For many, paperwork is a ferocious beast that cannot be tamed. It comes in every day through the mail, business cards we pick up at an art show, and graded homework assignments. It piles up on coffee tables, bookshelves, and pretty much anything else with a flat surface. It might feel like freedom from paper is located way up high in a tower with no doors, but I’m here to tell you that you can tame the dragon and find your own escape from paper clutter.
- Stop paper from coming in.
It sounds so simple, yet many of my clients forget that they have the power to massively reduce the amount of paper that comes into their homes and offices in the first place. We live in a golden age of technology (which can lead to its own clutter, but that’s a topic for another day). Many pieces of mail can now be received digitally, such as bank statements and notices from your doctor’s office. Take the time to set your preferences for electronic notifications and you won’t have to decide what to do with the paper copies in the first place.
- Re-home it immediately.
When paper finds its way into your space, give it a home before you have a chance to put it down on a flat surface. Is it junk? Immediately recycle or shred it. I keep my shredder by the front door for this exact reason. Do you need to do something with it, like pay a bill? Setup an “action station” somewhere and put the bill in it. As soon as you’ve paid the bill, shred it or put it in storage with other short-term-reference receipts. That storage could (and maybe should) be digital. Receive a wedding card that you know you want to keep for sentimental reasons? Put it in a beautiful box with other sentimental items.
- Create a filing system that makes sense to you.
Unfortunately, we all end up with pieces of paper that we can’t get rid of right now. Maybe your office doesn’t send your W2 digitally and you need to hold onto the paper copy for 7 years. Perhaps you kept something for a sentimental reason and it is still important to you. For these items, you should set up a system for storing everything that makes sense to you. Just because a mom blog suggested that you have a file for every year doesn’t mean that’s the best way for you. Maybe you want files by category or by person-they’re-related-to in your household. Maybe you want everything on Google Drive. Maybe you hate filing cabinets with a passion but you like the idea of having all of your important paperwork in a binder on the bookshelf. You do you! My only die-hard recommendation is that you have something fire-proof for the most sacred of documents such as your birth certificate, passport, social security card, marriage/partnership certificate, car title, and deed to the house.
- Take a look through your system on a regular basis.
This may be weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly…whatever makes the most sense for your space and the amount of paper that comes through. Don’t just file things away and leave them forever! Some things you’ll only need for a certain amount of time, like tax documents. Got stuff from 1999? Shred it! Some things may have had sentimental value when they were put away, but you are now ready to let them go. Perhaps you still have statements from a bank account you don’t own anymore (or that has transferred all of its statements online).
I recently worked with a couple who asked for assistance in systematizing their paperwork. Even though their plan was just to reorganize what they had, we were able to get rid of about half of what they were storing as it was no longer relevant or available online. Another client had a full plastic tub that we reduced down to one folder; there were still documents from before their kids were born 10+ years earlier.
Find a day when you have a couple of hours free. Gather every piece of paper you can find in your house or office and spend some quality time with it. Put on some music, grab yourself a drink (adult or otherwise), and dive in. Divide things into categories. Be ruthless. Decide what is and isn’t working about your current system.
By the time you’re done, that scary paper dragon flying high above its tower will be an adorable little companion coughing up a spicy hairball once in a while. Practice the steps above and you never have to be trapped by paper again!