Six things you can do right now to reduce paper clutter

A good amount of the paper that comes into your home and office can end up becoming a pile of clutter, if you’re not careful. One of the reasons this can happen is because there are several steps needed to process paper: sorting (reading and understanding), categorizing, deciding (what to keep/not keep), naming, and filing. Depending on how much paper you’re trying to organize, the process could be tedious.

Instead of waiting to go through your paper clutter all at once, consider doing smaller paper management tasks on a regular basis. The following are six steps you can take to stop paper clutter in its tracks immediately:

Let go of junk mail

Some mail reaches our doorstep (or desk) camouflaged as important reading material. Junk mail might look like catalogs, magazines, coupons, or anything that you think you might get to later, but usually don’t. Other papers, however, start out as important (“while you were out” messages) but then their priority drops, and they’re still treated as high level documents. Remove the junk mail immediately when you notice it so you don’t have to deal with it when it’s time to focus on the documents you actually need.

Immediate steps:

  • Sign up for Catalog Choice to remove yourself from mailing lists
  • Shred credit card offers and documents with sensitive information
  • Try even more steps to being removed from direct mailing lists

Be ruthless with receipts

Receipts can infiltrate even the smallest spaces and can be very elusive when they’re needed (like when you actually need to return an unwanted purchase). Which ones should you keep? Hold on to business and personal receipts you need to retain for tax purposes, for large purchases, and for items that are still under warranty. What about the all the others, including the one from the supermarket? It’s safe to recycle them after you reconcile them against your monthly bank statement (assuming you paid with a debit or credit card, small cash receipts can be disposed of immediately).

Immediate steps:

  • Purge receipts for small items after reconciling them against your bank statement
  • Sort through the receipts from your pockets, wallet, or purse
  • Start using an envelope or zip-top bag to stash your receipts in while you wait for your bank statement

Curtail your printing

Do you really need to print that article or report? The less you print, the less you’ll have to sort through when you need to find something important. Instead, consider saving documents to Dropbox, Doxo, or another cloud storage service for easy access no matter where you are (as long as you have an internet connection). You can also print them to PDF.

Immediate steps:

Organize your important documents

You might keep papers out and about so you can see them because, if you don’t, you may forget them. If you’re predominantly a visual processor, you could end up with many papers strewn about your space in no particular order. Or, perhaps you just haven’t made it around to filing your papers. A desktop filing system can help you quickly file needed papers, making them easy to find when you need them.

Immediate steps:

  • Post only the few papers you have to see to your bulletin or magnetic board
  • Put away five files that already have folders ready to receive them

Reduce your book collection

Even in today’s online-dependent world, many people still read books to get information or as a way to relax. Some of us get so enthusiastic about reading that we attempt to read multiple books at once, which means our desks, bags, or coffee tables might be covered with them. You might also accumulate more than you have room for and you may start finding them in several places throughout your home and office. Try to keep your books only in rooms with bookshelves or storage space for when you need to set the book down. Or, if you typically read on on the metro, subway, or bus, put the one you’re reading in the bag you use every day.

Immediate steps:

  • Give away copies of duplicate books
  • Trade books with someone else or participate in a book exchange

Decide what to do with business cards

Business cards help us remember contact information. Sometimes, we get them when we go to networking or social events or from a vendor or service professional. More often than not, they end up bound with rubberbands in desk drawers or in wallets, pockets, in between paper piles, or even as bookmarks in books we’re reading. If you haven’t called the people on those cards in six months to a year, it’s likely that you probably never will. Also, thanks to the Google search engine, it’s easier than ever to locate a business or professional contact even without a business card.

Immediate steps:

  • Give unwanted business cards to someone who might find them useful (or put them in the recycle bin)
  • Select a handful of business cards to scan or manually enter contact information in your phone (or contact management software)

26 Comments for “Six things you can do right now to reduce paper clutter”

  1. posted by Steven on

    I’ve been really good about reducing the amount of material possessions I own in an attempt to minimize and simplify, but I have such a hard time with books, especially reference books like travel guides. I feel like I should just keep them around…in case I ever decide to go back or want to reminisce about my trip. That’s my weakness.

  2. posted by Martin on

    I photograph business cards with my phone camera and they get uploaded to Evernote. Because evernote attempts to OCR images you can search for them and potentially you don’t need to take the card away in the first place (although it would feel a bit rude to refuse the card).

  3. posted by David on

    The gathering of receipts are the worst! I have a pack of business cards in a big box, that’s how I keep that in order.

  4. posted by J. on

    Another way to reduce book clutter is to take advantage of your local public library. I only keep copies of books that pass this test: for nonfiction–have I used it for reference in the last 6 months? for fiction–would I want to read this again, if I had insomnia? Otherwise, the local library can keep “my” copy for me. Many public libraries in the U.S. now participate in sharing arrangements with other local libraries, and you can reserve books online to be pulled for you so they’re ready to be picked up when you stop by your local branch–it’s a great service. They also have e-reader copies available for checkout.

  5. posted by Barbara on

    I could never figure out what to keep and what to purge or how to organize papers. I would throw them in boxes or crates and shove them into the closet. Then I needed somethng very important and was hopelessly loss. I got FreedomFiler so I at least had a system and then spent months going through the paperwork. I still might get a small pile on my desk but my habit of shoving boxes of papers in a closet is gone.

  6. posted by DawnF on

    I had a fairly large amount of colored pictures, crafts and art projects from my son’s early years in preschool and Sunday School (along with home activities). I took pictures of all of the papers and uploaded them to Snapfish and made a really great hardback book. I tossed the papers into the recycle bin (after putting a few originals in his baby album).

    We love having a high-quality book with all of his art projects and he loves that he’s been “published”. You could even make a second copy printing for grandparents as a gift.

  7. posted by Allison on

    I manually enter all information from business cards into an excel spreadsheet titled “Professional Contacts.” That way it’s easy to sort, search, reference, and I can add personal notes about people.

  8. posted by Cat on

    I love this – paper clutter is my worst enemy (well, under dirty dishes and laundry). The one thing I would add to this is a caveat – I read somewhere (about a year ago) that many places use BPA (the plastic that is causing major discussion) to coat their receipt tape (I guess so it doesn’t stick to itself in the roll). Recycling your receipts is actually not a good idea because of the BPA. Apparently a lot of toilet paper made from recycled paper has a high BPA content (or did, a year ago when I read the article) because of this. I just throw mine in the trash and then wash my hands after handling many of them.

    Great tips – thanks again!

  9. posted by [email protected] on

    I started scanning bills and other documents instead of filing the paper copies. And it’s kind of nice having them scanned because I find I can locate them much more easily and I can file them in multiple places if I need to. But the act of scanning them is kind of a lot of work. I have to scan, rename and then move to the appropriate folder. It’s a LOT of work! And I’m finding I’m still filing the paper copies. I don’t quite trust the computer method.

    Help! I hate all this paper and I love being able to find things quickly on the computer but I hate scanning and renaming and moving.

  10. posted by Sue on

    I would also add “do you really need to clip that article or recipe?” For me, this is more important that “do you really need to print that article or report?” I don’t print a lot at home because ink is expensive, so I’m already good there. But I have a bad habit of cutting things out of magazines. I have stacks and stacks of clippings. I’ve already sorted through about half and put the keepers into three ring binders by category. But that’s a lot of work. Recipes, especially, are so easy to find on-line that I think I can ditch almost all of my recipe clippings. That’s probably half of my clippings right there.

    The rest of my clippings are in categories like home decorating, gardening, cleaning & organizing, fashion, sports nutrition and training info, and basic household routines. I wish I could transfer it all over to Pinterest, but so many of my favorite clippings just aren’t available online. I wish the magazine websites were better about their content.

  11. posted by Northshore on

    I used to file clippings in folders. But then, I took a good look at what I had saved and realized that nearly all of the info was repetitive or could be found online when I needed it. (And how many organizing articles did I really need? How about none?) I still clip and file articles occasionally. I usually find that I can toss five or six old articles when I file the new one. If the material is available online, I either bookmark it or save it electronically. I purge them too.

    And maybe it’s my age, but I don’t ‘get’ scanning receipts, bills or other materials that would usually be tossed in a year or two. I just drop file them and shred them at the end of a reasonable holding time. I keep very few receipts after paying the charge card bill.

  12. posted by Elite Custom Organizing on

    It’s always a good idea to scan in and down size as much paper as you can!

    Organizer DFW

  13. posted by J.B.C on

    We removed ourselves from several mailing lists, and opted out of credit card offers. That was seven months ago and it has made a 60-70% difference in Weather mail load. Good tips for management .

  14. posted by J.B.C on

    Our mailload. Damn smart phone.

  15. posted by chacha1 on

    Opt Out, Catalog Choice, Unsubscribe – these are the best tools. Online bill-pay and e-billing are also really good ones. I hardly ever get postal mail anymore. For me, managing things electronically works much much better.

  16. posted by MarkhamDee on

    Generally good suggestions, however I would advise caution when saving documents to cloud storage services. Dropbox just last week had a security breach that compromised the passwords for thousands of users; Doxo is a very new company without an established track record. These services may be ok for non-sensitive documents, but anything personal or valuable I would hesitate storing on a free cloud service…. You do get what you pay for, and if your documents are worth more than $0, don’t rely on a $0 service to keep them safe and private.

  17. posted by Dinah Gray on

    It has taken about two years to get here, but these are how I handle paperwork in my house currently.

    I have a three pocket mail sorter on the wall in the entry way. They are for INCOMING MAIL (stuff that needs to be looked at but is not important), OUTGOING MAIL (stuff like letters that need to be put in the mail), and BILLS (important bills and things that are important and I need to deal with soon). My husband gets the mail and automatically tosses the stuff he knows is trash. If he is not sure if it is trash, he puts it in Incoming mail. I come behind him and deal with incoming mail and bills at the same time when I do the finances.

    I use to have a great big wide two drawer file cabinet full of files. I now have one small plastic file box that fits in a thirty one utility tote, one paper box of archived files (like old taxes, etc…), and one accordion folder with folders for each month (this is for bills which I shred about once a year). In order to get down to this, I went through my file cabinet and picked out the files I would need in case of a fire or the files needed if something were to happen to me. These went into my file box. Then I went through and picked out the files like old taxes that I am obligated to keep but never reference. These went into the archive box whose home is in the closet. Then I picked out the paper work that I wanted to reference, but were not important papers. These files I put in the scan pile. The rest went into the box to take away for shredding.

    I keep a box with lid under my desk for stuff to shred. Instead of trying to shred all of it myself, I just take it to a business that shreds it when it is full. It is not very expensive and they have it done in minutes. I find it is less time and trouble and I do not have to worry about little fingers getting into my shredder since I don’t have one. In order to keep up with shredding, it really needs to be done daily, but with little ones I didn’t leave a shredder out, making the shredder inconvenient. I put receipts directly into the shred box unless it is one I want to keep. I would like to say that I match up every receipt, but I don’t.

    I have stopped all magazine subscriptions. I occasionally check a magazine out from the library or buy just one. When I am done, I scan in the articles I liked and give it away to someone at work who wants it. I am careful not to look at many magazines since they are all about getting you to buy things.

    I have my printer settings default to “print to pdf” so that I actually have to select the printer if I want to print out something. It is a pain, but it forces me to think about if I really want to print the paperwork out.

    I keep all of my digital paperwork on two external drives . It is nice when I want to use my laptop since I can just plug in the external drive and I have all the files that I use on my desktop. If there was a fire I wouldn’t have time to haul out my computer, but I could take the drive. I want to get a digital media fire safe to keep it in, but I am not there yet.

    All extremely important documents are in the safe. (ex: birth certs, car titles, etc…)

    I have a self imposed limit of one shelf for books. If do not have room on the shelf, then another book must go to make room for it. I also have a kindle for fiction.

    There is a crazy amount of paperwork that comes home in my child’s backpack. It’s like a fire hose of art projects, homework, papers trying to sell me stuff, events, etc… It took me a minute to figure out how to deal all of it. I got a 3 section magazine rack from IKEA and put it in the dinning room/kitchen where I sort the contents of the backpack and empty the lunch box. All Artwork goes in the first slot of the magazine rack. Exceptional artwork goes into a scan it folder in the slot. When it gets too full, I scan what’s in the folder and trash it all when no one is looking.

    Anything that needs to be filled out or signed gets done right then and goes back into the backpack. Anything that needs me to deal with it or to go on my calendar goes in my inbox on my desk. Anything I want to keep for reference goes in the second slot on the magazine rack. Advertisements, events we won’t attend, unwanted magazines, fundraisers that we do not agree with, etc… go straight into the trash.

    I find this particular area of paperwork to be especially troublesome. You are made to feel like you are not the best parent if you are not doing everything. There is more than just paperwork clutter in this area. There is mental and calendar clutter here too. I have been asked to dress my kindergartener in a different color on different days of the week, or dress up for a theme for each day, or bring in a different thing each day. I have had to put my foot down. If it does not have an impact on her grade, it’s busy work clutter and I won’t do it unless I have the time and want to.

  18. posted by WilliamB on

    My library is no more clutter to me than your musical instruments are to you. Have a care for other people’s perspectives.

    “If you haven’t called the people on those cards in six months to a year, it’s likely that you probably never will.” Not necessarily, it depends on the industry. In mine, where one could change groups several times in a decade but another could stay put for that long, an old rolodex or equivalent is pure gold. Doesn’t have to be paper, though.

  19. posted by Brooke on

    If you want to keep the contact but not the business card, use CardMunch. It enables you to take a picture of the card with your smartphone and it will be transcribed and input into the application as a digital contact record. You can even write a note on the card about where you met the person and it will be included. The app then stores a picture of the card and all the transcribed information as a contact…and even their LinkedIn profile information if they have one that synchs up to the email address on the card. Then you can either keep the contact in the app or save them to your Contacts in your phone. It’s killer! I’ll take a quick picture of someones card when I met them and then hand the card back!

    As for kid’s artwork. I find there is one every now and then that I want to keep. That one they really put effort into. Those I keep. The rest go into a folder in our entry way. When the folder is full, we get a stack of big envelopes and spread the love to all the grandparents and aunts/uncles. They love getting this in the mail and I’m getting rid of it without the emotional torture of trashing it. Although I guess I’m creating paper clutter for them. I’ll forward them this post. 🙂

  20. posted by Marjoryt on

    I have “good” reading (the material I’ll refer to later, books by my favorite authors) – those I buy as hard copies, and I store them properly – in a bookcase organized by topic or by author.

    Last year, I made the decision that “junk” reading – the latest best seller, mysteries, pop psychology – would NOT be expensive purchases. I get those used, or I purchase those as digital books on sale. 3 months after making that decision, I’ve found that I am not tempted to impulse purchasing and that I don’t use my Kindle, as my cell phone does a fine job for downloading and casual reading away from home. My husband/family bookkeeper says my book costs went down by at least 50%. I hold any hard copies for 3 weeks, then pass on.

    BTW, military bases, nursing homes, and homeless shelters sometimes accept books!

    Also, you probably don’t need multiple textbooks on the same topic. My husband keeps 1/2 of a bookcase stuffed with old college algebra books. How many does he consult? None. EVER!

  21. posted by Dinah Gray on

    Mailing some of the artwork to grandparents is a great idea! I have started making a yearly small photo album of the things we did over the year on Snapfish to give during the holidays to family. I think I may photograph some artwork and include it in the album.

  22. posted by Wendy on

    As another poster noted, receipts are FULL of BPA. So, they should not be recycled, otherwise the BPA is recycle into paper products, such as pizza boxes and toilet paper.
    Not only this, you should wash your hands after handling thermal receipts. BPA Is absorbed through the skin. This is especially true if you have and are touching babies, kids, their foods, etc. The last thing their growing bodies need is toxins like BPA.

  23. posted by Steven @ Professional organizer NYC on

    Well this sounds to be really great and much helpful techniques so as to avoid de-clutter in your homes.

  24. posted by Quilting Bibliophagist on

    Okay, you lost me at “Reduce your book collection.” : )

    Books are not clutter! However, I do limit myself to owning only books I love. There just happen to be thousands of them.

  25. posted by ZB on

    I try to choose electronic options wherever possible. That includes electing to receive bills and bank statements in pdf format. Recipes are one areas where an electronic based approach is a challenge. Nothing quite beats a well loved version of a paper based recipe!

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