Seven Steps to Organize Your Paper Clutter

posted by Aby Garvey 19 Comments

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.

organized paper inboxStep 1: Set up a collection system.

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 tickler file to organize paper cluttersort 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.) simplify 101 offers a free mini class to help you create your own home management binder.

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! :)

Organize Your Paperwork Online Class

If you’d like how-to instructions, a simple-to-follow action plan, worksheets and checklists for organizing your paperwork following the steps outlined above, check out our paperwork organizing online class. In this class you’ll get everything you need to set up effective organizing systems for every kind of paperwork in your home. The self-paced format means you can start when you want and proceed at your own pace.

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  • February 1, 2013 at 4:14 am

    I am the Worlds worst paper hoarder! I have boxes of papers that I have to sort through, but I also procrastinate about it, it just seems so overwhelming. I love to file and do clerical work, but when it comes to this i don’t know why I have boxes and not little ones either, of papers. Any help ideas?

    February 10, 2013 at 1:45 am

    Hi Dondi,
    We only procrastinate about things we hate to do, so the only thing you can do to get started is to make it more fun. You might put on your favorite upbeat music or an old movie that you love while you complete the timed task. Then have a way to chart your progress. I start with a big file box full of unsorted paper and mail. I do a quick sort into three boxes: mail, printed material like catalogs, and other paper like receipts, Xeroxed information or kids’ papers. Next I can quickly eliminate most of the middle box as they are usually outdated so I remove the labels and put them in the recycle bag. I carry that to another room. Next is the mail. Resort into junk mail and bills. After removing your name from the junk mail, you can recycle that without emotional attachment. By this time you are probably 2/3 done. My third step is to resort the bills and put a rubber band around each like pile. You will probably only need a small box to put them in (I use shoe boxes). For your next session, the bills will be together and easier to deal with, and all you have left is that miscellaneous box. Celebrate! You did a big chunk! You need a reward – maybe you like to go to some sports event, or go bowling, or out to eat – even if it is just a special snack. Call you best friend or your mom or dad and joke about your accomplishment. But what ever you do, associate good rewards with the task. Then plan what your next reward will be for the next box! Once you get down to going through the bills, throw away all of the envelopes and ads that they contain. That will reduce the volume again. Find out if you old credit card statements are available online, and if they are, start shredding!

    I fight this paper battle every day, and the way I used to do it a piece at a time, required too many decisions and I would get depressed and quit. But I have found that if I can make something fast and fun or rewarding (extrinsically) I will do it more willingly! Good luck!

    February 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Thanks for sharing your ideas Cheryl! Love your thoughts about making it more fun. :)

    February 5, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    One more tip- we had a closet full of papers from 15 years, literally from floor to ceiling. Then we had to move to different state because of job. I didn’t want to take that clutter with me, so everyday for one week, I sat infront of the closet for two hours at a time, with one empty cardboard box and two empty trash bags. I would take one paper, look at it and decide if its a keeper, trash or shredder (documents with sensitive information, which we didn’t need any more). Keepers went in the cardboard box, trash went in trash bag, shredder went in second trash bag which was labeled. I didnot divide the keepers further into any categories, like file/ archive or what kind of papers/ documents they were. Just decide keep or toss! I threw away 4 bags of paper trash, and took almost 120 pounds of paper for shredding to officemax! I was left with barely one big box full of keeper paper. After we moved, I spent some more time and sorted and filed the keepers into categories. But looking at JUST one box of papers to sort made the job so much easier- physically, mentally and time- wise. So imagine you’re moving and get started! Good Luck.

    • February 1, 2013 at 11:18 am

      Hi, Dondi,

      You’re definitely not alone. Paper is one of the most challenging things to organize. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and procrastinating, my biggest advice would be to chip away at it a little bit at a time. Set the timer for fifteen minutes, pick a box to sort through, and see how much you can recycle or shred before the timer goes off. When the timer dings, if you feel like doing more, set it again. And if you’re done, give yourself permission to stop.

      You also might be interested in my Organize Your Paper Clutter online workshop. It helps bite size the process of going through your paper and shows you how to set up organizing systems for every type of paper in your home. Here’s a link so you can see if it’s a good fit for you:


      • March 27, 2013 at 12:46 pm

        Where can we get the attractive folders and binders you use? It would make organizing THAT much more enjoyable!

        June 9, 2013 at 1:21 pm

        Jessica: Have you tried Staples or Target?

        June 10, 2013 at 6:46 am

        Hi, Jessica,
        Sorry I didn’t see your question earlier. I made the folders shown in this picture, but you can buy decorative file folders at places like Office Depot, Office Max, The Containers Store, and Staples and Target as S commented. And you’re right – attractive organizing projects does make organizing more enjoyable. :)

        • October 18, 2013 at 3:18 pm

          I just LOVE your blog!!! When I found it, I literally stayed up all night looking for all kinds of ideas to better organize my home. I implemented the errand mini zone and the command central. I found that having a folder for each day of the month was overkill for me so I tweaked it to make it work for me. I just recently did a blog post about my project and introduced my readers (not very many yet, I am just getting started) to you and your services. Thanks so much for your wisdom and inspiration.

          December 26, 2013 at 8:33 pm

          Thank you Sharon!! I appreciate it. :)

          • December 22, 2013 at 6:07 pm

            How much does this cost?

            December 26, 2013 at 7:44 pm

            Hi, Pamela,
            Are you asking about our Organize Your Paper Clutter class? If so, you can see the price and what is included via this link: We recently turned this class into a self-paced online class, which means you can start anytime that works for you and make progress at your own pace.

            If another class caught your eye, you can see a complete listing here:

            Thank you!

            • December 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm

              It’s hard enough to organize myself and my children. Does anyone have any ideas for getting the husband on board? I have tried SEVERAL, no – A BUNCH, no – ENDLESS ways to organize. He just keeps throwing it on our dresser – HUGE pet peeve! Any ideas, thoughts, suggestions and tips are GREATLY appreciated!

              December 26, 2013 at 8:35 pm

              WIthout knowing what you’ve tried, it’s hard to give you ideas. But, the very first thing I suggest is to have a talk with your husband to try to understand why he puts things on the dresser. Does he know where the items are supposed to go? Is the dresser just more convenient? Does he like things on the dresser so he can see them? If you can understand his motive (and I’m sure it isn’t to drive you nuts!) then you can work together to brainstorm solutions that will work for both of you.


              • January 16, 2014 at 12:05 pm

                The best of all the paper clutter articles. Between this one and this one ( I feel really set!

                • February 6, 2014 at 12:20 pm

                  THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!
                  This article is extremely helpful and doable.
                  I laughed out loud while reading Step 6,
                  saying,” How do they know what I have here?”
                  AGAIN, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for stating it in such a clear and non-judgmental way that the reader can personalize and visualize each detailed step to be taken and feels helped and motivated to be able to get up and carry out the necessary action to achieve what they have visualized during the reading of each detail.

                  February 6, 2014 at 12:48 pm

                  Glad you enjoyed the article Deb!

                  • April 10, 2014 at 12:37 pm

                    Great post! Been reading a lot about what to do with a lot of extra paper. Thanks for the tips here!

                    • August 1, 2014 at 11:47 am

                      I struggle with weekly ads & flyers. While I know they are time sensitive, I sometimes hang on to a flyer or ad as I might (and often do) purchase the item at a later date. (ex: ceiling fan or silverware set). If I don’t have a coupon then but know one is coming, then I keep the ad on a “wish list” until I have the coupon to purchase it.

                      I never see tips on how to address the influx of ads (grocery, furniture, insurance quotes, department stores, car repair, etc.) Any successful suggestions or tips on how to address this?

                      Also, I wasn’t sure, Aby, if this was specifically addressed in your paper organizing class since there is no syllabus.