So you are sorting the mail, or maybe churning through an already existing pile of paper, and you think "I'm gonna need this. Where should I put it"? A common, automatic answer is "I'll just put it here, for now". A process I like to call the 'haystack method' of storage!
I get it, you're busy! Who doesn't need a short cut here and there? It's likely you don't have a trust-able (read: easily find-able) alternative in place for that moment you need it. You may even believe you 'have a system', or that your memory is that good.
If you're like most people I work with, there comes a day when what you see on your desk or work surfaces is such a distraction that you just can't think straight, let alone get vital tasks done. Being productive in that environment is like trying to fold an armload of socks!
You stop the action, drag out the Heavy Equipment and Power Through The Rubble. ... Hours later you have restored some order and, hopefully, have the experience of the Clean Slate: Clarity, Focus, Effective Action. What a relief!
The bad news has two parts
One, it literally took you a LOT more time to do that than it would have taken with a proper system. Two, you probably haven't developed the habits to keep it from piling back up again! I recently realized that the 'heavy equipment' approach can actually seem more satisfying - you conquered something big. The flip side to that seems tedious or mundane: Dealing with paper as it arrives with a thoughtful protocol, or putting things back where you got them. BORING!
Here are my suggestions
(the process I use with clients to develop and strengthen their habit-base)
1. Hit the Pause Button (more on this in a future post). Think about and list your recurring activity categories. You can reference your job description / accountabilities; specific categories of running your business, such as administration, financial management, professional development, HR/Legal, client deliverables, etc. - you get the picture.
2. Devise a concise Master List of the categories and sub-categories and establish a paper filing system that's a match for them. Ditch the alphabet. Use meaningful category names and don't have too many! It would also be a good time to purge those cabinets and put the shredder to work.
3. Create a matching digital folder system in the documents section of your computer. (This will help to cement the category names in your brain - which will make it easier to retrieve them)
4. This is not for everyone, but if you have a lot of time sensitive documents you should consider dedicating a portion of your file space to a tickler system. 43 folders: 1 for each month of the year and a single set of 31 folders that rotate behind the month folders. When you say "I'm going to need this, where should I put it"? Viola! you have an additional answer (beyond burying it in a file drawer and instead of adding it to the haystack!)
Those are some simple steps (at least in my world) and should create some reliability in your paper management systems. I realize it may still seem daunting to you, but give it a try. Listen, if all you did was organize your haystacks into piles of 'like' items - financial, by client, by project, etc. it would be a game-changer! On the other hand, if you've tried and failed more times than you like, it might be a good move to get some objective feedback and a professional point of view. It's a worthwhile investment to REALLY save time.