My inner writer is primarily a story teller and I cannot usually be counted on for a list of tips about how to clear paper clutter. But, I am also a teacher and lately in the Sick of Being Stuck program, my students are up to their eyeballs in paper and begging for tips. That usually means that lots of you are too, so today we’re going to try something different. Here are the first 9 clutter clearing tips for those who have bags, boxes, and stacks of paper stashed in the closets, spare bedrooms, dining rooms and on counter tops all about this fine planet of ours:
1. Getting Things Done (GTD) – Itís a book that will help you create a system for organizing your life that is both customizable and easy to implement. If you donít have a system that you use to manage your life (time, paper, contacts, projects, etc.), I recommend this one. Itís been a miracle for me. You can get the book from any well-stocked book seller or borrow it from the library, and you can learn more about it and other GTD stuff online at www.davidco.com. I also learned a great deal about how to make GTD work for me from the fine folks at www.43folders.com.
2. Centralize Your Paperwork – If the paper is spread out in different rooms, go ahead and collect it in one central location. This may feel overwhelming but I promise, it helps to keep you from well-intentioned wandering off. (This doesn’t feel good so I’m going to check on those paper in the kitchen. Oh, that’s hard too. I wonder how the papers in the dining room are doing… and on and on.)
Just make a massive pile, go to it, and dig in. Recycle absolutely everything you can stand to part with. Shred what needs to be, and start to do something with the ones you need to do something with. When you need a break, walk away and then come back. Go to work and then come back. Eat dinner, play a game with the kids, kiss your valentine, and then find a few minutes to come back and do more. Keep coming back. It will work. Keep pushing that pile until itís gone. For some it might take a few hours, for others days, or even a few weeks. Donít worry, just dig in.
Oh, and if you don’t know what to do with a particular piece of paper, set it aside and find someone to ask. Not knowing is a terrible excuse for staying stuck.
3. Financial Papers – Usually, as Iíve learned from my charming lot of paper stashers, the financial papers are mixed in with all of the other papers. That means you can’t balance your checkbook, file your taxes, or make decisions about your retirement account. If thatís your situation, consider starting a money box or bag to capture all of the financial papers as you proceed through the master pile. Some people even sort by the year, or type of financial papers, as they go through that first pass to make it easier to take action on them once the initial process is complete. Do whatever makes sense for you. 4. Other Peopleís Papers – Iíve been so surprised to hear how many of my clients and SOBS students have papers that belong to dead people in their piles. Itís everything from financial papers to doctors visit notes, get well soon cards to condolence cards, and from love notes to things like magazines and junk mail that would have been considered paper clutter even to the deceased.
Now, I know that itís hard to let go of things that belonged to our loved ones but let’s think about these papers. Are they helping you remember what you long to remember about that person’s life? When you look at those piles, are you consumed with fond memories? Usually not. These things arenít helping you remember them. You have memories, positive ones, and anything that doesnít support that isnít actually serving you. Letting go of that stuff isnít letting go of your loved one. In fact, it will free you up to remember them properly, in a way that honors the life you shared together. This stuff is in your way.
If there are papers that represent positive memories that youíd like to keep, go the distance to do it well. Make some sort of memory book, or even a simple file folder that you can retrieve from the filing cabinet every once in a while to refresh your memory. And if the papers represent action that needs to be taken, then be still, feel what needs to be felt, and do what needs to be done. Leaving things undone wonít help you heal… itís okay to release them.
5. Pictures – Not everybody does this but I’ve learned that lots of people have pictures tucked away in their stacks of papers (digital clutter is a conversation for a different day). Release what no longer serves you and then gather the rest of the photos into a single location to deal when once the paper backlog is eliminated, deal with your pictures as a single project.
6. Recipes – Oh how the recipes stack up around those with the best of culinary intentions! If youíre going to go through the trouble of printing, copying, and tearing them out, at least use them. Make them accessible in a notebook, on index cards, or a folder in the filing cabinet. If you’re feeling really savvy, go digital or virtual but whatever you’re going to do, do it. Donít let your affection for recipes take over your space! 7. Contact Information – Take all of the business cards, envelopes with your cousinís new mailing address, note cards, scraps of paper, websites, phone numbers, and whatever other paper you have there with contact information on it, and do something with them. It doesnít matter if you use a paper, electronic, or virtual system, commit to a system and use it to manage all of that information so you can release the paper.
Also, someone recently asked me what to do with referrals. Specifically, she was holding a piece of paper with the name of a doctor that a friend told her to see when she was ready for something that it wasnít time for yet. I suggested that she could do anything she wants to, as long as she does something with the paper so itís not in the pile and she can find when she needs it. I suggested either emailing the info to herself with a description like ďeye doctor referral from jane doeĒ (so she can search for it later), enter the details in her address book with the explanation in the Ďnotesí section, or create a file folder for them and put them away in the filing cabinet. If they all go there, youíll know exactly where to go to find one when you need it.
8. Legal Papers – So far, all of the legal papers that my students have reported fall into three categories. They either need to take action on the papers (like divorce papers that need to be read to see if they are accurate before signing them), archive the papers (like birth certificates and such), or they simply need to be released or perhaps shredded and then released (like rough drafts of papers that were later finalized). If you have legal papers stacked up around you, do what needs to be done and free yourself from the daily reminders of the legal drama. At the very least, release what you can and then make a file for the rest and put them away in a cabinet. Leaving that stuff stacked up around you, isn’t helping you thrive. I promise.
9. Offspring Papers – My kids bring home lots of paper. There are things that need action, like permission slips and order forms. There are art projects and completed assignments they bring home to share with me. Thereís a great deal of it and itís easy to be overwhelmed. Itís important to release that which no longer serves you, and take the action that is needed. If there are events, put them on the calendar. If there are signatures, go ahead and commit and send the papers back.
As for the memories, each of my children have their own box right at the top of the attic stairs and we put our favorite things inside for safe keeping. I donít keep the fill in the blank tests and such, as they donít actually capture much of the children. I keep the papers and the stories they have to write. I keep the things that make me laugh or impress me. I keep things they are particularly proud of too. I’ve always told them that once they got too full, we’d go in and look for things that no longer serve us to release. So far, that hasn’t happened but we still have high school left. We’ll see when we get there.
What’s in your piles?
For each paper, you have to first make a decision about what to do with it–release it, take action on it, or archive it. Then, you have to do it. You have to either get it out of your house, take action (pay it/research it/call about it/do it/write about it/whatever), or find it a sensible home.
Itís not always easy–especially when there are lots of papers–but it is that simple, decide on an action and take it. Decision making and action are the two things that don’t happen when we’re stuck. Then, we get overwhelmed by what’s not happening so we accumulate more, make fewer decisions, and take less action.
As that cycle continues, your hole gets deeper and deeper until you’re here. But, I promise that you have the power to turn this thing around. You just have to check back in. You may even need support but it’s time to come off the bench and get back in the game. Your sanity… your freedom… your life is waiting for you.
So, here are 9 tips to get you started but certainly not a comprehensive list. What else is stacked up around you? Leave your paper challenges here and we’ll play with those next time. If you prefer to you can email me through my website below. And if you’re stuck (and sick of it), check out the program at www.sickofbeingstuck.com.