder. Take some time to really think about the WHY behind what you're subscribed to, bookmarking, keeping up with, and signing up for.
You may also want to purchase a fire/flood safe or box for your important documents and maybe even a safe deposit box for things you don’t readily need.
Step Three: Assign
Assigning is all about designating a place for new papers and digital files coming in. As you’re processing all of your old stuff, you don't want your new stuff being tossed into the mix.
Designate a spot for all of your incoming mail, receipts, children’s papers, etc. This will be a holding spot until you can process. You can have one container or separate ones for each category. For example, maybe your mail goes by the door, receipts go in a basket in your bedroom where you empty your pockets, and kids' papers go in a special box in the kitchen.
I use a shallow basket on a table by my front door where my mail goes because that was always the place it would be dropped. Keeping a smaller basket helps me to know what to process. The important thing is to find a spot where you normally drop things so you don’t have to change your habit too much.
While I’d love to say you should process mail right away by recycling, shredding, or responding, I understand that doesn't work for everyone. Including myself!
You can create these holding spots on your computer, as well. Especially if you tend to drop things on your desktop. You can also utilize your download folder as this drop spot. If you use your desktop or digital folders, label them: To-do, to-pay, to-read, and to-file. Use these or create your own categories that make sense to you!
Here's how these categories breakdown:
To-Do: Something that requires action but that isn’t a bill. Example: Reminder from vet to make an appointment for Fido's annual appointment.
To-Pay: Bills. This category doesn't need much of an explanation, does it?
To-Read: Examples include articles, topics you're voting on in your town that you want to be informed on, your aunt's holiday letter keeping you up to date on what her kids are up to.
To-File: Anything you will need to reference again but doesn't need to be out all the time. Examples: An explanation of benefits from your insurance company, confirmation or tickets to an event, etc.
When it comes to both paper and digital, you can use these four labels for all incoming stuff.
Often we don't realize that when our desktop is covered in stuff, every time we open our computer, our brain is subconsciously responding to those 1,000 files! Even if we think we aren't seeing them, it can create stress as it's a lot of open loops and reminders of what we have to do.
Step Four: Narrow
The long-awaited step of purging...
In the narrow stage, we start getting rid of things. This step takes the longest, especially if you have a lot and paper typically moves faster than digital.
A question I get asked most often in this step is, "What do I hold on to? How long do I hold on to my taxes? How long do I hold on to my bills?"
There are some things I can give clients guidance on, based on their specific situation but the best rule of thumb is to ask your accountant or lawyer when it comes to business, financial, and legal documents.
In the narrow step, you're going to start chipping away at your Collect box from Step One. Simply focus on getting rid of things. If you catch yourself wondering where things will go, or getting two steps ahead of yourself, stop yourself, and keep purging.
As you make each decision you will either:
Everything you choose to keep will go into a box that will be processed in the next step.
I recently let go of 95% of my paper! I never thought I'd do that. We had filing cabinets that were organized in our office. During a home remodel, we also undertook remodeling the office. It was all well-organized paper, but the thought of moving at all was the spark I needed to reduce it as much as possible.
During the purging process, you can stop at any time because you are going from box to box. If you want to spend 10 minutes at a time on purging or 3 hours it is up to you!
If you're purging your digital files, grab your inventory from the collect step and start wherever you want. You can choose the smallest thing or the biggest thing which wherever you feel most comfortable, there's no right or wrong. Just work on one place at a time and start deleting everything you don’t need.
This is where many of my clients get tripped up.
They start to think, "Well, I have this file here, and it's also on my external hard drive and is it on Google Docs too? Maybe." They have many duplicates and different versions.
I don't want you to worry about what's where, just keep deleting what you don't need as much as you possibly can, it'll be a lot easier to then figure out what versions are where and where you're going to put things and what you're going to do.
Some of my clients find that it's easy for them to create a little folder that says, "Need to think about these ones."
Some people like to just start with their desktop because that clear desktop makes them feel so wonderful that they're ready to go on to everything.
When decluttering your desktop you can even just move saved files to one side, or create a folder for them.
Step Five: Group
Once you have purged as much as you can, you can start grouping! Grouping is a high-level sort. We still aren't creating filing or any systems just yet.
Group things based on what makes sense to you. To-Do, To-Pay, To-Read, and To-File works for me, but it needs to be unique to YOU.
You can use sticky notes on a table or boxes, especially if you will be stopping and restarting later, or someone might move things.
With digital, grouping looks a little different. You can do the same type of sort as you do with paper and use folders. If you don’t plan on creating a folder system, you can start using naming your files for easy search.
This is also a point where you're now looking at the files more. You may come across more that you will let go of. For many, grouping is almost like a second pass-through of the purge phase!
Really take some time to think about how your brain works and what would make sense to you.
Some of my clients keep it simple: "Documents" and "Photos".
Hopefully, once you've reduced as much as you can, you won't have a lot left, it'll be a lot easier to visually see where everything is.
Remember, it's OK to chip away.
It's really good to take breaks, especially when you're doing the purge or working on your digital stuff.
Step Six: Evaluate
Time to evaluate! This step isn’t always easy, so take your time and give yourself grace. You're going to evaluate what you've gone through during the process and anything you may have learned about yourself.
Information through this process can be answers like:
- What things you've been holding on to that you want to let go of and probably won't use again in the future
- What you want to stop collecting
- What some of your habits have been
- Why maybe your old system of assigning stuff wasn't working for you
- What has been working for you
- What you've been bringing in
- Whether or not you've been hoarding files and information
The evaluate step is an incredibly important one to sit with and reflect on, before moving forward to the last step!
Step Seven: Systems
Unfortunately, I can't touch on every system in this blog. But there are essentially only two things you need to worry about for now: do you want a simple one or a more detailed one? In the case of physical, a simple system may look like labeled boxes and a detailed system might be a filing system.
For digital, a simple system looks like naming everything for easy search later or creating a folder system. More advanced and detailed might be using naming conventions and subfolders.
No matter which system you choose, make sure your safe documents are put away in a fire-safe/box or safe deposit box at the bank and your important digital files are backed up on an external hard drive or cloud service. Take my free simple 6 question quiz to help you understand your organizing style and what type of system may work for you Find Your Organizing Style Quiz
Ready to Make CHANGES of Your Own?
Those are the seven steps! When going through them remember to just do them step-by-step and focus on one at a time.
You can get started today and work through each of the steps! If you need support, you're in the right place!
I invite you to book your FREE call with me where we’ll have a non-sales chat where you can share your challenges and I’ll offer strategies to jumpstart YOUR organizing journey. Also, learn more about my Declutter and Get Organized Resource Hub where you can get your decluttering and organizing questions answered and the option for group coaching and accountability.