Managing the endless towers of paper

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Reconciling paper and digital productivity and organizing tools

I’m a confirmed gadget nut, and therefore many of my preferred tools for productivity and organization are electronic, including hardware and software. Yet, I still keep and use a paper notebook almost every day because I love my paper calendar and notebooks. This can be hard to reconcile. I am continually asking myself questions, such as: Why am I writing things down twice? And, um, where did I do that recent brainstorming session, on my notebook or computer?

Keeping on top of my projects is important, so I’ve begun to formally address the incongruence between my paper and digital tools.

The system I’ve discovered to solve my dilemma was inspired by a recent episode of The Fizzle Show. The Fizzle Show is the podcast of the website Fizzle.co, which offers insight and advice for those working on building a business. Episode 99 featured insights from Mike Vardy and Shawn Blanc, two self-starters whom I admire. It was in listening to their conversation that I came upon a system.

Shawn and Mike discussed the practice of keeping a “productivity journal.” They use it to formally write down progress the’ve made on goals, both little and small. It’s a nice bit of motivation, reinforcement, and history. At the end of a week, month, or year, they can look back at what they accomplished and what was left incomplete. Right away, I wanted to adopt the practice. But how?

I love writing in a notebook. It’s just fun, and I do it every day. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to find entries via electronic search. I’m a big fan of Evernote, which acts as my digital “cold storage.” Fortunately, there’s an easy way to marry the two that doesn’t take a lot of time or require me to write and type the same information.

Enter the Evernote Moleskine. It’s a Moleskine notebook that comes with some Evernote branding and, more importantly, an Evernote Premium subscription. Finally, the Evernote Mobile apps are tuned to recognize a page from the notebook and snap a crystal-clear, searchable image. Now, when I complete my entry in the notebook, I snap a photo of it with the Evernote app, give it an appropriate name and tags, and I’m good. The program recognizes my handwriting and makes it searchable. I had the pleasure of writing in a notebook and I’ve got a searchable, indexed copy in a digital app that I trust and is nearly ubiquitous.

I’ve tried to abandon my notebooks, but I just love them and feel motivated to work when I sit down with a nice, fresh page and a pen. This system of reconciling paper and electronic isn’t perfect — it would be easier to pick just one — but, honestly, it’s working fine and the time it takes to photograph and name an entry digitally is minimal. If you’re like me, straddling the analog and digital worlds, this solution might also work for you.

What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

Options for organizing papers

Reader Vicki recently made the following comment on the post “Keeping things simple“:

I really appreciate reading about options and choices when it comes to organizing. I tend to feel a little suspicious when I read that a specific way of organizing or a specific organizing tool is necessary.

Vicki, I understand your concern. While there are some general principles that apply to most organizing situations (such as keeping similar items together), there are also many specific products and techniques for addressing almost any organizing challenge. The trick is to find the solutions that work best for you.

The following are some of the choices you have when it comes to organizing papers. While this isn’t a complete list — that would take more space than I have here — it should give you an idea of just how many options you have.

Organizing reference papers

If you’re going to keep a large number of reference papers, you’ll need to decide how to file them. The most common choices are binders and file folders. You might want to use binders for certain types of papers and file folders for the rest.

Your decision might be driven by the kind of space you have available: file cabinet space or bookshelf space. Or your choice might be based on the type of papers you have and how you use them. I’ve found binders work well when I have a large number of papers I want to quickly grab and take with me to a meeting or event. They also work well for information you want to share with others, such as a babysitter. Ease of use is a big factor, too. Which tool would make you most likely to keep up with your filing?

If you’re using binders, do you want to put papers into sheet protectors or would you rather hole-punch them? Alternatively, would you prefer a tool such as the Itoya Profolio, which has built-in sleeves for papers, but doesn’t have a way to move the pages around? It’s lighter weight and less bulky without the ring mechanism, but it’s also less flexible.

If you’re using folders, you may prefer to use a ready-made filing system, such as FreedomFiler. Or you may prefer to create your own files.

If you’re creating your own files, you have some choices to make. Do you want to use standard file folders, hanging file folders, or hanging folders combined with interior folders? The plastic tabs on hanging file folders annoy some people, but there are options such as Smead’s hanging files with built-in tabs. Again, you can use a combination of techniques. For example, I usually go with just a hanging file, but my client files are standard file folders kept inside box-bottom hanging files.

Another folder decision is whether or not to use color-coding. Having certain types of files in certain colors can provide a useful visual cue (and help you find a misplaced file), but this approach also means you need to ensure you never run out of the colors you are using. It’s a bit of complexity that will help some people and hinder others.

In some cases, you may not need either file folders or binders for your papers. You could use the approach suggested by LJ Earnest, where you put all financial and tax-related papers for a year in a single box, with no folders.

Organizing action files

Action files are those related to things you’re going to do in the near future. Papers filed here could include bills to pay, election materials to read through and a ballot to complete, birthday cards to mail, dry cleaning receipts for things you need to pick up, the scribbled notes about a call you need to return, etc.

If it helps you to have these files out in front of you, rather than buried in a file cabinet drawer, the most common tools are an incline file sorter (also called a step file) and a desktop file box. The desktop file is more transportable, if that’s a concern, but files aren’t quite as visible.

Another tool you may want to use is a tickler file: 43 folders (or sections in an expanding desk file) where you file papers by the date (in the current month) or month (for upcoming months) when you want to deal with them.

There are certainly other choices, too. For example, you might want a series of clipboards mounted on the wall, mailing envelopes on the back of a door, labeled baskets on a shelf, or hang-up bags on a desktop or wall-mounted rack.

Keeping things simple

Sometimes we get bogged down when uncluttering or organizing because we make things too complicated. The following are some examples of ways to avoid complexity and get things done.

Shredding

C. G. P. Grey said in one of his podcasts that he shreds all papers he’s decided not to keep. This saves him sorting through papers and deciding which ones need to be shredded and which ones don’t. We know people hit “decision fatigue,” so there’s definitely some logic to avoiding unnecessary decision-making and saving one’s mental energy for where it’s really needed.

Using simple tools, when that’s all you need

I used to be intrigued by all the fancy apps for creating and managing to-do lists, and those apps certainly make sense for some people. But at some point, I realized that for me a simple text file was sufficient, and going back to that basic tool made my life easier. Sometimes extra features are a distraction, not a benefit.

Label makers provide another example of a tool that might be overly complicated for you. I happen to like using one, but two of my fellow professional organizers recently explained why they don’t use label makers. If handwritten labels meet your needs, go for it! They’re certainly simpler to create.

Sorting papers and naming files

Many files are easy to sort and name. Most people don’t struggle with how to file financial or medical information, for example.

But for random papers that fall outside the standard categories, things aren’t as obvious, and it’s easy to get hung up on how to file those papers. I’ve found it simplifies my filing to have one file named “Fingertips” for all that unrelated information I use the most often — the things I want to have at my fingertips. In The Organized Mind, author Daniel J. Levitin mentioned someone who found it useful to create the filing equivalent of a junk drawer. He called that file “Stuff I don’t know where to file.” And Judith Kolberg wrote in Conquering Chronic Disorganization about someone who created files named “Why can’t I find this when I need it?” and “Things clients bug me for.”

Once we create these simple but less conventional types of files, many filing dilemmas disappear.

Giving things away

It can be easy to get caught up in trying to find the perfect new homes for things we’re getting rid of, and sometimes (especially for sentimental things) that can be worth the time and effort. But other times the easiest answer is the best.

I have a large serving platter that was a gift; it’s something I don’t need or particularly like, so I know I want to get rid of it. (I also know it isn’t valuable enough to be worth my time to sell it.) I enjoy giving things away on freecycle, since I’m part of a great freecycle community, but I didn’t have any luck when I tried to freecycle the platter months ago. I was about to try again, but then I realized it would be simpler to just take it to the nonprofit thrift store that’s five minutes from my home. It’s going there tomorrow.

Organize your notebooks for quick reference

Back in 2013, I wrote the article “Marking up your to do lists for increased productivity” about formal methods of marking up your notes and lists to make them more usable and easier to reference. I was reminded of it recently when I came across a Fast Company article, which introduced yet another trick for organizing a notebook that I like quite a bit.

I carry a little notebook in my pocket all the time. Even though I’m a a professional techie, I still feel that the best way to jot something down I need to remember is with a pen and a piece of paper.

Any problems I encounter with this system come from retrieving the information that I’ve written down. The rapid nature of quickly jotting something down often means poor organization of the captured information. To help solve this issue, this is where Rachel Gillett’s advice in the Fast Company article applies.

Cribbing from Adam Akhtar, Rachel suggests writing a sort of index in the back of your notebook while taking notes or jotting ideas down. This index is comprised of themes or topics that come up while you’re writing things down. In her example, she wrote down the following topics:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Social media
  4. CMS
  5. Analytics
  6. New Staff

She recommends leaving one line between each index topic. Then, when she writes something down that corresponds to one of these topics, she makes a mark on the edge of the page that corresponds to the line on which that word is written. The image at the top of this post illustrates this idea pretty clearly. Then, when she wants to find notes on writing, she can turn to the back page and quickly see the pages with relevant content. Flipping to them is quick and easy.

I think this system is a brilliant solution. It’s easy to see how this will work outside of business, too. Topics like “kids,” “school,” “work,” or whatever applies to your life would be perfect.

Again, check my older article for some additional ideas for adding a bit of organization to your notebooks. Jotting something down is easy. Finding it when you need it later doesn’t have to be a problem.

Review: ScanSnap iX100 is a fast, portable, uncluttered scanner

When I worked as an IT director in the early 2000s, scanners were huge, bulky slabs of plastic and glass. They demanded a lot of desk space, cranky software, and patience. I thought of those olden days while I reviewed the ScanSnap iX100 this past week.

This small scanner (pictured above with my computer’s mouse for scale) is just under 11 inches long and about 1.5 inches tall. It’s very light — only 14oz — and completely wireless. But don’t let the size fool you, the iX100 is a very capable scanner. I scanned everything from documents to 8″x10″ photos to playing cards with ease. Finally, the lack of cables makes my clutter-averse heart happy. The following is a detailed look at the Fujitsu iX100 ScanSnap wireless scanner.

Unboxing

It was very simple to get the iX100 up in running. Inside the box, I found:

  • A DVD with installation software for Apple’s OS X as well as Windows
  • A Getting Started Guide, complete with URLs for detailed instruction in 10 languages
  • A detailed handbook, again in several languages
  • Warranty and registration information
  • A micro-USB to USB cable
  • The iX100 itself

I was happy to see the USB cable, as I’ve bought a few printers that shipped without one.

Setup

The iX100 requires software to run, of course, and you’ve got two installation options. To get started, just insert the supplied DVD. From there you can install from the disc itself (the faster option), or download the lot from online. It’s a simple process and the installer walks you through the whole thing.

When that’s done, you can connect the scanner to your computer via the supplied USB cable and turn it on by simply opening the feed guide (the little flap on front). My Mac recognized it instantly, which was great. That’s cool and all, but wireless setup is even better.

The installer will ask if you want to enable wireless scanning. If you do, flip the Wi-Fi switch on the back of the machine so that the indicator light turns blue. The software will ask for permission to access your local network. Grant it and follow the instructions on the screen. When that’s done, you can put that USB cable right back in the box! Hooray! This entire process from opening the box to being ready to scan took less than 10 minutes.

Scanning

Easy setup doesn’t matter if the thing doesn’t work, right? Well I’m glad to say that it definitely does. There’s a tiny feature here that I really like. On the far left of the feed guide there’s a tiny arrow pointing to its edge. That little guy tells you how to orient documents, as well as where to place smaller items. If you’ve ever wasted time by scanning something upside down, you how nice that tiny arrow is.

To scan a document, push it gently into the iX100 until you hear its motor give a tiny whirr. That tells you that it has hold of it. Next, decide if you want to scan in straight or “U-Turn” mode. If you decide on straight, it will spit your document out behind the scanner. If you decide on U-Turn mode, it won’t do that. To engage U-Turn mode, fold the top of the scanner’s case up. This directs the paper going through the scanner back toward the front. If you’ve got the scanner on the edge of your desk like I do, this is terrific, as you needn’t worry about anything falling to the floor or getting crumpled by an adjacent wall. Then tap the Scan/Stop button and the scan begins.

Once the scan is complete, a menu pops up asking what you’d like to do with the scanned file. I was elated to see my beloved Evernote included. You can either send your file to Evernote as a document in the inbox or as a note. Other options include sending it to a specific folder, email, your printer, Dropbox, Google Documents, and more. This set of options is really nice, as chances are you aren’t going to simply drop the file onto your computer’s desktop, but do something with it once you’ve made the scan. There are even dedicated operations for organizing receipts and business cards in the software.

Scanning to Mobile

This feature is super cool. Scanning to a mobile device lets to scan even if your computer is turned off or not around. Once wireless scanning has been set up, all you need to do is download the iX100 ScanSnap mobile application. It’s available for iOS, Android, and the Kindle Fire. I have an iPhone, so I tested the iOS app.

Once the app has been installed, and both devices are on the same wireless network, just launch it on your smartphone or tablet. It will immediately begin looking for the scanner, and once it has found it, it asks for the device’s password, which appears on a sticker on the scanner’s underside.

Now, all you’ve got to do is place a document into the scanner and hit the blue scan button in the app. The document is scanned and sent to the device. It worked just fine for me and it’s a super fast way to get a document into my phone and ready to share. When you’re ready to scan to the computer again, simply close the app.

In conclusion, I’m quite impressed with the iX100. It’s very small and light, takes up almost no room, scans quickly and offers a wealth of options for working with your scanned document. Setup was a breeze and scanning directly to my iPhone is super useful. It is perfect for a small home office and for anyone who travels for business. Anyone looking for a clutter-free and simple scanning solution should definitely consider the iX100.

Where do you stand on digital books?

Since it’s the day after a holiday, I’m thinking maybe a conversation instead of straightforward advice will help us ease back into the week. Today, I’m putting a little mental energy into figuring out where I stand on digital books.

As far as I am concerned, digital books and the devices that we use to read them — smartphones, Kindles, Nooks and other digital readers — are super convenient and reduce physical clutter significantly. A personal library can exist on a device that is 6.7″ x 4.6″ x 0.36″, in the case of the Kindle Paperwhite. Digital books are usually less expensive (and the author may get a higher percentage of each sale), don’t take up anything but virtual space in your home, and don’t require a trip to a bookstore to purchase. Instead of a nightstand full of books to read, you have a few files on a device that you can re-read and reference whenever you wish.

Software features and other services increase the appeal of digital books. For example, both the Nook and Kindle let customers share books with others who have the same device — all you need is the other user’s email address. Some libraries have devised a way to loan out digital books, and services like Oyster and Kindle Unlimited let customers read all the digital books they want for less than $10 per month. That is serious convenience and clutter reduction.

Of course, there are reasons people may want to keep a few physical books around the house — kids books, first editions of rare books, and reference books might be some of those reasons. Also, there are books that are extremely expensive and you might worry that EPUB and other formats won’t be viable for your entire life. Additionally, there’s something nice about having books around, despite the bulk and tendency to stack.

So, where do you stand on digital books? Do your uncluttering preferences win out and are you primarily digital? Or, do you tend to collect the physical kind? There isn’t a right answer, but from an organizing and uncluttering perspective my guess is that most of our readers tend toward the digital type. What say you, readers? What is your preference?

Ask Unclutterer: How do you stay motivated when sorting papers?

Reader John recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post “Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?“:

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?

John, many people have this concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are strategies that might work to motivate you to keep organizing your papers.

Work in reasonably small blocks of time

Organizer Janine Adams wrote on her Peace of Mind Organizing Blog about a women who got through 12 years of accumulated papers by working on them for 15 to 30 minutes a day. It’s often easier to tackle a dreaded task if you know you only have to do it for a short period of time.

But, if you want to work for a longer stretch of time, that’s fine, too — just be sure to take breaks. You want to avoid decision fatigue. If you find yourself thinking, “I just don’t care any more,” you might start making poor decisions as a result.

Create a pleasant work environment

If you’re a person who gets energized from music, try playing some as you sort through those papers. Also, make sure you’re working in an area with sufficient lighting and a comfortable room temperature.

Have good tools

I know someone who prefers to keep certain papers in a three-ring binder. However, her three-hole paper punch didn’t work well; she always had to struggle with it. She has decided to invest in a higher quality hole punch that will be easier to use.

It definitely helps if all your frequently used tools work well. Those tools might include a label maker, a stapler, a staple puller, a letter opener, a shredder, and a scanner. If you are someone who is inspired by beautiful or cute objects, consider investing in those, too.

Put some things off

If you’re going through a big stack of papers and find a few you just can’t deal with right now, set them aside. Know that this is both normal and perfectly okay. Don’t let the few papers that are hardest to deal with derail your efforts. And, when you come back to those papers somewhat later, you may find them less challenging.

Keep the goal in mind

You’re likely going through papers for some good reason: so you can find things when you need them, so your space supports you in your work and family life, etc. Keep your goal in mind, and celebrate the small victories along the way, such as a critical paper found, or a chair that’s now usable because it no longer has papers stacked on it.

Enlist some help

A trusted friend might be able to help by doing a first-pass sort: financial, medical, etc. Or the friend could simply sit with you as you go through the papers, perhaps acting as a sounding board or just as an accountability partner.

And you can always hire a professional organizer to help. The National Association of Professional Organizers has a website that can help you find someone in your area.

Thank you, John, for asking such a good question.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field or put your inquiry in the comments to a post. If you send an email, please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Filing: what’s worth saving?

One of the questions I ask when tempted to save and file some paper (or save information electronically) is: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

Some items obviously need to be saved for tax and legal reasons (talk to an accountant, tax lawyer, and/or estate lawyer in your state to know exactly what the law requires you retain). But, what about the other bits of information we tend to save?

I started thinking about the items I have indeed pulled out and looked at again, and what prompted me to look at those items. I asked the following questions, which have led me to keep specific types of additional documents:

Large purchase receipts: When did I buy my refrigerator?

My refrigerator was making strange noises, and I was wondering whether I was going to need to replace it. A starting point in the repair vs. replace question is how old was the refrigerator. To answer this, I looked up the receipt, which I had scanned. Keeping receipts for large purchases can help with returns and warranties — and if the receipt is for a large appliance that will remain in the house when you move, you can pass it on to the next home owner.

Computer instructions: What apps do I need to update before I update my operating system?

When I went to update my MacBook to the Mavericks OS, I looked to my computer bookmarks to find the site that had an extensive list answering just this question. I’ve since shared this list with two other people who had the same question.

Additionally, sometimes when I’m using an application that I use infrequently, I may forget how to do certain actions. I’ve filed away how-to information that was a bit difficult to find, so I have it handy when I need to do the same thing again.

Local resources: What can I do with this old fur coat I inherited?

I get questions like this from my organizing clients, and I have bookmarks in my online browser with resources, ready to share. You may wish to keep a similar reference file with business cards, notes you’ve jotted down from friends’ recommendations, etc.

Travel resources: What did I want to see in a city I’m going to visit?

For places I’m hoping to visit someday, I keep bookmarks and scanned articles about them in a digital folder; other people may choose to keep such information in Evernote or in paper. While it’s easy to search for major tourist sites in any city, and nothing replaces an up-to-date guidebook, I also like the articles that point me to oddities I might not find otherwise or point me to things worth noticing at those major tourist sites. Visiting places like this have often been a highlight of a trip.

Looking at these questions, I can see what has been useful is practical information that I can’t necessarily find through a quick online search. Realizing this is the information I reference, it will help me make better decisions in the future about what to keep and what to toss. Now it’s time to ask yourself: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

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.

Effective note-taking

A few years ago, Unclutterer readers started a discussion on effective note-taking. Several of you had great suggestions, and looking at that old thread got me thinking about my own note-taking techniques. They’ve changed quite a bit since I was a young student, though I do still fall back on old techniques now and then.

Best practices

We take notes so we can recall important information later. It’s a real hassle to sit down to a review of your notes only to realize you’ve got overly complex notes that actually hinder your recall process. Avoid this frustration by keeping your note-taking simple. Use clear keywords and avoid the temptation to hurriedly write down everything the teacher, lecturer, or coworker says. I put things into my own words unless I hear a fantastic phrase that I’ll want to recall verbatim. When that happens, I use quotation marks.

That said, a logical flow that works for you is most important. When I was a young student, I learned the hierarchical Arabic system that started with a Roman numeral, and added a capital letter under that, etc. That served me well through high school, but once I was in college I found it was hard to keep up with lectures using this system.

That’s when I adopted a system of dashes and dots. Large dots identified a main topic, with dashes and smaller dots marking sub-categories beneath those (similar to the “Dash Plus” system Patrick Rhone uses on to-do lists). It was quick and effective for me.

Taking notes is only the starting point, of course. Just because you write something down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall/find it later. My system to help me find information later couldn’t be easier. As a matter of course, I write the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page of notes. When a new topic begins, I circle the page number. Then, I make a bold line across the bottom of the final page of those notes to represent the end of that topic. If I’ve got a lot of notes, let’s say more than 12 pages, I’ll write an index for my own reference. For example, “Sample service schedule, page 11.”

You might also benefit from trying to create your index from memory before writing in page numbers. Creating this list mostly from memory will start you on your recall process.

Technology

For many, paper will be the answer for which technology to use for taking notes. If that’s you, I understand. Paper is tremendously flexible. You can capture a grocery list or solve very complex problems with a sheet of paper (or note card or napkin or sticky note) and a pencil. But, if you do use paper, I strongly recommend you scan your paper notes and run them through a hand-writing recognition program (like the one standard in Evernote) so you can easily search your notes later and have a backup of them in the Cloud.

If you’re not a paper person and you want to use something electronic, consider the following:

Mind Mapping. I’ve written about my love of Mind Mapping before on Unclutterer. It’s a non-liner way to capture ideas quickly. It’s especially useful when one aspect or idea will quickly spawn several others. On the Mac side, I love MindNode Pro. Windows users will want to check out Mindmeister.

Evernote. Here’s a great solution that’s platform-agnostic. It’s like working with paper, so you can use any system you like. The real power with Evernote is how searchable everything is. You can find any word or phrase you like and even create saved searches that monitor your notes for criteria you determine in real time.

Sketchnotes. If you’re an extremely visual person, you may benefit from taking Sketchnotes. The app Adobe Ideas (which easily integrates with other Adobe products) and Paper by FiftyThree both have high reviews by Mac users. And INKredible is well-rated for Android users.

I find that note-taking is a personal thing, with people using a wide range of methods. The important take-aways from this article are: keep note-taking simple, stick to important keywords, use a markup system that makes review helpful for you, and don’t be afraid to abandon systems that are no longer effective.