by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
When it comes to discussing what to do with kids’ school papers, I’m not only talking to parents of young children. I’ve talked to and heard stories about people in their 50s and 60s who have devoted large amounts of space to storing their kids’ papers from school.
I’m not talking about class photos and report cards, I mean every quiz, report, coloring page, and so on that their child signed their name to and brought home.
Boxes and boxes of papers that teen and adult children have said they have no interest in. However, the parent is convinced that at some point in the future, their children will be thrilled to move 26 boxes of spelling quizzes and reports about the volcanoes into their own homes.
Whether your child is three or thirty, I’d like to suggest a more manageable (and, perhaps, appreciated) way of keeping your child’s paper-related memories.
Create a Memory Box
I remember reading how Gretchen Rubin decided to tackle her daughter’s paper by limiting herself to a pretty file box for each girl. She set up hanging file folders, one for each grade, to hold special papers – class photos, family holiday photos, report cards, the invitation to the girl’s birthday party, and so on.
Because she was limiting saved papers to those that would fit each daughter’s school years into a single box, Gretchen chose what best reflected each grade. (At the time she wrote about this both girls were young and so she selected what was saved. I don’t know if as her daughters got older, they selected what was saved.)
Basically, these memory boxes were Gretchen Rubin’s choice of memories for each daughter. And that’s the thing, when you save your child’s papers, you are curating your memories of their time in school.
Help Your Child Create a Memory Box
Kids may be inclined to keep all their school papers because they never learned how to curate their collections. In class, their teacher may have them keep all the papers for each subject in a folder and so your child doesn’t realize that they can pick and choose what to keep.
With young children, it may be easier to have a box where all school, extracurricular, and camp papers are deposited throughout the year. I don’t mean documents that as the parent or guardian you should keep in your files, but the tests and coloring pages that are kid-generated and -oriented.
Then, at the end of the school year, sit down with your child and have them pick out their favorite five (or however many work for you) papers to keep in their memory box. Keep the process moving with promises of ice cream or a movie when all the papers have been sorted.
Finally, recycle anything your child doesn’t want. I know, you’re afraid that you child will want their fourth-grade math tests when they have kids in the fourth grade; but, no, no they won’t.
Think about it – how often have you thought, “Wow, I wish I kept my fifth-grade report on Oregon”? I’m thinking, never.
Curating a Memory Box for Your Child
Maybe you have a wall of boxes filled with old school papers. You can’t imagine simply picking up a box and dropping it into your recycling bin. In that case, plan to devote numerous evenings to sorting through these papers.
When it comes to keeping something, consider if it is your best memory of your child’s school experience. Is your child really going to be happy seeing a report card from sixth grade that was filled with C- and D grades?
When you’re debating whether to keep something, consider this – could you add a note explaining why you thought a particular report, test, or art project was special? If not, then your child may still view the items as a collection of useless papers from their past.
Remember, just because you find these school papers important doesn’t mean that your child will have any interest in them – particularly if they’ve told you they have no interest in keeping this stuff. Even if you invest hours curating dozens of boxes down to one or two, there is still nothing saying that your adult child will appreciate the collection you’ve kept for them.
And, if you are thinking, “I’ll hold onto everything so my children can make the decision someday,” know that an overwhelming quantity of stuff will only make it more likely that your children will toss the items without a second glance.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
What makes something special to you? Is it something that you look at once a year or when you need a pick-me-up? Is something truly special to you if you tuck it into a box that’s stored in an inaccessible corner of your attic or basement?
Only you can decide what is special to you. However, take the time to consider if you are treating something as special while showing how much that it means to you.
I’ll be addressing the topic of photos during October’s theme for A Year of Decluttering. If you find photos as you sort your papers, group them together.
Eliminate Malignant Memorabilia
Just because something reflects your past doesn’t mean that you need to keep it. If you didn’t like high school and have no contact with the people you graduated with, you don’t have to keep your yearbook. Nor do you need to keep cards, photos, or gifts that remind you of negative people and experiences in your life.
The purpose of a greeting card is to extend a greeting or sentiment. Once you read the card, it’s done its job and you’re free to discard it. You can display the card for a few days or a week, but at some point, it will become something that you won’t keep on display.
If the individual included a personalized note that is meaningful to you and that you would like to read again, you’ve identified it as more special than a card someone simply signed their name to.
A lot of people mention that they don’t know what to do with photo holiday cards; they hold onto them, treating them like a photo. If you keep these cards, keep them together. The way I see it, they are interesting because you can look back and see how kids have changed; without this continuity, it’s just a card.
Also, you aren’t obligated to keep everyone’s photo card, just your closest friends and family. If you have a relationship with the family, all the more significant; otherwise, it’s just a card.
Would you spend money on a photo album or picture frame to keep these images? That can also be a helpful way to determine its importance. And, you could always scan the image and toss the original.
If you feel obligated to keep every greeting card you’ve receive, it becomes more difficult to find those with a special message.
Create a Memory Box
You may already have a shoebox or a decorative box for memorabilia. If you have a mix of papers as well as objects (clothing, knickknacks), you may want two boxes. If these items are special to you alone, you could put a note on or in the box requesting that the items be destroyed upon your death.
If there are letters or objects that you’d like your family to consider keeping, help them better appreciate their significance to you, include a note that explains the item(s). If you have something that you’d like another family member to take, include this information.
Maybe you have your grandparents’ letters to one another while he was at war. Consider scanning the letters so you can share them with other family members. If you have something like this that you want to bequeath to your town library or historical society or a museum, talk to someone at that institution. In some cases, they will also need funds to create a display or even to properly store the items.
Create a Scrapbook or Shadowbox
Grouping items together can help show the story these keepsakes tell about your life. If you don’t scrapbook, you can ask around on social media and find out if someone you know would do this for you.
That said, don’t invest time and money in storing or presenting items that you aren’t going to look at. Sure, you went to that play or concert but is it worth trying to create a display commemorating what was simply a pleasant evening out?
Curate the Highlights
As I said, you decide what is important to you. Curating the items that are most significant to you and eliminating the so-so objects helps you to better highlight the events and people most important to you.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
Years ago, in college, a couple of the professors would leave at the library reference desk, weekly packets of photocopied articles from professional journals. Instead of trying to read the articles in the library, I followed the actions of my classmates and photocopied these articles. The task could take an hour to do and by the end of the semester I had probably spent more money of these stacks of photocopies than I would have on a textbook.
And, as someone who crochets, the Internet is a magical place filled with free patterns for the downloading. And printing. At one point, to organize all the crochet patterns I was certain I would one day craft, I went out and bought five two-inch three-ring binders along with boxes of page protectors, and spent several evenings setting patterns into the page protectors and sorting everything by type of project.
I was so organized. And, yet, I missed an important detail. I wasn’t going to make all these projects. In fact, I often went to the Internet to look for an item to make without even considering my oh-so-neat binders filled with hundreds of projects.
Did I learn my lesson? Nope. When I started taking professional development classes through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, I’d print out the handouts and put them in a labeled file folder.
I was wondering where to store these files while running off the handouts from a course on eliminating paper clutter. Really. I went back and downloaded the handouts and saved them on my computer and recycled the papers.
The Desktop Printer and Your Clutter
I remember years ago when, if you wanted a copy of information in a book or magazine, you either had to take notes or you could photocopy the pages you wanted. Nowadays, desktop printers are inexpensive, and so it’s easy to print off a recipe, craft pattern, or how-to article that you want to refer to later.
Chances are, though, that you print off more information than you have time to do anything with. When I talk about paper clutter, I most often refer to paper coming into your house, but you probably generate a good number of documents right at your desk.
Storing magazines in those holders made for this task can make you feel organized. All those back issues for inspiration and information. And if you enjoy randomly flipping through the pages of these magazines (and do so on a regular basis), then they are earning their space in your home.
However, if you’re like me, you realize that it’s nearly impossible to find a specific recipe or craft pattern or set of directions or information in a stack of magazines.
You can take the time to tear out the pages you are most interested in (make certain to get that last column that can get printed to the back of the magazine!), clip the pages together, and set everything in files.
However, before you do this, consider your goal – how will you use the information you are organizing? If you are collecting images of kitchens because you’ll be renovating in the next year, you have a purpose and a deadline. If you are collecting craft patterns, consider when you’ll make these projects.
Watch out for, “that’s such a cute idea,” if you don’t have a person and event to craft an item for. Maybe you’ll want to do it in the future; but chances are that you’ll find another project by then.
How to Declutter and Organize Reference Materials
Maintain What’s Useful
Like other types of documents, you want to keep what you’ll refer to in the future and you want it organized so you can find it when you want it. Although it can be a difficult decision to release information that you thought you’d use or use again, you’ll free up space in your home and release the emotional weight of things requesting that you act on them.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
Your efforts decluttering paperwork and setting up a filing system won’t be successful without routines to maintain order. While a routine may sound boring or demanding, once established it creates an almost effortless way to keep paper under control.
You’ve likely spent a few (or several) hours decluttering paper and getting to the point where you aren’t looking at piles of paper throughout your home. You don’t want to mess up your efforts by not setting up a routine for sorting and filing new papers.
Establish a Schedule
When you establish a time and a day to review your inbox, file papers, or handle any other paper-related tasks, it can become easier to do – once you’ve made the decision to keep your papers under control.
The key here is to eliminate options. “As an organized person, I sort through incoming papers and handle any related tasks, weekday evenings at 8 p.m.” When you decide what you’re willing to do (daily, Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday, or weekly; morning or at night), you eliminate wasting energy as you debate, “Should I do this today or could I do this tomorrow?”
You may think that you don’t need a schedule and that you’ll fit in the tasks when you see they need to be done. Chances are, this is how the paper at home got out of hand.
If you want to sneak in a non-routine routine, tie-in sorting, filing, and decluttering papers with other tasks or events. For example, clear through your file box or cabinet on Groundhog Day or sort through the mail while cooking dinner.
If you think you’ll forget, set an alarm or a calendar reminder on your smartphone.
Sort Incoming Papers
How often will you go through your inbox? There’s no perfect answer here, it depends on your life (is it just you or you and your family?), how much paper comes into your home, and how quickly you need to respond to requests (for payment or a particular action).
You can’t go wrong with sorting your inbox daily. It could take you five minutes or fifteen, depending on the day. If you think “do this daily” and you occasionally miss a day, things still won’t get out of control, just sort through the papers the next day.
Act on Incoming Papers
When sorting your inbox, you want to do something with each paper. Avoid the temptation of using your inbox for storage! Although I use the word “file,” you can interpret this as putting something in a file folder or setting it in a bin or box until you are ready to act on it.
As you develop the habit of sorting through all incoming paper each day (or week), you’ll decide what to do with these papers. You can plan what you’ll do with the papers in advance or as you handle different papers.
Once you make a decision, you’ll know what to do in the future (for example, “put all store receipts in this shoebox until I can check them against my credit card statement”).
Declutter Your Files
When you file a bill, can you toss the filed copy of the previous bill? When you get a copy of your new car insurance plan, as you file it, you can remove the expired copy from the previous year.
You can use gathering your paperwork for your taxes as a prompt to sort through all the files in your box or cabinet. Or, you can set a random day to do this such as New Year’s Day or Groundhog’s Day.
When you get rid of a product, like the toaster oven that no longer works, clear out any paperwork you had for that item. Or, sort through this file as part of your yearly decluttering.
To keep your paper clutter under control, you need a plan for handling incoming papers (mail, receipts, greeting cards, etc.) as well as plan for clearing through your files on a yearly basis.
Although this may sound like a lot of work, keeping things in control means that you’ll never struggle to try and fit a document into an overstuffed file or file drawer. And, because you’ll be filing things on a regular basis, you’ll stay familiar with your files and have an easier time finding a document when you go looking for it.
And, best of all, the stress you’ve felt being surrounded by disorganized paper clutter will be a thing of the past.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
A command center is like a gatekeeping secretary that sorts things before they get into a manager’s office. Depending on your or your family’s needs, a command center could be as simple as an inbox (with a print calendar and dry erase board or corkboard) … or each member of your family could have a color-coded mail slot in addition to the basics.
Keep your system simple. You can always adapt it later to changing needs. If you have a system that works for you – the family posts scheduled events and appointments on a shared Google calendar, it isn’t necessary to change your current situation.
Create an Inbox
You want a basket or tray where you can place all paper coming into your house – mail, notes from your child or grandchild’s school, receipts – really, any paper that you, or any member of your family, are carrying into your home.
If you have kids, train them to put anything that you need to deal with into this box. This means – notes from the teacher, permission slips, graded papers, anything that you need to see.
You’ll also want to train, er, request that your spouse or partner put incoming papers that you need to deal with into this location.
Your home inbox isn’t intended for storage, it’s meant to be a central location for papers that need to be acknowledged and may require an additional task (respond to an invitation, pay a bill, read a magazine, sign paperwork and return, confirm that a receipt has been recorded by your bank, file a paper for potential future reference).
Where to Place Your Inbox
Likely, this inbox will not sit on your desk. Instead, it should be someplace convenient to where you enter your home most of the time. It doesn’t have to be right next to the door. Where do you normally drop the mail or your keys or purse after entering your house? That’s likely a good spot for your inbox.
The benefit to not keeping your inbox on your desk – your desk will stop being treated like a dumping ground.
Create an Inbox Routine
You’ll want to figure out how often you need to go through your inbox – once a day, once a week, every other week? The more frequent the habit, the easier it may be to keep because, well, it becomes a habit and you don’t have to think about whether it needs to be done today or tomorrow.
Your inbox routine involves acting on everything that has been gathered here. You pay a bill or put it in a folder so it can be paid on time. You toss anything you don’t have to hold onto – let’s say you’ve recorded an event into your calendar, you could then recycle the print flyer. The current issue of a magazine gets popped onto your coffee table as you remove the old issue.
You can bring the contents of the inbox to your desk and handle each task. Although handling your inbox daily may seem to involve more work, once you get into the routine, it will go quickly.
What Else to Include in Your Command Center
Keep it simple, whether you are organizing for you and your spouse or for you and your kids. You may find that you only need an inbox. You may want a dry erase board or chalkboard posted on the wall to include important reminders for the day. A corkboard could be the place to tack up flyers and invitations if you do best with a visual reminder (that you don’t get when you tuck something into a file box or enter it onto a digital calendar).
Other things you may want in your command center:
Maintain Your Command Center
Whether you toss incoming paper into a decorative box or basket, or you create a command center, your goal should be to make this the spot where paper entering the house gets put until you take the time to act on or file these documents.
This area acts as a gatekeeper that controls paper, so you don’t end up with some paper left on your kitchen counter, some dropped on your desk, and other paper carried into your bedroom. Even a simple inbox can help you reduce and funnel papers to the appropriate place in your home.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
When it comes to labelling files, being too specific is almost as confusing as having no order at all. If you have one or two pieces of paper in a file, you’re being too specific. On the other hand, if you have an inch-thick stack of paper in a single file folder, then the category is too broad.
Think about Retrieving Your Papers
You want to label your files so you can find what you’re looking for when you need it. And, to do that, you want to think about retrieving information as opposed to filing it.
By that, I mean, what do you call that thing you drive? A “car,” “auto,” “automobile,” “C” (for car), “vehicle,” or “2014 Honda CRV?” If you label your file as “vehicle,” you’ll be frantic when you go looking for it under, “car.”
Keep like stuff together. You could label a hanging file folder as “utilities,” and then have manila folders individually labeled as “gas,” “electric,” “phone,” “cable,” “trash,” etc. where you keep a copy of your most current paid bill.
Set Up Hanging File Folders
Think of hanging file folders as grouping similar papers together. “Banks,” “Investments,” “Utilities,” and so on. Manila file folders sit within the hanging file folders and further subdivide the topic into specific banks or accounts or different utilities.
A hanging file folder labeled “auto” could contain file folders broken down into topics such as “car insurance,” “maintenance,” and “payments” (for car payments, taxes, and insurance payments).
Find Files Faster
Keep the plastic tabs on hanging file folders all to the left or all in the center as opposed to trying to stagger them. When you add a folder in the future, you’ll lose this careful presentation. Also, this straight-line filing is supposed to make it easier to find your files since your eyes won’t be skittering back and forth over the tabs.
Keep It Visible
If you are a piler versus a filer, you may struggle to keep the out-of-sight documents in your file cabinet up-to-date. If you prefer to pile things to keep them visible, consider using a file box and keep the cover off.
I keep a file box and I found when I put the cover on, I would pile stuff on top of this flat surface and then it was a hassle to file a document that should have taken just seconds to do so. I keep the cover off the box so I can move papers in and out quickly.
Another option if you want to keep your files out in the open but neat is to consider attaching a vertical file holder to a wall or using a vertical desktop organizer. You’re still filing papers in manila folders, but they are more visible, and you may find it easier to file papers.
Of course, if you like being able to hide your papers and folders from view by putting them in a file cabinet, then keep doing that!
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By Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
If you’ve never created an effective filing system or feel that you must save anything that could be potentially useful, then chances are you’re holding onto more paper than you need to. I’ve addressed things like junk mail, catalogs, magazines, and notes from classes in a previous article.
While a lot of people feel that holding onto documents ‘just in case’ is a safe route to follow, you are now filling your files with unnecessary paperwork, which could make it more difficult for you to locate or identify important documents.
By keeping everything, you are saying that everything is equally important. But that isn’t the case. An ATM slip that you’ve cross-referenced with your bank statement isn’t as important as a W-2 document.
What to Keep
Below are links to a few sites that list which documents to keep forever, a year, or a month. Of course, if you can download documents from online (say, your bank statement or electric bill), then you could consider that source your back-up.
Just because you can print out a copy of something doesn’t mean you are obligated to do so. You could save a digital copy if you feel you need to keep something. (I’ll cover digital decluttering and organizing during June’s A Year of Decluttering articles.)
Basically, hold onto paper that record that some big event has occurred in your life (you were born, married, divorced, bought a house) and that prove or confirm that you’ve done something (you bought a refrigerator, you deposited money in your checking account).
This is a highly simplified suggestion; and, since I’m not a lawyer, financial planner, or accountant, I’ve provided links to a few sites so you can use the information you feel most comfortable with.
Dave Ramsey – Important Documents https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/organizing-your-important-documents/
Life Hacker – What to Keep and What to Shred https://lifehacker.com/what-documents-should-i-shred-and-what-should-i-keep-5977082
Good Housekeeping – Important Papers to keep https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/organizing/tips/a27006/important-papers-to-keep/
The Spruce – How Long to Keep Documents https://www.thespruce.com/how-long-to-keep-documents-2648494
Declutter What You Don’t Need to Keep
Now is the time to open your file cabinets and pull out the papers you don’t need. There’s no easy way to do this. Grab the file folders at the front of the drawer, open them one at a time and pull out what you no longer need for reference. Return what you want to keep.
Don’t worry about relabeling file folders or filing any new papers. First, clear out what you don’t need and create some space.
If you have a lot of papers to shred, investigate local shredding services. You might have to bring boxes of paper to an office supply store or a shredding center; although if you have years of old paperwork, you can find out if they can come to your home. Yes, you have to pay for this service, but it can be cheaper than burning out multiple paper shredders; not to mention the time it can save you.
I’ll address setting up, or revamping, your filing system in a future article.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
One of the most overwhelming qualities of paper clutter is that you’ll likely find it in every room of your house. In some cases, we put something down ‘temporarily,’ but the paper stays in that spot (while inviting more paper) because we don’t know what to do with it.
Spend some time cleaning up the visible piles of paper in your home and you’ll feel a huge shift in your sense of control over all this stuff.
Gather Your Paper
Move around your home, going into each room and gathering all visible papers. By ‘visible,’ I mean anything that isn’t tucked into a box, bin, drawer, cabinet, closet, etc. If it’s out in the open, on a flat surface, collect it.
And, by ‘paper,’ I mean – newspapers, magazines, catalogs, mail, notes, flyers, receipts, handouts, bills, cards, invitations, statements, and things you’ve printed from the computer or torn from magazines. You won’t deal with books, office supplies, photos, or paper crafts, so you don’t need to move this stuff around for this decluttering task.
You may want to gather the papers from a room and sort them before collecting more paper from another room.
Do a Preliminary Sort
You’ll want a few boxes or trays for sorting. Label one of the trays, “Respond to.” You’ll also want a recycling bin nearby. If you have a paper shredder, move it where you’re working.
As you sort through the papers you’ve collected, put anything in the Respond to tray which you need to respond to – the invitation, the bill that needs to be paid, etc. If a person or company is waiting for something from you, put that paper in the box or respond to it immediately – pay the bill, accept the invitation.
You’ll pick up each piece of paper or paper item and either put it in your “Respond to” box, toss it in your recycling bin, shred it, or put it in a pile with similar items that you want to review or think what you want to do with (like, cards, handouts from school or work, or recipes you’ve printed from online).
You may have heard of the OHIO ‘rule’ – “Only Handle It Once.” Don’t worry about adhering to this ‘rule,’ as you’ve already moved this stuff around at least a few times. Some things that don’t require an immediate action need a decision about what you want to do with the items.
You don’t need to file anything at this stage.
Contain the Papers You’re Sorting
I’ll address bills, statement, warranties, and other papers that you might need to keep for reference in another article. As you sort your papers, you can put these things in piles – utility bills, checking statements, warranties, and so on.
Sort the papers you’ll deal with later into shallow boxes or trays, so they stay together, and look contained and organized during this process. Don’t treat these boxes like file folders, the categories don’t have to be super-specific. If you have more than a half dozen sorting boxes, try to eliminate some.
The boxes are meant as a temporary hold. If you know you can toss a paper, do that instead of holding onto it.
If you feel that things are becoming more disorganized, know that’s normal. Carry out the recycling bin and take a small break.
Decide What You’ll Do with Different Papers
Newspapers – Recycle after reading. A key feature of the news is that it is new. Will you really read a four-day old newspaper? If you can’t make the time to read the paper, cancel your subscription. You can always renew.
Magazines – Keep the current issue and toss the older issues. If you aren’t making the time to read a magazine before you get a new issue, consider if you should cancel your subscription.
Catalogs – If you order from the company, keep the most current catalog only if you find it easier to find items in a catalog than online. If you don’t order from the company, toss the catalog. (I’ll address getting your name off mailing lists below).
Charity requests – Even if you donate to the charity, you don’t need to keep the requests (or even the free notepads and address labels). You can always donate online.
Store receipts – Tuck current receipts into a file folder and clear it out once a month. If you know you aren’t going to return something, toss the receipt after you confirm that it’s been posted correctly to your debit or credit card.
Postcards for local services you may use – Toss because you can find this information in the phone book or online. However, you might want to keep these (particularly if there is a coupon) if you know you’ll be looking for a specific service provider in the upcoming weeks. Create a file and clean it out once a month. No, it isn’t necessary to create a separate folder for different services.
Phone Books – I kept tossing the phone books we were receiving until my husband went looking for the local phone book. Now that’s the only one I hold onto because it seems quicker to look up local phone businesses this way than to go online. If you never touch a physical phone book, don’t keep them.
Notes from Classes and Workshops – Do you really need this information? (If you’ve gone looking for it, then your answer is yes; if you haven’t given it a second thought since the class, the answer is probably no.)
Greeting Cards – Why do you want to hold onto a greeting card? I’ll address these potentially sentimental items in a future article sometime this month.
Eliminate Junk Mail
To limit the amount of junk mail arriving in your mailbox, make your request through the Direct Mail Association, https://dmachoice.thedma.org/. Last year, I subscribed to an app, PaperKarma, to eliminate all the mail that was arriving addressed to my deceased mother-in-law. Putting her name on the Direct Mail list and even listing her as deceased with the post office wasn’t eliminating the daily charity requests.
I have no affiliation with https://www.paperkarma.com/, it’s simply the app that I’ve been using. It’s simple to use but it can be time consuming in the beginning because you must enter a name as it appears on a piece of mail. That means ‘McCarthy’ is a different name than something entered into a database as ‘Mc Carthy’ or ‘M Carthy.’
I’ve used this for my husband as well as myself and there are days now when we receive a single letter sent from an organization we support. After seven months of using the app, our mail is downright boring.
After You’ve Sorted the Visible Paper Clutter
You may have guessed this – when you finish cleaning up the visible paper clutter, start looking for paper you’ve stored in drawers, etc. If it fits the categories I addressed above, then recycle, shred, or sort into a temporary hold box.
You don’t need to sort the bills, statements, warranties, and other important papers you have stored in a file cabinet or file boxes – at least not yet. In the next article, I’ll cover which papers the experts recommend you hold onto … and for how long.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
April - Paper Decluttering
When people mention the things cluttering their home, it’s the piles of paper that are a major point of stress and overwhelm. Mail, bills, flyers, receipts, cards, magazines and newspapers, school papers (kids’ and adults’), craft projects, recipes, pages from your printer, materials from work, paper from events, memorabilia, documents needed for reference, and so much more; no wonder paper piles up so quickly.
Why Are You Overwhelmed by Paper Clutter?
Chances are that the reason for your paper clutter is different than that of your neighbor, coworker, or friend. Having a too-organized system creates its own sort of clutter and can be just as challenging as having no organizing system.
Take a moment to define your issues and challenges with the paper that comes into your house. Do you have no space or no scheduled time to deal with the papers that have entered your home during the week? Are you intimidated by the idea of setting up a filing system? Do you find it easier to make new folders than to find and clear out the existing folders?
Walk around your home and note (or, take a photo) of the places where paper (bills, invitations, catalogs, magazines, etc.) pile up.
Scenario One: You had a filing system that you maintained for years with minimal effort. You knew how you handled things like holiday cards, store receipts, and magazines. But you lost control of your papers when you experienced a life transition – health issues (yours or a family member’s), a new child, a death, divorce or separation, a new job, retirement, a move, or any other life event that became your focus.
Scenario Two: You’ve never really learned how to handle all the paper that comes into your home and life. Every so often you’ll read a book or a magazine article that gives you enough information to declutter and create order, but it never lasts for more than a few (weeks or) months.
Scenario Three: You’ve never taken the time to create a way to deal with all the paper in your home, life, or small business. You’ve got a system that works for some of the paper you deal with, but you’ve been ignoring a lot of it and it’s affecting your stress levels.
Scenario Four: You saved every scrap of paper because you thought someone would want it at some point in the future. You now realize that isn't the case, but you have no clue where to start.
Write down three specific issues you have with the paper in your home. Resolving them is your goal.
Benefits of Organizing Your Papers
Decluttering, organizing, and maintaining the papers in your home isn’t just about eliminating visual clutter; it’s about eliminating stress. How often do you put a piece of paper on the nearest available surface because you don’t really know what to do with it?
Creating a filing system isn’t about keeping everything or about being a neat-freak. A filing system should allow you to find the things you want to find when you want to find them. Trying to be too organized can be as challenging as not organizing at all.
What’s your ‘why’ for decluttering and organizing the paper in your home? This vision can keep you motivated when you start contemplating throwing boxes of old store receipts into the attic.
Dealing with Sentimental Items and Memorabilia
Sentimental paper items can include holiday cards, old invitations, postcards, letters, files from a former job, school papers (yours or your children’s) – really any paper that doesn’t have a current function but that you’ve held onto.
If you know these items have no sentimental value for you, you can toss them when you encounter them. Otherwise, set these papers aside for the end of the organizing process. When you see what you are keeping, you can better decide how to store these items.
What You’ll Need to Get Your Paper Clutter under Control
Don’t go out and purchase file cabinets or any other storage items before you declutter unnecessary papers. Chances are that you’ll be able to reuse the file folders you have.
A paper shredder is useful. If you have years of old bills, statements, and documents that you don’t need, then you’ll probably want to hire a shredding service.
Tackling Your Paper Clutter with A Year of Decluttering
How long will this process take? Is it possible to declutter all your papers during this month? A major challenge with paper is that there is more than you think – that stack of papers a mere inch thick could contain 150 sheets of paper! And a banker’s box (those 10” x 12” x 24” popup cardboard file boxes) can hold more than 3000 sheets of paper - that's 3000 decisions to make!
This isn’t meant to discourage you. The information on paper is meant to be practical, which will help speed your decision making. We’ll work through the paper decluttering process in this month’s articles.
Any specific areas of concern that you’d like covered in this month’s articles? Leave your questions and comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
File things only if you believe you’ll need to refer to the information in the future. If you don’t think you’d need a piece of information in a year, then you don’t need to file it, which means - you don't need to keep it.
There is no right or wrong way to organize your files. If you don’t use the filing system you have (that, maybe, someone else set up for you), then it’s the wrong filing system.
If you are an “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” sort of person, don’t hide your files in file cabinets. Instead consider a milk crate file system or something else that keeps things organize and visible. Many doctors’ offices keep patient files on shelves so that staff look for identification information on the side tab. Would that type of system help you?
If you really hate filing, you might like having a shelf of baskets with very general labels like, “House,” “Car,” “Work,” where you can just toss papers. When the basket is full (or you need to find something), pull down the appropriate basket and look through the box for what you need.
Although color-coding your files sounds super organized, what happens when you run out of green file folders? Anything that would go into that new file now sits in limbo on top of your desk, awaiting your next trip to or order from the office supply store.
Those ‘waiting to receive a file folder’ papers may now encourage other papers to build up (“I’ll just wait for the new file folders and then I’ll file everything at once.”). I’m not saying that color-coding isn’t useful; however, consider if you would really find this beneficial.
If you normally think, “Oh, the receipt for the excise tax on the car is in a yellow folder” or, “The glue sticks are in the second red drawer of the rolling organizer cart,” then color-coding would be a significant organizing tool for you. On the other hand, if you don’t normally locate things in that way, don’t waste your time creating a color-coded file system.
Hanging File Folders
Hanging file folders usually indicate a general topic that is broken down into more specific topics that are organized into file folders.
You know those plastic tabs that you use to label hanging file folders? I remember learning that clear and yellow tabs are much easier to read through than the red, green, or blue plastic tabs.
Move all the tabs so they line up behind one another. According to The Smead Manufacturing Company, your eyes can scan information more quickly this way as opposed to staggering the tabs.
File folders help you break down a general topic, such as Insurance, into more specific topics, such as Car Insurance, House Insurance, Motorcycle Insurance, Health Insurance, etc. When it comes to naming a file, consider what words you use to refer to something in conversation. For example, is it a Car, Auto, Automobile, Vehicle, or Honda?
If you can’t find something because you don’t know what label was used, then you have a filing system fail. Your filing system should allow you to find information with ease.
Always label the folder tab with the contents of the file. Keep it simple, “Electric,” “Kitchen Remodel,” “Flood Insurance.” Off the top of my head, I don’t know the name of the company I have my house insurance through. If I had made a file with that company’s name, it would slow down my retrieval of that information.
If (like me) you hate your handwriting, invest in a label maker which creates a uniform look for your files. Seriously, I got goosebumps when I bought a Dymo LetraTag and labeled my file folders. Soooo neat.
Maintaining Your Files
You can schedule a once-a-year purge where you pull out information that you need for taxes and remove instruction manuals for items you no longer need and pull old policies and so on. Also, when you go into a file to look for some information, sort through the pages and remove anything that you no longer need. Shred or recycle the paper.
Sort through your paper clutter and other type of clutter in your home by joining the free program, A Year of Decluttering. In 2018, you’ll receive daily emails each containing a 15-minute decluttering task. With the start of 2019, the program will be available as a free PDF.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.