Taking Action on Your Everyday Papers

Please welcome my guest today, Autumn from Space for Living.

Do you have a place in your house that always seems to accumulate papers? A spot where no matter how many times you clear it off, an endless stream of papers appears?

For me, it is the kitchen counter. The multiple piles of paper and mail are sorted. But a system breakdown occurs when the papers need to be processed and filed at my desk in the back room. It should be easy right, just carrying papers to my desk? But for some reason, I can’t move past the sorting step on the kitchen counter.

Each time I need a clear space, the papers are stacked and the sorted piles disappear into a massive mess. Then the sorting cycle repeats again and again before any action is ever taken to work through the paper. Needless to say, frustration with my inefficiency has set in. It’s time to act!

To be more efficient with my paperwork, the mail center needs to be moved to the kitchen counter instead of trying to retrain myself to process the mail in the back of the house. No matter how elaborate or well intentioned a filing system is, if it’s not in a space where you will use it, it won’t help you stay on top of your paper trail.

The Solution: a small file box right next to where I go through the papers. This box contains my Action Files. Now I have an easy, fast and actually fun system to use! Plus by placing it where I naturally sort paper, it’s sure to be used more often.

Action Files, also called Working Files, are simply files that are current and need action taken on them weekly or biweekly. They differ from reference files typically housed in filing cabinets, which contain more permanent records (bills already paid, pay-stubs, insurance info, other archives, etc).

There are 7 Action Files, along with the trash and recycling bin of course, right where I sort any incoming papers. Since this file system is used daily it allows me to quickly sort papers and find them when needed, which is the main goal of any filing system.

Action Files will reflect your own personal needs, but here is a snapshot of my categories and what I use them for.

To File-

reference papers to file the large filing drawer. These are items that do not need action but instead are papers I need to keep for archival purposes. I file these weekly.


Weekly grocery ads and recipes, I clean this out weekly when I do my meal planning. As soon as I get the grocery ad, on Monday, I store it in this file until I make my shopping list.


Any bill to be paid goes in here. I pay them twice a month, once at the beginning of the month and once at the end. After the bills are paid they immediately get moved to the “To File” folder to be stored in our reference files in case any discrepancy comes up throughout the year or they are needed at tax time.


For any paper I need to reference in the short-term or that might need a follow-up. If you are familiar with the book Getting Things Done, it could also be called an Incubation file. This file is temporary storage. Examples are an event I am thinking about attending, a form that I need to gather more information to fill out or an issue waiting for someone’s response on. It is also used for any miscellaneous paperwork regarding my to-do list, like a prescription to drop off or a dry cleaning slip.

Having a permanent spot for these items makes it easy to delegate errands. If my husband is going to pick up the dry cleaning he knows right where to look and doesn’t have to wait until I get home to get the slip out of my purse. In order for this file not to become a vortex of unfinished tasks, I write pending file to-do list on a post-it inside the cover of the hanging file. I schedule time to take care of lingering papers every Wednesday.


I clean this out once a month while going over the budget. I make sure everything is recorded properly and then toss most receipts and file any that need to be kept long-term such as records for home improvement, major purchases, etc. A separate folder for Christmas receipts or business receipts can be added.

To get started taking action, schedule in time to go through today’s papers. Keep it simple and record a few action categories as you sort, types of paper you would typically handle on a day to day basis. Ask yourself “What is the next action to take for this item?” Make a place for 4-5 categories in containers or file folders. Some example categories are-Read, Discuss, Data Entry, Current Project

There are so many options for stylish little file boxes to have out on your counter or wherever you process incoming papers. Check out this basket version from GetOrganized.com

If you prefer to go through paper on you favorite chair or couch, there are filing drawers that double as a side table. I found this one at Target.

Once paper piles are replaced with a workable filing system for incoming papers, I have found I am able to consistently maintain control and relax knowing there is not a time-sensitive task hidden in a pile somewhere. Your mind clears to focus on more important things.

How do you manage your daily incoming papers? Are you lost under piles of paper now? Have you felt the zen-like calm that comes when your kitchen counters are clear? Pick a small step, set the timer for 15 minutes and dive in!

Autumn shares ideas to create Space for Living on her blog. Her favorite organizing solutions emphasize practicality over perfection and joyful living over clutter.

Filed under: Guest Bloggers, Paper Organization


24 Responses to Taking Action on Your Everyday Papers

  1. 1
    MelanieL says

    I”ve been thinking about moving my paper sorting/storage to my kitchen area. I don’t have a problem keeping the counters clean but I like the idea of a system right where I’m always at…in the kitchen. This has been helpful right down to the types of files I’d need to create. Also, love the Get Organized basket! Great!

  2. 2
    Karen Leschnik says

    OMG! I love that benchtop filing box system! My kitchen bench accumulates our daily paperwork (school newsletters, mail, catalogues, everything) and my filing cabinet is in a separate room. As a result, papers build up in the kitchen, then I just dump them in a cupboard next to the filing cabinet for me to go through them “later”. Consequently I can never find what I am looking for. I have a good range of files set up, it’s just the mountain of papers that gets me every time. I think I may just try something like you have done here. Goodness, it can’t get any worse!

  3. 3
    Mandi Miller says

    I really need something like this on my entry table…

  4. 4
    Kayla says

    Upon reading this article, I felt as though I was reading about my own kitchen counter and the phenomenon that occurs…sorting, piles, needing counter, stacking the sorted piles, scooting the combined stack around(thus getting it all mixed up again)…repeat…repeat…:) I LOVE your solution and hope to get it set up and begin using it yet this week! Thanks for a practical solution to an ever occuring problem! I’m feeling hopeful!;)

  5. 5
    Suzanne says

    So, I sat down to sort through the avalanche of personal and business papers on my desk, but got distracted by the computer. Saw this post in my reader, read thru, and you’ve put me back on track. Thanks! :-)

  6. 6
    Vickie says

    6 years ago when we remodeled our kitchen, I learned to take mail and papers, my purse, and my keys directly through the kitchen and into the computer room/office. I do have a pile of papers on my desk but much prefer that to seeing the papers on my kitchen counter. I love your filing system though and may have to set something like that up in my computer room. (I don’t even set things down ‘for now’ in my kitchen anymore. I love it.)

  7. 7
    Sallie says

    This is exactly what I need! I’m adding a little file box for my kitchen counter to my list of things to keep an eye out for. Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. 8
    Jenna says

    I did something very similar a few months ago! I had papers ALL over the kitchen table…which wasn’t so conducive to eating dinner, and I ended up caught in the same cycle you mention: sort, stack, re-sort, re-stack… So I set up a little file box like yours to hold my action items out of sight, in an organized way!

    I now try to handle the mail immediately when I get home – tossing junk, removing & recycling envelopes, and taking the rest to my desk in the office. Occasionally a couple papers will accumulate on the kitchen table, but it doesn’t take me long to move them into the office. And occasionally I’ll have a little pile on my desk if I’ve been too busy to sort them into my little file box, but overall it’s been a MUCH better system than the chaos I had before!

  9. 9
    Melanie says

    You know, as teachers, we think of this stuff all the time in the classroom: “This Week’s Plans”, “Grading Keys”, breaking it down by subject or period… but we often don’t think to bring our skills home. I find that when I do, my husband bucks the system! He complains that my cleaning (with his air quotes included) puts stuff where he can’t find it and would rather have the surface look clean (and everything be stuffed away in some hole somewhere in a HUGE jumbled mess) than it really be put away properly or organized. IT DRIVES ME INSANE! Have you done a post on how to get your husband on board with organization? I could really use help with THAT.

  10. 10
    Linda Stoll says

    SUPER! I’m passing your post on to a counseling client right now!

  11. 11
    Tracy @ usingtimewisely.com says

    Having a system that works for you is the key! If your paperwork never leaves the kitchen or living room, then by all means, get a filing system where your paperwork resides.

    These are great tips to keeping your counters clean which is a great result! Personally, I prefer my paperwork at my desk. I work at my desk either in the evenings after my children have gone to bed and/or early in the morning before they arise. I have found these times to work for me.

    My process for keeping my kitchen counter clear of clutter (since that is where the mail arrives) is found in my post here: http://usingtimewisely.com/sorting-the-mail/. By sorting the paperwork a little each day, I am able to keep the clutter at bay.

    Whatever system works for you is the best system! Thanks, Autumn, for sharing how to use time wisely by staying organized.

  12. 12
    tle says

    Thank you for sharing the categories… gives me the needed nudge in organizing the eternal paper pile. I too used to have a single hot spot- a paper magnet- the dining table. now the pile has moved to other spots in the new place.

  13. 13
    raven says

    I just found a filing basket at lakeside collection for $5 that I’m planning to get and put on my desk. My current method is NOT working and I need a way to file as I go, as shown above. If anyone has any ideas for the following though, I need help! My desk is fairly small and has my 19″ laptop, my coffee and ashtray, the phone, and the printer. There isn’t room for anything else and I can’t set things on top of the printer since I use a scanner. Is there a (preferably light colored wood to match the desk?) shelf or something I could put the printer on top of and put my file basket beneath? Some sort of uber-space-saving printer/scanner I should look into? Some other solution I have overlooked? There are already shelves above my desk but they will not hold the printer and already hold other bins (receipts, etc).

  14. 14
    Handy Man, Crafty Woman says

    This is a problem that I have. I actually have a GOOD filing system, for papers I don’t need any more. but, for things I’ll need in a few days, or a few weeks, that I want to keep OUT, I don’t have a good system except for a pile. Well, I did try a folder but everything gets jumbled together. I need to go through the pile and toss a few things, then figure out a system for the rest like this. good article!

  15. 15
    Vicki V says

    It seems that I will never tame the paper tiger! I’m going to check out the cool filing basket you show from getorganized.com.

  16. 16
    J. Covender says

    I have this exact file cabinet from Target in my home office, and it’s a great item to have. I also purchased some hanging file folders from Pendaflex to create my own custom-made filing system. They even offer “green” recycled products, of which I am a big fan. They had lots of ideas and turned a mundane task into quite an addicting activity. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Funny how things work that way! Thanks for the great tips!

  17. 17
    Camilla says

    It’s amazing in support of me to have a website, which is helpful in support of my experience. thanks admin

  18. 18
    Sandra says

    Hi, love this! Can I ask where you got those wooden white magazine/paper wall organizations? I’ve been looking for some nice ones and haven’t found them yet! Thanks!

  19. 19
    Sarah Gilbert says

    I am so happy to have found this site!!! Autumn, thank you for this article! It is such great info for organizing my piles of papers….. on my kitchen counter, dining room table and even kitchen table chairs! I also have old piles I haven’t touched for months that have found a hiding place in a room upstairs! No good! This article excites me because it is so doable and will help add some much needed “Zen type energy” to our living space! Thank you!!!


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