[This post is part of the ongoing series 4 Steps To Getting Yourself Organized In The New Year. ]
Confronting paper clutter is an absolute must for anyone serious about getting organized. That pile of sort-of sorted paper quietly mocks us, almost. Digging through a pile of hastily stacked paper to find the receipt we need is an extremely poor way to spend our time. Fighting back the waves of paper clutter doesn’t just happen. It requires us to be proactive. If we let down our guard once, and the paper marches in. It’s as if the paper wants to win, that unorganized piles are its natural state of being.
Guard The Gates
It’s easier to stop the momentum of paper clutter by not letting it get started.
Where is paper getting in? Determine those entry points, and then meet it there, head-on and with extreme prejudice, before it has time to settle in. When the mail arrives, sort it right away and not set it in a pile. When a stack of files ends up on our desk, dive in and deal with them. Receipts for business expenses? Log and file each receipt as necessary, and consider using a digital receipt service, like Shoeboxed or Lemon, if it helps us deal with storage issues. It is easier to handle sorting something when it first arrives and is still new, otherwise we quickly become accustomed to seeing it in a pile and that pile becomes a kind of accepted feature in our work space. Absolutely no piece of paper finds a home that we haven’t designated for it on purpose.
Cut The Fat
If we realize we’re getting run over by hordes of incoming paper on a regular basis, we might consider a paper reduction act.
What paper do we have coming in that doesn’t need to be? Do we need all those phone books? What magazines do we actually need and read, and which subscriptions can we honestly stop, or acquire as a digital copy? Bulk mail, junk mail, credit offers — not only is it adding to our paper burden, but it is a serious waste of paper. Removing our name from mailing lists and communicating with others in a digital fashion is a great way to address this. Carrying that digital replacement of paper further means scanning and cloud storage systems instead of walls of filing cabinets. If we’re going to be really aggressive about stopping or dealing with paper as it comes in, we’ll do the extra work to keep it from arriving at the gate in the first place.
Set Up A System
The most basic outcome of paper clutter will be either file, throw/recycle, or use immediately (which will eventually lead to one of the other two). All the guarding at the gates and cutting the fat won’t help if we don’t have a system ready.
Our system is going to work best if we use it right away and not a day or week down the line. Sorting the mail right when it arrives might mean we should actually stand over the garbage or recycle bin and make the decision right then and there on what we’ll keep, and what we’ll throw, recycle, or shred. From the pile of what we’ll keep, we have to decide what action needs to take place and we absolutely cannot fudge on following through. File or use — do it now. Doing it later means a pile of paper sets up shop on our desk and gets really, really comfortable there. Pretty soon it’s masquerading as a coaster for our coffee mug, a cushion for some books, or maybe serving as scratch paper for quick notes. Get used to little or no paper around. The status quo is not a tray of paper and files that we look at once a year; it is a tray that sees paper and files cycle through quickly as they work their way through our system. Remember, clutter is clutter. We have to follow our system.
Make Use Of Temporary Help
Sticky notes, notepads, notebooks — useful, and not evil. We need to jot temporary notes on paper sometimes. Though it might sound anti-anti-clutter, it’s good to have “single use” notepaper on hand for exactly that purpose. Otherwise, last week’s file folder sitting in a pile near the phone looks like a decent option for some notes pulled from a phone call. It seems innocent enough to write on whatever is handy, but that means that when it comes time to either use the file or find the phone message we have a problem of paper clutter that is serving two masters. We don’t use a fork to eat soup (usually), and a random receipt isn’t the best place for a quick note to our co-workers or a sketch of our greatest idea ever. Get notepads or sticky notes, or use an online note-taking system like Springpad or Evernote to record those sorts of things. Have them by the phone or wherever we find ourselves jotting down notes. Anything else is a wrench in the gears of our finely honed system.
The best chance that paper clutter has at developing and overwhelming us is that we would be too busy. Even if we want the paper to be organized and in place, and even if we have a pretty good system in mind, it just takes a few days of not getting around to it to leave us with a fairly large backlog of paper that needs sorting, filing, throwing, and sending. We gotta stay on top of it. Reduce the paper coming in, meet it at the door, deal with it immediately, and we’re good to go.