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The Power of the Simple Sort

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

A few weeks ago, I started working with a client, we’ll call her Rhoda, who had piles of papers on her kitchen table and strewn throughout her home. She had, like many of us, tried various paper management systems in the past but none of them seemed to work. She knew she didn’t need all of it but she didn’t know what to keep, either. She told me very clearly that she wanted the knowledge on how to handle it, along with a system in place that she could manage.  Simple enough, right?

Rhoda had all of the usual categories of papers: flyers and ads, medical info and bills, recipes, bank statements, magazines, catalogs, non-profits asking for money, church bulletins, cards, photos, memoirs, etc. - plus dozens of post-its containing her own personal notes scattered around the house. It was the kind of situation where you could imagine clearing off your bed and spending the day sorting your papers into dozens of categories.  The only thing is what do you do with it all once it’s sorted?  My answer – take a step back, grasshopper. Let’s start with the basics.

In this situation, I had Rhoda gather most of the papers scattered throughout the house and put them into one single bin.  From there, she did one simple sort: keep and not keep. We didn’t go into the rules of what to keep – that’s for later.  Right now, I was only interested in reducing volume, as that visual can serve as a strong motivator.  Once that part was done, we went through the ‘not keeps’ and further categorized those into four piles: recycle, trash, shred and give to someone else. That’s it – four categories.

Once the ‘not keeps’ were gone, we were left with just one (rather large) bin of keeps. Now, as we were going through the initial sort, we certainly became aware of the types of papers Rhoda had accumulated but, again, I didn’t want to overwhelm her with too many piles so we put these into general categories with the understanding that they would likely need to be further sorted at a later time. The categories were: bills, reading, reference, notes, misc. and, yes, trash (a second sort always gives us reason to pitch more).

Now, I realize that notes are likely to be things she’ll want to reference or read eventually but, honestly, the sheer quantity of notes she had made me want to save those for its own organizing session. Further dividing her ‘keeps’ into broad categories allowed us to at least determine the location of each. For instance, bills would need to be kept toward the top of the pile, while reference could be kept toward the bottom or, eventually, in her home office. Determining the location of these papers is a key part of the process because when we’re overwhelmed, it all seems important.

Once we were finished with these categories, we had a few lessons on what really needs to be kept.  For example, she absolutely did not need to keep her bank statements so I encouraged her to shred those and set herself up for paperless statements online.

Another example was her memoirs.  Rhoda had just had a birthday so she had a few cards in the pile.  I encouraged her to put the ones she really loved and appreciated on her mantle and I gave her permissionto throw away the rest.  We continued with this system of streamlining and further narrowing for a few sessions until we had a system that worked for her.  In the end, the most important items, along with recipes she hadn’t yet tried were kept in an inbox that hung on the wall in the kitchen, catalogs and other items she wanted to read (including her post-its) were on the coffee table in the living room and reference items were kept mainly in Rhoda’s home office.

​What I like most about this process is that it can be done in as little as 5 minute increments. Have a few minutes before you need to leave the house? Grab a pile of papers and do a keep/not keep sort. See that box of old bank statements in your attic? Bring them to the living room and shred away while binging your favorite show. Technically, a pile of anything is a pile of dozens of decisions to be made, meaning that you can deal with one single item on the pile and call it progress.  Happy sorting, everyone!

Aubrei Krummert is a Certified Professional Organizer in Athens, Ohio. She specializes in Home Productivity and works with clients across the United States, doing on-site and virtual sessions. Contact her now.

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