How to Sort Through Stacks of Papers Without Having a Meltdown

posted in: Organizing 4

image of papers and the phrase, How to Sort Through Papers Without Having a Meltdown It’s there, staring at you.

That giant stack of papers you’d said you sort weeks ago.

Unfortunately, it’s turned into an even bigger stack and you’re wondering how you’re going to get through it all.

The good news? Help is here!

In this post, I offer a few pointers on how to sort through a stack of papers quickly and efficiently.

Prepare a sorting area.

Before you pick up one scrap of paper, it’s important to set up a sorting workstation.

This doesn’t have to be anything fancy; any clean, flat surface will do, such as a table, countertop, or desk.

You just want to have a space where you can easily see and sort papers in front of you. Even a clean floor will work in a pinch.

Create broad sorting categories.

We’re going to create three broad sorting categories so you can process papers in the most efficient manner possible. You’re going to sort papers into one of these three categories; no more, and no less. Grab a marker or pen and some index cards or pieces of scrap paper, and write down each of the following words on three separate index cards or slips of paper:

  • Action
  • File
  • Trash/Recycle

Items to be thrown away will go in the Trash/Recycle pile, items to be filed will go in the File pile, and items that need more research or legwork will go into the Action pile.

Start sorting.

Okay, it’s time to start sorting! Place the three index cards in front of you and round-up your stack of papers. Start going through each piece of paper, one by one, working as quickly as you can, sorting them into one of the three categories defined above.

Remember, the idea is to quickly sort items. Avoid working on any of the items in front of you. For example, this is not the time to figure out whether a bill has been paid, prepare your RSVP for your friend’s wedding, or check the status of your dry cleaning. Don’t overthink things, just focus on sorting items into the three categories.

Chances are you’ll instantly recognize certain items for what they are, trash, papers to be filed, and so on. Other items may present more of a challenge as you attempt to decipher records or bits of information. Should this be the case, just drop the item into your Action pile and keep sorting.

Create new sorting categories.

Once you’ve successfully sorted items into the three categories above, it’s time to tackle them one by one. Trash or recycle any documents, and get ready to deal with the File and Action piles, respectively.

You’ll probably have seen some patterns as you sorted items into your File pile. Perhaps certain bills, notes and projects stood out. Now’s the time to create a bit more detail and sort items into smaller piles, such as recurring monthly utility bills. Feel free to write out your own index cards or slips of paper to help identify the different stacks if need be. Continue this process until the File pile has been exhausted.

When it comes to dealing with the Action pile, just follow the same method as above. Group similar items together into smaller piles. You’ll be able to check up on payments, account balances, and updates much more easily.

Take a break.

Who says you have to sort through a stack of papers in one sitting? If things are getting to be a bit too much for you, it’s probably time to take a break. Put the sorting aside for a couple of hours or days as needed. You may want to schedule in sorting time in your calendar so you don’t lose any momentum in your work.

Before you wrap things up for the day, be sure to properly label and store your work, those papers that have been sorted, and those that still need to be processed. You could use cardboard boxes, plastic containers, or even large plastic bags to wrap and contain everything. Your index cards or slips of paper will make it easy to identify the contents of individual stacks.

How about you? What frustrates you the most when it comes to sorting through a giant stack of papers? Going through each piece? The time spend sorting? Or is it something else? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!

Follow Rashelle:
Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.

4 Responses

  1. richelle

    Really great blog. Love this simple but very realistic task of organizing papers.
    thank you

    • Rashelle

      Thanks so much, Richelle. I’m glad to be of help!

  2. marilyn

    This sounds really helpful. I have a lot of paper work. I’m also ADHD.

    • Rashelle

      I’m glad you found the post helpful, Marilyn. Do let us know how your sorting goes!