How to Eliminate Paper Clutter Forever

Organized Home OfficeHouse Beautiful

Years ago, I was drowning in papers. I didn’t have a plan or a system. Every time more paper came into the house, I was too busy to deal with it, so I set it in a pile for later. When more paper entered the house, I simply started a new stash. If I remembered a bill needed to be paid, I dug through the papers in hopes of finding it. Sometimes when I was tidying up the house, I would grab all the papers from the piles and throw it in a bag or a box to deal with another day. My dresser and desk drawers started filling up with paper. My closet had boxes of papers to “deal with later.” The problem was, I didn’t set aside time to deal with it later.

Finally I realized I needed an intervention. I needed to end the chaotic paper clutter cycle. While my house was clean and looked orderly, the closets were filling up with boxes of miscellaneous papers! I didn’t have enough room for our clothes or other belongings.

I realized I needed to create a system to better manage paper. It wasn’t going to be an overnight fix, but my habits were going to change immediately.

How to eliminate paper clutter forever - The Inspired Room - image via Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart

Here’s what you need to kick the paper clutter, once and for all!

1. Gather the essential tools.

  • A household shredder
  • A recycling bin
  • A simple filing system
  • A phone calendar or a wall calendar

2. Create a simple filing system for papers you need to store long term.

When paper comes into the house, you need to know exactly where it is going to go if you are going to deal with it efficiently.

Set up a simple filing system for papers you know you need to keep like medical records, tax documents, insurance documents, loan documents, receipts and warranties. Don’t make it too complicated and only save what is really essential. While you can use a scanner, in order to jump start my progress and simplify it, I decided to start with a paper file system first. Paper files are simple to use and affordable. I knew I could graduate to a scanner eventually when I was ready to invest in and tackle a new system.

Eliminate paper clutter forever - Tips from The Inspired Room - Photo by Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart (see the instructions for how to make this mini-office in a chest here!)

3. Set up a plan for information you’ll need to deal with soon.

Whether you have paper bills, party invitations, school calendars or other reminders in your home, you’ll want a system for what to do with them. Get in the habit of organizing your schedule electronically by using your phone or computer to alert you to upcoming dates. While it takes awhile to form a new habit of organization, electronic calendars and reminders can eliminate paper clutter and keep you alerted to activities. Conversely if you prefer paper calendars, you can use a paper calendar and bulletin board if you get into the habit of checking it daily as well as tossing out the old papers at least once a week.

4. Set up a paper sorting station.

The main mistake in handling paper pile ups begin at the door. Do you have a system in place to deal with the daily mail and paperwork from children or organizations? Avert the paper crisis by knowing exactly where to go with each piece of paper. Set up a place where your bills go to be paid. Put a shredder and recycling bin near your mail sorting station so you’ll be able to immediately deal with papers you don’t want. Give each family member an inbox. Once you have a sorting system, you’ll never again need to have a miscellaneous pile to “deal with later.”

How to Eliminate Paper Clutter Forever - The Inspired Room - photo by Martha StewartMartha Stewart

5. Bring all your piled papers together in one room.

Get ready to deal with past pile ups. If you have closets and drawers full of papers, empty each closet and drawer and bring all the paper into one room near a shredder and recycling bin. Yes, it will feel overwhelming. But you’ll be empowered to succeed when you see how many papers have been stuffed in hiding. Your closets and drawers will feel open and decluttered, inspiring you to never let paper clutter pile up again. Your paper clutter will only be in one room, inspiring you to make and see progress.

6. Start a new habit. Shred, recycle and file every day.

From now on, when paper comes in to the house, don’t set it down or stash it for later. Take action. Go immediately to your mail sorting station and shred or recycle almost everything that comes in. If it is a bill or something that you will need later, put it directly where it belongs. If you aren’t sure where to put it but you know you need to keep it, create a designated file for those papers so you’ll know exactly where to find it and what to do the next time something similar comes into the house. Don’t pile papers for later, deal with all paper immediately.

7. Rid your home of old paper clutter.

One by one, tackle the backlog of papers from the bins, boxes and stacks of papers you pulled out of the drawers and closets, until you have no more paper clutter! The more you shred and recycle, the easier it will be to maintain your files. A fast way to rid your home of paper clutter while protecting your private information is to drop it off to a local shredding service.

How to Eliminate Paper Clutter Forever - Organization Tips from The Inspired Room

Are you ready to get rid of paper clutter, once and for all?

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Comments

  1. I’m about halfway through Marie Kondo’s best seller book on the subject of decluttering, and it has transformed my life. Some good tips here, too.
    Gwen recently posted..Righting a wrongMy Profile

  2. Have you been in my house? Ha…..the house is tidy except the office area and the ummmm boxes of papers in the office area and in the adjoining utility room. In the past few days, I have been really trying to make a plan to deal with it and this post is timely. Thank you!

  3. Thank-you for the handy tips Melissa,

    Clip boards and bulletin boards are really convenient. The Martha Stewart mini office is a great disguise and could serve as a bench as well. Occasionally we’ll burn documents in our fire pit that we do not want to take any chances with (bank statements etc.) It’s permitted during fire season in my area.

    • I am glad I am not the only one who burns stuff! In fact, I usually burn what I shredded. Which seems like overkill, but from the horror stories I’ve heard, identify theft is a nightmare. I have even taken shredded papers camping with me for “firestarter”.

  4. I would also like to add something that has helped me. When I have time I unsubscribe to mail I do not want. Not all companies respect that, but it has reduced the amount of mail I receive.

    • Tara G. says:

      Yes! I do this, too! When a catalog comes that I didn’t request, I either call right then to unsubscribe or tear off the back page and do it when I have some free minutes.

  5. It is so freeing to finally get rid of all of the paper and just be able to maintain as you go forward. I am almost ready to use my Fujitsu Scansnap to start scanning in anything important and then shredding as I go. Paperless is my eventual goal. My advice is remember there are so many different filing systems out there you have to find the one that’s right for you. Even I as a professional organizers don’t really like mine right now, so I will soon try another one. :) Thanks for the great tips in the meantime!

  6. Bonnie says:

    What a great post! Paper is a huge issue for me. I have just recently been dealing with my paper backlog. I have shredded forever and now I need to start filing what’s left. I suspect some of that will end up being thrown away as well.

  7. I’ve got to say that I do get lazy sometimes when it comes to organizing the paper on my desk. These are great tips! P.S. I am loving those patterned clipboards.

    The Office Stylist
    http://www.theofficestylist.com
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  8. Great article!

    Guess what I almost just did — printed it out! But I did not.

  9. I would love to know how long some documents such as cancelled checks, insurance info, etc., should be kept. I’m not a paperless person, so this information would be helpful to me.

  10. Knowing what paper should be kept long-term (and how long to keep it) would be helpful. I never know so end up keeping things that I probably could shred.

    • The amount of information that you need to retain depends on the complexity of your life. I was the executor of several estates so I have to keep more stuff than most people. But, here is a summary that was ok’d by my attorney.
      1. A “permanent file” that can be destroyed after all beneficiaries have passed – death certificate, will and trust documents, valuation reports, personal tax return for last full year and the final return, estate tax return and final trust return, all with the supporting documentation. And, most important, any IRS clearance letters and the signed acceptance letters from the beneficiaries.
      2. For the relative’s personal returns, keep five years (note – this is seven total years, the other two are in the permanent file box) of returns plus the supporting documentation.
      3. For trust returns, keep all returns and supporting documentation until seven years after final return is accepted.
      4. For my personal stuff, I have my permanent file box with birth certificate, key legal documents, and key data documents such as accounts and passwords. Essentially, this is the box that my executor will need someday.
      5. I have a box with personal tax returns, older than 7 years which can be destroyed at death. The supporting documentation is already shredded.
      6. I have a box with the last seven years of returns with the supporting documentation. This box will have to be kept for seven years after my death.
      7. I have working files – some are semi-permanent, relating to house, car, major appliances, investments, insurance. These files are kept until the item is gone.. The annual files are for income and expenses for this year. The files relate to the categories that are in my Quicken program. After taxes are filed, I go through the papers, make sure that the documentation is all there and then store it away. The rest I shred. I also modify my filing and Quicken for any tax changes so the next tax prep is easy. And I update the retention policy.

      Yes – that seems to be a lot of paper, but I purchased 16qt clear plastic boxes that legal size papers can fit in. This size box limits the weight and is easily stacked on the high shelves in closets. I might scan some of the permanent file papers, but only to take to the safety deposit box for “offsite” storage.

      Remember, the key is retrieving the information. Even computer files can be clutter. If you decide to go digital, you need to clearly identify the files and make sure that you update the storage technology as it changes. If you rely on a company to keep the data, such as a bank, check to see how long they keep the information. In some cases, it is easy to download pdfs of statements, which saves time in scanning the paper document. If the data is stored in the cloud, make sure that the company has excellent security controls and make sure that your representative can also have access when you pass.

      Hope this helps.

  11. sandyc says:

    You can google for how long to keep stuff and get good information online.

    Now that I’ve finally finished rearranging and re-furniture-ing my office, it’s time to gather all the stacks of paper from wherever they’ve wander, including a decorative box that came labeled “I Don’t Even Know What”s In Here.

    I love Martha Stewart’s mini-office chest. I’m doing a simple version with a DR sideboard I found, using the two shallow drawers on top for small frequent-need stuff like paperclips, pens, tape, stapler, … I picked up a couple of wire mesh portable file folder holders from Container Store and some bright green file folders to hold frequent-use files inside the cabinet. The infrequently used files will go in a file cabinet in the hall closet.

    I think Autumn has the right idea about scanning – just the important stuff (and be sure to keep originals of really important stuff with birth certificates, marriage and death certificates, Social Security card, etc. Sometimes only the original will do and you’re really up a creek if you have to try to get a replacement. Otherwise, my concern with scanning too much is that my computer will end up as cluttered with paperless as my office is now with paper.

    I’m working very hard on #4 and #5 as we speak. Great helpful post as always, Melissa.

  12. Like Sandyc, I love the Martha Stewart mini-office chest. It looks so much better than the old filing cabinet I have, which is located so conveniently in the basement! Looks like a few yard sales or thrift shops might be in my future.
    This really hit home for me. The paper pile is my biggest pet peeve. I cringe when my husband brings in the pile of mail. Part of the problem is that he and my son get mail, too, and their way of dealing with it, is opening and leaving it on the counter, the table, or wherever. I have been working on this lately, without much luck!
    Thanks, Melissa! There are some good ideas here.
    Debra Jerry recently posted..The Little Fairy HouseMy Profile

  13. These are great tips! We don’t do too bad with incoming mail but stuff I print off and use for my day job (I work from home)is another story!
    Heidi recently posted..A Mobile Playroom PlanMy Profile

  14. Paper is a big issue for me, my house always looks like an office area. I sometime becomes lazy to manage them. But this pattern clipboards is a good idea. Thank you for this helpful post.

  15. What a lovely list of ideas! the more you get organized the more you get done, it’s that easy and i ignored it for soooo long?
    Monja recently posted..Yearly Goal Setting and Why It Is ImportantMy Profile

  16. Shannon says:

    Oh, paper. The bane of my existence! My biggest struggle through the years is just knowing what to keep and how to logically file it. I’ve started and stopped so many systems because I just hate filing. One thing that is FINALLY helping me get a handle on the paper is I bought the Freedom Filer system. It made the figuring out the categories part much easier for me and now I know where everything goes and when to toss it. I still struggle with the daily mail pile up and all of the gazillion papers my kids bring home but at least I know where my insurance policy and random bills are when I need reference something.

  17. Wow! It looks soooooo nice and easy. I have to do it as well.
    Aleksandra recently posted..A small places to work at your home with MyloviewMy Profile

  18. Paper clutter is one of the most common sources of clutter out there. It can be difficult to keep it under control, especially if you have a busy schedule. My favorite solution is to find a clever way to store the paperwork that won’t create clutter and then pencil in time each week to go through it thoroughly.

  19. It’s very refreshing to see a post like this, especially inn the age of cloud storage and such. There’s still beauty in paper, indeed, and these filing systems just make them all the more gorgeous.

  20. Patzi Nilsson says:

    I’ve just stumbled onto your site I love it I’ve decluttered a lot preparing an a joining suite to our apt for AIRBNB EVERY THINK HAS TO BE PERFECT. I love it my whole life I’ve been crazy busy and just didn’t care to do any organizing on my far few in between days off . Now all that’s left is the paper crisis sometimes I pay a bill late just because I couldn’t find it now if I solve the paper clutter issue life will be sweet. The only thing in my life that was ever organized was my closet purses and shoes …then WE decided to do Airbnb and our home is so organized it’s wonderful I never knew _what peace and calmness can come from li:ING in an organized environment I can’t wait to get your book and get my papers in order life _I’ll be serene

  21. my frustration is our home while I love it – I also am frustrated with 2 story /upstairs office – most of the time what I need is on the opposite level. I cant print downstairs and constantly retrieving stuff upstairs I need downstairs or taking stuff upstairs to file……..grrrrrr

    no room for the MS office bench and I dont want my living room to look like the lobby office of a condo association.

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