I was re-reading Judith Kolberg’s excellent book, Conquering Chronic Disorganization, recently and was struck by one of her concepts. (One of the things I love about this book is that new things jump out at me each time I read it.)
Kolberg writes about applying the concept of “Past, Present and Future” when sorting belongings. This can be very macro — you can designate a room, say the extra bedroom, to represent the past. When sorting, you stash all the things that represent the past (old bills, trophies, memorabilia, old tax papers, etc.) into that room. Same goes for present (stuff you’re using now) and future (stuff you might need later). Once that gross sort is done, you have a sense of how much stuff you’re hanging onto because of memories and how much stuff you’re keeping because you might use it some day.
My favorite application of this concept is on a smaller level. I think it applies perfectly to paper. When I’m sorting paper with a client, I sometimes encourage them to think in terms of past, present and future.
Past papers are those we hang onto for archival purposes only. They can be stored in a filing cabinet and don’t have to be very close at hand.
Present papers are those involving current projects. I keep my present papers in an Elfa rolling file cart under my desk, because I want them within arms’ reach. When the project is finished, if I need to hold onto the papers they go in the archives (in other words, they become past papers).
Future papers are those you’re keeping handy for future activity. Examples include invitations and coupons you can’t use now but might use later. Receipts that are waiting to be input would be future papers. (After entering, they become past papers, if you need to hang onto them.) I store my receipts waiting for entry near my computer. And my coupons and invitations in a designated spot near the door.
What I like about this is that it can allow you to do a very gross sort, into just three categories. Then you can prioritize going through them. This gets you thinking about what you’re hanging onto and why. And it also gives you a clue about where these papers need to be stored.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by paper, you might want to give it a try!