Don't Drown in Paper

Decades ago, everyone talked about a "paperless future."  Now we have many digital options, yet paper still flows ceaselessly into our lives.  It enters our homes daily in the mail, inside packages, from school, as business cards and takeout menus, concert fliers and free community newspapers.

If you don't deal with it, you'll drown in it.

When you began decluttering, you probably noticed the paper problem very quickly.  Were there piles of paper in the kitchen, on the dining table, on your desk, and in your kids' backpacks?  When you create a system that lets you keep up with the flow of paper, your visible clutter decreases.  Dealing with paper efficiently is a useful tool in maintaining your clutter-free home.

pile of mail

6 steps to tame the paper tiger

1.  Clear the kitchen counters.

Declutter those extra mugs, bowls, utensils, and the appliances you never use.  Then put the things you do use regularly into your kitchen cupboards and drawers, near at hand but out of sight.  

It's not more convenient to have things on the counter.  It's not convenient to have no room to chop an onion or to mix pancake batter because the counter is full.  If your cupboards aren't so stuffed you have to rearrange everything in order to retrieve what you need, it only takes seconds to get out the toaster or the sugar canister.

Make an exception for something you use more than once a day, perhaps a blender or coffee maker.  Not the stand mixer you use every couple of weeks, or the cookbooks you never consult, or d├ęcor items.  My teakettle lives on the back left burner of the stove.

What does this have to do with paper?  Clear counters are especially important when you're trying to develop new habits of clutter-free living.  If nothing belongs on the counter, you can't justify putting random stuff there.  Once you habitually keep your kitchen clutter-free, put one or two decorative items back out if they make you happy, but until then keep them put away.

2.  Clear the dining table.

Part of your decluttering journey has been to create homes for things.  The table isn't home for backpacks and piles of paper, so everyone needs to practice putting stuff where it belongs.  Again, something used more than once a day, like a fruit bowl or salt and pepper shakers, could remain, but that's it.  You'll find it's so much easier to use the table for its intended purposes.

3.  Clear the refrigerator.

Items stuck on the refrigerator always look messy.  If you love having photos or invitations where you can see them, hang a magnetic board in the family room or inside a pantry door.  And remove the pile of stuff on top of the refrigerator.  Do you think it's invisible because it's up high?

4.  Manage mail every day.

  • Don't set it down somewhere it doesn't belong.  Piles grow when you neglect them, so take a few minutes and sort through the mail as soon as you bring it in.  Junk mail can go straight into recycling (shred anything with personal information).
  • Take the time to automate as many of your bills as possible, so you only have a few on paper.  Keep your checkbook, stamps, and some business-size envelopes together in a desk drawer, and take two minutes to pay each bill as it arrives.  You'll never again have a pile of bills to pay.
  • Cancel all catalogs and subscribe only to magazines you actually read.  Keep them in a basket on the coffee table, and recycle last month's issue when the new one arrives (if you haven't yet read it, cancel the subscription).
  • Enjoy "real" mail, like a birthday card or a thank you note, which you might display on your magnetic board for a few days.  An invitation with an RSVP needs an immediate response.  Enter the date and time of the event on the family calendar, if you're going.
  • Keep a "current" file (perhaps an accordion folder) for important papers like this year's pay stubs, statements from investment accounts, the latest auto insurance declarations page, unexpired warranties, and receipts for current year tax items.  File these papers immediately; remove those that are outdated.

  • You will rarely add papers to your archive file.*  This box should hold the last seven years of tax-related documents, as well as wills, life insurance policies, real estate records, loan documents, deeds, diplomas, passports, and marriage/birth/adoption certificates.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you purchase with my links, I may earn a small commission.

5.  Sort school papers.

  • Most school papers can go directly into recycling.  Comment on, but don't save, the piles of math worksheets and grammar exercises.  
  • Keep items needed to study for a test and items that are really original.  Designate a home for these, such as a basket on your desk.  Quizzes, class notes, and study sheets could go there, ready for use as test time approaches.  So can essays, stories, poems, or art (hang a piece or two on the magnetic board).  
  • Toss the study items at the end of the grading period.  If you still think a piece of writing or art is really special, it can be placed in a keepsake box you've created for each child.  At the end of the school year, you can once again look through that year's items and keep a handful of the best things.
  • As kids get older, they should keep track of their own study items in a binder.
  • When something is brought home that needs to be signed and returned, sign it right away, and have your child put it in the front pocket of their backpack so it's not "lost."

  • Notes about school activities do not need to be kept once the date and time are entered on the family calendar.  I still like a wall calendar for this, since you can see at a glance what else is scheduled and decide whether or not to participate.  Mine is hung inside my pantry door.  Sports practices and game times, open house, the science fair, the history project due date, the 8th grade trip, an orthodontist appointment, a birthday party, and the church youth musical performances can all be entered.

6.  Limit extras.

If given the option, don't take a printed receipt.  Don't take the free newspaper.  Don't take fliers and coupons, unless you will actually use them.  You probably don't need the takeout menu for your favorite restaurant.  If you keep business cards for networking, get a business card organizer; otherwise don't take the card.  You can still add the contact to your phone.

Simply think before accepting more paper.

Updated January 2023


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