Welcome to the post I thought I’d never write. When people asked me how to solve paper clutter problems and implement a paper organization system, I would grimace (and grunt a little) and say I couldn’t help them. I’d share how I had reduced paper clutter so it no longer caused me significant angst (just minimal annoyance) by decluttering and putting a few habits into place. But solve it? No.
Now, I have a solution. I set up this system based on advice from my lovely co-instructors in the Take Your House Back course: Dawn (of The Minimal Mom) and Cas (of Clutterbug and host of HGTV’s Hot Mess House). They’re the ones I learned from, and they give a lot more detail about organizing paper and ideas to adjust for your unique personality and home.
I’ve been using this paper organizing system for about four months now. I’ll keep you updated on how it continues to work (or not) as time goes on, but this system has worked better for me than anything else I’ve tried.
Note for the overwhelmed: If thinking about all the paper clutter in your home wakes you up at night, take a deep breath. At the end of this post, I link to my advice for reducing paper clutter and how to break through the feeling of being completely overwhelmed.
I set up a system for dealing with incoming paper BEFORE I got existing paper piles under control.
I really believe this advice from Dawn was the biggest game-changer for me. Paper is going to keep coming. It always keeps coming, and that’s what makes it so maddening. Paper . . . never . . . stops.
But just like doing the dishes consistently made a bigger and more lasting impact on my home than spending one weekend a month frantically cleaning, going ahead and dealing with incoming mail before I’d dealt with the backlog of paper had a huge impact.
Dealing with what came in for one day wasn’t intimidating. Dealing with each day’s mail in this new system gave me confidence that the system worked 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 filing paper, and she calls this a “less organized approach.” Y’all know that’s right up my alley. The general idea is that an organization system for paper is more practical and maintainable if you keep it simple.
I chose to use three categories for filing paper: To Do, Wait and See, and 2021. They’re pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll explain anyway.
The To Do file is for anything that requires an action. (I believe Dawn calls hers an Action File.) I put driver’s license renewal letters, car- registration stuff, bills to pay (that aren’t able to be completely switched to online notices), and such in that file.
I stuck graduation announcements in the To Do file until I bought gifts and sent them. In previous years, I’d stacked the announcements in a “good” spot, but the piles morphed and grew and gathered unrelated stuff until finding them was a hassle and I worried I’d missed one.
The Wait and See file is for things that don’t require an action, but that I might need later. I put coupons (for specific things, not just the whole coupon insert) in there, the card for the tree-trimmer guy, etc.
The 2021 file is for anything that is important for this year such as home maintenance records and anything we need to keep for taxes. (Like the donation receipt from our Suburban!)
We already had an established spot (where we’d look first) for the big important stuff like social security cards and birth certificates and driver’s ed certificates. That spot works, so we’re keeping it.
I set up a vertical filing system for organizing paper.
Cas gives organizing strategies based on the personality of the person she’s helping. She said I needed to focus on vertical storage for paper, so I bought the filing system that nails to the wall.
I was skeptical based on very-long-ago experiences trying systems like this. I realize now that my skepticism/fear-of-failure was based on the fact that I’d tried systems like this before I understood what I now call the Container Concept.
When I didn’t understand that Containers are meant to serve as limits, I kept on piling. Shoving. Overfilling. So the memories I had of these kinds of organizing solutions was of papers sticking up and out and files full to bursting. Or falling off the wall. Because I didn’t know that the problem was that I was trying to keep too much, I decided there was something wrong with the system and went back to piles.
The vertical system works for me because it’s nailed to the wall. It’s immovable. Unshiftable. As someone who doesn’t see incremental mess, I could set up a nifty horizontal system, but wouldn’t notice it again until it had fallen over and morphed into a surface-covering pile.
And the finite space (contain-ers) for three categories that are supposed to cover all the paper that enters my home makes me level up my existing paper-clutter-reducing strategies.
I already took the mail straight to the trash can/recycling bin. For years, that has been my number one way to avoid paper piling up in my home. Out of 7 pieces of mail, usually at least 5 are trash. Now, though, because I have to decide on a definite category for each piece of paper I keep, I find myself opening up important-looking envelopes that I used to stick into my paper tub just because they looked important. Turns out, a lot of things that look important aren’t actually important. Or maybe they’re important enough to look at, but not important enough to keep. Now, I find that out of 7 pieces of mail, I can usually get rid of 6! And often all 7!
With definite (though broad) categories, I’m eliminating so much more paper.
(Here’s my affiliate link to the vertical filing system.)
The experience and confidence I gained made it easier to purge old paper piles.
After about six weeks of dealing with incoming mail and gaining confidence that it really was possible to put everything that came into the house into one of those categories, I started giving my tub full of old paper the side-eye.
I wanted it gone. Not that I was perky or giddy about dealing with it. I didn’t want to spend my Saturday morning purging paper, but it was bugging me more and more.
I got started by giving myself permission to do the easy stuff first. I would aim to reduce the pile by going through it, only worrying about getting rid of super-obvious trash. This achieves two things. Fist, it reduces the size of the pile which reduces the feeling of being overwhelmed. Second, it makes me look. As I go through the pile, I see what’s in it. Just knowing (instead of imagining that everything is painfully important) helps me feel ready to tackle the harder stuff in the pile sooner.
But when I started non-commitally going through the pile of old paper, I shocked myself by finishing. Completely. I found that my experience with the simple organizing system made it easy to file or purge everything in the pile.
Setting up a system for incoming paper helped me purge old paper. Really!
At first, I didn’t like how the hanging wall files looked. I preferred my plain, boring, empty wall, and it took me some time to get used to seeing them.
I added the blue file folders and that made it look better and stay a little neater than when it was just paper in the black wire thingies.
But I learned to be okay with it because I LOVED seeing the clear counter just inside my kitchen where a tub full of paper was for years. I’ll take a hidden wall (it’s behind the door of my bedroom) any day over that open-to-the-public eyesore spot in the kitchen.
The Take Your House Back course is SO HELPFUL!
Take Your House Back is open for registration through September 15th! I have absolutely loved hearing from so many people about how this course has changed their homes. And I’ve learned, too!
I’m sharing screenshots below of compliments on the course on a recent video. I think that first one covers all the bases! And the second image shows the responses to that comment from others in the course! Go to TakeYourHouseBack.com to sign up!
As promised, here are other posts about paper from the past. The focus here is on REDUCING paper, and there’s a lot of value in that! This system was so much easier to implement because I’d already reduced so much paper in our home! If you can’t even imagine three categories or three files for your paper, focus on reducing paper for now. I know you’re overwhelmed, and I understand. These links are for you:
022 Reducing Paper Clutter Podcast
Break Decluttering Paralysis (Even Paper)
I loved how the wall looks, maybe the blue file folders make it better, but I think it looks awesome even if it’s right in the middle of the kitchen!
Debi Zahn says
How do you keep them from overflowing? When do you look at the contents of the “containers” after you have paper in them? Do you have a plan for the to-do’s, maybe laters, and 2021? I’m assuming everything in 2021 will just get dumped in a 2021 file box or something, but what about the other 2? This is where I get stuck 🙂
Heather D says
This is great! Simple, yet enough. What is the system you have in place for actually dealing with the items in your three files? I know myself enough to know that even if I had all my papers in those three folders, I still could just ignore them until they were overdue or missed or whatever. Do you have a “Tuesday mornings at 10am, I do a few of the paper todos” or a “Five minute do one paper todo” routine, or something else? Thanks!
Linda Marlene says
I started listening to your podcasts a few months ago and got current this summer. I was anxiously awaiting for you to start up again this month. Welcome back! I struggle with paper clutter, and you have given me a lot to think about. I am glad you have found a system that is working for you.
I am still reading through your blog but have not gotten too far because I like to read all of the comments. They are very helpful, as well.
Thank you for sharing that this organizer is in your bedroom. I would have thought a central location like the kitchen would be a must, but why not out of the way?!