organizing paper in your home office...

Paper, paper, paper – where does it all come from and what should you do with it?  For most of the busy professionals I work with this is the most challenging part of keeping their home and office organized.  Can you relate?  Piles of paper going up the stairs and down the stairs . . . information on vacation plans still piled high on the dining room table along with unopened mail, bills waiting to be paid . . . and then there are the magazines.  Let me count the ways that I love my decorating magazines!  How difficult it is when the pile gets so high that it starts to fall over and I have to purge.

Aaah yes, purge, that nasty word.  Call it as you will – edit, cull, delete – it all means the same thing – before you can design and set up a functional home office, you’re best to get rid of all the excess.  The good news is that once you’re finished with this nasty task then you get to move into the fun part of setting up your space and the systems to keep it organized. So, keep your long-term vision in mind as you slog through the piles of paper, the mounds of old discs and stacks of newsletters that you mean to read one day.

Where do I begin, you ask?  Well, that depends, I answer.  If you are looking for instant gratification to keep you motivated, the best place to begin is with the visible surfaces.  If you have piles on the dining room table and piles on the kitchen counter and piles on the top of the desk start by taking a bankers box for each area and putting all the paper in a box and labeling it “stuff from the dining room table”, etc.  If you are not as worried about keeping motivated, you may decide to start with your filing cabinet if it is stuffed to the brim and can’t possibly hold another piece of paper – it may make you feel really good to ditch all that old stuff and start with a clean cabinet and then add to it as you go through the visible piles.

Take one box, file or pile at a time and start with each piece of paper or item and ask yourself the following questions:

How old is this - is it recent enough to be useful? 

  1. Does this require action?
  2. Can I really identify a specific use for it?
  3. Is it difficult to obtain this again if ‘someday I might need it’
  4. When was the last time I used this?
  5. Are there tax or legal reasons why I must keep this?
  6. If you still feel that knot in your stomach - ask yourself: What is the worst possible thing that will happen if I toss this?

As you are going through each piece of paper, start your filing system by taking a pencil and a plain manila file folder and writing a descriptive series of words on the folder describing the contents.  Separate ‘Action’ files from all other files in a  pile or box.  Label ‘Action’ files with words such as ‘Read’, ‘Bills to Pay’, etc.  As you work through magazines, tear out the images or information you will use and place them in a temporary folder or box so that later on you can set up a binder for ‘Decorating Ideas’ or ‘Recipes’ and simply slip the tear outs into a clear plastic sleeve and place in the binder.  If you can’t bear to recycle perfectly good magazines, donate them to your local hospital, doctor’s office or senior’s centre.

As you continue to purge, work through one pile at a time, one drawer at a time, and one shelf at a time until you are through everything.  It is especially important to try not to get distracted as you move through each area of your ‘home office’ stuff.  Be sure to tackle a manageable area each time you sit down for your organizing session and you may even go as far as creating a plan where you purge for one hour each day until you are done.   Be sure to shred any confidential information using your shredder at home or if you have a large quantity you can call a shredding service when you are done and they will come to your house and do it for you.

As you set aside your daily organizing time also be aware that you will need 10 or 15 minutes every day to deal with incoming.  Follow the same system by separating items into ‘Action’ or ‘File’ or send them straight to the file known as the recycling bin!  As you open mail, discard the envelope immediately and place the item either in an action folder or file away in your new filing system.  Designate a place for unread magazines and newsletters such as an attractive basket or magazine box.  It all comes down to time management in the end – you have to make the time to keep on top of the influx of information.  Or, perhaps you can stop it coming altogether by receiving bills and newsletters electronically and canceling a few of those magazine subscriptions.  

I wish you good luck and much purging and look forward to the next phase, which is designing and setting up your home office space.

Jane Veldhoven is a Certified Professional Organizer ®and owner of Get Organized! Professional Services.  For more information visit or call 902-229-JANE(5263).


Personal Document Retention Schedule*

ATM Receipts: until the transaction appears on bank statement

Banking and financial records: 6 years + the current year

Business records and receipts: 6 years + the current year

Cable and telephone bills: 1 year

Diplomas and certificates: indefinitely

Guarantees and warranties: until expiration date

Home renovations: as long as you own the property

Income tax returns & supporting documents: 6 years + the current year

Insurance policies: until expiration date

Investment certificates, savings bonds: until cashed in

Medical records: indefinitely

Property tax records: as long as you own the property

Real estate documents: 6 years after selling the property

Receipts for expensive items (e.g. jewelry): as long as you own the item

Rental agreement/lease: as long as you rent the property

Repair bills for household items: 6 months

Utility bills: 1 year

Vehicle records: as long as you own the vehicle

Vital records (birth, death, marriage, will):indefinitely 

*The above recommendations are only guidelines (Source:  When in doubt, consult you local authority or discuss with your financial or legal advisor.