My tried and trusted method for doing this - and it can work for any really jumbled and confused decluttering challenge - is as follows:
- Get some large boxes, preferably with lids. Cardboard is ok, but I prefer the large clear plastic ones as they are easy to lift, and generally moisture and rodent-proof if your project takes a long time and you end up storing some of them for a bit.
- Decide on some really broad categories, such as 'recycling', 'rubbish', 'to deal with', 'file', and label each of the boxes. This bit is particularly helpful if there are several of you and you want to be absolutely clear which box is which.
- Work through the piles as quickly as possible. DO NOT pause to deal with anything. If you find you need an extra box or two, have some in reserve, so you don't have to break the flow to nip down to the shop.
- DO NOT STOP - until the area you are tackling is completely clear. This means that you'll have to do a bit of thinking beforehand to make sure that you can clear your chosen area in the allotted time.
- At this point, you should have a selection of boxes and a nice clear area. Now, move all but one box out of the way.
- Now you'll be tacking this box and further dividing the contents into smaller categories. If it's all recycling and you can take the whole thing as one to a recycling point, then do so - same with rubbish. However, most categories will need to be subdivided.
- As an example, you may have decided that 'filing' is one of your top-level categories. You may have bank statements in there, receipts for valuable goods, notes for that book you're going to write, whatever. Decide on your more specific categories, like 'financial', 'medical', 'hobbies' etc. (This is when the seed of your eventual organising system is sown - more later).
- Now you need to get some more boxes (from the stack you had waiting, remember...). Don't be tempted to pile directly onto a surface, because you can't easily move piles, and they have a nasty habit of merging into one another. Label them up and start sorting from your top-level category into these new boxes.
- Repeat as necessary.
- The level to which you take this is up to you. You might find that when you get a box that's just filled with bank statements, you feel able to file them right from that box. You might want to get them into separate boxes for different accounts - but again, it's up to you.
- However - do not forget that the end goal here is to be organised, and to be able to put your hand straight on whatever you need without rooting through irrelevant stuff. When you are making decisions about sub-dividing, you are really beginning to think about how you will eventually deal with paperwork AS IT COMES IN. So your categories need to make sense to you.
After you've done all of this, you need to get that organising system up and running. I recommend investing in a good quality hole-punch for anything over A5 size, along with some ring-binders, dividers, clear plastic wallets, box-files for smaller things (like receipts, that might only need sorting once a month) and concertina files.
Take your smallest category and make sure that one ring-binder, or section, or wallet, or box file is labelled the same. Now take everything in that box and transfer the contents - sorting by date/alphabetically or however takes your fancy. By now, this should be a manageable task. Because everything is in boxes, you can tackle one box at a time (and if they are stackable, the won't cause so much of a mess as everything being in piles), maybe one each evening. These smaller milestones will give you a brilliant sense of achievement, and hopefully keep that crushing, overwhelming sense of not knowing where to start at bay.
Last tip - have a box or a drawer as a TEMPORARY repository for anything that doesn't have a place (yet). I call mine my 'dump' box, and if I can't find something, that's the first place I look.
Thanks for reading,