How to Manage Paper Clutter
If there's one thing that almost all of my clients struggle with, it's mail and paper clutter. Which makes sense, since it arrives daily and piles up quickly if you don't have a system. This is especially true if you have kids—school papers and projects, flyers, birthday party invitations, random drawings...
Having a system to deal with paper is the key to keeping it under control. You need a designated landing spot—one that isn't your kitchen counter or desk. It should also be sorted in some way (folders, in-box trays, etc.)—one big bin won't help you much. When I set up systems for clients I ask lots of questions to figure out what will work for them: folders? hanging in a visible place? a classic inbox? Also think about placement—where do you walk in with the mail? If your system isn't in or near that spot, you won't use it. The "right" answer is the system that you will use.
Regardless of your system, a good rule of thumb when dealing with paper is the "touch once" guideline—act, file, or recycle right away. It's not always possible, but if you have that mindset when handling paper it will really make a difference. Sign that field trip permission form the day it comes home and put it right back into the backpack.
Manage the mail. My number one suggestion could not be more simple, but it works. When you walk into your house with the mail, do not put it down. Sure, hug your kids or spouse first, pet the dog, but then go directly to your trash can or recycling bin. Immediately toss anything you don't need or won't read. Open the envelopes for anything important (i.e. bills) and recycle the outer envelope and inserts. Free magazines from plastic packaging and throw it away. Recycle those loose subscription cards. At this point, you should have a relatively small pile of things that are important, and it's time to put them into your system. That might mean bills go into a folder to be paid, invitations go onto a bulletin board, and coupons go into an envelope. Magazines should have a home too, whether it's a magazine file, a basket, or your kid's dance bag so you have something to flip through during the next class. Get rid of junk before it piles up. Plus, you won’t misplace that bill and owe a late fee when you find it two months later in a pile of catalogs... Try this for a couple weeks. If you can make it into a habit, it will become automatic and you won't even have to think about it.
Reduce the amount of paper coming into your home. Switch to online billing or autopay when possible. Remove yourself from mailing lists. Opt out of catalogs and direct mail, credit card offers, and other junk mail.
Deal with school papers daily (or weekly). If it's not special, recycle it right away. (Anyone else's kids bring home 739 worksheets a week?!?!) Special art project? Hang it up! Somewhere in between mundane and special, or just too much to hang up? I use a 12x12 scrapbook box to hold school papers that I definitely or possibly want to save. If the box fills up, it means I have too much and I need to go through it. At the end of the school year, I make a book with their art (which saves so much space and is much easier to look through). Or use Artkive to create books.
Have a home for magazines. You want this container to be just the right size—big enough to hold a month's worth, but small enough that you can't accumulate a huge backlog. It could be a basket, a magazine file, or a bag you keep in your car for those times you're waiting somewhere.
Create a filing system for important papers that need to be saved. You can't get rid of all of the paper—so make a folder for anything tax-related, your home insurance policy, etc. and put it in a filing cabinet or portable file box—basic plastic or something decorative. Not sure how long you need to save something? FINRA's website has guidelines.
Have a way to get rid of sensitive papers. Whether it's financial or medical or just private, you don't want to toss it in regular recycling or trash. Basic paper shredders are inexpensive and small (and can be camouflaged in a basket or closet if you don't like the way it looks). Or use an identity theft prevention stamp. Too much to shred at home? The UPS Store and Staples offer paper shredding, and (for local readers) your shredding can even benefit others.
But wait, you may be saying—what about the giant pile I already have? This is not exciting, but it will feel so good when it's done! Here’s what you need: a big clear surface where you can spread out (living room floor, dining room table), a trash can and/or recycling bin, and a few Post-It notes. Label those notes with the following: shred, file, action, read, sentimental, other, and any other unique-to-you categories. Paper sorting is pretty mundane, so put on some good music or an audiobook to help you power through.
Step one: GATHER. Find all the paper that has accumulated across the house: mail, receipts, things from school, etc. Make a big pile.
Step two: SORT. Spread out those Post-Its and start sorting through your pile:
Trash/recycle—pretty obvious, but be thorough. You need the gas bill, not the outer envelope and inserts.
Shred—anything confidential or private
File—documents to save (tax documents, class contact list). So much information is available online—could you look it up or make a calendar reminder instead of saving the paper?
Action—bills to pay, sports to sign up for, invitations that need an RSVP
Read—magazines, articles, catalogs—but only if you’re really going to read them. If you haven’t read that magazine for the past 6 months, are you really going to catch up now?
Sentimental—cards, special drawings from your kids, pictures from a photo booth
Other and unique-to-you—anything that doesn’t fit into the above categories
Step three: ACT. Toss and recycle first; it’s easiest. If you have a shredder, shred now (also easy). File the pile of things you need to keep. Your action items can either be done immediately or placed in your inbox/clipboard/etc. Things to read should be put where you might read them—by the couch, in the car, on your night table. The next couple categories are tougher—sentimental and “other” items are probably more of a “thing” than a paper, so you’ll have to think more about what to do with them. You may need a way to save mementos, or display artwork.
As with pretty much everything in life, staying on top of paper clutter and managing it in small increments is far easier than letting it turn into a huge project. A good system + a few minutes a day mean you'll never spend your Sunday afternoon digging out from a paper avalanche.