Purging the Paper: 7 Tips for Clearing Your Paper Clutter

Purging the Paper: 7 Tips for Clearing Your Paper Clutter

One of the biggest areas of clutter that I have been struggling with is paper. I have notes from classes I’ve taken, interesting articles I have kept to read, bills, invoices, bank statements, credit card statements, notes on potential blog ideas, old letters and cards…. the list goes on! Some of it I have had for years, moving from one house to the next so I realized that it was time to get a handle on this stuff. Spoiler alert: it’s not an easy thing to do!

I started by trying to get as much of the paper clutter together into one place. It was at this point I realized that it was going to get a whole lot worse before it got better! There was a lot, a small forest at least and I had piles all over the floor, in folders, and boxes. If you are going to do a similar paper purge be prepared to get scared at this point when you realize just how much paper you have. Just don’t give up; trust me it will be worth it.

Next, I started to go through each pile sorting them into one of four categories:

  1. To be done – e.g. unpaid bills.

  2. To be filed

  3. To recycle

  4. To shred

It sounds easy, but don’t be fooled, it’s a big job so let me share some of the tips I learned:

Tip #1: Set aside plenty of time

Even if you don’t have much paper clutter, it does take time to go through each document and decide what to do with it. Making that many decisions can be incredibly tiring, so I found doing the paper purge in short bursts of time worked best. I put on some music, picked up a pile and worked my way through it. Then I would take a break, and onto the next pile!

Tip #2: Set up a good filing system

Before you get going on the purge, think about how you will file the papers you want to keep. Here is what you need in a good filing system:

  1. Make it easy to use.

That’s it! It doesn’t matter if it’s color-coded, alphabetized, in a filing cabinet or in a box, it only matters that you use it. I have yet to meet anyone who really likes filing so make it as easy and as painless as possible:

  • Easy to access your filing

  • Easy to quickly file something new

  • Easy to retrieve something when you need it.

Tip #3: Know what documentation you must keep

As much as I wanted to get rid of everything, there are some documents that I had to keep: tax records, mortgage details, birth certificates, etc. Since these requirements can vary between different places, I recommend that you do a quick Internet search or talk to an accountant about what documents you must keep and for how long.

Tip #4: How to decide what to keep and what to discard

To help me decide what to keep and what to get rid of, I asked myself these questions:

  1. Am I required to keep this document? (See Tip #3 above)

  2. Will I need this information later?

  3. Is this information up-to-date?

  4. Can I find this information easily online?

  5. Will I regret getting rid of this document later? (See Tip #5 below).

Tip #5: Handling the more personal paperwork

The questions detailed in Tip #4 helped me deal with about 80% of my paper clutter. As for the other 20%, this was the more personal stuff like letters, cards, artwork, old school/college reports and mementos from trips which I wondered if I would regret getting rid of it.

For these items I did add a fifth category: “To decide later”. Having this extra category was very helpful because it gave me somewhere to put the more personal items, so I could get the paper decluttering done, and then come back to sort this pile.

When I did get around to organizing these papers I found:

  • There was stuff that I end up keeping. Some things have great memories attached to them and I knew that I would regret giving them up. While decluttering is a good goal, don’t feel that you can’t keep anything, some things are worth a little clutter!

  • Some items I did scan so that I would still have them “just in case”. I did scan my travel mementos because when I create photo books for my different trips, they are a great addition as they bring back a lot of memories

  • Handling all of the personal stuff in one pile did make it easier to decide what was worth keeping and what was not.

Tip #6: Don’t forget to do what’s in your “To be done” pile

Ideally your “To be done” pile should be a temporary thing. Don’t feel that you have to wait to get all of your papers sorted before tackling it. Once you’ve dealt with the document then you can decide if it needs to be filed or recycled or shredded.

Tip #7: Save space by scanning

If you don’t want to file actual paper documents, then scanning them is a good option. If you do scan them then keep these points in mind:

  • Verify that you don’t need to keep an actual physical copy of the document (see Tip #3 above)

  • Make sure that you have good names for the scanned documents and their folders. Like a physical filing system, you should be able to quickly find the documents you need.

  • Check that the scan is legible before you dispose of the original document.

  • Back-up all of your files and folders regularly. If you store them in one place then you risk losing them if something goes wrong with that PC, laptop or drive.

Have you tried to purge your paperwork? What tips would you add to this list?

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