Paper: Self-Loathing Is Out, Clutter-Clearing Is In

My living room has thrown up paper. There is a volcano in the middle of a table and the entire surrounding area is finding some form of order. I can’t get out until it’s done, I guess. - Shannon, a coaching client

Do you know that thing people say about it getting worse before it gets better? Well that certainly applies when clearing paper clutter, and I don’t know what it is about people and their paper but this program has me covered up in paper drama. They have documentation of birth, death, and all that falls in the middle, and not only their own paper but the papers belonging to their loved ones too. Sometimes even paper belonging to those who’ve made transition into the next (please, oh please, let it be paperless) phase of this experience.

We are covered up in paper… and not in the tie-it-up-with-a-pretty-bow way either.

Paper has to be one of the hardest kinds of clutter, at least in part, because it’s so easy to hide. You know what I mean, right? People are coming over for book study, so you look around and discover that stack of papers on the counter (or dining room table or coffee table) and you shove the papers in a bag or box, then stash it in the office (or spare bedroom or coat closet or attic), vowing that you’ll deal with those papers properly just as soon as your guests leave. You don’t. Then next month, when the book study returns, you put another bag with the first, and another…

You know you’re in trouble when you walk past that secret stash a few months (or years) later and think, for just a split second, that a well-placed house fire would give you the fresh start you really need. I get it. I really do but it’s not good business to invite tragedy over for dinner, so let’s find another way for you to take back your life.

You are not alone, lots of people are covered up in paper. I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed these days. Paper flows in at a Niagara-like volume. The pace we (attempt to) keep is certainly more intense than ever before. And then we have the cursed hows of getting rid of it. Paper certainly needs its own exit strategy. Where can we recycle? How long do we need to keep these things? To shred or not to shred? Now that is the question.

By the way, did anyone ever teach you how to manage your paper? That’s what came up during our last group call. If the people who raised you didn’t include paper management on things-to-teach-the-wee-one game plan, then you may not actually know how to deal with all of the incoming papers, and that’s a very real challenge.

And if those people were afraid to release their papers, you probably are too. This is, of course, unless you are one of the rare apples that falls off the tree and rolls directly to the other end of the spectrum. In that case, you are probably reading this article just to see if it’s really that important to keep things like birth certificates, journals, and your child’s first painting. (It is, I promise.) Either way, the relationship that the people before us had with their stuff has a powerful influence on the relationship we have with ours.

We’re really looking for something in the middle here. I believe we call it moderation. I personally prefer the simplicity end of the moderation range but to each their own.

Continued: Self-loathing is NOT a functional system for managing paper.

Self-loathing is NOT a functional system for managing paper.

Most importantly, know that the shame and self-loathing do not help. They perpetuates the stuck-ness and if we want to free ourselves, we must find a way to let them go. If the problem is that you don’t know how to do what needs to be done, recognize that and accept your reality for what it is. Admit you don’t know how to do whatever it is and that you have a pretty big mess on your hands, and then get on with changing it.

Start by figuring out where you can learn that new skill. Ask a trusted friend or family member, take a class, get a book, hire a professional, or if it’s that kind of thing, just Google it. Of course, there is no single best way to do all that needs to be done with paper but there are lots of people who manage the papers relatively effectively. Any one of them can be a source of support for you.

I was living on the edge of paper-induced madness two years ago, when a friend shared something that led me to the Getting Things Done system. Where nothing else worked for me in the past, GTD was absolutely perfect. I bought the book, read it all the way through, and cleared my calendar for a weekend to implement it. And while I’m still working through the kinks of my recent professional growth–any major change can shake up even the best system–it is certainly strong enough to grow with me.

What’s important here is to recognize that I had to learn a way to manage the time, papers, and commitments in my world. It’s a skill set that I didn’t acquire en route to adulthood, and as my life became more and more intense, my old non-system started breaking down. Recognizing and owning that reality allowed me to take control and make a change. If beating myself up had helped, even once, I would at least consider it as an option for you but it didn’t and it doesn’t. So, no way, self-loathing is out.

Continued: Paper is a torture device that comes in many styles. Paper is a torture device that comes in many styles.

The first thing I realized in working with paper clutter is that unlike “laundry” or “cleaning supplies” or “movies,” to categorize all paper as “paper” isn’t helping any more than shame and self-loathing help. There are so many kinds of paper that if we look at one stack on the desk (or two on the kitchen counter or five on the dining room table) there are too many different directions to go. Too often, we then do nothing.

Just because “paper” stacks nicely, doesn’t mean we are well-served to treat it all the same. A quick and casual survey of my online community revealed a nice variety of papers that are stacked up around the world, even as I type this. I’ve broken them down into a rather casual groups but even a single paper could fall into a few categories, so it only helps a little to do so. This, of course, contributes to the very sticky nature of paper clutter.

Financial – bank statements, stock/retirement account reports, bills (both paid and unpaid), receipts, and tax records
Creative – quotes, inspiring images, great new ideas, half-finished projects, and assorted whatnot
Brain – reminders to look up/learn/explore, magazines, schedules, event reminders, business cards,
Mail – solicitations, ads, fliers, political paraphernalia, membership publications, and more
Heart – letters, greeting and holiday cards, photos, and pictures
Offspring – school notes, artwork, completed assignments and tests, medical records, reports cards,
Other – coupons, paper to reuse before recycling it, owner’s manuals, and old to-do lists with only half of the items checked off

It’s not an exhaustive list but it’s a pretty good start. Again, the problem is that when we look at a stack of papers, it looks like one thing, paper. But, it’s actually a bunch of individual pieces of paper–sometimes with and often without a common theme–and to eliminate that backlog, we need to release what no longer serves us, take action as needed, and then file what needs to be archived. Those steps may be easy with a single piece of paper but they are impossible if we look at all papers as one thing. We’ve got to figure out what’s in there and deal with them accordingly, stopping to figure out whatever we don’t know along the way (like asking the accountant how long we need to keep tax records).

Now, there is absolutely no point in me even trying to tell you in a single article how to implement a system that will work but I did point you in the direction of the GTD system, and I’ve still never recommended it to anyone who wasn’t able to make it work for them… if they actually read and implemented it. If not GTD, then choose something else but it’s important that you make a decision about how to process this backlog of papers.

Continued: It always comes back to decision-making with me, doesn’t it?It always comes back to decision-making with me, doesn’t it?

Yes, a stack of papers (or any clutter for that matter) is quite simply something you haven’t yet made a decision about. Unread magazines are something you haven’t yet decided to read. Sure you think you made a decision to read it when you brought it into your house but really you just decided to buy, borrow, or steal it. Perhaps you even made a decision to think about reading it but you didn’t decide to read it. I know this because if you had… those magazines would no longer be unread (or there would be time scheduled on your calendar to do so but almost nobody does that).

If you’re unwilling to make time to read them then you’re unwilling to read them, let them go. The same goes for the countless other “good ideas” you have stacked around you right now. It’s art projects you meant to do, broken stuff you intended to fix, solicitations from organizations that you’d like to donate to, and invitations or advertisements for events that you think might be good to attend.

Commit. Either use it or let it go. (This is what my friends and clients sometimes call a “Christy – Love Her/Hate Her Moment”.) “Want to” and “will” are two completely different things and when we cling to stuff that falls short of action we will actually take, we get stuck and life piles up around us. Yes, it is that simple.

You have to choose: yes or no. Are you in or are you out? Is this precious enough to take up space in your overwhelmed physical environment or is it not? Ask yourself, “Does this item serve me more than the space it occupies would serve me?” If not, release it. It’s time to take back your life.



Sheri P.
Sheri P5 years ago

i have so many stacks of paper that need to be gone through/thrown away...

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe5 years ago

I think Christy directed this article just to me. I am the one who put paper & magazines in a box and hid it while we had relatives here at Christmas, and a few other times too. I am also the one who has magazines that I bought with the intention to read, but as of yet, I haven't.

I think I need to use her mantra: "Either use it, or let it go."

Mac C.
mac C6 years ago

Really helpful... like your categories of paper.

Kristina C.
Kristina C6 years ago

I can so relate to this article - because I have enough paper-drama going on myself!
I do clean it up and out - and it lasts for a few weeks or a couple of months - then it starts all over again. I hate all this unnecessary paper that finds its way into my mailbox. I wish we could opt out from mail - with the exception of personal mail.
I pay all of my bills on line and get statements per email - that's all I need!

Please sign my petition:

Rachel M.
Rachel M6 years ago

That reminds me...I shoved a back of paper recycling under my bed before Christmas. Ooops.

Thanks for the article!

Dianna Barney
D B6 years ago

This article was an important reminder to me to clean up my act. I do think she could have been more concise in her article, though. Many things were repeated and the practical advice didn't come quickly enough. It might be pointed out that people of an older generation are not used to keeping records electronically and are very paranoid about letting go of records, memories, etc. that are stored on paper. Thanks for the article and comments.

heather g.
heather g6 years ago

Clearing clutter is about taking responsibility and being determined to overcome procrastination. It's not at all about self-loathing.
And I should know !!

Elaine A.
Elaine Al Meqdad6 years ago

I absolutely deplore clutter and will NOT have it in my home. I just can not stand clutter everywhere. I am highly organized and have a place for any import documents etc...Because that is the purpose of not having clutter. It's the difference between discipline to put things in their rightful place or go crazy trying to find what it is you need in a shambles of clutter, Which BTW, usually leaves the clutter freak in constant mood of anxiety. I'm not into knick knacks at all either. My peices of art are bold and big rathewr than tiny and......Well, clutter!

Jennifer E.
Jennifer E6 years ago

I forgot to ask - there was mention of a system called GTD. Does anyone know what that is about, please?

Jennifer E.
Jennifer E6 years ago

I have a bit of a hoarder's instinct in me unfortunately, so I found both the article and other comments much like looking in a mirror! One thing I have found with electronic clutter, as Deborah D mentions, is a way to de-clutter safely.

I have a gmail account and their archives are kept off site. So anything I want to keep from the computer, I send to myself on my gmail address and archive it there. Every year, I go through and delete ones that are no longer appropriate. It helps me! Not sure if it useful for anyone else.