Friday, December 19, 2014

Organizational Tip #16 - How Best to Store Paper Documents for Quick Access Later

Many people have worked places where paper documents are king.  Sometimes there really is no replacement for a physical copy of something.  Whether it is because the paper is way too large to scan, or the document is delicate, or in some cases, "this is the way it has always been done".  Over time our personal lives can follow this pattern as well.  Paper can easily stack up faster than we can find places to put it all.  Scanning documents into files on your computer is a great way to store documents but not everyone owns a file scanner.  Also, some people are uncomfortable keeping only digital copies of important documents.  If you are in this group, whether you scan them or not, the tips below will make the process of finding specific documents much easier.

Pick a Filing Strategy
Whether it makes sense to you to store files by type, like tax documents for multiple years or all photos, or by year, so all documents for each year are in the same box, pick an organizational strategy and stick with it.  Once a strategy is picked, start organizing documents into boxes or tubs.  Depending upon how many documents there are to store, it may make sense to use plastic tubs as they do not break down like boxes do.  Also, plastic tubs are harder for bugs and critters to get into, and can be stacked high without breaking down the tubs on the bottom the way boxes would break down.

Create a Unique Label for each new Container
Using a word processing program, create container labels using numbers, letters, or whatever type of label desired to distinguish one container from all the others.  Type out the names using a font large enough to be read from a distance.  Adjust the font size depending upon where the containers will be stored and how far away you will need to read the labels.  The larger the font size, the easier it will be to read the container label.

If possible, laminate the labels so they hold up best over time.  Another viable option is to tape over the entire portion of the paper label which will keep moisture out and help prevent the label from tearing.  When attaching the labels to their containers, make sure to put them on the side most visible once they are stored.  This will increase the chances the labels are visible and easy to read when you go back to look for something at a later time.

Document the Contents of Each Container
While this may sound crazy since the idea is to organize paper documents, not create more, documenting what is in the boxes will make it easier to find specific documents later.  Start by creating either a word processing or spreadsheet document, whichever you are most comfortable with.  Type the container label at the top of each document, then list the document stored in the container.  It is not necessary to list every single document, but instead list general document types.  For instance, list "tax receipts - medical, reimbursements, expenses", or "photos - summer vacation, holidays, baseball season", or "education - resume copies, letters of recommendation, transcripts".  Be as specific as needed to be able to quickly determine which container you need to open to find what you are looking for at a later time.

Print out each of the documents listing the container contents and place it inside the container they pertain to.  This is good practice in case the digital file listing each container's contents is deleted or lost, or if you are not using a backup service to backup the important documents on your computer.  This is also a good idea in case the label fades, is ruined, or gets ripped off of the container while being stored or moved.

Once documents are organized and stored away, they will no longer overwhelm your daily living space.  While the documents will still take up space somewhere, they will be using the space more efficiently.  Labeling the containers and listing the documents in them takes a little bit of time, but can save lots of energy moving containers around and hours searching for the document you need when you need it.  The next time you are looking for something you will be happily surprised when you find what you are looking for in a much shorter period of time.  

As always, putting in the effort up front will pay off later!

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