School notices. Shopping lists. Bills. Magazines. Bank statements. To-do lists. Client notes. It seems like everywhere you turn there’s more paper hanging around waiting to be dealt with.
You’re tired of sifting through it all to find what you’re looking for. You’re tired of looking at the teetering piles and the drifts of previously-stacked-but-now-toppled papers.
You’ve decided — today, you’re going to tackle it. Enough is enough.
So you start collecting the papers and going through them. But pretty soon you have a bunch of new piles and it hardly looks any different. Sure, you’ve recycled a bunch of stuff, but it didn’t make a dent. Mostly you’re just moving the papers around. You’re not getting anywhere.
Decluttering paper involves lots of decisions
More than any other clutter, paper clutter is full of decisions. And unlike most decluttering, the first question isn’t whether this is important enough to keep. That’s the last of a series of decisions you need to make.
Here’s what I mean: the papers around you represent things you need to do — or things you need to decide … and then do. Only after you’ve decided what to do and when to do it can you decide whether you actually need to keep the paper.
Because the truth is, most paper clutter is not actually stuff you need to keep — it’s stuff you need to do something about.
That’s what makes it harder to deal with and harder to stay on top of than other forms of clutter. Most clutter is much simpler to deal with than paper.
So what do you do?
Decide what needs to be done as you go
Clutter has to be dealt with one thing at a time. Paper is no different. Instinctively we all know this, that’s why almost everyone puts off dealing with accumulated papers.
Yes, it takes time — and it can be discouraging to think about how long it will take. But there’s really nothing else for it. And there are ways to make it easier.
The trick is to actually decide and take action on the paper as you’re going through it. Then you don’t have to keep going over it again and again.
Whenever I’ve sorted things into piles rather than dealing with them, I inevitably end up back where I started: surrounded by piles that I didn’t want to deal with. It seemed like I made headway, but nothing actually changed.
So don’t defer anymore. Make the decisions necessary to actually get rid of the piles.
1. Do I need to do anything with this?
Oftentimes you’ve got papers lying around to remind you to do something. So it makes sense to start here.
If you need to take action on this piece of paper, make note of what you need to do (I like to write what it is right on the page). Then look for the easiest way to make sure it happens. You have three main options here:
- just do it — great for any action that will take less than 2 minutes
- write the action and any pertinent information down on a list or in your calendar to be completed later
- make a temporary folder — great for paying bills and other regular tasks, or for projects where you have a bunch of related papers you’re going to be working with at the same time
2. Is there a decision here I need to make?
Another common reason for papers piling up is that you haven’t decided what you’re going to do about it — or you don’t want to admit that you’ve decided. So check if that’s what’s going on.
If you need to make a decision about the piece of paper, then make it. If you can’t make the decision, then the action is to talk to someone who can help you make the decision — or do the research you need to do to make it.
If you find that you just don’t care enough to do this … then admit that and move on.
Remember that clutter accumulates when we defer making decisions. Decide to decide.
And decide what to keep
Once you’ve addressed what needs to be done or decided — then you can determine whether you actually need to keep this paper.
When you don’t already know you need to keep a piece of a paper, use the following questions:
3. Do I need this now? Could I get it again if I need it?
Resist the urge to keep things just in case you might need them later. It’s an excellent way to end up with overflowing file drawers that you’re afraid to even open.
Most people keep backlogs of stuff to read or do — and never get to it, or find out it’s obsolete when they do. Don’t waste your space and energy on things you might need. Keep what’s current.
If you don’t need it right now — and you can get it again, let it go.
4. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I get rid of this?
Fear of needing something in the future is a common reason people hold on to stuff. When you ask yourself what’s the worst case scenario if you toss this paper, most of the time you’ll realize that the answer isn’t a big deal.
Once, in more than a decade of living like this, I got rid of paperwork I later found out I needed. Sure, it was annoying. But I called the people who’d originally sent it … and they sent it again.
If you’re truly not sure what you need to keep for legal or tax purposes, check with an accountant or a lawyer.
You don’t want to be someone who can’t find what they do need because it’s buried under all the stuff they might need.
The goal here is to get the paper off the desk — not make another pile. So please don’t make yourself a ‘to-do’ pile or a ‘to-read’ pile. It’s not helping. Instead, ask these questions and get clear on what you need to do with these papers so you can get on with deciding whether they are important enough to keep.
Over to You
Try these questions out for yourself. Come back and tell us how it went. What question is the most powerful for you?