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Stop Wasting Time Filing and Start Using the One Box Method

shelving with banker boxes lined up
Lane V. Erickson/Shutterstock

Filing paperwork is one of the most boring domestic tasks this side of the Sisyphean job of perpetually doing laundry. But you don’t have to do it. Break free with the tried and true one box method.

Far too many people spend far too much time filing stuff that isn’t important, won’t be ever referenced again, or both. Yet millions of us dutifully put all of our bills in labeled folders, file every single one of the 28 trillion pieces of paper our health insurance providers send us every year, and otherwise waste untold hours on filing busywork.

I’m going to let you in a little secret. Outside of particular circumstances—like you have a severe medical condition and must stay on top of your medical paperwork or you run a home business where immaculate documentation is the name of the game—all that filing doesn’t matter. At all. Yes, you should keep a copy of your mortgage, important personal documents like your social security card, the title of your car, and so on. But beyond putting those things in a safe spot like a fire safe, there’s no reason to waste time meticulously filing things.

Here’s what you should do instead.

  1. Buy a bundle of banker’s boxes.
  2. Unfold the first banker’s box from the bundle and write the year, like 2019, in with a big, bold black marker.
  3. Place two manila envelopes in the banker’s box labeled “Taxes” and “Important.”
  4. Every time a new piece of paper comes into your life that you can’t immediately deal with and discard, either put it in the tax folder for tax season, the Important folder if it’s something you sincerely anticipate needing this year—like this year’s auto registration and proof of insurance—or otherwise just throw it in the box. That’s right, just toss it in there.
  5. At the end of the year, take out the tax folder to do your taxes and look at the important folder to see if the material inside is critical. If not, toss it back in with the rest of the stuff for that year.
  6. At the end of the year and when tax season is over, put it on a shelf in your attic, basement, or a closet out of the way.
  7. Make a new box for the new year.
  8. Once you have seven boxes, shred or burn the contents of the oldest box. (You can shred or burn even earlier, but we’re recommending seven years as a conservative window based on IRS policies.)

That’s it. That’s the entire system. Throw it all in a box, separate anything related to your taxes, and everything can just sit in a big who-the-hell-cares messy heap in the box.

Now, you might be bristling at the very idea of such chaos, but hear us out. How many minutes per week do you think it takes to maintain an immaculate file system with dozens (if not hundreds) of folders in a file cabinet? Let’s conservatively say, even for a total filing wizard, it takes 10 minutes a week. That’s 8.6 hours per year with a very conservative estimate. Realistically it’s probably double that for someone with a lot of paperwork coming in, so more like 16 hours. And these estimates aren’t even factoring in purging old paperwork regularly.

Now contemplate how often you’ve had to go digging through your file cabinet to procure anything that wasn’t for your taxes at the end of the year. Probably not very often and if you did need to go digging for your January 2017 cable bill for some odd reason, do you really think it would take you 8-16 hours worth of rifling through a single cardboard box to find it? Of course not. The beauty of the one box method is that you’re gambling on the very probable situation that you will never look at any of these innumerable pieces of paper again. At least, not until the day you finally get around to cleaning out your file cabinet to shred them. In the odd case that you do, it’s just sitting in a box you can quickly sift through.

So why not make the whole process simple? If you’re not in a situation where perfect filing and organization is a must (such as navigating a messy legal battle or caring for a child with a severe illness who needs all their paperwork in order), then let go of the illusion that filing anything really matters. Throw it all in the 2019 box (and the 2020 box, and the 2021 box) and if you ever actually need it you’ll know exactly where it is.

Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Editor in Chief of LifeSavvy. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at LifeSavvy, Review Geek, How-To Geek, and Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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