Whenever I talk with readers about clutter and feeling organized, paper is invariably mentioned. It seems many of us struggle with far too much paper in our lives. It forms insidious, accusatory piles all over our homes and in our work environments, and seems to appear from nowhere. I have to be as vigilant about it as the next person, and made it one of my topics for focus during my year-long Serenity Project.
Today I decided to share some tips for how I deal with purging paper piles, answering some of the questions I hear frequently.
Why is paper so challenging?
I see several reasons why paper can drive us nuts:
- Even in today’s digital world, paper is still an important means of communication. Many of us grew up with printed documents being our accepted form of record-keeping, and it can still make us nervous to get rid of it, or choose electronic alternatives. Most of us still get plenty of paper mail, even if the majority of it does now seem to be junk.
- When trying to cut down on paper, each wafer-thin sheet in your life represents a decision you have to make. An inch-high stack of paper can conceal two hundred decisions, or more. This takes far more time, than, say, tackling an inch-high stack of linen napkins.
- Paper is also a popular way of retaining memories. Photos, letters, and kids’ artwork can all take the form of paper piles in our lives.
- It keeps coming. Unlike, say, buying shoes, where we have to make a conscious purchase decision, paper shows up more or less on its own.
How do I get started with my paper piles?
I’d suggest gathering your different piles into a single location at work and at home, although if you know already that different piles represent different categories, use sticky notes or similar to flag these for later. Then, try the quick sort approach:
- Action needed (either now or soon): bills to pay, permission slips, important correspondence.
- Reference: bills already paid, documents which might be useful, records you may wish to keep.
- Active projects: papers you definitely need for current projects.
- Ideas: for projects, travel, home improvement etc.
- To read: magazines, articles, books, and other “someday” reading intentions.
- Sentimental: photos, letters, art, souvenirs, tickets.
- Recycle: paper that’s piled up for no good reason. Get rid of this category now.
- Shred: you know you don’t need it, but it’s confidential, so not suitable for recycling.
At this stage, you haven’t reduced your problem much (only by the amount of your recycling pile), but you have a better idea of what’s lurking in your paper piles, and you have the comfort of knowing that action items are clearly visible.
OK, so then what?
Now it’s time to get tough on each category. This is where the hard work starts:
- Don’t expect to get through your paper piles in an hour!
- Instead, plan for several shorter sessions.
- Staying with one category at a time can help you focus, but be kind to yourself and aim for incremental progress.
- Stay mindful, particularly when reviewing sentimental items. Don’t get completely pulled down memory lane.
Too often, we keep paper thinking it might be useful, or because we’re worried we’ll need the information. Ask yourself, if you got rid of the paper but needed the contents, could you get it some other way? Often, the answer is yes: manuals, travel guides, bills and more can be accessed online if required. And often, you never need to look at reference papers again.
Hmm, are they all active? Really? And do you really need every clipping and printout you’ve saved? If the document also exists on your computer, you probably don’t need the printed version too.
This is a category where you should consider creating an electronic gathering place, for example with Pinterest. Unless you’re incredibly organized, you’re unlikely to be able to find the idea you saved at the right time in any case.
Be stern with yourself. How big is your reading backlog pile? Will you truly ever get to all of it? If not, trim it down. If your reading backlog is more than about two months’ worth, you probably have too much.
Of course you don’t need to throw away every fond memory. Try a combination here of pruning what you keep, framing really precious items, and moving the rest to digital storage. You don’t need every piece of art your six-year-old made this year, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping photos of it.
If you have your own shredder, consider delegating this task. Perhaps a teenage neighbor would like to earn some extra money, or your own children are old enough to take on this chore. If you don’t have a shredder, make a date with a friend who does, or look for a fundraising shredding event hosted in your area.
But surely, there must be stuff I really need to keep?
Yes: don’t be too hasty in tossing legal, tax and medical records. There’s a useful guide here for keeping paper in the USA and I like this one for the UK. If you live elsewhere, search for guidelines for your country.
How can I stop so much paper piling up in future?
That’s a vital topic for a later blog post, where I’ll cover limiting what comes in, acting quickly, and a realistic filing system. But do leave me specific questions in the comments and I’ll be sure to include them.
What’s your biggest challenge with paper and the way it piles up? I’d love to know where you struggle and I’ll be sure to respond with suggestions for tactics.