By Allissa Haines
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with business paperwork—both physical paper and digital documents. It’s everywhere.
Receipts get smooshed at the bottom of my purse and backpack (when they are not stuck between the seat and center console of my car). Permits, licenses, and CE certificates. Intake forms, utility bills, and an array of collected business cards. Email receipts and invoices just sitting in my inbox, taunting me.
It’s . . . a lot.
It is possible to conquer both paper and digital paperwork and create some peace (and space) in your business. The answer isn’t necessarily to banish all paper. The magic is in identifying exactly what you need to keep in paper form and having a system to manage paper and virtual documents.
Let’s explore how to handle paperwork in a way that suits your style. The system you create must be a system you can sustain. It doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s system.
1. Set Up the Tools
It’s helpful to know what you will do with every piece of paper or digital document you receive. It’s even more helpful to have a plan before things start piling up.
This requires some planning. All of us need a designated spot to collect paper as it comes to us. That could be a bin, a file folder, a pocket of your backpack. Any designated space will do. It may be helpful to also have a designated spot in your bag or vehicle to hold paper you gather while on the go.
You’ll need a place like a file cabinet or file box for long-term storage of physical paper you absolutely must keep. You also need a place to store digital files. You can use cloud storage like Google Workspace or Dropbox. You could also store documents on your computer or an external hard drive, but be sure you have a plan to regularly back up your computer files.
Smartphones have great cameras, and there are a variety of apps to scan paper documents easily. JotNot has an app for iPhones and Android devices, but you can search “mobile scanning apps” and check out your options.
2. Create a System for Capturing Paper and Digital Files
When you get a receipt in a store, scan it immediately (or as soon as you get to your car) with your mobile device and email it to yourself or upload it to cloud storage (again, Google Workspace or Dropbox are the most common options). If you have bookkeeping software that allows you to upload the receipt to the corresponding transaction, even better!
If you want to save the physical receipt, put it in the designated place in your car or bag and move it to your designated space at your home or office as soon as possible.
In practice, I typically forget all about receipts until the pocket in my bag gets full, then I remember and put a handful of receipts in the basket at once. I don’t worry too much about losing them in transit because I scanned them right away. With receipts, it’s not a crisis if a paper copy disappears.
When you open the mail, sort out the trash and place the paper you need to handle in the designated spot.
When you download a document or receive emails that need to be saved, have a plan for handling them. Think of it as a virtual designated place. You could create a folder in your email system and put email receipts there as they arrive. You can also save an email as a document and file it to your computer or immediately upload it to your cloud storage.
3. Make Time to Process the Paper and Digital Files
Eventually, you need to deal with the paper and digital documents in your designated spots. This is a personal and customizable process. Think about what is practical for your schedule and pencil in a regular time to deal with what’s accumulated. This may be weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. I encourage business owners to do this at least quarterly.
I do this task weekly as I pay my bills (and myself) so it doesn’t pile up and become overwhelming. And occasionally, when I do let it pile up, I make an event of it. I put on a movie that I’ve seen before for background entertainment, spread out at the table or all over the living room floor, and work my way through. Then I tackle the digital files. A good snack helps too!
4. Identify What Physical Paper Needs to Be Saved
Some physical documents need to be saved and filed in an organized way. You should scan and file very important papers like permits and licenses, contracts, and anything that has been signed or notarized. A fire-proof filing cabinet or filing box is ideal, but in an emergency, you will never regret also having a digital version of all your important documents.
The better your labeling and filing, the easier it will be to retrieve what you’re looking for later. It can be a tedious process, but your future self will thank you when it’s 10 p.m. the day before your license expires and you really need that postcard with the login code that arrived four weeks ago. Oops.
If you don’t need to keep the actual paper, scan it and upload it to your computer or cloud storage.
Name your digital files well, and have a system for that. I use the name of the document and the date: Electric Company 2/2023. For receipts, I use the store name, date, and amount: Target 2/1/2023 $42.50. Taking the 10 seconds to name a file properly will save you so much time when you look for it later.
Once you have a digital copy, it’s fine to throw away receipts, utility bills, other people’s business cards, and similar, less-important items. You can also find almost every equipment manual online, so there’s no need to waste space saving those.
If you go one step further and make an effort to switch to paperless billing and bank statements, even better!
Like any skill in massage and business, this takes practice. If you have a hard time staying on top of paper, get creative about how you manage it. Maybe find a filing buddy to hang out with you and help sort or scan papers. Or make your filing time a retreat with your favorite beverage. Once you have a system in place, this task can easily be delegated to a teenager or nerdy friend who likes organizing. (It’s me; I’m the nerdy friend in my group.)
Managing paperwork well is a gift to your future self, and you’re worth the effort.
Allissa Haines is a practicing massage therapist and columnist for Massage & Bodywork magazine. You can read her column, “Blueprint for Success,” in the digital edition at massageandbodyworkdigital.com.