Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?

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.

14 Comments for “Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?”

  1. posted by Marie on

    One huge help for me is to label a paper with why I’m keeping it, even if I don’t take the time to immediately file it properly. It prevents head scratching later. A sticky note saying “deer-proof perennials for Mom” makes more sense than wondering why I would need gardening tips in the middle of a city.

  2. posted by [email protected] on

    Marie – that’s a great idea! I’ve done that very thing – wondered why I kept something. Thanks for the tip.

  3. posted by Jane on

    Marie! That tip is brilliant! I’ve got ripped-out articles & web links saved for some now unknown reason. Thank you so much for this little nugget of helpfulness!

  4. posted by Chad Haynes on

    Great tips Jeri, and huge addition Marie!

    I think the basic gist of all of this is to recognize that even though something is obvious to us in the moment, in future moments all of those pieces of paper (kind of like all of those blog posts you bookmark) will merge into a to-do list that breeds more procrastination than action pretty quickly.

    The present moment is all we have. The only way to achieve a lot in a day is to work in a state of uninterrupted flow from one task to the next.

    See you all around! Killer article.

    – Chad

  5. posted by Sharon on

    Thank you for these great ideas. The article provides useful guidelines for what to keep/not keep and why; and the idea about labelling is very helpful.

  6. posted by E.T. on

    Such a great article and great ideas from the comments, all of them. It is indeed the toughest organizational challenge that I have at home. This article is very helpful in understanding the unique difficulties of paper clutter. Time for me to “re-strategize” about the papers in my space.

  7. posted by Ms Hanson on

    How I Got Rid Of 4 Filing Cabinets (& All My Bookcases)

    A lifetime ago, a contract I had was winding to a close and the business quit paying. Their tactic was to see how hungry I got, and find out how little I might settle for. They demanded all 3.5 years worth of multi-page pay applications be resubmitted for auditing.

    I had moved, and everything was in sagging file boxes in storage. It seemed insurmountable.

    Until the faint voice of The Office Ladies (Love those Office Ladies!) reminded me that emailing those forms to them would be fastest. My bulging Sent Mail file, which I never remembered to purge, had every single document required.

    I can still recall the look on their attorney’s face when Misty, my own Office Lady from an incubator office, came sailing into the meeting with 2 reams of printed copies, “taken from Sent Mail” (insert infuriated glare from their attorney to his client) AND dropped a CD with all the data on top of the stack. You could have heard a pin drop. Just like that, the meeting was over.

    The next morning an email went out to all the subcontractors (like me) that “All pay applications will be submitted via electronic media, effective immediately.” I changed the way a large Texas land developer did business. And my check arrived via overnight mail shortly.

    Today I have a better system than 3 years worth of Sent Mail.
    And I have since conducted all my personal and business transactions paperless-ly. (Is that a word? It ought to be.)

    First: You DO have paperless billing, yes?

    For virtually (sic) everything paper: Scan. Then Print to PDF. Or Save As document or photo. Or Send to cloud storage or thumb drive. Or both. As Marie demonstrated, tag it/label it/title it.*

    PaperKarma.com for unsolicited mail
    Gmail/Hotmail/any email with generous storage – plus one backup account
    Google Drive or MS OneDrive (previously SkyDrive)
    MyFax (One of few paid apps I endorse, $10/month)
    Foxitsoftware (FoxitReader pdf editor) I like this one better than Adobe (and free), especially the Typewriter function that makes any PDF a fillable form.
    Ereader apps – Nook, Kindle, Kobo, etc.

    Special mention:
    AirDroid or MightyText, productivity, lets me respond to texts in a separate tab or window without touching the phone. Sorry, iPeople, iOS doesn’t do this yet.

    *PS You don’t have to Scan your entire world. Start by scanning/storing this week, and address older paperwork only as needed. In time, most of that old paper will become moot. The exceptions will stand out – mortgage, insurance, etc.

  8. posted by Scott on

    Can anyone recommend an accurate concise website to tell me how long to retain records? I’ve found a few, but they contradict each other on when to dispose of documents.

  9. posted by Cynthea Corlett on

    This article could not have come at a better time. I sometimes procrastinate dealing with our own household paper backlog, but since late March I have also been dealing with all the paperwork pertaining to my mother’s estate. These ideas for sorting, scanning, etc. wii be so helpful. Thank you!

  10. posted by Sue B on

    I love the fact that you addressed the worst element of the paper pile,

    junk, junk, junk, incredibly important paper, junk, junk

    That really does sum up the aggravation involved. Even though I do sort out the bills as they arrive (most of the time) and put them in the bill folder to be paid, there is still the tidal wave of stuff from the kids’ school, the mail, the newspaper, and the rest of life. And then instead of having an entire clean room, you spend an hour dealing with it and you have killed only one pile of clutter. Sigh

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    Scott — There are the IRS guidelines: http://www.irs.gov/Businesses/.....ep-records But then different states have different estate laws, which is why there is likely discrepancies in the information you see. The absolute best thing you can do is consult with a certified accountant or tax lawyer in your state to make sure you’re following the laws that apply to you and your estate. For a general guide, I recommend this chart I created for CitiBank: https://www.womenandco.com/infographic/shred-scan-or-store.jsp

  12. posted by Frances on

    Excellent comment from Ms. Hansen. Love Digital!! It saves me from both headaches and paper cuts…

  13. posted by John Milan on

    The article and comments are truly appreciated and useful. However, the draining emotional impact of sorting through and properly organizing boxes and file cabinets of paper can at times be overwhelming. Could you address in more detail strategies for maintaining or improving personal motivation to get the ongoing task completed? Thanks, and keep the suggestions coming!

  14. posted by Scott on

    To Erin Doland: Thank you.

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