Clear Paper Clutter Quickly

Although I can function with a messy desk, aesthetically it isn’t pleasing to see paper everywhere. Perhaps I fooled myself as to how effective I really am with a messy desk. For one thing, I don’t feel like my office is an inviting or inspiring place to be. There is a certain heaviness I feel when surrounded by stacks of books and papers. Do I feel cozy? Yes but not necessarily in a good way. Yet, clearing my desk doesn’t seem like a big priority given I have blogs to write and people to coach. But then I decided to hire a professional to help me organize the office after hearing my colleague talk about how wonderful it felt to have her kitchen organized.

One of my coaching rules of thumb is that if you haven’t made any progress in a year, you aren’t likely to do so on your own. That’s when it is time to bring in the pros. And sure enough, just having an appointment in the diary has set me off on a paper purging binge. 

After looking at some discouraging piles of paper, I thought I’d find some inspiration and helpful hints by embarking on research to find the best ways to clear out paper clutter.

At one end of the spectrum there is the beloved Marie Kondo. In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo recommends a draconian approach to paper clutter. Assuming paper can’t give you joy, you can get rid of all of it except for the papers you must legally keep (i.e., tax documents, property deeds, marriage, birth and death certificates). The rest can be discarded.

On the other end of the spectrum, is me. I keep just about every single piece of paper that comes across my desk. The paper is neatly filed and labelled into hanging file folders, in case I should need to refer back to it someday. Somewhere in the middle must be a happy paper place.

I found another book, The Paper Solution by Lisa Woodruff and read it immediately upon delivery. Woodruff makes the bold claim that most people only need four or five binders to store all their papers. The portability of having your key documents in easy to grab binders means you can take them with you in the event of an emergency. I certainly wouldn’t be able to grab my financial documents all neatly tucked into 25 hanging file folders and make a dash for it. So, there is a lot to recommend her strategy.

What are the important four binders? Woodruff says you need at least one of each of the following binders.

1. Household Reference.

This includes information about household appliances, warranties, repairs, and service history. The household reference binder can also include gardening and landscaping instructions and paint colors. This is the sort of binder that you would hand over to someone who buys your house.

2. Finances.

You need a binder for all of your critical financial information. This includes things such as account numbers, insurance information, safety deposit box location, will(s) and estate planning documents. Additionally, you’ll include information about your investments and retirement plan. This is the binder an executor would want to have to settle your estate. It is worth getting your key documents into one place so you don’t leave your loved ones with a confusing jumble of papers. 

3. Medical.

The medical binder contains all the essential information like vaccination histories and medical records for each family member. Woodruff finds it helpful to include a history of medications that didn’t work.

4. Household Operations.

This binder is a place to record family holiday plans and traditions. It is also the place were you’d list babysitter’s names and numbers, household helpers, school schedules, menu plans, and pet records. This binder is personal and one you’d take with you in a move. 

As a bonus, you might also want a Memories Binder for each child. In it, you keep the child’s artwork, grades, special cards, ticket stubs and the like. It is similar to a scrapbook but in binder form for ease. You can add in plastic page protector inserts to store their artwork safely.

I love these ideas and have ordered some high-quality binders, dividing tabs, and page protectors to put this together. Since it’s portable, I can easily move a binder from my office to my home or take it out to the garden to work on in the sun. 

Since I own my own business, I will keep my hanging file folders for my clients and business documents. But I can simplify the household system. With a limit of one binder per topic, I’ve eliminated a lot of extraneous papers (i.e., old bank statements and receipts) that serve no purpose. 

Here’s what you can quickly and safely discard:

1. Bank Statements.

You can safely discard bank statements once you’ve checked that they are correct. We get almost all of our bank statements online. The bank keeps your statements for seven years. This instantly frees up a ton of space in the file cabinet. I use a heavy-duty paper shredder to shred all financial information. However, if you have many boxes of old files to shred, then I’d recommend using a professional shredding service. It will save you lots of time and is well worth doing. Legally, you must keep seven years of tax documents. I keep my tax documents in a box which can be stored in deep storage in a loft, attic or basement (as long as it is dry).

2. Course Materials.

I agree with Marie Kondo on this one. If you have course materials that you haven’t looked at in a year, then discard or donate them. But, if you haven’t learned the content and want to, then take the course again! 

3. Magazines or Articles to Read.

Recycle or donate after one to three months. Our local doctor’s office accepts used magazines for their waiting area. If you haven’t read it in three months, then move on. New, fresh content can be easily found online if you need to research something. I give my old decorating magazines to a friend.

4. Books.

If you aren’t going to read a fiction book again, pass it on to a friend or donate it to charity. Now that I’ve started doing that, my friends pass on their books to me. Local libraries often accept book donations. I have a harder time with reference books and tend to keep them. I’m now putting a little red sticky dot on books that I’ve referred to. This way, at the end of a year I can see which ones I actually used versus the ones just taking up valuable shelf space. Let unused books go and make space for new knowledge and information to come in. 

I’ve done all this prep work before my appointment with the professional organizer. This way, I can maximize my time with her. There is nothing like hiring a pro to motivate you!

Now, I look forward to going into my office. It feels fresh and clean! It is a nice space to be. And as an added bonus, I’ve just attracted two new coaching clients. Nothing activates the law of attraction faster than clearing out the old to make way for new and better people, things and opportunities!

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