On the surface it seems like I have my life together. I have an awesome career, husband, kids, friends and outside interests and activities. But the dirty little secret that makes my cheeks burn with shame is that I’m also the owner of many towers of paper — papers stuffed in drawers, papers from three years ago in boxes, and even a pile of paper in a cute Target basket by my front door that instills more fear in me than any horror movie.
I’d like to say that being a writer is what causes me to hold onto so much paperwork, but that’s not exactly true. While some of my papers are old plays and prints of published magazine articles, the bulk of my piles consists of things like coupons, bills, handouts from my kids’ schools and flyers for events that I might consider attending.
Dealing with administrative tasks is part of adulting 101, but unless you’re naturally inclined toward organization it’s not a skill that most of us possess. No one teaches you how to take care of admin stuff (though it really should be part of some core life curriculum).
I’m organized enough that permission slips get handed in on time and auto insurance cards get put in the cars, but those crazy piles are always there looming in the background. For me, this has been a problem for as long as I can remember. I’ll never forget living in my first apartment with my now-husband when we were in our 20s and reaching into a dresser drawer for a shirt and pulling out old essays from my college British history class. Back then, my papers were so out of control they were actually infringing on my wardrobe!
A time to file
I knew that in order to be truly free I had to get a handle on my paperwork. Now that we’re all spending a lot more time at home, I figured it was finally time. I consulted Annie Draddy and Michelle Manske, co-founders of Henry & Higby, a professional organizing company based in New York City.
“Everyone has administrative work to do at home but not everyone takes an organized approach to it,” said Draddy, who along with her business partner, is an expert at whipping desks, closets and pantries into highly functional — and Instagram-worthy — shape. “It can seem overwhelming and tedious, but it doesn’t take a lot to get it under control. Dedicating a small amount of time consistently every week will allow you to put a system in place for your paperwork and keep up with the tasks at hand.”
Draddy suggested I begin by gathering all of my paperwork together into one place.
“Make sure that you have one spot in the house where you put the mail, school papers and forms, medical paperwork [and] insurance claims that need your attention. This is ideally centrally located so it’s easy to use.”
It was a daunting and yet somehow freeing activity. There was a lot of paperwork covering my living room floor, but seeing it all together made it seem more manageable. I took comfort in thinking that if my papers were all properly filed, I’d never again need to tear through the house, frantically searching for a passport or birth certificate.
“Start with a rough sort, making piles for garbage or recycling, bills, action items and then one for personal mail — one pile per family member,” said Draddy. “Distribute the personal mail, recycle the pile you don’t need, and then dig into the action items.”
I quickly began to sort my remaining papers into “actionable” — items that require next steps to be taken — and “non-actionable,” like forms to file and save. With my piles considerably whittled down, it was now time to, well, take action.
“A great first step is getting the easier tasks out of the way, such as inputting important dates into your calendar or even replying to easy inquiries,” said Draddy. “Then focus on the bigger tasks, like filling out forms or submitting insurance claims, with an initial focus on the ones that are time-sensitive. If you don’t finish all of the action items before you need to move on, then set reminders on your calendar to continue your work at a later date.”
I realized the key was to set aside time each day (or at least once a week) to go through paperwork. That sounded more reasonable than my current system of waiting until the piles were high enough to spill over and then frantically throwing things from six months ago into the garbage. I made a pact with myself to dedicate an hour each Friday morning to dealing with my admin.
The WFH way
With telecommuting becoming the norm for many of us these days, getting organized and managing our admin has suddenly become a top priority as we try to live, work and homeschool our kids all in the same space.
“People can create a streamlined home office even without dedicated space,” Draddy told me. “If you don’t have a dedicated desk space, we suggest creating a mobile workstation — a tote bag will even do — that contains all of your workday needs, including your laptop, important papers and pens.”
I loved this idea, and since I was ready to set up an actual office for myself, Draddy gave me her top picks for keeping it organized.
For the desk:
File cabinets that are sleek and functional:
For going digital:
Draddy also suggested I remove myself from direct mailing lists (DMAchoice.com) and credit and insurance solicitations (OptOutPrescreen.com). She also recommended going paperless on bills whenever possible to stem the tide of paper trying to make its way into my home.
At 45, I’m finally in control of my admin and I find that it’s actually easier to focus on creative projects. There are no more hidden piles weighing on me, and my workspace is clear and clutter-free.
“The fact is that even though being organized comes more easily to some people the process of organizing and maintaining organizing systems takes work,” said Draddy. “But that work can be significantly less if you can get a system into place and then take the time to maintain it.”
Now that I’ve become an expert de-clutterer, my eye is always looking out for things to neaten up and throw away. Earlier this week, I opened my pantry and spotted an old can of Heinz beans and a giant Hershey’s Kiss left over from a Valentine’s Day of yore, chalky with the dust of time. The next organizing project was in my crosshairs and I was ready to take aim. After all, I’m adulting.
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