It’s Time To Tackle the Photos and Paperwork

A few months ago, I decided that the 2018 Clever Girl Organizing Challenge would be focused on photos (printed and digital) and on paperwork. Between the hurricanes, the floods and the wildfires in the country, I was seeing more and more examples of people facing disasters and losing *everything*. I’d keep seeing interviews and hearing people talk about what they’d lost, and so often, “family photos” were mentioned as one of the big losses. 

old photo album

Imagine if you lost this for good…


I started to see the 2018 Challenge come together in a way that I was sure could help others, and me, too! I sent out a survey to the participants in the 2017 Challenge Group get an idea of what they struggled with in those areas. I got some great info on what causes some stress, what was getting in their way, what they’d focus on, etc. And so, the 2018 Clever Girl Organizing Challenge began taking shape, and I’ve built a 15-week program focusing on getting our Photos and Paperwork in order. 

I knew I could relate. Now, my photos are mostly organized, recent stuff (the past 15 years) are digital and backed up, older ones just are printed in albums, and I’ve been meaning to scan them. As for paperwork, our system is lean and orderly, and most of my important documents are saved and in the cloud, though this applies more to personal paperwork than my business paperwork, so I will act on that. I mean, after all, if you’ve read Clever Girl’s Guide to Living with Less, you know that I spend 2 chapters on Photos and Paperwork, so of course, I’d spent time on my own projects! 

Even though my own photos need work, those aren’t the photos I spend time thinking about. I think more about my parents’ boxes of photos, my in-laws tote of photos, and what is swimming in there. While visiting my parents over Christmas break, I sat down with my parents’ photos, first by myself, and then bringing them in when I needed direction.

loose photos


Why was this all so important to me to do right now?

First, my parents are in the 70’s, and they have their health and their memory now. I know plenty of people my age who aren’t so lucky and can’t spend time with their parents to go through their photos and trace their heritage through faces and stories.

Second, watching my parents go through these photos was pure joy for me, too. They each had moments of insisting “I’ve never seen this photo before!” even though they understood that the only way it got into the album is because they put it there in the first place. To be honest, they are at an age where the photos from their youth are filled with people no longer with us. They are able to revisit the faces of lost loved ones, to revisit the memories of the stories of the vacations and the holidays and the days at the beach.

Third, let’s face it, I saw a category that was really disorganized in an otherwise very organized house. I knew they hadn’t been dealing with it for a long time because it was just overwhelming to them. I wanted to remove that burden for them and do the heavy lifting myself.


So I began to gather photos, from spots all over the house:

  • Several shoeboxes with loose photos. Some were just loose, some were still in the paper envelopes from the developer. 
  • Albums from various points in time. Some are scrapbooks, with photo corners. Some are the “magnetic” versions we all used in the 80’s, that archivists have been telling us are ruining our photos and we need to get them out. 
  • Oversized (8×10, 10×14, even larger) professional prints from early 20th century, a bit delicate to the touch
  • Photos in frames (when we’re lucky, the photo isn’t stuck to the glass, right?)
  • Some 35 mm slides, probably from the 1950’s, with… what on them? 

I really wanted to focus on those boxes of loose photos, get them in some kind of order, grouping. I don’t know that this project was at all important to my parents, but it’s been something I’ve wanted to tackle for a while, even if it meant getting up at 5:30 am for a few days to start doing it.


And so, over a few days of gather/sort/review of photos, this is what we discovered:

  • My dad, who always thought he didn’t have a lot of photos of his youth and family, now realizes he actually has a *lot*, since they’re consolidated. (Gather and group what you have!)
  • While I have a basic recognition of people from a few generations ago, there are still many mystery faces to me. My parents had enough aunts and uncles who have a family resemblance to each other that I’m often making guesses. Sometimes I’m right, often, I’m not. (Write the stories down!)
  • My mom has friends who continue to send her pictures of their kids as they grow up. I don’t know the friends or their kids, but the pictures make my mom smile. (Honor your treasures!)
  • My parents have a lot of photos that they just don’t “need”, from sets of doubles to pictures that are blurry to multiples. (When you visit Maui a half-dozen times, and you take photos of the Banyan Tree in Lahaina each time… they’re probably not all treasures). My dad is a little more ready to let go of some photos. He was able to look through a few piles, especially from things like class trips when he was a teacher, and say, “I don’t recognize any of these people“, and put them in a “toss” pile. (Remove the clutter that stands in the way of finding your treasures!)
  • My dad has an interest in maybe creating a printed book that he can look through without feeling like he’s going to damage the pictures. It’s a project for us to explore when I visit again in a few months. (Create Ways to Enjoy and Share what’s important!)
  • And finally, this is *their* photo project, not mine. This is about being able to honor *their* memories. When I inherit their collection, it will go through another review. Sometimes, we just don’t need to save *other people’s memories*, because they stand in the way of us being able to honor our own. (Have a goal for why and how keeping your photos matter to you and strive to meet it)

There is more to do; this was just the first step in getting these treasured items organized. But even still, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to have gotten a start on their collection. It has stopped being an overwhelming, scary collection of boxes and albums and totes, and starting to come together to tell some great stories. Stories they want to treasure, and I do, too. 

If you’re ready to face the boxes and piles and albums of printed photos, the hunt for the digital photos on all the devices and cloud services you’ve signed up for over the years, and the piles of papers and the dusty filing cabinets and bankers boxes around the house, then it’s time to join the 2018 Clever Girl Organizing Challenge For each area, we’ll set up goals, a process, and help each other with direction and accountability. It’s time to make this project, so easily pushed aside year after year, a priority. Gather the important stuff, get it in order, and keep it safe. Sign up by January 14th.


Who should sign up? Do any of these sound like you? 

  • You are concerned that a natural disaster would devastate your valuable photos or important paperwork. 
  • If your hard drive or your phone crashed tomorrow, you’d lose photos and be upset about it.
  • If someone else had to take over your home administration, they wouldn’t be able to figure out from your filing or piling what to do or where to go.
  • If your family members had to go through your photos without you, they would be lost on many faces or stories.
  • You can see multiple piles or papers around your home, each one makes you turn the other way when you see it because you just don’t want to deal with it. 

If any of these sounds like you, it’s time to come along and conquer your photos and paperwork, once and for all! Sign up by January 14th – the Challenge starts on January 15th!

2018 Clever Girl Organizing Challenge Sign Up





  1. Seana Turner

    It’s funny that it was your parents photographs that stirred you to action. My parents have boxes of slides in their home, mostly with photos of me and my sister. When I was there for New Year’s Eve I thought that maybe a nice gift would be offering to come for a visit in the summer and tackle the stack. This sounds like a wonderful challenge!

    • clevergirlorg

      Sometimes, just a little distance from the project itself makes it easier to tackle! (“It’s not MY clutter… it’s THEIRS… right? )

      Hope you have a great outcome on your tackling! Thanks for reading!

  2. Janet Barclay

    This is an awesome idea. I finally have a pretty good handle on my digital photos, but the printed photos could definitely stand to be better organized. A friend has asked me for a copy of one from 20 years ago, but I have no clue where to even look for it. 🙁 It might be in an album (but which one?) or it might be in a box in my closet…

    • clevergirlorg

      Thanks so much, Janet! And so funny you say that you were looking for one photo… one of the things that took off after my parents accepted the fact that I’m just-plain-doing-this-whether-you-like-it-or-not is that my dad made a request. He said, “Listen, I’ve been hoping to find a particular picture of my dad in front of his car from around 1940. I know it exists, but can’t imagine where it might be. I’d love to find it.”

      Challenge accepted! And on the third day… guess what I found!!!

      He was SO HAPPY to be reunited with it. It made all the piles on the living room table worth it LOL!

  3. Sheri Steed

    I think this is something that many of us can relate to. I know my family has lots of photos that need to be organized and more carefully preserved. Thanks for the inspiration to get started! I especially liked your point about taking advantage of parents or other relatives knowledge while they are still around. It’s so important to capture the information before it is lost!

    • clevergirlorg

      The idea of taking this approach beyond our own collections and to help our families with them really makes this Challenge for me so meaningful… so many of us really care about the organization and protection of OTHER people photo collections! Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  4. Kim

    What a great idea. I have been spending a bit more time with my parents lately and I know they would absolutely love this. My parents are 87 this year.

    • clevergirlorg

      A great way to spend time with your folks, Kim! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Liana George

    Having gone through Hurricane Harvey last year, I’ve been convicted to get my photos in order – ALL of them! I love the point you make about getting the photos from all over into one place. I don’t think we realize how spread out we have all our photos! Good luck with the Challenge 🙂

    • clevergirlorg

      You are lucky to have the opportunity for a redo! Best of luck as you tackle yours!! Thanks for reading and sharing!

  6. Deb Lee

    Every time I decide to organize my printed photos, I find myself going down memory lane. =) Just holding them in my hands seems to make the process stretch on and on. And, while those memories make me happy, I don’t get very far with organizing them.

    I think I’ll have your tips next to me the next time I tackle that project. Especially love the idea of writing stories down.

    • clevergirlorg

      Deb, it is so easy to go down memory lane, and so part of approaching this organizing project is knowing that our “let’s be productive!” minds don’t get to set the pace and the time allotment. Don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting more from your time than it demands. The memories ARE the thing. Write them down. Share the stories with your family so they know them, too.

      You can even do a pre-sort between “these will be easy” and “ooh, these are going to be hard” 🙂 Good luck! Thanks for reading and sharing!


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