Paper Clutter – The Most Dreaded Type of Clutter


I recently worked with a client on paper clutter, and helped her find a starting point and establish some goals.  It can be difficult to get started on decluttering paper clutter, so I want to share some tips on how to get started.

In my eyes, paper clutter is the most difficult class of items to declutter, because it piles up so easily and you have to look at every single piece of paper to sort it.  You can easily have thousands of sheets of paper that need sorting and decluttering.  Compare that to a kitchen cabinet with dozens of dishes or a closet with tens or hundreds of clothing items.  It’s easy to see why paper clutter can be such a daunting task.

Prepare for Action

When working with paper clutter, I recommend gathering a few boxes to use as temporary storage.  This will allow you to sort more quickly.

Determine Your Declutter Style

Do you like to do a little each day, or do you work better in long stretches during a single day?  Or maybe some combination of the two.  Figure out what works best so you can work to your strengths.

If you work best doing a little each day, then plan to set aside 10 or 15 minutes daily.  Pick a small pile or file folder each day to spend sorting and decluttering your paper items.

If you work best decluttering in long stretches in a single day, then pick a day and dedicate it to paper decluttering.  Keep in mind, you may need frequent breaks, as paper decluttering can be mentally draining.

Triage your Papers

In the medical world, triage is the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients.

In the decluttering world, triage is the assignment of degrees of urgency to decide which items you need to keep, take action on, toss, or need more thought and are undecided.

It’s basically sorting by urgency.  In our case, the urgency is related to what type of action needs to be taken.

  1. Paper that needs an action is the highest priority.  This would be things like bills that need to be paid.  It might also be active school projects or current work related items.
  2. Toss is the second highest priority, as this is paper that can quickly leave your home, never to return.  It will be out of your home and out of your life.
  3. Filing and undecided are third, with each requiring more time for you to process.

Group Like Items

As you are triaging your paper clutter, you might also find it helpful to further categorize items.  For example, in your Take Action category, you might create boxes for School, Work, and Bills.

This might mean you have a lot of boxes sitting around in the short term, and that’s ok.

As you group and triage your papers, try to work quickly during the first round of paper decluttering.  The goal is to touch each paper as few times as possible while sorting quickly.  Speed is important, as you have a lot of paper to sort through.  If any one paper requires more thought, place it in the undecided box and you’ll come back to it in round two.

Divide and conquer

Divide and conquer is a good technique with paper clutter.

  1. Break piles into small chunks that can be sorted in 15 minutes or less.
  2. Rather than decluttering in place, take the pile to a cleared spot on the floor, preferably in another room.
  3. Sort into boxes.
  4. Sort quickly, anything that needs more thought goes into a Undecided box.  Sentimental items go in the Undecided box.
  5. Process the pile until it’s completely sorted.
  6. Grab another pile if you feel up to it.

Prevent New Clutter from Coming In

While you are working on paper clutter, it is important that you slow the amount of new paper that comes in.

This might mean saying no to new projects or reducing the amount of junk mail.  It might mean cutting back on magazines or newspapers.

Pay attention to where paper clutter is coming from and make some effort to reduce it.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Paper clutter takes a lot of time to go through.  Knowing that it’s perfectly normal for it to take a lot of time to go through should help ease the pressure.  It took you a long time to accumulate that clutter, and even though it takes time, you’ll be able to declutter it in less time than it took you to bring it all in.

These tips should help you get started with your paper decluttering.  Do you have any additional tips for dealing with paper clutter?  Please share your tips in the comments section.

Photo credit

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