The paperwork puzzle

Every Christmas, we receive a few jigsaw puzzles — it’s a family holiday pastime to watch movies and put the puzzles together. Interestingly enough, as I spend time going through the documents I need to prepare for our family’s 2013 income tax return, I realize that the steps involved in organizing paperwork are similar to the steps in assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Define the goal

When you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle you’ve always got the box that shows what the puzzle should look like once it is together. For most organizing projects, you won’t get a picture of the final product; you’ll have to invent it yourself. Imagine what you want the final result to look like. How do you want it to function when you’re done? Don’t worry about all of the details at this point. A rough outline is just fine. You could simply state, “I want to be able to find the documents that I need, when I need them. I want them to be stored in the filing cabinet for easy access and any documents that I don’t need regularly but need to keep for tax reasons, will be stored in the attic. Everything else will be shredded.”

Sometimes you don’t have the entire picture. Imagine only receiving one or two puzzle pieces a day. You would have to collect a few months’ worth of pieces to get an idea of what the finished project should look like. This is exactly why I have a big pile of paperwork to be sorted and filed!

In our situation, living in a foreign country as visiting military, we are required to keep certain documents beyond what we would normally keep in our home country. I really didn’t know how these should be organized so my solution was to keep all of the documents in one large folder. Now that we’ve lived here for six months, we have a good idea what the “finished picture” looks like and we are able to sort the documents easily into appropriate categories.

Make a work space

If you have a large project or one that you need a few days to complete, consider setting up in a place that has minimal impact on your day-to-day living. We assemble our jigsaw puzzle on a table in our family room, which is also the place I’ve chosen to do my filing.

Consider sorting paperwork into labelled boxes. Rather than have open boxes, consider getting boxes with lids. They can then be stacked up against a wall and out of the way when you are not working. You can organize one box at a time at a later time.

Define the edges

When we’re working on our puzzle, usually we try to get the edge pieces first and then group similar pieces together onto paper plates such as “sky pieces” or “purple pieces.”

Decide on the “edges” of your project. Chose fewer groups with larger categories within each group. For example, if you’re working on financial paperwork, separate by decade, then by year, then within each year, then by month. You may even find that everything prior to a certain year can be immediately discarded and shredded.

Ignore OHIO

Do not take the “Only Handle It Once (OHIO) Rule” literally when sorting and organizing. I have never been able to take a puzzle piece out of the box, look at it once and put it into the puzzle in its exact place. Don’t expect to do it with paperwork either.

Every time you handle a document, it should be to move it forward in the system of processing so that it is in its appropriate place for the next step. Not only should you prioritize it immediately, you must identify when and where the next steps take place so that the item is not forgotten either accidentally or on purpose.

Zoom in – zoom out

When we’re working on our puzzle, occasionally one of us will zoom in on an easily identifiable object within the puzzle and work on that. On our recent puzzle, my daughter found all of the pieces for a large orange flower that was in the centre of the puzzle. It allowed us to work outwards from that point to complete the puzzle faster. However, while she was working on the flower, she kept it in perspective of the entire puzzle.

If you’re organizing and sorting paperwork, you may find you can easily complete a small portion of the project. You may be able to completely organize all of last year’s financial documents, for example. Congratulate yourself on a job well done but remember to zoom back out and look at the whole picture and remember what you want the final result to look like.

Create a Process

This step is where the similarities between puzzles and paperwork end. Once all of the pieces are put into the puzzle, the puzzle is completed and there is nothing left to be done but admire the finished project. Paperwork on the other hand, increases as soon as the postman arrives the next day.

Create a process to deal with all of your incoming mail. Know what to keep and what to shred. Check out some other posts on Unclutterer for tips and tricks on paper management.

4 Comments for “The paperwork puzzle”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    I have decided that I want as much of my paperwork digitized as possible. Granted, there’s some that I do need to keep physical copies of, but I will also have digital versions in the event I need to send out a file (or make copies) as it will allow me to have (much smaller) long-term physical storage that I won’t need to access. That said, I am down to 3 bankers boxes filled with files that I’ve managed to avoid for 2 years (pared down from a large 4-drawer horizontal file cabinet). While I do know what’s in the boxes and I am at the point now where I MUST go through them and make some decisions (I suspect I will be able to shred at least half w/o having to keep copies) as I’ve set some goals for myself this year and the contents of those boxes is one of them.

  2. posted by Stephanie on

    Brilliant! I will use this analogy with my clients.

  3. posted by Liz on

    Great points.

    If you are dealing with estates of family members where the paperwork explodes, be sure to go over the retention list with the family attorney, especially if there are trusts and multiple beneficiaries. The simple rule for individuals may change when there are lots of people over many states.

    If you are the responsible person, do not assume that the attorney or the CPA doing the estate returns will keep all of the essential papers for the required period of time. They pass on, the practices get sold or closed and you may still be the legal responsible party.

    Also, if you are trying to go through many years of accumulated stuff, do the sorting into many boxes. Then, start with 2013 tax year and learn what you need to keep and why. Apply what you learned to keeping 2014 info organized.

    Then work back. If it takes a while to go through the material, the older it is, the easier it is to shred. I have some boxes stacked up that I need to go through but I decided to just wait until the time limit expires. Still, shred everything, just don’t trash it!

  4. posted by Pat Reble on

    I felt really validated by the advice: “Ignore OHIO” In my experience, it isn’t always possible to “handle it only once” and that adds feelings of failure and inadequacy to an already problematic situation. Thank you! Great way of thinking about it, so you get the benefits but not the guilt!

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