Of all the types of clutter you may find in your home or office, paper clutter is the most unsettling. Paper clutter represents lingering decisions and lingering to-dos. When you’re surrounded by paper clutter, you’re never quite sure what’s hiding at the bottom of the stack and so you’re never quite sure what needs your time and attention. But with simple, functional and attractive paper organizing and filing systems in place, you can put an end to the stacks and the uneasy feelings they create. Follow these seven steps to say goodbye to paper clutter…and hello to peace of mind.
The first step to ending paper clutter is to establish a single place to collect incoming paper. First, decide on a location for your collection system—typically a surface close to the door you use most often works best. If you aren’t sure where to set up your collection system, take note of where papers like the daily mail are landing now. This is where you habitually put these papers anyway, so it makes sense to designate this location as the spot for incoming paper. Once you’ve selected your location, add a container, such as a decorative tray, wicker basket or in-box, and proclaim this as the one and only spot where incoming paper will go. This will prevent paper from being strewn around your home in various stacks and piles.
Step 2: Set up systems for your action papers.
Once you have your collection system in place, the next step is to set up systems for the other three types of paper—your action, reference and archive paper. Start by setting up a system for your action paper. This is the most important of all the types of paper in your home or office, because its purpose is to tell you to perform some sort of task. Bills, party invitations and permission slips are common examples of action papers.
When setting up your action system, keep convenience in mind. The best paper systems are set up close to where you perform the tasks associated with your paperwork. So if you pay bills at the kitchen table, set up a small action file on the kitchen counter to corral your bills and other action papers.
Step 3: Set up systems for your reference papers.
Next, set up systems for your reference papers. This is paper that doesn’t require any action on your part at this time, and if there ever is an action associated with it, something other than the paper will trigger you to take action. Carryout menus are reference items: The menu itself doesn’t tell you that you need to order a pizza, but when your stomach growls and you want to order pizza, it’s nice to know exactly where your carryout menus are located.
Binders work great for reference papers, because as with action paper, convenience is key to a successful reference system. (The file cabinet in your home office on the second floor of your home is just a few steps too far away for from where you call out for pizza.)
Step 4: Set up a filing system for your archive papers.
Think of your archive papers as your permanent records. These are documents such as old tax returns that you need to hold onto for a period of time. Like reference papers, there is no current action associated with your archive papers. But you will access archive papers far less frequently than the other three kinds of paper—collection, action and reference. Because of this, the file cabinet in your office is a terrific storage solution for setting up your archive filing system.
Step 5: Create the habits necessary to use each system effectively.
Once you have your paper systems set up, the next step is to identify and create the habits needed to use each system. Keep in mind that each system will require different habits. For example, it makes sense to empty your collection system on a daily basis by processing your daily paper and distributing it into your action, reference and archive systems. As you identify new habits to create, keep this in mind—the more frequently you take action on your paper, the shorter your stacks will stay!
Step 6: Dig out of your paper backlog.
OK…so we’ve covered what to do for your incoming paper, but what if you have backlog? The best approach is to prioritize your back log and tackle it step by step.
- Priority 1: daily inflow. The most effective approach to dealing with backlog is to avoid creating more of it! So make it your top priority to stay on top the new paper that’s coming in by creating the habit of dealing with today’s paper today.
- Priority 2: visible backlog. Once the daily inflow is under control, begin tackling your stacks of paper that are out in the open cluttering desks, tables, countertops and other exposed areas in your home or office.
- Priority 3: hidden backlog. Once you’ve tackled daily inflow and visible backlog, then you can begin sorting through papers that are tucked away in bags or boxes from past decluttering efforts, or in over-stuffed filing cabinets.
Step 7: Enjoy your clear desk and counter top!
After following the first six steps, all that’s left to do now is sit back and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from paper-clutter-free living! Enjoy that peace…and then go do something you love to do!