For many people, paper is the hardest type of clutter to process. There are an extraordinary number of reasons why paper is difficult to manage; the following are some of the most common reasons, along with strategies for solving these problems.
Paper is a bunch of small stuff
When I help people sort through a paper backlog, things often go like this: junk, junk, junk, incredibly important paper, junk, junk. Handling paper is time-consuming because you need to look at every piece, so you don’t miss the important stuff.
Then, you need to make a decision about each piece of paper — the same type of decision you would make when evaluating what to do with a hammer or a pair of jeans, except those are larger. You can go though a stack of papers and make hundreds of decisions and not see the same amount of obvious progress you can see with other types of clutter.
Strategy: Tackle the backlog in short-enough bursts of time that you don’t hit decision-making fatigue. And don’t be harsh with yourself if the progress seems slow, as that is just the nature of the paper beast.
More paper keeps coming
In general, we can get control of other types of stuff by doing our uncluttering and then avoiding any more unwise purchases. This isn’t the case with paper because it keeps coming in the mail, often unbidden.
Strategy: Remove yourself from mailing lists you don’t want to be on (for catalogs, charities, etc.) to limit the incoming paper.
Paper represents information
Many of us are addicted to information; it feeds our curiosity or our desire to know as much as we can about the field in which we work. Our paper piles can include huge stacks of things we feel we should read — magazines, professional journals, etc. — or should keep filed away.
Strategy: What-to-read strategies are the same for online information and for paper. The article four questions for preventing information overload may help you decide if something is really worth your time.
When it comes to the toss-or-file decision, imagine under what circumstances you will pull this reference information out of your files. If you’re planning to write a paper or give a speech on a given topic, keeping related articles may make sense. And certain reference papers are just so good that we do find ourselves coming back to them, time and again. But all too often, we file away informational papers that we’ll never use, many of which we could find again if we had an unexpected need for them.
Paper represents an investment in time and/or money
Notes and handouts from classes or conferences often languish in piles or files, never to be seen again, yet we may hesitate to throw them away.
Strategy: As Scott Belsky said, “Separate the wisdom from the action.” If you haven’t already done so, identify the to-do items buried in those notes, and incorporate them into whatever system you use for managing to-dos.
Then, decide what to do with the “wisdom.” For the papers that are keepers, consider how best to store them, so they can be found and used in the future. It may be more helpful to file them by topic, rather than keeping everything from a given conference together. You may also want to scan the article and run it through OCR software so you will easily be able to search its contents later.
Not all papers will be keepers, even from a worthwhile class or conference. Sometimes, the major benefits of a conference are connections made or a few key insights gathered. You don’t need to feel bad about dumping any paper that isn’t useful to you. Also, notes from old classes and conferences may have been useful at the time, but not so useful a number of years later.