Welcome back for part two of our interview with Erin Leigh, Founder of theNeatNiche, on the art of paper organization. For part one, see the previous blog article!

I: So you’ve shared with us how to figure out what to keep, and we’ve talked about creating clear categories for the kinds of paper we’re keeping. Let’s talk about the physical filing system itself now. Do you need a special kind of filing cabinet? File folders of a certain kind or color? What do you recommend?

E: The most important thing in creating any system is to make it your own. If you’re new to creating systems, it’s usually best to treat it like an experiment. Try putting a system in place, and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just tweak it and try again, learning as you go. If you’re not sure where to start, try some of the tactics we’ve been discussing here. 

Likewise, it comes down to personal preference for choosing filing containers, cabinets, and tools. It’s about finding what works for you. Some people love using filing cabinets, but for others, they simply don’t work. Some people won’t use their filing system unless it’s full of pretty colors. Others don’t care about colors but want everything perfectly labeled. And some just want the system to be as simple as possible so it requires the least amount of work. 

Rather than thinking you should have a specific number of files or that they should go in a specific file type of cabinet, think about what you need personally in order for your system to work. 

Maybe you don’t need a filing cabinet. Maybe a plastic file tote is enough. Or maybe you have a completely different solution. Point is, it doesn’t have to look traditional to work for you, and it doesn’t have to have any specific tools to make it a legitimate file system.

I: Yeah, I actually keep my important papers in a drawer.

E: Exactly! As long as it works for you.

I: Ok, so I know with sentimental papers (especially with kids’ artwork), I’ve heard you recommend taking a picture of the child holding the artwork as soon as they’ve created it. That way, you can capture the artwork and the moment all at once, allowing you to get rid of the art piece itself. What other recommendations do you have for sentimental filing?

E: That’s a big one right there. Let me add to that just a little. If you’re just considering the possibility of taking pictures of your kid with their artwork, but your little one is already in the 5th grade and you have six years worth of masterpieces,” even if you start right now, you’re going to have to make some decisions about the backlog.  

If you’re working with a backlog, firstly you need to identify how much you really want to keep. Really, as a parent, you are keeping for yourself. What’s appropriate to hold onto, knowing it is likely that your child is not going to want their own kindergarten or second grade art when they are an adult? If you are keeping it for yourself, what value does it provide in the long run? And how are you going to store it? Those are questions that I would try to answer before you get started on any backlogged sentimental paperwork.

Once you know how much you’re keeping – let’s say two or three masterpieces from each year of school – you know your goal. It is now clear and measurable. Now it’s time to decide what makes the cut. I often recommend starting by looking for “the best of the best” – whatever piece or small set of art pieces represents that time of your child’s life the best. 

If you go through and pull those out first, and you’ve reached your volume goal, theoretically, the rest of everything can just go. 

However, for most people, that is very challenging. To retain more without taking up physical space, some people like to take pictures of their child’s past work as they are going through that purging process. Then they’ll use those photos to create a picture book. It’s a great idea, if you’re willing to put in the work and time to make it happen. One little book instead of all this paper!

I will say that for most people, it is more helpful to have the child in the picture with their artwork instead of just the artwork alone. What you really are trying to capture is what your child was really like a certain age, and unless you have a picture of them alongside the artwork that they created, it is not a full representation.

So, if you can get your child to pose with their art work when they get home from school, and then make those photos into a collage or picture book, then you have something really special. 

But taking pictures of artwork and/or your child also requires having some kind of plan or system to store your electronic photos. You need to be able to do something with them, not just end up with nine million photos and another organizing challenge.

I: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask, what to do with the photos?

E: Well, we’re kind of getting into an entirely different topic that deserves its own article for sure: photo organization. But here’s a little info.

What I usually recommend for photos is that at the very least there is a designated place for upload that has some kind of order to it. So whether that is a smart system with a folder for each day/month listed in chronological order that allows automatic uploads, or whether it’s a cloud-based system you can access directly from your phone, that’s your choice. Personally, I like to use Google because they offer a decent amount of free storage with free accounts, and their cloud storage is really cheap, if you need to buy more. Furthermore you can upload photos to Google Photos and/or Google Drive, which offer different kinds of ways to file photos and store them so you can access them from wherever. Of course, all storage in the cloud is going to need some level of trust in the resource that you choose to use. If you don’t trust the cloud, an external hard drive would be a better choice. 

I: That’s a great starting place. Okay, one more question: So many of us are working from home now. What do you suggest for paperwork related to work?

E: Working from home poses its own challenges, some of which have nothing to do with paper, but for anyone who has specific paperwork related to their work that they actually reference regularly, I would keep that in its own area, or own set of folders. They should have a specific home in your work space, not mixed in with your regular filing.

I: This has been incredibly informative. Thank you so much!

E: Of course! If it’ll help people tame the chaos, I’m more than happy to share.  

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