Hearing the clink of the mailbox closing, you glance up from your computer screen.  1 pm already? Pushing away from your desk, you pad out to grab the mail.

Flipping through on your way back inside, you toss a couple of coupons that look good onto the already-overflowing pile spilling across the foyer table. Your haphazard toss sends a couple sliding onto the floor.

Pretending you didn’t see that, you turn and head back to the office, shuffling bank statements, bills, and credit card offers through your hands.

Setting the offers and bank statements on top of the pile of paper towering on the bookcase next to the door, you rip open the bills. Cringing just a little, you pull out the check book and stamps, and get to work. 

Finishing your task, you apprehensively eye your filing cabinet. Jerking it open, you’re immediately overwhelmed by the bulging files. You quickly give up and shove the statements between the messy folders, holding everything down long enough to force the drawer closed again.

There’s got to be a better way, you think as you turn back to your work, trying to refocus.

Unless you’ve gone totally paperless (easier said than done), paper poses a unique organizational challenge. With so much information on every page, it takes forever to review and purge. And, heaven forbid you toss or shred something you might need later! Shoving it all in the file cabinet can feel like the right solution… until you run out of space. 

Fortunately, as with all organizing challenges, solving the paper problem simply requires a system, ideally one customized to your unique paper needs. If the above story sounds like you, putting together a system solely for paper can help clear the chaos – and give your overworked mind a break, too!

Ready to conquer paper clutter? These easy steps will help you reclaim your surfaces and prepare you to revamp the cornerstone of a physical paper system: the filing cabinet.

     1. Gather Everything. Yes, everything.

If you’re anything like me, your mail quickly migrates to almost every room in the house.

However, in order to know what type of system you need, you must first know what keeps coming in. Hunt down every piece of mail you can find, and bring it all to one central location.

     2. Sort it out.

With everything in one spot, you’re probably pretty tempted to sweep it all into the trash and pretend you didn’t squirrel thousands of Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons into your bedrooms, bathrooms, and beyond. 

As organizers, we don’t say this very often, but if you want to create a solid paper system… Resist the urge to purge. (At least for now – just wait for the next step.)

Sort your papers into broad categories. What kinds of paper do you really have? Coupons? Bills? Offers? Ads? That magazine subscription you bought from that kid selling them door to door? Ideas for the future?

Make a list of the kind of papers you see.

     3. Toss It.

With your list of categories and your sorted piles, it’s time to purge the backlog. Hooray!

Before you toss it all at once, though, take a moment to really see what you’re throwing out. If you’ve deemed it irrelevant enough to toss, did you even need it in the first place?

Maybe, you can take preventative action to keep that stuff from piling up in the first place?

Ask yourself these questions: 

If this piece of paper hadn’t arrived in the mail, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? 

Could I have found it online? Is it something that I’d even miss having? 

Do I use it often enough to make a physical copy worth keeping? 

Is keeping this paper making my life easier or harder?

Once you’re down to the essentials – only papers that are actually relevant – you’re ready for the next step.

     4. Go Paperless.

Almost everything is paperless now! 

For the kinds of paper/information you’ve determined you really do want or need in your life, try keeping it electronic. 

Bank statements, credit card annual terms of service, escrow statements, things that you never open but just want the information just in case you need it… all these kinds of information can be emailed to you or found on the company website. You really don’t have to keep it all yourself!

A special note about bills: 

If you’re like me, receiving the paper bill is a reminder that helps me recall when upcoming payments are due. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to remind yourself to take action and pay on time without bringing that paper into your life and your home. This is where technology comes in!

Instead of making the paper bill your reminder, set your payment due dates as recurring reminders on your electronic calendar, and switch over to e-billing. If your bank balance remains at a level where autopay is an option for you, this even better!

Beyond your regular bills, pay for as much as you can online. When you do, the receipt will be sent to your email. No more paper invoices with paid scribbled across them overflowing your filing cabinets. The electronic copy has all the info you need and takes up no space in your house at all. 

Sign up for e-coupons to get sent to your email. Try the online subscription for the magazine you like to read. Wherever you get your information, ask if there’s a way to receive it or access it electronically. 

Do you get school calendars and other things that you need to remember in the mail? Take a photo with your phone to refer back to. Then, when you need to remember when Parent Teacher Night is, simply scroll through your photos.

When you make the switch to paperless wherever possible, your piles will literally start to shrink.

     5. Make Your System.

You’ve sorted, purged the excess, and streamlined the essentials by going electronic. You’re finally ready to set up a system for any other paper coming into your house.

We recommend setting a trash can or recycle bin right next to the door you use most often. Use it to catch literally every paper you don’t need that tries to enter your spaces. 

For the papers you do need to keep, such as tax documents or other items you cannot easily replace or find online, you’ll want to create an actual filing system.

Ideally, you will file incoming papers that need to stick around as soon as you receive them… but, no one is perfect. Recognizing the likelihood of how often you will file, it may be helpful to also have a system, such as a basket near the door or near the filing cabinet, to catch these “to file” items. Just remember, when the basket reaches a certain volume, it’s time to take action and get those things filed away for safekeeping.

     6. Use It!

As with any system, for it to actually work, you need to use it! Ensuring the paper you don’t need stays out, and the information you do need gets filed correctly, is vital maintenance. Using your system will keep your surfaces and rooms from filling up with paper again.

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