Kelly Pratt is the owner of Spaces Limited Organizing. What began as a little something to keep busy while her kids were at school has developed into product creation, speaking and training, writing and regular television appearances. Professional organizing has become quite a journey!

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Awash in a Sea of Paper

We begin our three-part series on paper with a story about Cape Disappointment and the Annual Long Beach SandSations Sandcastle Competition. I promise it’s all related.

Last summer, we took a family vacation to Washington and down the Oregon coast. We took an unplanned detour and along the way stopped at Cape Disappointment, duly named by English Captain John Meares because it was here that he missed the entrance to the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean.

After leaving the Cape, we traveled on a whim toward Long Beach to see the annual sandcastle competition. We made our way to the edge of the water where our usually landlocked daughters marveled at the waves and bounced and squealed like piglets on pogo sticks. And then it happened. The Big One hit Hannah from behind, somersaulted her in the cold water and delivered her embarrassed, water-logged and sand-coated at her parent’s feet. Needless to say, everyone but Hannah thought the whole thing was hilarious. But when you’re the one with sand in your shorts, a fun day at the beach gone wrong can make you feel like you’ve discovered your own Cape Disappointment.

Organizing paper can be like Captain Meares experience: we may be able to see the entrance to paper nirvana but often don’t know how to navigate our way around the obstacles that stand between our reality and our ideal. Organizing paper is also like an inconsistent ocean: there are incessant, incoming waves of paper and information that we handle with differing degrees of efficacy. Sometimes we’re relatively on top of things—oh what a wonderful feeling!—and sometimes the equivalent of the Big One in the form of a life event, change in schedule or change in commitment level sweeps us off our proverbial feet and creates a real paper mess.

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It’s probably not news to most of you that very few of us have received any training regarding what to do with our paper. There are no classes offered in school or through community ed. So, we have piles. Piles on the kitchen counter, by the side of our beds, in the car, in the bathroom. Piles! Over the course of the next three months, we’re going to talk about what to do with the piles. This month we’ll address school papers, next month we’ll talk about creating an incoming paper system, and in November we’ll explore reference and archival filing systems. Here we go!

My kids just started school this week, and in this week we have received district policies and procedures, a three-page document outlining acceptable classroom behavior, a monthly lunch calendar, lunch money deposit slips, registration materials and two new planners. Homework hasn’t really kicked into gear yet, but I anticipate that next week we will receive plenty of worksheets along with a reminder about Back-to-School Night where we will receive printed information about volunteering in the classroom.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Multiply the amount of incoming paper by the number of children you have and you’ve got yourself some piles! They’re the same piles that grow every year while you, like other moms, are trying to figure out what to do with daily worksheets, Thanksgiving turkeys and water cycle projects. Here are my favorite tips for handling incoming school papers as well as storing the special stuff.

Create guidelines for what you will keep—and what you won’t.

The sheer volume of school paper precludes keeping everything. You especially know this if you’ve tried. As you begin the school year, or even if you’re mid-stream, sit down with your kids and decide together what kinds of things you’ll keep. In our family, the rule is that garden variety worksheets take a trip to the trash. I look them over to make sure my kids are understanding concepts, and then put them in the recycle bin. The same goes for spelling tests, dictation sentences and anything else they do often. We end up saving a couple of these kinds of papers per term just for handwriting samples or if someone wrote a particularly clever sentence. We generally save especially nice artwork samples, report cards, special projects and a paper or two with glowing praise from teachers.

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Decide where to put the paper.

There are two aspects to storing school papers: short-term and long-term. Short-term storage is the place where you’ll put not only your child’s paper but also any paper related to school that you have to deal with on a regular or one-time basis. Here’s an example:

In our family, we each have an inbox in our high-traffic area which happens to be the kitchen. (I’ve included a picture below for your viewing enjoyment.) You’ll notice these are vertical inboxes, which are much more accessible than horizontal stackers. For a wide assortment of vertical inboxes, visit www.thecontainerstore.com. When new paper comes home from school, we do a preliminary toss of the stuff we’ve decided we aren’t going to keep (bye, bye worksheets) and place the items we want to save in a folder labeled “File.” Each of my girls has a “File” folder.

As you well know, there are papers like reading calendars and spelling lists that need to remain accessible, so each of my girls also has a folder labeled “Action” where those things go. If there is additional information that requires immediate attention, like soccer or chess club sign-up sheets, those things also go into the action file. My favorite file folders for both the “File” and “Action” files are clear plastic project file folders. I love them because they keep everything together without concealing important papers I need to see as a visual reminder. They are available through a company called Beautone (www.beautone.com) as well as at Office Depot.

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Since you can’t store a year’s worth of school paper in an inbox (even if you are a ruthless purger), you need a place for long-term storage. Two of my favorite storage solutions are file boxes and binders.

When you notice that your “File” folder is getting full, it’s time to empty the contents to a long-term area. The solution I use is a file box. File boxes are available at most office supply stores and Costco for about $1.50 each. You can also use plastic totes around the same size if you’re concerned about water damage. I just take the contents of the folder and put them in the box. No hidden tricks. Just put them in the box. If you are more ambitious than I, you could also create divisions for writing samples, art projects, etc. to keep like categories together. Each box holds at least two school-year’s worth of stuff, and I recommend placing some kind of divider between the years to keep things neat. I label each box with the child’s name and grade levels and place the boxes in the storage room.

You may also want to try placing special school papers in binders. I have a good friend who creates a new binder each school year for her daughter. These binders are in her bedroom so she can regularly to review the history of her life. If you choose this option, place papers and projects in sheet protectors to keep items from getting damaged.

For large-sized or bulky items, consider taking pictures and storing pictures rather than the item itself. You’ll save yourself a lot of space!

Create a system for purging.

Notwithstanding the fact that we try to be judicious in what we save, it’s still necessary to go through items that make it into the “File” folder or the file box to further purge. At this writing, I’m thinking that if I really save this much stuff for my kids, but the time they leave home they each will be hauling six file boxes full of school stuff. I don’t imagine they will want six file boxes worth of school stuff. Comments I’ve read on the internet from children whose parents saved EVERYTHING generally express that (1) they end up getting rid of a lot of stuff, and (2) they wish their parents had saved less because having so much is more of a burden than a blessing. You may be surprised at how much your children are willing to part with after it sits for awhile. We generally do our purging when the “File” folder gets full and then go through the storage box again at the end of the school year or during the summer.

As with every good purging session, remember to do this activity when you and your child are relatively well-rested and at your high energy time. Going through school memorabilia is a great mid-summer activity because you can revisit school-year highlights but aren’t at a high emotional attachment time to the prior school year.

Helping your children through the process of deciding which paper to keep, where to put it and how to winnow it down on an ongoing basis ensures that your children will receive instruction on what to do with paper. What a gift! You will also reduce the size of your piles and successfully contain the items that are most meaningful to you and your children. I wish you much success with stemming the tide of incoming school paper this year, and invite you to post additional comments or ideas.

Happy organizing!

—Kelly

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