Saturday, February 19, 2011

How to Tame the Paperwork Beast

The moaning paperwork zombie shuffles relentlessly onward, completely unfazed by our frantic attempts to hack away at its appendages.

This wild, untamed beast conquered me last fall when I shoved all my paperwork into the bowels of our octagon table and spent two months pawing through it whenever I needed a scrap of information.

One morning, on the floor of the living room, head and shoulders tucked into the table, strings of hair plastered to sweat-soaked face, I prayed.

"Abba, the paperwork sends me into such a panic. I can't keep track of everything, and I don't want to try anymore. I am a paperwork failure."

Extracting myself from the bowels, I sought the solace of my chair and reached for my Bible. Lamentations 3:37. "Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?"

In other words, "Ask for My help, Becky" (Isaiah 42:8, John 15:5).

"Okay," I sighed, "Abba, I put my trust in You for the paperwork. My certain hope is in Jesus found."

I grabbed my notebook brain and leafed to a blank page. Across the top, I wrote "Taming the Paperwork Beast" in big, hopeful letters. Next to it, Lamentations 3:37. (With a little heart to indicate trust in God.)

But where to start?

Well, where do the papers start? How do papers come to us?

The answer flowed as freely as the ink from my pen as I watched a system for taming the paperwork develop on my page.

1. Identify what types of paper come into your home, and from which sources.

I identified six sources of paper.

BACKPACKS: homework, completed worksheets, parent info, permission slips
CHURCH: bulletins, fliers, Sunday school papers, class notes, programs
SHOPPING: receipts, fliers
MAIL: bills, magazines, newspapers, junk, cards, letters, documents, fliers, invitations
PACKAGES: packing slips, receipts, owner's manuals, instructions, fliers
PRINTER: data, projects

2. Decide how to immediately handle incoming paper.

In the past, my issue with incoming paper was that I felt it had to be put exactly in the right place immediately. But I hate filing, so the papers just sat where they landed.

In my new system, I have given myself permission to let the papers vacation in my In Basket.

Thus, the In Basket debriefs my paperwork, putting it in stasis until I have time to give it some attention. It's not covering every surface of the home, I know where to look if I need it in a hurry, I don't have to make an immediate decision about its final destination, and I can rest assured that it does have a home, to which it will eventually flit. Or float. Or fleetly flee. Or fly.

I try to empty my In Basket at least once a week.

3. Make a Hot Potato Basket.

I empty my In Basket into my Hot Potato Basket. This is the basket that lives at my fingertips, next to my chair.

Every single scrap of paper that enters our home pays a visit to the Hot Potato Basket, where it is assigned a mission, a priority level, and eventually a permanent home.

Hot Potato File - things I need to fill out and return to someone

OUT File - stuff that needs to be mailed somewhere

Reading Folder - stuff I want to read or information I'm responsible for knowing

James/Jonathan Hot Potato Files - homework and permission slips

Jeff File - he keeps weird papers and I don't know what to do with them

Becky File - stuff I need to do something with at some point

Bills File - you get one guess

Receipts Folder - an accordion file sorted by month

Photos File - pictures to put in albums

James/Jonathan Papers Files - church and school papers to be filed

File Cabine File - stuff that needs to go in the file cabinet

Keepsakes File - stuff that goes in my scrapbook box

4. Build permanent homes.

From the Hot Potato Basket, each paper goes to its permanent home. This move happens at a different time for each file. Some papers are not as hot as others, and they live in their file in the Hot Potato Basket until the folder gets full. Others cycle in and out at lightning speed. Homework and permission slips have very short pit stops.

Hot Potato File - mailed or hand-delivered outside the home
OUT File - mailed
Reading Folder - trash after I read it
James/Jonathan Hot Potato Files - back to backpacks
Jeff File - trash when he says he doesn't need them anymore
Becky File - projects in process
Bills File - guess again
Receipts Folder - at the end of the year the receipts go in a tax folder
Photos File - into my creative memories photo box

Did I mention filing is low in my priority list? The following papers from the Hot Potato Basket vacation in a set of desk drawers before they reach their permanent homes.

James's papers go into this drawer. (That's the eye of Sauron, btw.)

Jonathan's papers go into this drawer.

The file cabinet papers go into a third drawer, and keepsakes (pictured) into a fourth.

After the drawers in the library fill up, which happens about once or twice a year or so, I put the file cabinet papers away, and the keepsake papers go in a box under my bed.

The kids' papers go in boxes in my closet.

Every once in a blue moon, I consolidate the boys' papers into smaller boxes, but I rarely throw away any of their childhood scribblings. For which I do not apologize.

I purge the file cabinet once a year or so, and the keepsake papers presently await my metamorphosis into a scrapbooking butterfly.

I'm so thankful to God that He guided me to a paperwork system that works for a wannabe Type A, wannabe minimalist, lover of the arts who is married to a packrat inventor. This system is not for everybody, but I like it for me. It makes me happy, and it eliminates my fear of paperwork failure.

God tamed the beast.