Sort, scan, and file your stacks of papers

As the year winds down, my husband and I are embarking on The Great Paperwork Filing Project of 2009. It’s such an undertaking it feels appropriate we give it an official name with capital letters. (Similar to The Big Move of 2004 and Project Remove Splinter from My Finger, which unfortunately is still ongoing.)

Most of the papers we’re dealing with right now are from our son’s adoption. We have about eight inches of documents that need to be scanned and destroyed or scanned and filed. It’s a relatively easy process, but, even with the help of the new Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M we’re test driving from the manufacturer, it still takes awhile to review every sheet of paper to decide its fate.

We’re following the method I describe in the “Tuesday at Work: Fixing Your Files” section of Unclutter Your Life in One Week. If you’re also looking at a Great Paperwork Filing Project of 2009 or 2010, try the following method to get it under control:

  • Determine what papers you have that need to be processed. If you don’t have a firm understanding of what work you need to do, you can’t create a plan for handling all of it.
  • Determine what rules should define what to keep and what to purge. You’ll end up getting rid of too much or not enough if you don’t have firm guidelines in place before you begin.
  • Determine how you will classify, categorize, and arrange your documents. You hope to one day be promoted/sell your company for millions/have someone help you with your work, so your system needs to make sense to you and others. Create a system that you can maintain and that can easily be explained to others when your big promotion comes in!
  • Sort, scan, and file your documents. I recommend tackling an inch of paper at a time. As long as you have less than an inch of paper coming in a day, you’ll eventually make it through your stacks.
  • Back up your digital system to protect from loss or damage. If it’s not backed up, you run the risk of losing everything when your hard drive fails. And, as we all know, there are two types of hard drives — those that have failed, and those that eventually will.

(The image associated with this post is from the FreedomFiler website. Check out our post on Paper file organization systems for more information about FreedomFiler. It’s a solid tab labeling system, especially for home-related papers.)

33 Comments for “Sort, scan, and file your stacks of papers”

  1. posted by Mike on

    I know it’s not your post’s primary subject, but I just wanted to congratulate you and give you major props for choosing to adopt. I am an adoptee myself and I cannot begin to tell you in words the incredible impact your decision is going to have on that boy’s life. I wish you and your family all the best!

  2. posted by Matt on

    Does every tab of the FreedomFiler system have the FreedomFiler brand name on it? Visual clutter?

  3. posted by infmom on

    My husband and I have radically different ideas about paper. He wants to save it all forever, and I want to get rid of it in as short a time as practical. He also wants to have micro-categories in the file cabinet; I want to file everything under larger general categories because who really needs a ton of extra file folders with just one or two papers in them.

    Now that we have a sheet-fed all-in-one, replacing my weary old scanner, transferring paperwork to digital format will be a lot easier. But deciding what to scan and what to keep… not so easy. The main thing is to start doing it. Unfortunately the all-in-one is not networked, so the scanner basically only works from my computer (couldn’t figure out a way to install the driver so that it worked right for other computers sharing it through mine). So, likely I will get stuck with most of the work. But once we’ve made a decision and gotten started, the actual scanning of new stuff won’t take too long. And then I plan to back everything up onto a flash drive dedicated to that purpose so either of us can have access to the files.

    We reached a compromise on the papers a few years back. I bought a big accordion file in a box, and labeled the dividers for the months of the year. When I get done paying bills, I put all the paperwork in the slot for that month. A year later I take it all out and shred it, except for stuff we might need for proof of purchase or tax purposes (a very rare occurrence). That way his anxiety over getting rid of something we “might need to refer to” and my unwillingness to keep paperwork kicking around forever because we “might need to refer to it” are more or less in equilibrium. πŸ™‚

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mike — Thank you! I have to say, though, that our little man has wonderfully impacted OUR lives. The best decision my husband and I have made as a couple.

    @Matt — All of the tabs have the logo in the upper right-hand corner. Honestly, I never noticed the logo until you asked and I checked. There is much worse visual clutter out there, in my opinion. For example, after writing the Vigilante road unclutterers post the other day I now can’t stop noticing all the awful signs in the medians. Ugh!!

  5. posted by Alex on

    I love the advice to tackle an inch thick wad at a time. The stack of papers I have to cope with is about a foot high.

    O well, 1 inch at a time…

  6. posted by LaToya on

    I would like to know how you are organizing all of your digital information? My husband and I have agreed to start scanning our information, and we started using the Freedom Filer system (which is awesome), but we are now trying to decide how to organize the digital files. What type of naming convention to use? What program to use to OCR the scanned documents?

  7. posted by Erin Doland on

    @LaToya — I like OneNote for managing PC scans and DevonThink for Mac. I recommend using a document scanner with a built-in OCR function in conjunction with one of these programs. As far as file names go, yearmonthdate-description.type works for me: 20091217-filing.txt

    As long as you have a good search system (I say try Google Desktop, it’s free), no need to stress out too much over a hierarchical system beyond the manager.

  8. posted by Julie on

    You might not want to destroy all of his adoption paperwork. As an adoptee myself, the small file of paperwork I have regarding my adoption and birthfamily is priceless and sits in a fireproof box right now. It’s no more then 10 pieces of paper, but I do not ever plan on getting rid of it.

    I have no legal right to see my orginal birth certificate. It’s black out in the state records. The papers I have left are the only possible link to a future search.


  9. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Julie — We’re keeping the good stuff πŸ™‚ No worries there. Also, he/we exchange letters with his birth parents a few times a year. Thankfully, for our son, he has access to as much information as he wants (or, rather, will want … he’s just 5 mo old now).

  10. posted by Judy on

    @infmom..Non-profts are required to develop a Record Retention & Destruction Policy. Since you and your husband disagree, a similar document for personal records might help your discussion along. ;-}

    Just finished our non-profit’s rough draft using Excel with these column headings: File Category, Item Type, Retention Period. Sample rows would be Finance & Administration–Bank deposits and statements–10 years; Real Estate–Deeds–Permanent; Real Estate–Leases–Expiration Date plus 10 years.


  11. posted by s on

    I really want to check out OneNote. I have a pc with Vista and Office 2007 but I can’t find OneNote. I’ve checked out Evernote, too. I haven’t figured out how to make it work for me — I’d like something that collects all the thoughts, ideas, tasks, interests, that come to me, but also feeds them back when I need them…that’s the really hard part.

    Anyway, how can I find OneNote and how does it compare to Evernote?

  12. posted by MsDasha on

    Erin, I know its kind of off topic, but any chance we can see a picture of the happy family? And congratulations!!!

  13. posted by Shana on

    I can’t quite figure out a more polite way to ask this, so…do you get kickbacks from Fujitsu? You…mention your scanner a lot, and “SCAN IT SCAN IT SCAN IT” seems to be your overwhelmingly-primary response to any subject at all related to paper clutter. I know you believe strongly in scanning and recycling, but a) how ’bout branching out a little and b) realizing that not everyone can (or wants to) drop several hundred dollars on a scanner?

    Apologies for the way that sounded — I tried to figure out a better way, but I just took two huge exams and my brain is DONE. πŸ™‚

  14. posted by Stephanie on


    Here’s the Microsoft Office store’s website for OneNote:

    If you’re a college or grad student wanting the program, check with your school to see if they have a discounted or free download. Some companies will have it available, too. One more perk to take advantage of those tuition dollars or the time you put into making your company better. I’ve used it a bit and it’s decent – I just have to take the time to put everything where I want it. Lots of features that I haven’t gotten around to trying yet, though.

  15. posted by kbfenner on

    I used to work in a law office that had a scanner attached to the photocopier–you could feed inches of docs in just as you would if you were photocopying them. I wish I had taken advantage of that and scanned my major stuff in. I have eight file boxes of my old law office files that I am required to keep for seven years, and it sure would have helped.

    For those of you who don’t have a fancy scanner that does more than one page at a time on a flatbed (I just don’t have the patience for that) or the money/interest in having one of your very own, has anyone checked out Kinko’s or other services? I could keep up with incoming paper at a few pages at a time, but the backlog—no way.

  16. posted by duxbellorum on

    A coupla points of inquiry:

    1) What is “OCR”? It shows up as an option on my all-in-one, but I can’t find anything that tells me what it is.

    2) “Determine” this, “Determine” that…. That’s W-A-A-Y too vague!! That’s exactly what I need help with! IRS says keep everything – EVERYTHING! – for 7 years. I am on unemployment. I called the state office to ask what to keep and was told, “Every single letter, envelope, stub, form that has ever been sent to you.” (Maybe that was a petty bureaucrat being petty…) So I have MOUNDS everywhere!! What to do?????

  17. posted by Battra92 on

    I try to keep up with my scanning/filing but unfortunately I do fall behind at times. I use the Xerox machine at work to batch scan to PDF files. It works so awesome and I can email them to myself.

  18. posted by Rue on

    @Shana You don’t have to get a several-hundred-dollar scanner to scan your documents. I have an all-in-one printer (cost me maybe $50, I think less) that only scans one page at a time and I use it to scan my docs. It takes longer than one with a feeder, but it was cheap and it does the job. If you work in an office with a fax machine that scans, or a scanner with a doc feeder, you could always bring in your pile of stuff and scan/shred during your lunch hour or something like that. πŸ™‚

    I’m thinking that I need to find a better filing system. I have a few pretty broad categories, but since we bought our house I’ve let things pile up more than I normally would and I’m thinking I need more distinctive categories. I think the FreedomFiler has too many categories for me, but some of them would help. πŸ™‚

  19. posted by MommyNeedsCake on

    @duxbellorum: OCR basically means that when you scan your items in, the scanner will change it from a picture (which is not searchable) to a text document so you can search the words that were scanned. It doesn’t always get them right, but it’s pretty accurate most of the time (best to check your documents against the scan before tossing them just in case).

    I saw Freedom Filer mentioned sometime after we moved (and moved tons of paper) last year, and after figuring out the basic idea of it, created my own version ($42 for filing labels seemed a bit insane, but after trying to make my own, would have TOTALLY been worth it). Anyway, I have been using a version of that system for about a year and it works for us. Every paper has a place, so when things come in, we know where to put them. Even better, when we need to find one, we know where it is! My favorite part of it is that you have separate files for things that update (insurance policies, credit card agreements, etc) and when the new one comes in, you know where the old one is and it goes away immediately. That was our biggest problem – we kept putting things in and never taking things out. I can’t tell you how much uncluttering that has done for us! (And no, I have NOTHING to do with them, just love their method)

  20. posted by JC on

    After years of trying new filing systems and having them fail (usually operator error, lack of filing etc.) I did break down and buy the Freedom Filer system. When we built out home, the builder walked off the job and we ended up in a 5+ year court battle, which we won, but the guy filed bankruptcy even after we offered to forgive $50K of the debt. Needless to say, since I really haven’t filed anything else in the last few year either, I have mountains of paper and the scansnap, although expensive, has been worth every penny, and I got in with a rebate.

    I called the Freedom Filer people to see what copy-write restrictions they had because I wanted the computer/scanned system to be the exact set-up as the paper system. They were all for it. I now scan in everything, file it in the database, and either shred most, or save the few physical copies of things like warranties, certificates, etc. I can run a search on the computer if I really can’t remember where I filed something, and that will tell me where to find the paper copy. However, the simplicity of the system really doesn’t allow you to lose things. There are also a lot of blank labels to personalize the system. The best part, it teaches you to purge on a very regular basis.

    Like those above, I am doing stacks of a few inches at a time. I’ve cleared several boxes so far, and hope to have the rest done, bit by bit, by the end of February.

  21. posted by Carla on

    First, congratulations on the adoption!

    Regarding the adoption paperwork — how do you decide what to keep? Of course we’ll keep all legal documents and referral paperwork, but what about copies of applications, notes about phone calls, etc? Right now I have pretty much everything associated with each adoption. I wish I could know which pieces of paper would be important to my children. I can’t provide them with their birth family’s history, but I can show them what this family went through.

    I’ve also been keeping copies of whatever I send to my kids’ files at their adoption agencies.

    Realistically, I have a lot of other paper that I could get rid of that would make much more of an impact clutter-wise, but this post got me thinking.

    Also, to the adoptees who have posted — as an adoptive parent, I really appreciate your comments — thank you!

  22. posted by timeblogger on

    Adopting a filing system that works for you is an integral part of personal organization. These tips are great! Often times, the most difficult part of this process is deciding what to purge and what to keep.

  23. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Carla — Scan everything so that there is a digital version of it, but get rid/destroy/toss/recycle what you think isn’t of much value (like those call logs). If you accidentally got rid of something your child ended up wanting, at least you will have a digital version of it.

  24. posted by Jessica on

    One of the best paper reducing moves I ever made was to ditch the paper copies of appliance manuals for digital ones. I had no problem getting PDF files of my appliance guides (even older ones) from company websites, which has saved me time (they’re all in one folder on my computer) and space.

    I’m also known for my paper purging at work. My predecessors seemed to save every scrap of paper, even for obsolete processes and technologies. I reduced the paper storage for my job from 4 packed file drawers to one, and cut the paper used in my job by two-thirds.

  25. posted by JustMeJosh on

    I would love to scan documents and get rid of hard copies–the only thing that makes me hesitate is this question: Are there any documents that lose their validity (for lack of a better word) if they are in digital format instead of hard copy format? I’d hate to scan something, destroy the original, and then be told I’m out of luck.

    I’m sure there are obvious examples (birth records, social security card)–I’m looking for the less obvious examples. Any tips?

  26. posted by Kasey on

    Any tips on using Evernote? I played around with it but didn’t get much out of it. I’m sure I’m missing the point somewhere.

    Also, using NeatDesk’s Neat Reciepts – works just fine BUT definitely recommend using the PDF function instead of scan and saving documents directly to your desktop in files you create.

    Too arduous using their filing system and then having to open up Neat Receipts in order to search your saved files.

    Evernote tips?

  27. posted by Erin on

    We scan everything using our ScanSnap and use the NeatWorks software to organize it. Love it!

  28. posted by Shandos Cleaver on

    @JustMeJosh: Basically, the two major categories of documents most people would have are tax related and home & contents insurance related. I’ve seen people writing on websites that the tax office in the USA (I’m in Australia) is fine with digital copies. And with my insurance company here, they have a listing of what proof is required for various items (which may be as simple as a listing in a spreadsheet, or can be the original box or manual, up to a jewellery valuation, with digital copies being fine). I’d suggest that you look into whether digital copies are fine with your tax office and insurance company, and go from there. I’m guessing that digital is often fine these days, what with the push to receive bank statements electronically or the amount of things that get purchased online.

  29. posted by Mikey's mom on

    Thanks so much for this post and the link to the filing system. I was planning on tackling my home office paper flow over the holidays, and I think this filing system will work better than my home-grown one. I seem to have out-grown my home-grown system! I plan on setting up a scanning/pdf plan, and organizing the paper system a little better. Yay!

  30. posted by Rodger on

    I am in American living in China. I am always asked about lots of information often when traveling. I have learned that I must keep all important documents electronic. I can’t carry a file cabinet with me every where. Here is what I keep electronically on me…

    – Passport pages photo copied
    – Visa (residency permit)
    – Work permit
    – CC cards front and back
    – Lease information
    – account numbers for 3 US banks including routing info
    – account numbers for utilities for US house
    – account numbers for 2 Chinese banks
    – Chinese house lease
    – Family member information (contact, SS#, passport)
    – voided checks
    – airline miles
    – hotel membership cards

    Can you imagine if I really carried all these things around!!!

    I keep them all in my locked iPhone which I can remotely wipe clean if stolen.

  31. posted by Bryan on

    @LaToya (and others)

    I started scanning all my stuff a few years ago. I’ve worn out a couple of cheap all-in-one scanners in the process and have settled on a ScanSnap (the older S500) which is a *wonderful* device. Costly but worth it, because it makes scanning a lot less stressful.

    Anyway, document naming. I make a folder for each year and name things YYYYMMDD-Name-of-correspondent.pdf or YYYYMMDD-something-descriptive.pdf So I end up with a folder full of the following sorts of names:


    …and so on. It’s simple and too the point and pretty easy to browse. The date format (ISO Date actually) forces everything to line up in chronological order even if I do not scan things in order (I tend to let them build up for a little bit and then spend a half hour or so scanning – I hope to get better about that).

    About worrying what to scan. I try to toss the junk but if I have a sliver of a doubt about whether I will need or want it, I just scan it in. The ScanSnap makes it pretty painless, and the price of hard drives today makes another file or two (or 200) not really a big deal.

    The ScanSnap software takes care of OCR for me, so it’s easy to search when I’m looking for something. Don’t worry about perfect OCR. The main thing is to capture enough that search works. And even if it doesn’t (which happens on things like flimsy yellow copies of auto repair work), it’s not a big deal – manually looking through computer files named this way is almost always faster than shuffling through loads of paper.

    I’m careful to back everything up to a USB drive every so often – and occasionally write everything to CD.

    For me, this strategy has reduced a closetful of paper to less than a shoebox worth of disk and CDs plus a few folders of originals I cannot throw away, but have scanned anyway (birth certificates and such). And when I’m on the phone with someone who needs to know something, I can pull it up quickly.

    The original mound of paper was daunting. And the frustrations borne of cheap all-in-one scanners definitely raised my temperature and stalled me a few times. But since getting the ScanSnap it has become easy and painless.

    *Very* worthwhile decluttering project, in my opinion!

  32. posted by Matt on

    @JC: Now that we’ve just purchased a home, I’m re-setting up my Freedom Filer. I’ve also been thinking about setting up my Mac’s Documents folder in a Freedom Filer-style. Since you’ve apparently had success with this, can you describe how you’ve set it up? Thanks!

  33. posted by Tamara on

    just an observation..
    the first thing you see on the website is info about 2008 and 2007…
    A year ago…

    it seems at odds with the idea of getting rid of the old, and in with the new…
    maybe start with current info? it may be a turn off for those looking for fresh material and inspriation.

    i love your article in Real Simple, especially the phrase that i resonate with – tear down the museum and ‘assembling a history you thought worth remembering!’ as i am in a major purge mode with a young child and dividing the house into 2 apartments. my house upside down and all storage out and sorted, it keeps me laughing – tear down the museum (well, except for the family heirloom furniture and grandfather clock!) selling off baby stuff…

    i have your book on my wishlist (after i get rid of 10 boxes of books!)
    thank you

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