The Ultimate Guide to Eliminating Paper Clutter
Why does a blog that totes a statement of ‘reducing mental clutter’ talk about reducing physical clutter?
The answer is simple:
Reducing physical clutter = reducing mental clutter
How does reducing physical clutter help reduce mental clutter?
But I’m not just talking about any old clutter today, I’m talking about the clutter that is the bane of my existence. The clutter that seems to show up over and over…I’m talking about…
Why is paper clutter such an issue for so many people? I think it is because it is a never-ending item that comes into our homes. It’s not as easy to control how much and what comes in. I see so many resources talking about how to organize paper clutter, paper piles, and the ‘paper monster’. And there isn’t anything wrong with those types of resources as they can contain some helpful tips. But guess what.
I don’t believe in organizing.
That’s right. I don’t believe in organizing. Why?
I think back to how much time I’ve spent ‘organizing’ (hint – hours), and how much money I’ve spent on organization systems, containers, etc (hint – a lot). All for what? To end up with piles and piles of paper again. If you don’t believe me, check out this statistic:
“The National Association of Professional Organizers reports that organizing consultants and products — think The Container Store — has grown into a $1 billion industry.”
It is not a $1 billion dollar industry because people suddenly get organized and then their clutter issues are solved forever. It’s because organizing alone isn’t the answer.
If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone.
So how do we combat the dreaded paper monster FOR GOOD?
To answer that question, let’s take a look at The 5 R’s:
Notice how organizing isn’t part of the 5 R’s? Not only is it because it doesn’t start with an ‘R’, but it’s because just moving paper clutter around to different areas of your house or into different containers doesn’t actually solve the problem of having too much paper in your home.
In order to combat paper clutter, the first thing to do is to refuse and reduce the amount of paper that is in your home and that comes into your home. Below are the many different sources of paper clutter that can come into your home and that my family and I struggled with, and my tips for reducing and refusing that paper clutter!
Reduce junk mail. I talk about this in my ‘Decluttering’ series as something my family implemented to help combat paper clutter. Did you know the average American gets 26 lbs of unwanted junk mail each year? Here are some ways to reduce that number!*
- Contact companies directly and ask to be removed
- Credit Card Offers- visit Optoutprescreen.com
- Mail list brokers and marketing associations – visit dmachoice.org
- National mailers (coupons) visit – Red Plum, ShopWi$e, Val-Pak Direct Marketing System, Money Mailer, LLC
- Phone Books – yellowpagesoptout.com
- Catalog Mailers – catalogchoice.org, or by contacting the company directly
- Sweepstakes mailers – Publishers Clearinghouse, Readers Digest (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Any providers that you pay bills to/bill statements – While this may not be considered junk, most companies offer paper free communications through email or your account on their website. Visit each company’s website and enroll.
- US Postal Service – Misaddressed mail – Contact your post office and/or usps.gov for any mail for former residents
If you are looking for even more ways to reduce junk waste, check out this post all on this topic by Amy French at The Good Life.
*Source: Hennepin County info sheet
Another source of paper comes from physical bills. A couple of years ago, my family and I opted to receive all bill correspondence through email. We have never had any issues with missing messages from companies, and it has greatly reduced the mail we get. In fact, we found that some of the companies we opted to go paperless with offered a discount on the interest rate. Win, win, and win!
Visit the websites of your billers for more information on how to go paperless.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to propose you get rid of all your paper files. In fact, there are definitely documents that are important to keep a hard copy of! Think social security cards, birth certificates, diplomas, etc.
But I am going to guess that you, like me, have files that you don’t necessarily need to keep.
So where to start?
I started by going through every document in my file folder. I made three piles:
Every document HAD to go into one of the three piles.
Once I had gone through every document, I then TOOK ACTION on the recycle and shred piles and actually shredded and recycled. Remember, the goal is to reduce!
For the keep pile, I then had to decide which documents I wanted to keep in physical form, and which documents would suffice to be electronic (or that I didn’t need at all).
For those I wanted to keep a physical copy, I put them into our fireproof safe, or filed them away in our filing box (we don’t even have a cabinet, just a couple of file boxes with categorized folders).
For those I wanted electronic, I scanned them and FILED THEM RIGHT AWAY IN A FOLDER ON MY COMPUTER. Do this too, otherwise, you’ll just end up with a cluttered drive.
Don’t have a scanner? Don’t worry! There are countless apps out there that will scan for you. Here are some of the ones I’ve heard of:
CamScanner – Free
Genius Scan – Free
I personally use the Google Drive App, because I don’t need anything fancy, and I already use Google Drive for many other files and documents. If you’re not a Google fan or don’t use Google Drive, Dropbox is another good option for e-file storing.
Let me back up a second and mention that if you don’t have a shredder at home, there are some options. Many office supplies stores offer secure document shredding. My work has a couple of days a year that we can bring secure documents into shred (ask your employer if this is an option). Finally, the city I live in has a couple of weekends a year to bring in documents for secure shredding. Check around your local area!
If you do have a shredder at home – think of creative ideas to reuse the ‘shreds’ (totally just made that name up, but I’m digging it). You can, of course, recycle them, but you can also compost the shreds, use it for packing materials, or for gifts!
Finally, when documents come into your home, spend the 3-5 minutes it takes to DO SOMETHING with the paper. For my family, our filing system and shredder are downstairs in the basement. So, I picked up a cute mail holder (similar to this one) that goes on our fridge. As soon as something comes in the house, it is either recycled or put into the mail holder. Once a week or so, we take the documents downstairs and shred, scan, or file. Find a process that works for you and your family!
Kid’s school work/artwork
Phew. Kids and paper. There is so much! Even though Little E is only 2.5 years old, we already are bombarded with artwork and craft projects.
Some of the artwork that comes home we hang up on the fridge or display in this kids art frame (you can store multiple pieces of artwork within the frame). The stuff that doesn’t get displayed, I have a binder that we keep down by the few family photo albums we have and put some of the work in there. When I’m deciding which ones to keep and which ones not to keep, I try to be really mindful that I am keeping it for me and Mr. Blographer, and NOT for Little E for when he is older. The reason for this is because:
1. He will be able to pick from the ones we have saved for him (if he even wants them)
2. My parents kept mine, and while I enjoy being able to look at the artwork (and appreciate them being so sweet and thoughtful), I’m not doing anything with the pieces, and end up having to find another use for it anyway.
Once the binder gets full, I go through the pieces and determine which ones no longer have the same meaning to me as when I kept them.
An alternative you can do is to take photos of the artwork (or scan them using one of the apps I mentioned above) so you can have a digital copy.
As for the artwork we don’t end up keeping, we find an alternative option for it which include:
- Making bookmarks for library books/gifts
- Giving the artwork to family/friends
- Using the artwork for cards
- Using the artwork for gift wrap
The ones that don’t fall into any of the above categories get recycled, but we really try hard to find another use for each piece.
As kids get older ( here is where the school work/homework portion comes in), I have heard of people keeping a binder like we do, or a box that holds all of the artwork/school work/homework from the past year. At the end of the year, the parents/guardians and kids go through the box and decide which items to keep and which ones can be reused or recycled.
I have a love/hate relationship with physical lists. I love the aspect of writing things down and being able to physically cross them off. I also like having paper nearby to quickly jot down ideas if I’m on a roll with brainstorming. Plus, it’s a great way to reuse scrap paper.
But, I also utilize electronic lists and have come to really enjoy them. I use Wunderlist (not affiliated, just like it!). You can have as many lists as you want and can share lists with others (Mr. Blographer and I are both on the grocery list, for example). Additionally, you can use the tool as a place to bookmark articles/sites, AND, I even do my meal planning in it!
There are many other great features, but I’ll just share that the thing I like most about it is that you can access it through a browser in the desktop, OR, you can download the app for a phone/tablet. Plus, it’s free!
If you are looking to combat scrap paper clutter, I know there are numerous other ‘list-making’ apps out there!
Coupons can become messy QUICKLY. The thing that has helped my family the most with combating coupon clutter is to have ONE designated place for them, and to make sure to go through them every so often to get rid of any expired ones.
One other tip: if you know there is a coupon you will use while out and about, keep it in your wallet and/or car, so you don’t forget it!
Take out menus
These days, almost every restaurant has their menu online, which makes it great for reducing paper clutter. Recycle those old take-out menus you still have laying around or on the fridge (or use them for scrap paper), and opt to go online when you want to order.
Additional tip: if/when you do order take-out, tell the restaurant you don’t need an additional menu. I don’t know how many times we would get a menu with our order, only to find that we had multiple copies of the same menu (or end up going online anyway to view the menu)!
Yet another additional tip: if you decide you absolutely need to have menus in physical form, have a specific spot for them so they’re not just laying around.
We used to have a drawer filled with manuals that we never read. In fact, we went in that drawer so rarely that at the time we were decluttering it, half of the appliances we had the manuals for we didn’t even own anymore.
I want you to be reallllllllly honest with yourself here. How many times have you actually used the manual you got with an appliance or any sort of technology ASIDE from when you initially bought it? For my family, the answer was nil.
I know some people like to keep the manuals for appliances to give to new homeowners when they move. But my argument is that pretty much any manual is now online, and we don’t need to keep the paper copy anymore. When Mr. Blographer and I moved, we compiled and printed a list of the URLs for the manuals online, along with the make and model of the appliance so the new homeowners could have the information if needed. You can do that for yourself too!
Paperwork for Partner/Spouse
Isn’t it funny how some things can set one person off but the other person doesn’t even notice them?
This is how it is with paper clutter between Mr. Blographer and I. Piles of paper drive me insane, while Mr. Blographer doesn’t even seem to notice them (his thing is toys on the living room floor, which doesn’t bother me so much). So, we came up with a compromise. When paperwork or mail comes in for him, if it ends up in a clutter pile that he doesn’t want to go through at that time, we put it in a box. Every once in a while, he goes through the box and sorts out all the documents/mail/etc. It has worked really well for us and has been a great compromise.
Psst: having trouble getting your family or spouse on board with decluttering/minimalism? I talk about how to deal with this in my FREE 7-Day E-course.
Information packets, flyers, brochures, business cards
Yeah, these can add up quickly, at least in my house. So how do you combat?
If I’m attending something in person where they are offering materials I’m interested in, I will ask if I can find them online. If the answer is yes, then I take a picture of the front of the brochure/flyer/etc so that I can remember what it is called. Sometimes the materials even have the website on them, which you can write down or take a picture of. Taking a photo works for most of these types of materials, including business cards.
If the materials aren’t online, if the information is something I really am interested in and know that I’ll use, I do take the material and promptly do something with it (recycle, store, etc) when I get home.
Ask these questions…
If you are trying to decide whether or not to keep a piece of paper, ask:
“Is there a specific situation I can think of where I would need this?”
If you can’t think of a situation after a couple of minutes, get rid of it. If you’re still concerned, you can always scan it and have it electronically.
“Would it be difficult for me to access this electronically if I need it?”
If the answer is no, then get rid of it.
Everything has a place
Have a spot for every type of paper that comes in your house, and do something with the paper immediately when it comes in. As I mentioned above, it usually takes 5 minutes or less, but the results can be great!
Remember that the goal is to reduce the amount of paper you have in general. Whenever you go to print something, ask yourself if you REALLY need to print it, if the document can be stored electronically, or if a taking a photo will suffice.
Paper clutter seems like a never-ending battle, but there are steps you can take to help reduce and refuse it. This process is a journey, so take it slow and one day at a time.
What is your favorite way to reduce paper clutter?