Reader Teri wrote in and asked Unclutterer:
[I’m having trouble with] paper. It is constantly coming in from school, work, mail, receipts, etc. etc. etc. Despite scanning, recycling and shredding it keeps piling up. And trying to figure out what really needs to be kept in paper form is confusing.
This is a common struggle, Teri, and one that many people battle. There are a few steps you can take, and the first one is the biggest: accept the paper.
I, too, struggle with this. Sometimes I dread even opening the kids’ backpacks because I know I’ll find permission slips, reminders, calendars, school menus, and graded homework in there. And that’s just school stuff, never mind the mail, flyers, and everything else. There’s a tendency to want to be free-and-clear of all that paper. But it’s not going to happen and that’s okay.
That’s step one. Accept that the influx of paper will not stop, and that it’s okay to have it in your house. Giving yourself permission to have paper around will alleviate a lot of stress. Once that’s done, it’s time to keep the influx somewhat organized with three simple questions.
What is it?
A new piece of paper arrives. The first question you must ask yourself is, “What is this?” There are three possible answers:
- This is something that requires action. A permission slip that must be signed/returned to school, a bill that must be paid, committee minutes that must be reviewed.
- This is something that does not require action but contains information that may be useful in the future. The summer concert schedule at a local venue. A repair manual. A rulebook for a game. There’s nothing to do, but these papers do have potentially valuable information that’s worth keeping.
- It’s garbage. If a paper is neither number one or number two, it’s likely trash and can go in the shredder or directly into the recycling bin.
Take a minute to process all incoming paper this way. Once you’ve made the determination, it’s time to act accordingly.
Processing after identification
If a piece of paper is one that requires action, decide what the action is. Maybe you need to sign it and put it into Jr.’s backpack or write a check and stuff it into an envelope. If the action will take less than two minutes, do it right then and there. No exceptions. Then it’s done and you can move on to another task and not have that piece of paper taking up space in your mind.
If you can’t process it in less than two minutes, put it in its designated spot (more on that in a minute).
If a piece of paper does not require an action but does hold potentially useful information, it is reference material. Here you have two options. If you need to keep the paper itself for legal reasons or because you’ll be in a load of financial woe if you don’t, file it or store it in a safe. (Check out Jacki’s post “What important documents to keep and how to organize them” for insights on filing.)
If on the other hand you don’t need the paper itself, transfer the data to a digital format (scan it with a scanner or take a digital picture of it and save it to a searchable program like Evernote) and shred or recycle the paper. Toss it in the recycling bin with extreme prejudice! For example, we’ll get reminders of dentist appointments in the form of those little postcards. Write the date on the calendar and toss that card! It’s only clutter at this point. Reference material either goes into your filing cabinet, or, once it’s information is recorded, the original paper is recycled. Speaking of throwing things away…
Anything that satisfies question three above is trash and should go into your paper recycling. See ya, sayonara, adios, thank you for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.
Now, there are a few other things to note. First, you won’t always have time to sit down with a pot of tea to sort your papers while happy birds serenade you. For this reason, designate a permissible “inbox” for a holding space until you can. This physical inbox is a specific spot — table, in/out tray, shelf, drawer — that you’ve identified as the landing spot for all of this stuff that either needs to be acted upon or filed. That’s where the paper lives until you take the time to process it or decide what each piece is according to the questions above. Which brings me to my next point.
If you’re married or living with a partner/other adult, have separate inboxes. For years, my wife and I piled all our stuff on the so-called “telephone table,” and it was a nightmare. We process stuff differently and we store things differently and forcing those systems to cohabitate on the one table was a very bad idea. Today, she has the telephone table and I use an in/out tray from Staples on my desk. We can each work the way we want and yes, we now have two stacks of incoming paper but that’s still a huge improvement of scattered papers all throughout the house.
Now for the most important part about having a physical inbox … you MUST schedule a time for processing the papers. On your calendar, block off five minutes at the end of every workday or five minutes before dinner each night or 10 minutes twice a week to handle the papers. Don’t wait until the pile is out of control. Don’t wait until it’s tipping over and sliding all over your desk. Do a little bit of processing on a regular schedule and you’ll never have a huge pile to overwhelm you.
If you have a huge pile already, tack on five to 10 extra minutes each day to work through the backlog. Eventually, you’ll be caught up with your current and old paperwork. It won’t happen over night, but you’ll get through it.