The Life Cycle of Paper

Filed Under: Offices/Paper

Accumulating Paper and Letting it Go

Much like other things in life. Paper has a life cycle. It isn’t meant to stay permanently, and it does have a specific job for a short amount of time. When we treat paper as a keepsake or an antique piece of furniture that we won’t part with, it poses a problem. So let’s take a look at the cycle a little in detail.

Beginning of the Cycle- Paper arrives. It comes through the mail, through our computer (hitting the print button too often), through backpacks, through purses and briefcases. We are the culprits. We are psychically bringing it in the door. Paper doesn’t just magically appear all over the desk, countertop or table. We hit the print button. We subscribe to papers, catalogs, magazines, and newsletters. We bring it home from conferences and seminars. We also decide where to place it, dump it, or organize it. I know this sounds a little harsh, but if you step back and look at the true paper trail there is some truth in this.

So how do we stop it from “arriving”? Here are 5 steps to consider.

  1. Try saving things in organized files in your email or on the computer instead of hitting the print button.
  2. Put a garbage can and shredder near your regular path or flow in your home. Pitch as much as possible before you let any more in. Most people admit they pull out the most important mail and drop the rest. Leaving it to pile up. Do the opposite.
  3. Consider stopping subscriptions. Read online instead. If you must subscribe to a magazine or newspaper give yourself a deadline to read it. If you haven’t read it by the deadline, pitch it. Old news is just that, old. There will be new articles in the following week’s newspapers.
  4. Instead of stuffing paper in your bag, briefcase or purse all day, pitch it instead. Don’t bring it home. For example, if someone asks me if I want a receipt, I say no. If they give me one without asking, I pitch it in the store’s garbage cans by the exit while I’m walking out.
  5. Do you attend a lot of conferences or seminars? I attend two a year for my industries. Instead of coming back with a ton of pamphlets, workshop notes, and receipts, etc. I act on them. I process them into lists of things I want to accomplish, implement or research further and transfer that to my computer so it’s digital. When do I do this? On the plane ride home or the day after the conference. Build this time into your trip. All the knowledge you learned doesn’t do any good if you come back and do nothing with it.

Middle of the Cycle: Paper remains.

Now we have the paper and realized we have saved too much paper. It’s time to decide what’s important. What will we keep, toss, or scan in or find digitally? The main reason I attribute to too much paper is a decision isn’t made. We are caught in indecision which allows the paper to accumulate and clog up our systems. Make decisions. Decide to decide.

So how do we decide what stays and what goes? Ask yourself these questions.

  • Could you get the paper again from another source if you need to?
  • Can it be found online or stored electronically?
  • If I haven’t acted by now will I ever? Am I keeping it out of guilt?
  • If I need to research this again, will the research still be available to me?

Nine times out of ten, most paper can be pitched. Each year I challenge myself to switch over to more and paperless habits. It’s never a perfect fast transition but with the right approach and plan, you can store less and less paper as time passes.

End of the Cycle- Paper leaves.  This is the most important part of the life cycle. If you think about it, there are not many examples of paper we need to keep forever. Most paper has a deadline, expiration, and date range to indicate if it needs saving. The few examples of paper would stay forever would be a passport, birth certificate, adoption papers, marriage certificate, death certificate, and deed to a home. Insurance policies all have end dates. Nothing else is too critical. It’s time to let go and toss and shred the paper. I shred anything with an account number, social security number or signature. Companies across the country can buy your address, so don’t stress over your mailing address.

I realize you might have projects on your desk. For example, you got into a car accident and you’re dealing with the insurance company for the next month. That is a temporary project and one day it will be complete. Once it’s complete ditch the paper for the project or scan it in. More examples of those projects would be job hunting, home renovation projects, or researching colleges for your teen. All these projects will conclude. Be a good decision-maker at the end and move the paper on to its final resting place.

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