Welcome to the post I thought I’d never write. When people asked me how to solve paper accumulation solving problems and implementing a paper-based organizational system, I’d grimace (and growl a little) and say I couldn’t help them. I would share how I had diminished paper clutter so it no longer caused me much anxiety (just minimal annoyance) by cleaning up and putting a few habits in their place. But solve? New.
Now I have a solution. I set up this system based on the advice of my dear fellow instructors in the Take back your home course: Dawn (from The Minimal Mother) and Cas (from junk bug and host of HGTV’s Hot Mess House). I’ve learned from them, and they give much more detail about organizing paper and ideas that you can adapt to your unique personality and home.
I have been using this paper filing system for about four months now. I’ll keep you posted on how it continues to work (or not) as time goes on, but this system has worked for me better than anything else I’ve tried.
Note to those overwhelmed: If you wake up at night thinking about all the paper clutter in your house, take a deep breath. At the end of this post, I’ll link to my advice on how to cut down on paper clutter and cut through the feeling of being completely overwhelmed.
I set up a system for dealing with incoming paper BEFORE I got control of existing stacks of paper.
I truly believe this advice from Dawn was the biggest game changer for me. Paper keeps coming. It just keeps coming, and that’s what makes it so crazy. Paper. . . never . . . stops.
But just as the washing up consistently had a greater and lasting impact on my home than frantically tidying up, going through and handling incoming mail for a weekend a month before I cleared the backlog of paper, it had a huge impact.
Dealing with what came in for one day was not intimidating. Handling the daily mail in this new system gave me confidence that the system was working and that gave me confidence in myself that I could maintain this system.
I stuck to a few broad categories.
Cas recommends sticking to broad categories when submitting paper, and she calls this a “less organized approach.” You all know this is up my alley. The general idea is that a paper organization system is more practical and maintainable if you keep it simple.
I chose to use three categories for paper filing: To Do, Wait and See, and 2021. They speak for themselves, but I’ll explain anyway.
The To Do file is for anything that requires an action. (I think Dawn calls her an Action File.) I’ve put license renewal letters, car registration stuff, bills to pay (which can’t be fully converted to online announcements), and the like in that file.
I put graduation announcements in the To Do file until I bought gifts and mailed them. In previous years I had stacked the announcements in a ‘good’ place, but the piles changed and grew and gathered things that had nothing to do with each other, until it was a hassle to find them and I was afraid I had one missed.
The Wait and see file is for things that don’t require action, but that I may need later. I put coupons in there (for specific things, not just the whole coupon insert), the tree trimmer card, etc.
The 2021 file is for everything important for this year, like house maintenance records and everything we need to keep for taxes. (Like it our Suburban’s donation receipt!)
We already had a permanent place (where we would look first) for the big important things like Social Security cards and birth certificates and driver’s licenses. That place works, so we’ll keep it.
I have set up a vertical filing system for organizing paper.
Cas gives organizational strategies based on the personality of the person she helps. She told me to focus on vertical paper storage, so I bought the wall-nailing filing system.
I was skeptical based on long time experience of trying systems like this. I now realize that my skepticism/fear of failure was based on the fact that I had tried such systems before understanding what I now call the Container concept.
When I didn’t understand that containers are meant to serve as a limit, I just kept piling up. Push. Overfill. So the memories I had of these sort of organizing solutions were papers sticking up and out and files bursting. Or fall off the wall. Not knowing the problem was that I was trying to save too much, I decided there was something wrong with the system and went back to stacks.
The vertical system works for me because it’s nailed to the wall. It’s immovable. Immovable. As someone who doesn’t see incremental junk I could set up a handy horizontal system, but I wouldn’t notice it again until it had fallen over and turned into a pile covering the surface.
And the finite space (containers) for three categories that are supposed to cover all the paper that comes into my house makes me upgrade my existing paper-clutter-reducing strategies.
I have already moved the mail directly to the trash/trash bin. For years, that was my main way to keep paper from piling up in my house. Usually at least 5 of the 7 mail items are waste. However, now that I have to choose a particular category for every piece of paper I keep, I find myself opening important-looking envelopes that I used to put in my paper bin just because they looked important. It turns out that a lot of things that look important aren’t really important. Or maybe they’re important enough to look at, but not important enough to keep. Now I notice that I can usually lose 6 of the 7 mail items! And often all 7!
With clear (though broad) categories, I eliminate so much more paper.
The experience and confidence I gained made it easier to clear out old piles of paper.
After about six weeks of processing incoming mail and gaining confidence that it was actually possible to put anything that came in into one of those categories, I started giving my bin full of scrap paper a side-eye.
I wanted it gone. Not that I was perky or giddy to deal with it. I didn’t want to spend my Saturday morning cleaning up the paper, but it irritated me more and more.
I started by giving myself permission to do the easy things first. I would try to shrink the pile by going through it, just worrying about getting rid of the obvious waste. This accomplishes two things. First, it reduces the size of the stack, which reduces the feeling of being overwhelmed. Second, it lets me watch. When I go through the pile, I see what’s inside. Just knowing (rather than imagining that everything is painfully important) helps me be more ready to tackle the more difficult things on the pile.
But when I started leafing through the pile of old paper without obligation, I shocked myself by finishing it. Fully. I found that my experience with the simple organization system made it easy to archive or delete everything in the stack.
Setting up an incoming paper system helped me to clear up old paper. Actually!
At first I didn’t like the look of the hanging wall folders. I preferred my plain, boring, blank wall, and it took me some time to get used to seeing them.
I added the blue file folders and it made it look better and stay a bit neater than when it was plain paper in the black wire stuff.
But I learned to be okay with it, because I LOVED seeing the clear countertop right in my kitchen that had a bin full of paper for years. Every day I’ll take a hidden wall (it’s behind my bedroom door) over that open-to-the-public eyesore in the kitchen.
The Take Your House Back course is SO USEFUL!
Take Your House Back is open for registration until September 15th! I loved hearing from so many people how this course has changed their home. And I’ve learned too!
I’m sharing screenshots of compliments on the course on a recent video below. I think the first one covers all bases! And the second image shows the responses to that comment from others in the course! Go to TakeYourHouseBack.com register!
As promised, here are other posts on paper from the past. The focus here is on REDUCE paper, and there’s a lot of value in that! This system was so much easier to implement because I already had so much paper on hand! If you can’t even imagine three categories or three files for your paper, focus on reducing paper for now. I know you are overwhelmed, and I understand. These links are for you:
How to reduce paper clutter?
The thing about piles of paper
022 Podcast for Reducing Paper Clutter