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Organize Your Home with these 101 Hacks, Part 3: Papers, Mail, Sentimental Objects, & Photos

Organize Your Home with these 101 Hacks, Part 3: Papers, Mail, Sentimental Objects, & Photos

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
—Albert Einstein

Part 3 of a 3-part series. Part 1 covered ground rules, entryway, and kitchen/pantry while Part 2 covered bedroom/closets, bathroom, car, and basement/garage. Today, in Part 3, we cover papers, mail, mementos, and sentimental items like photos.

Being organized isn’t about getting rid of everything you own or trying to become a different person.

It’s about living the way you want to live, with clarity and purpose and only the things around you that you actually use and appreciate … whether joy has been sparked or not.

So here is the opportunity that Einstein is talking about—you will find it waiting for you, perhaps hiding in the over-full pantry, scary closet, or buried under a pile of paper.

And that is the opportunity to live exactly how you WANT to live, but better. 

Oh, and that can happen today. Now. You don’t have to wait for someday.

It’s all about considering what you value and what has a purpose or function. Then, keeping the things that align with your values in your home (or office—what applies to your personal space applies to your workspace, too).

We kicked off this list of 101 hacks with this exact idea: Everything you own should have value to you. It should either make your life more comfortable, convenient, or beautiful. 

A beautiful piece of artwork that inspires you. 

A hand-drawn picture by your nephew that fills your heart every time you see it.

A clean and sharp knife that slices through vegetables like butter.

A sofa that may not have been expensive, but comfortably holds your entire family, two- and four-footed.

For one of my clients, an Italian chef who loved cooking for her extended family, it was 100% worth the trouble and expense of running a special faucet to fill her giant pasta pots directly over the stove. 

Others may view that as an indulgence … and here’s the bottom line: None of us have to answer to anyone else for our choices.

One person’s investment may be someone else’s folly … and vice versa.

Instead of focusing outward and judging others OR ourselves, a much better question and place to focus your attention would be to ask yourself: What do I value? What is important to me? 

Time with family and friends? Creating things? Exploring the world? Solitude and a good book?

What you choose to hold onto is totally and entirely up to YOU.

That is what I invite you to consider, as we head into the final segment of our 101 hacks for organizing your home, especially as we tackle those easy-to-accumulate papers and hard-to-release sentimental items.


PAPERS & MAIL

Even if your files are digital, not paper, all these hacks still apply. You still need a consistent system, to be able to, you know... find stuff.

74. Create a filing system—it doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it could just be a few baskets or trays on your desk or a surface nearby. Or it could be more traditional using a proper filing cabinet. I prefer baskets for active current work and filing cabinets for deep storage. I don’t go in and out of drawers all day—that seems like a waste of time. When I’m finished with the contents of a basket, THEN it gets files.

On your computer, these would be your folders that live inside DOCUMENTS or MY DOCUMENTS.


75. When making your system, keep it simple and easy to understand. No odd naming conventions that you won’t remember. Create categories and subcategories, such as Finances, then Taxes, then drill down to the year, i.e. 2021.

76. Label everything specifically so it can be properly filed and organized. “Current project” or “Receipts” quickly become too general to be useful.

77. Paperwork from finished tasks, like a paid bill or signed document, can be stored in a labeled folder, digitally, or discarded.

78. Filing cabinets are where papers go to die. So don’t file anything you’ll need anytime soon. See my suggestion about baskets above.

79. By that same token, only file what’s necessary. Do you need a physical copy? Does it need to be kept permanently? If not, don’t file it.

80. Create and then follow the same naming/organizing conventions if saving a combination of both paper and digital files. Your digital files should correspond to your paper files. (If one duplicates the other, get rid of the paper.)

81. Periodically review your files and papers, and get rid of/recycle anything you no longer need to keep, for example: Discard owners manuals and other instructions for anything you no longer own.

82. Shred unnecessary papers at the start of a new year. Review your old files and shred any monthly statements that have been duplicated by quarterly or annual statements.

83. What to keep forever? Marriage license, birth and death certificates, divorce decree, military discharge papers, Social Security cards, life insurance, and insurance estate planning documents.

84. Keep tax records for 7 years. 

85. Hold onto any loan documents until the loan is paid off. Then hold onto the letter that confirms the loan has been satisfied.

MAIL

To most efficiently process your mail, commit to the task start to finish.

86. Have a go-to home for mail to await processing. Don’t rifle through it and cherry-pick as you bring it in. 

87. When you’re ready, go through your mail where you deal with paperwork, ideally near a shredder and recycling bin.

88. Pull out anything you know you’ll toss, like circulars, flyers, catalogs, and junk mail, and then move on to what actually requires your attention. Recycle when you’re done going through all your mail.

89. Shred any junk mail that reeks of identity theft. (Think credit card offers). Again, after you’ve sorted and gone through the mail.

90. Open bills first. This honors the relationship they represent. If you want the services, you have to pay for them. Any other stuffing goes into the recycling bin. All you want is the bill to pay online, and the return envelope, if you still mail checks. 

91. Do NOT keep any of the envelopes the mail came in—don’t fold up the credit card statement and tuck it back into its mailing envelope. They are not filing folders for storing your mail, they are recycling.

92. Stop getting unwanted catalogs and junk mail, here or here.

SENTIMENTAL ITEMS

Sentimental items are often the toughest to release because they carry so many stories and attachments. Here are my top hacks and tips to reclaim your space and keep only what you truly want to keep.

93. Your home is not a museum. Consider that for a moment. You are not obligated to keep inherited objects or gifts. Release any gifts that you don’t like or use, that you are only keep out of guilt. You are not a bad person for giving gifted or inherited items away.

94. Mementos from your life that no longer serve a purpose may be harder to part with because when you see them, you relive the story behind them. The key to parting with items suspended in time is not to replay that story. Leave the room, come back in, and see what you're really holding on to—an item that you don’t use, that's seen better days? If it serves no purpose, let it go.

95. Any object that upon sight causes you pain, grief, regret, embarrassment or disappointment, has no place in your life. This includes gifts, inherited items, and stuff your ex left behind. Get rid of any “charged” items ASAP.

96. If you have a pile of cards or postcards with nothing more than “Happy Birthday” or “Get well soon!” on them, recycle them. It’s not rude to appreciate the message and then release them.

97. For items you don’t want sitting around but would like to look back on later, you can create a digital library of photos or scans of any letters, gifts, etc. Actual items can be stored away somewhere safe and out of the way.

98. If you prefer to physically go through these items and reminisce, that’s great. Just make sure they are stored somewhere safe, accessible, and perhaps in a beautiful vessel to mark how important the contents are.


PHOTOS

99. Ask yourself: Do you really want to put them in an album or scrapbook? If no, you are officially off the hook: go get some photo storage boxes to store them in. If yes, go get the album and add the project to your calendar. (Spoiler alert: “someday” isn’t a day on anyone’s calendar … including yours. Make a commitment or make a different choice.)

100. When you DO tackle the project of sorting through photos, decide how long you want to sort through them and set a TIMER. Otherwise, memory lane will snag you.

101. Group photos by subject (family reunion, your trip to the Philippines) or by date. As you go, sort: Toss any photos that are duplicates, blurry, or are of people you don’t even know, or don’t like. You don’t have to save images of experiences that don’t delight or move you.


THE BOTTOM LINE

Congratulations! You made it through the list of hacks!

Now, go and DO something with it—pick just three hacks to get started:

  1. Which hack jumped out at you as something you can do right NOW?
  1. Which hack needs a little more time and energy, that you can put on your calendar today for your NEXT free weekend? 
  1. And with which hack could you enlist some help? Knowing that your sister Jessica is coming over to go through Mom’s photos with you can help keep you motivated and committed to completing the task. Translation: an accountability buddy.


Having someone by your side—especially as you tackle releasing items whose stories are “stickier” than others—can often make the difference between getting it done, and delaying it for “someday.” 

Want help but not sure where to start, or who to ask? Join us for our next FREE De-Stress Your Mess Challenge, starting August 16!
You’ll get step-by-step guidance, be able to ask an expert your questions, and get (there’s that word again) some accountability, by getting organized with other folks in the same boat—so it gets done already! You CAN do it alone, AND you’re invited to do it in great company: Sign up for our next FREE Destress Your Mess Challenge, here.

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Written by Andrew Mellen

Andrew is the Wall Street Journal,Amazon and Audible best-selling author of two books: Unstuff Your Life! and The Most Organized Man in America’s Guide to Moving.

He has been a professional organizer since 1996, and has helped over 500,000 people + businesses get AND stay organized ... so far!

Sharply dressed Andrew Mellen smiling at the camera.

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