Winning the War Against Paper

In my thirteen plus years working as a professional organizer I’ve done my share of organizing paper. I can say without a doubt I’ve done more paper organizing than any other type of organizing. Why? Because paper is one of the hardest things to organize and keep organized. When I teach seminars I tell attendees that paper is so difficult to organize because 1) it’s boring, 2) it’s flat so it’s hard to see that you’re making progress very quickly, 3) it’s never ending–it keeps coming in every day, 4) it’s usually primarily black and white which is hard on the eyes, 5) and it requires that a decision be made about every piece–really tough for people who have a hard time making decisions.

Is it any wonder that it’s quite common for people to procrastinate organizing their papers when there are so many other compelling tasks to be done that are much less annoying? Unfortunately, putting off managing paper costs you more in the long run because as the quantities of it build up, your inclination to deal with it diminishes in equal proportion. Before long you have a paper nightmare, one that causes all kinds of bad feelings like anxiety, depression, self-disgust, anger, irritation and exhaustion.

Since sorting and organizing paper is part of my everyday working experience, I’ve developed some general guidelines for handling paper that keep me sane and moving forward.

Never start with paper unless it is the only thing you have to organize.

If you start with paper, you will quit. You’ll run away! You’ll go shopping, watch TV, eat a cake or decide the lawn just has to be mowed right now. Paper will shut you down.

I learned that starting with paper is a big mistake the hard way in my first year as an organizer. I took a client’s lead and started with paper. Halfway through the session the client had an asthma attack, ran to the bathroom and threw up. After that I rarely started with paper when working with clients.

Back into paper.

In other words, don’t tackle it head on. Have a blast evaluating, sorting and purging everything else in your space first. Then when the room is feeling great and all that’s left to do is sort and clear paper, you’ll find it easier to handle the paper.

Never start with a single sheet of paper at the top of a paper pile.

It’s important that you make some visible progress quickly when organizing paper. The best way to do that is to throw away as much as you can as fast as you can. Therefore, you must look first at BIG CHUNKS of paper like magazines, newsletters and papers stapled together. You will see yourself as a success when your paper pile goes down quickly. That will help you stay motivated to keep working.

Keep only those papers that you are likely to USE.

Most people keep too much paper either because they don’t know what to keep. To feel safe they either keep everything or postpone making decisions out of a  fear they’ll make a mistake. As a result they hold on to large volumes of useless paper. Many people also don’t slow down enough to think about what papers they really need to keep. Keeping everything seems like the best insurance against not having the papers they need at a time when they need them. But, can they find them when they need them? The more paper you keep, the more work you must do to keep them organized and accessible!

My advice is to reflect back on your history and remember those times when you needed to retrieve papers. The times that come back to me most vividly were when I was buying a house or applying for a loan. Think about the kinds of papers that you needed. Those are the kinds of papers to keep, those that you are likely to use at some later date. The kinds of papers you needed in the past are the types you are likely to need in the future.

When in doubt about whether to keep a certain type of paper ask yourself, “How will I use this?” If you can’t come up with a past memory of using that type of paper or you can’t think of a way that you could use it in the future, pitch it! And, celebrate! You just made your life easier!

Make paper leave your space every day.

Eighty to 90% of paper that is filed NEVER gets used again. Becoming more discerning and committed to purging paper will lighten your load and empower you. Be sure to process mail every day–meaning, sort it, pitch the obvious junk mail, and deliberately store papers that require further action or filing in specific places where they can be easily retrieved at a later date. Taking regular action to purge paper will keep you in the power position relative to paper. Postponing working with paper is akin to telling paper to go ahead and take over. Vigilance with paper purging takes only minutes per day and will save you hours and hours of agony at a later date.

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