HOW TO DECLUTTER PAPERWORK AND STOP FEELING OVERWHELMED BY PAPER CLUTTER
Feeling overwhelmed by paper clutter and not sure how to deal with it? Here are some simple, helpful tips on how to declutter paperwork and keep those paper mountains away for good!
WHY DO YOU NEED TO DEAL WITH YOUR PAPER CLUTTER?
Paper clutter builds up in every household. It even lands on your doormat each morning so it’s a constant daily battle to stay on top of the paperwork.
We use paperwork to organise our entire lives, at home and at work, so decluttering our paperwork and simplifying the systems we use to deal with, store and save paper clutter really helps to keep us productive, tidy, efficient and organised.
More than that, an easy system to deal with paperwork helps simplify our home and life, removes stress, frustration and wasted time and let’s us get on with other things!
In this article I’d like to share some tips on how to deal with paper clutter easily and quickly. I’ll tell you about my own system and some other, more general, ideas on how to declutter paperwork without overwhelm.
If you have any questions or suggestions to add which might help others, please leave a comment at the bottom of the article!
ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
This article is about decluttering paperwork at home and for your family. I haven’t included information and tips on how to declutter paperwork related to businesses so please do your own research if you run a business from home or outside.
I should also probably warn you that there are lots of fancy and very pretty paper organisation and stationery supplies out there but I don’t use or talk about them! In my own experience they lull us (me) into a false sense of security that if I buy them then it’s going to instantly tackle my paper clutter problem and keep me organised. They haven’t. This is why I’d like to share my own very simple system for dealing with paper clutter and not being overwhelmed by it!
There are also plenty of electronic ways we can move from paper to digital but I don’t cover these in great detail in this article. Not all of us are very confident at dealing with the digital world so I’ve tried to give you some tips to easily simplify and declutter paperwork even if you’re not very technical!
Further reading: 20 ways to deal with your digital clutter
DEALING WITH PAPER CLUTTER IN YOUR OWN HOME
Finding a system for dealing with your paperwork that really works takes time. If you struggle and get overwhelmed by paper clutter then it sounds like you need to spend some time working out WHAT paperwork is causing you the problem, WHY it builds up, WHERE you put it and HOW to get rid of it. Monitor your paper problem at home for a week. Where are your pain points?
I don’t think there’s a magic wand to our paper clutter mountains as paper clutter is probably the number one question that most of my readers ask for advice about! Paper clutter is a problem for many of us, myself included. But, I hope the tips I share here will give you some ideas to try out for yourself and make your own.
THE SYSTEM I USE TO DEAL WITH PAPER CLUTTER
I have a set of filing trays on my desk in my little home office.
In the past I’ve had the tray on a little corner of my kitchen counter or on my chest of drawers in my bedroom. The location doesn’t really matter as long as it’s easy for you to use but not too intrusive or out in the open if you have private papers that you don’t want visitors to see.
This set of filing trays has 4 trays stacked one on top of each other.
This is the main system I use to manage paperwork on a daily, regular basis. It’s how I keep my paper clutter manageable and easy to use, readily accessible if I want to find something and equally easy to action, file and put away papers depending on what I need to do with them. It also cuts down on the number of times I pick up each piece of paper before I’ve finished with it.
How my trays work
Top tray – for paperwork that needs actioning.
School letters to be signed, correspondence that needs to be replied to, bills that need to be paid, gift cards that need spending! The contents of this tray needs me to do something with it. I usually put the most important or urgent items at the top. I go through this tray at least once a week, maybe more often.
Second tray – this is my pending tray.
It contains paperwork which I am waiting on something to happen. Maybe a reply from someone else, a medical appointment letter for which the appointment is scheduled and upcoming, an upcoming holiday booking confirmation. The paperwork in this tray is pending because it does not require me to do anything to action it, but rather I am waiting on something or someone else to do something to it.
Third tray – this is my ‘wait and see’ tray.
The paperwork in this tray does not require my immediate attention or action, it is not pending and waiting on someone or something else to happen or do something to it. Instead, the paperwork in this tray might be useful or needed in the future, but I don’t need it right now. I also don’t want to throw it away as I don’t know whether I will or won’t need. I have to ‘wait and see’.
Some examples of paperwork in this tray at the moment are seed catalogues and a local free booklet that gets delivered locally with some places to see and things to do whilst the kids are on summer holidays which might come in handy.
Bottom tray – this is my filing tray.
I must admit I’m not very good at filing and I probably leave this tray to become pretty full until I summon up the energy and enthusiasm to go through it. In an ideal world, the contents would be dealt with once a week, but it’s not!
In this tray I put paperwork that I don’t want to get rid of or I’m not going to keep an electronic version of, but that needs to be filed. So, for example, once I’ve paid a bill from the top tray, I would write the date I paid it on the bill then put it in the bottom tray to be filed.
Why my tray system works for me
Out of all the systems I’ve tried, I find this tray system works the best for me because it’s easy to use, easy to see what I need to do, what I’m waiting on, and I have a place to store my ‘wait and see’ papers and filing until I’m ready to do something with them. Everything is neat and tidy and each tray holds a limited amount of paperwork that’s just right for my needs but not too much that it (particularly my filing!) gets out of hand.
If you don’t have trays, you could use boxes or folders. I find trays to be the easiest to use because it’s quick to just plop the papers in and, as the trays stack one on top of each other, they don’t take up much space on my desk. It also feels like there’s a natural flow from one tray down to the next. Action, pending, wait and see, filing. Quick and easy works best for me!
Checking my trays regularly
Every Sunday, as part of my Sunday routine, I go through the top two trays. I check what I need to action over the coming week (bills to pay etc) in tray 1, what’s upcoming (e.g. medical appointments for which I might need the paperwork sitting in tray 2, and I have a cursory flick through what’s in my ‘wait and see’ tray 3 to see if there’s anything I can use or get rid of.
If you think you might forget to go through your trays regularly, pop a reminder on your phone or in your diary.
Like most forms of clutter and much of life, the more we put things off, the more they build up and become more difficult and overwhelming to deal with.
How I organise paperwork within each tray
If I take my second tray as an example, this is my pending tray. It currently has quite a few bits of paper in it. We have medical appointments for my husband and each of my daughters, plus there are some holiday booking confirmations and letters from the school about trips next year.
If I have one piece of paper per topic then I tend to just put the paper in that tray on its own. If each topic has more than one piece of paper then I’ll put them together in a plastic wallet. I like clear wallets because it’s easy to see inside but they take up very little extra space in the tray. It may not be a very pretty system but it works easily for me.
There are so many beautiful folders, organisers, stationery supplies etc that it’s easy to get swayed by what looks good, even if it’s not going to function very well for you. Just think how many times you might have bought a new calendar or notebook thinking it’s going to help you get organised but after a while, you forget to use it and it goes to sit with the other notebooks and planners that you also didn’t use!
Paper clutter is sneaky so you need to get clever with it and keep it under control. I think purpose and function is more helpful than how pretty your paper organisation system is. Of course, if you can combine function with beauty then that’s great!
My filing cabinet and how I organise paperwork in the cabinet
So, I have my four trays but what happens to the contents of the filing tray at the bottom? Well, this gets filed in a small, lockable filing cabinet that I have at home.
Again, it’s not very beautiful but it does the trick. It has two drawers and each drawer has a load of hanging files, each one labelled for a different area of my life.
I have hanging files for my home – gas, electricity, water, council tax, insurance and all the other bills we have to pay. I have hanging files for important documents in their hard copy, original formats such as our passports, birth certificates etc. I have other hanging files for our financial records, bank and savings accounts, credit cards. I have files for each of my daughters, the school, the dog, our cars.
When my bottom filing tray gets full of paperwork to be filed, I then transfer the contents of this tray into the relevant hanging folders in my filing cabinet.
The hangers are clearly labelled by topic, subject and/or person. They’re also organised alphabetically so I can quickly find what I’m looking for.
What happens when my filing cabinet is full?
When my filing cabinet is too full it gets more difficult to put the papers in there easily. I end up squidging them in so I know it’s time to sort through and declutter them. I prefer my filing cabinet to have enough space in it so I can easily pull the different hanging folders apart to read the labels and put the papers in the relevant folder.
Decluttering the paper in my filing cabinet is then a case of scan, shred or recycle. I’ll deal with these topics in a minute!
On average, I’ve found that I declutter my filing cabinet once a year. It’s actually a job I do between Christmas and New Year whilst the kids are off school and I’ve got a few days off fron work when we close the office (my husband and I run our own family business which closes for Christmas break). I like to start the New Year by having a good declutter session and clearing the clutter from the year before!
HOW TO GET RID OF UNWANTED PAPER CLUTTER
When I’m decluttering my paperwork I keep in mind that some documents need to be retained for a certain period as a legal requirement.
You can find document retention guidelines on the internet to help guide what you keep and what you don’t.
There are some original documents which I will always keep.
Some examples of these are passports, birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates, original mortgage documents and deeds for my home, exam and test certificates.
Some documents I’ll decide to keep in electronic, digital format scanned and saved onto my pc. These are documents for which I don’t need to keep the originals but that are important enough to keep if I need to refer to them.
These days there are many documents that we also receive via email or can access online (my home and car insurance details are sent to me by email and my access to banking and statements etc are all available online) so I don’t keep the originals of these. I either access the online portal whenever I need the information or do this and save the correspondence on to my pc (which I back up and need a password to access for security).
You can also use your phone to take photos of documents and then search for text in the photos app to find the document you’re looking for.
If you’re scanning paperwork and saving it digitally onto a computer, make sure you clearly label your scanned image with date and title and save them in clearly marked folders. It will be easier for you to find things at a later date amidst a mass of scanned images.
If I no longer need paperwork but it contains sensitive and confidential personal data and information then I’ll shred and recycle these papers. We have a little household paper shredder which works fine but there are also companies you can pay to do this for you.
Paper clutter that contains no personal data, for example leaflets and those seed catalogues I have sitting in my ‘wait and see’ tray, can be recycled.
HOW TO DEAL WITH SENTIMENTAL PAPER CLUTTER
One of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to decluttering is dealing with sentimental clutter and sentimental paper clutter is no different. Some examples of sentimental paper clutter could include:
- Old textbooks from school, college or university
- Birthday, anniversary and other celebration cards
- Old diaries, journals and notebooks
- Old photos
- Children’s artwork
- Mood boards and vision boards
- Personal letters
We all have different amounts of sentimental paper clutter. If you have kids or have been journaling for years, you might have much more paperwork to sift through for example!
I keep a memory box for sentimental items that I don’t want to part with. Each member of my family has a box which sits in our garage, cleared labelled with their name and a tight-fitting lid so dust etc can’t get in. Anything I’m emotionally attached to and don’t want to part with, but don’t want lying around my home, goes in there.
Every now and then I’ll go through that box to see if I’m ready to let something go, particularly if the box is getting full and I want to keep something else but don’t have space. I use these boxes for all sorts of items that bring precious memories including paperwork such as letters, old school reports and my children’s favourite artwork.
Using these memory boxes helps me stay clutter-free in my home but without regretting getting rid of something that has sentimental value.
For mood and vision boards, you could try using Pinterest instead of traditional physical ones.
Further reading: How to deal with sentimental clutter
HOW TO DEAL WITH OTHER TYPES OF PAPER CLUTTER
Here are some ideas and examples of how to deal with other types of paper clutter.
1. Junk mail
Goes straight in my paper recycling bin or my ‘wait and see’ tray if I think it might be of use.
I try to tick these off against my bank statements. I tend to only keep a month’s worth of paper receipts before I shred them. If they’re for a high value item or I think I’ll need them as proof of purchase then I have a hanging folder in my filing cabinet for receipts.
Stores will often accept bank statements as proof of purchase. They will also sometimes offer to send email receipts instead, or as well as paper ones, so if a store offers to send me a digital version of the receipt I’ll usually accept that instead.
3. Go paperless wherever possible
Set up payments to go out by direct debit, choose online banking and electronic statements instead of postal and paper versions. Here are more tips on how to simplify your finances and manage your money more easily.
Read them when they come through the door then pass on to a friend or recycle.
It’s not uncommon to collect piles of magazines which we keep ‘just in case’ we want to refer to them. Magazine subscriptions are also why so many people receive magazines through the post but because of lack of time or waning enthusiasm, they don’t open the plastic packaging and the magazines sit sadly in a pile waiting to be read and collecting dust.
This call is yours. Do you want to keep the magazines on the off-chance you might want to refer to them, or do they take up space, prevent easy access around your home, make cleaning difficult and just remind you of the money you spent on them?
Read online wherever possible.
6. Takeaway menus
These are often available online if you visit the website of your favourite website.
7. Junk mail
Check there’s nothing of interest and then recycle. Put a ‘no junk mail’ sign up at your front door.
8. School paperwork
Check school bags every evening and get paperwork signed and sent back the next day so that paper clutter doesn’t build up or get forgotten about.
9. Instruction manuals and other reference paperwork
Only keep paper versions of what can’t be found online.
10. Recycle often
Make use of waste and recycling collection days to declutter your papers and see if there’s anything you can easily get rid of.
11. Use your phone to help reduce paper clutter
I used to leave post-it notes on my desk, or have a noticeboard in the kitchen to remind me of activities and things to do or places to be. I don’t have a great memory but I AM good at lists and ticking things off. However, I use my phone to set alarms and reminders in my calendar which ping at me to remind, instead of relying on those post-it notes. I use the Notes section on my phone for any thoughts, notes, things to remember or To Do’s that I don’t want to forget about. Here are some other productive things to do on your phone.
12. Use an electronic calendar
We don’t have a paper-based calendar but instead my husband and I both have access to a shared Google calendar where we can both see what’s going on. It’s really easy to use and we both find the notifications we set helpful to remind us what to do and when.
13. Homework and school projects
My kids keep these in their bedrooms or I allocate a space on a counter which is temporary just while the project is underway. Once it’s finished it gets sent to school or I take a photo of it and we throw the original. Over the years, a couple of items have been SO good that I haven’t want to get rid of them so I put them in their memory box until I’m ready to let them go. You can read more about that in the section on dealing with sentimental paper clutter earlier in this article. Or I have an article on how to deal with children’s artwork if you can’t keep it all!
IF YOU FIND DEALING WITH PAPERWORK OVERWHELMING
When it comes to dealing with paper clutter it might be helpful to consider your WHY. Why are you decluttering? What do you want to gain or change?
1. Find your why
Finding your why is always important because decluttering isn’t easy and you might feel overwhelmed or anxious about getting rid of things. Being clear on your decluttering goals helps you stay motivated when the decluttering gets tough.
In the case of paper clutter, maybe you need more counter space, a desk that’s clear and tidy so you can be more productive and efficient? Perhaps you’re always losing or forgetting things? Are you downsizing and need to reduce the amount of stuff in your home, or do you need someone to help you manage your finances or medication and they can’t find what they need to help you?
2. Take it slowly
Just a few minutes each day sitting with a cup of tea or coffee will help you slowly but surely deal with your paperwork. Slow decluttering has many benefits.
3. Ask for help
If you have a friend or relative who could offer some physical or moral support then invite them over to help.
4. Create habits and routines
Dealing with paperwork is a daily issue so decluttering on its own won’t get rid of your paper clutter. Establish some simple habits and routines to deal with paper clutter from today onwards and this will help you feel in control of, and less overwhelmed by, the constant influx of clutter.
Here are some examples:
- Create one place where you’ll put all incoming post and paperwork in a pile.
- Deal with this pile EVERY day.
- I put mine in a corner of my kitchen counter so I can sort through it whilst waiting for dinner to boil.
- Aim to pick up each paper item just once as you deal with it. Pick it up from the pile and decide to put it in your action tray, pending tray, ‘wait and see’ tray, filing tray or to shred and/or recycle.
Like most habits and routines, the more you repeat the action over time, the more it will become a natural part of your day.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Dealing with paper clutter can feel very complicated and overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be. It’s about finding a way to simplify your paperwork and keep it up on a regular basis. For me personally, I find the more complicated a system is then the less likely I am to be able to keep it up.
I hope you enjoyed this article and found some of the ideas helpful. If you have anything to add or suggest, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
MORE ARTICLES TO HELP YOU STAY CLUTTER-FREE WITHOUT OVERWHELM
Here are some more articles to help you declutter with less stress and more confidence and ease.
- How To Declutter Craft Supplies for Creativity and Joy – Here are some tips on how to declutter craft supplies for creativity and joy. Let’s make it easier for you to decide which craft supplies to keep and which to declutter.
- What To Do With Children’s Artwork When You Can’t Keep It All – My children love creating artwork, anything from drawings and paintings to junk modelling with cardboard boxes and endless Lego constructions. I love them all and would like to keep everything but it’s not realistic. Check out this article so you can read my ideas on what to do when you’re buried under your children’s artwork.
- High Impact Decluttering Strategies for When You’re Struggling to Clear Clutter – Sometimes decluttering can be difficult and the traditional decluttering checklists and tips just don’t work. If this is a problem you’re facing, here are some high impact decluttering strategies for when you’re struggling to declutter.
- Decluttering Regret: 12 Ways to Declutter Without Regret or Fear – How many times have you decluttered something but later regret your decision to get rid of it? Maybe the fear of decluttering regret is holding you back from successfully clearing your clutter? Here are some tips to avoid decluttering regret and how to declutter your home without the fear of regret but with more confidence and ease instead.
DON’T MISS OUT!
I’m Antonia and on this blog I share practical inspiration to simplify your home, time and life. Follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest! You can also subscribe to Balance Through Simplicity and receive regular simplicity tips straight to your inbox for free. Make sure you never miss an article plus you’ll get a copy of my free Declutter Starter Kit as a welcome gift!