Feel like you're being swamped by paper and can never find anything you need? It doesn't have to be that way. Follow this guide to tidy the paper trail and free yourself from the document deluge.
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Set Aside A Weekend To Get On Top Of Things
Desk picture from Shutterstock If the paperwork is already out of control, you need to schedule time to get it under control. We'd suggest doing this over a weekend. Trying to complete it during office hours doesn't work, as you're liable to be constantly interrupted by more pressing tasks. You also need the ability to pile stuff all over the office space while you're sorting it, and that's not usually possible during working hours either.
The key aim during this weekend is to sort all the excess, unfiled and ignored paperwork into suitable categories. And that brings us to . . .
Devise A Storage Scheme That Makes Sense To You
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An important point: There is no one single correct filing method that works for everyone. The approach will vary depending both on the needs of your business and what makes sense to you. That doesn't mean that you should simply stuff everything in a drawer, but the categories need to be obvious and sensible for you, otherwise you won't be able to maintain the system down the track.
For many people, sorting paper by company makes sense (so all the bills from the phone company go in one folder, electricity in another, bank statements in a third, and so on.) If you take that approach, consider labelling the folders you use with company logos for easier recognition.
Other people favour a date-based system, keeping all the records for a month in a single folder. This has the advantage of keeping everything in one place for finance purposes, but can make it harder to track down bills if they don't occur every month.
One useful rule whatever system you adopt: don't have a miscelleneous category. If it's important enough to keep, then it should fit into a specific category.
Once you've thought of a scheme, sort everything into the categories that you've decided on. Don't be distracted by dealing with the contents. Any bills you encounter that need paying, or items that need following up, should be put in a separate 'action' pile. Deal with that once you've finished the sorting. And once you've sorted everything, place it in a filing cabinet or filing drawer.
Make Sure Your Filing Cabinet Is Big Enough
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This might seem like an obvious point, but often the reason why paperwork doesn't get filed is because the storage area is no longer adequate. When this happens, you have two options. The first is to acquire more filing cabinets. Extra space can also have other benefits: if you move from a two-drawer to a four-drawer model, you can potentially divide the drawers more logically (client information in two drawers, bills and expenses in the second, business records in the third).
The second is to archive older documents. As a general rule, you need to hang onto records for five years, but it's rarely the case that you need access to them on a day-to-day basis outside of the current financial year. Pop them in storage boxes and keep them elsewhere if space is really at a premium.
Schedule Regular Time For Paper Management
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Once you've tidied up, this is the single most important principle to follow: set a daily appointment in your calendar to deal with paperwork. Don't just leave it and say you'll handle it at the end of the week. Regular updating establishes a habit, and ensures things won't get out of control again.
How much time you need depends on the volume of paperwork you receive, and what you need to do with it. It definitely makes sense to enter expenses into accounting software, for instance, to avoid double-handling. You may need to experiment to establish how much time is needed. Once you know, don't skimp on it, and don't allow other appointments to intrude on your time.
Go Paperless When You Can
Realistically, you'll never entirely eliminate paper documents from your life, but you can digitise them to minimise storage space requirements. However, even if you do this, most of the same principles will still apply: you need to set aside time to handle digital documents in just the same way as you deal with their paper equivalents.