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How to Banish Paper Piles for Good

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Got a large stack of paper that you need to deal with?  Maybe you’ve let your inbox go for a few weeks, or maybe you have stacks of paper that have been sitting around for months. 

Sometimes the sheer amount of paper that you need to go through gets overwhelming.  You need a plan to help you process all the paper so you can start getting stuff done.

This guide will give you a practical roadmap for eliminating piles of paper from your home.

Table of Contents

Step One: Do I even need this? Eliminating excess

Get two containers and a recycle bin (you could use boxes, baskets, bins–whatever will hold a stack of stuff).  Then, quickly sort everything into the containers: 1) I definitely need or want this, 2) I’m not sure, 3) I don’t need this (put it in the recycle bin)

The key to making this work is to sort quickly!  Do not stop to read things or work on projects.  Just whiz through the pile as fast as you can identify things.

The goal is to sort out the ambiguous stuff from the things that you already know you want.  Stuff you know you want probably has a well-defined action step like “call this person,” “put this on the calendar,” “pay this bill,” “file this insurance paper,” and so forth.  It may also be a project that you want to do like “plan the garden,” “try these recipes,” “organize the photos,” etc.

You are here: 2 boxes and a recycle bin

The first box has things like:

  • put away
  • file it
  • fix it
  • enter information somewhere
  • work on this project

Another box which includes:

  • maybe projects
  • unidentified objects
  • homeless items
  • sentimental stuff
  • just-in-case stuff
  • things for later (read, try, etc.)

And an overflowing recycle bin which includes:

  • actual trash
  • expired papers
  • stuff you no longer care about
  • duplicates

The first box is not energy-sapping (ditto for the recycle bin).  It doesn’t produce anxiety because you know what to do.  Sometimes things in this box are not urgent, so it’s easy to procrastinate.  If you need some help with procrastination, read these procrastination remedies.

Interlude: What really saps your energy is decisions

The “I’m not sure” box is definitely the one that threatens to overwhelm.  Honestly, this is what tends to defeat me in dealing with piles.  I dive into a pile to “get it sorted,” and before long I have way too many decisions to make. 

Decision making is very tiring!

There are only a limited number of decisions that you can realistically make in a day.  If you sit with a “decision” pile and go through item after item, you will quickly tire yourself out.

That doesn’t mean the decisions don’t need to be made—they desperately do!  But trying to do it all without any kind of system to help you is like trying to climb Mt. Everest without any training or equipment.  Not gonna’ happen!

Step two: Why am I unsure? Removing ambiguity

Usually there is ambiguity in this box.  Things are often ambiguous because you are unsure of their value.

Obviously, you think it might have value or it would just be trash. So how can you figure out if something is actually of value to you? You need a guide for e-VALUE-ation.

1. Perfectly good stuff

Some things are still perfectly usable, but probably not by you.

I have a hard time letting go of things that I spent time making, but didn’t use (Oh, the wasted hours!).

When my kids were kindergarten age, I spent a lot of time printing, coloring, laminating, and cutting things out to use in our homeschool (you would have thought I was making stuff for an entire kindergarten class!).

So much of that stuff they used once or not at all, so it was certainly still useable.  But my kids outgrew it.

Eventually, I gathered up all the stuff that my kids had outgrown and passed it on to some other homeschoolers who were just getting started.  They were thrilled to get all my amazing stuff!

Giving things away to someone who really needs it can ease the pain of letting go of something that you worked hard on but no longer need.

Point #1: If the item is still usable, but not something you need any more = give it away to someone who would like it (or sell it).

2. Product vs. process

Separate the value of the process from the product itself and let the paper go.

School papers are hard for me to sort through because, again, we spent time and effort making them, so they seem valuable to me. But really, most of the value is in the process, not the end product

Getting rid of the paper in no way diminishes what my children have learned.  But it will make our space more productive and useful if we don’t have piles of old papers around!

Think of it like food: totally needed and useful, but once you have digested it and taken the nutritional value from it, guess what it is? Poop! That is what all this type of paper is and you don’t need to live in a pile of it!

So, I had each child help me sort through a big pile of their schoolwork and art projects.  They were much better at discerning what was actually valuable to them.  They were not in the least interested in keeping all the scribbles and “babyish” art they did years ago (imagine!).

In the end, they each had one small bin of papers and art to keep.  Get your children to help you discern what is really worth saving for them.

Point #2: Old stuff that you have already “digested” = get out the “pooper scooper” and send it to the recycle bin.  Make space for new things in your life.

3. Reference materials

General information, articles, notes, etc. MIGHT be useful, but you need to decide if this is something that serves you NOW. 

Information is also hard for me to deal with because it seems potentially valuable to me. It may be information I will want in the future, but I don’t know how to make it accessible for the future.

Putting it in a pile is the least accessible it could possibly be, so this is NOT a solution!

Filing seems like a good way to keep it accessible for the future, BUT…the problem with filing is that I keep packing filed information away forever. I don’t have enough room to file an infinite number of papers.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is real. Sometimes I’m afraid that if I toss something, I’ll miss it in the future.  Tossing is a way of saying “no” to something, and that always means limitations.

Our culture does not encourage limitations.  There is a tendency to think that everything should be unlimited and that you should keep all your options open.

But when we try to do that, we end up so flooded and congested with stuff, we can’t even begin to make any choices.  In a sense, we become a chaotic and undefined person because we cannot make any choices.

Take a good, hard look at what you want your life to be and start defining it by the choices you make. 

Pruning trees makes them more fruitful, and getting rid of excess stuff from your life will allow you to pour more energy into the few things you really want to focus on.

Point #3: Pick a few things that you want to be the defining focus of your life at this time = prune the deadweight of stuff that no longer helps you.

4. Sentimental stuff

Finally, we hit the sentimental stuff.  Sentimental stuff includes photos, letters, artwork, journals, clothing, knick-knacks, souvenirs, gifts, things that belonged to your grandmother, and so on.

In some ways, these items are like a combination of #2 and #3.  These are things that have served a purpose in the past, like #2 stuff, but now it isn’t actually doing anything except acting as a reminder of the past.

Like the stuff in #3, these are things that we tend to accumulate around ourselves because we think that somehow, we can define ourselves with it.  But you are NOT your stuff!  You are worth far more than a pile of objects, and those objects are not the real you.

I think it is especially important to get rid of the stuff that traps you in the past instead of living in the now and looking toward the future.

Point #4: sentimental stuff is not you = pick a few choice things to actually display or preserve, and prune down the rest (especially things that are negative reminders of unhappy things in the past!).

Need more help with sentimental items?  Read this post about What to do with Sentimental Stuff

You are here: 1 box of keepers, 1 box of donate, and a recycle bin

Now you have e-value-ated your “decision” container into things you definitely want to keep (put it in your keep box), and things that need to go away. You should have a box (or more) to give away and a very full recycle bin!

Step Three: Is there something to do? Actionable vs. support materials

Now that you’ve whittled your pile down to just the things you want to keep, step two is separating out the items which don’t have any actions.

For example, you might have a flyer for an event that you want to attend, but there isn’t really anything to do besides put it on your calendar.  Perhaps it is a receipt for your taxes.  Again, there isn’t any action to do except to file it in your tax folder. 

Another example is a phone list for your child’s scout group.  This is just information that you need to keep on hand, but there is no action.  Many things that fall into this category include reference materials, lists of all kinds, warranty information, catalogs, and so forth.  All of this is reference or support material.

The key question to ask yourself at this point is: Is there some action to do?

If there is an action, leave it in the box for the next step.

There are three basic kinds of things that don’t have any action: 1) calendar events, 2) reference information, and 3) project support material.

Events=put it on the calendar

If your paper involves something on the calendar, make sure to write it on your calendar!  Then if the paper is something that you will need to reference (like a map to the wedding, or tickets to a concert), put the paper into a folder called CALENDAR.  If you don’t need the paper for anything else, toss it.

Reference=things you file

If your paper is some sort of reference material, ask yourself if you could retrieve this information online.  An example of this would be an owner’s manual. Please try really hard to toss this sort of reference material.

Something that you could NOT retrieve would be notes you took at a conference.  Or the phone list for your book group.  These kinds of reference materials should be FILED in an appropriate place. 

You can temporarily create piles for things that belong together so you can do all the filing in batches instead of paper by paper.  Label each pile with your sticky notes.

Project Support=put into project files/boxes

Support materials for projects can consist of paper or non-paper items.  You may have a project you are working on like planning a party which you have collected some brochures for (paper).  Or you might have some seed packets which you plan to use in the garden (not paper). I’m always surprised at how many non-paper items end up in a pile of papers.

For paper items, you’ll need some folders and a box to file in. Create a folder for each project you have and store these in your PROJECT box.

For the non-paper items, you need two containers: 1) things that have a home and should be put away, 2) things that need a home or just need to be done (like sewing on a button).  I suggest using a laundry basket for the items that just need to be put away.  It’s easy to carry this from room to room. 

The box for things that need a home will become an extension of your “project” box.  (Really, it is a way to keep papers separate from other stuff.) It’s also for projects that don’t involve paper, like fixing something.

I strongly suggest that you make use of ziptop storage bags to keep small, non-paper items together in the box.  For example, you can use a bag to keep all the small, odd items you find together (like buttons and screws), or to keep several pieces that need to be glued or sewed.

Interlude: Some Helpful Advice Concerning Homeless Papers

Dana White at A Slob Comes Clean talks about How to Declutter Without Making a Bigger Mess.  Overall, I really like her method.  It’s a realistic way to make progress when you’re just not an organizing machine (let’s be real).

Basically, each item is either trash, donate (because you don’t need it), or put it away right now.  But I would like to add one other box to her helpful formula: a project box.  Sometimes there are things in a pile that don’t have a home.  So, you can’t put it away, but it is not trash and you don’t want to donate it.  It is homeless.

Now, her solution is to deal with the situation immediately (i.e., go create the home for it to live in).  But I find that I lose too much momentum if I stop to create a “home information binder” for an address list.

For one thing, I may not have the stuff I need to make the “home.”  For another, I would probably have to clean something else out to make a space for it.  That would be starting another pile before I’m done dealing with the first pile.

Instead, put those papers into a folder that you label CREATE HOME and add it to your PROJECT BOX.  When you start working through projects, I would prioritize making homes for so you are not constantly digging into this folder for the information you need.

You are here: 1 box for action items, 1 box for project papers, 1 box for project “stuff,” laundry basket of items to put away

Step Four: Is this single or multi-step? Separate tasks from projects

The things that are left in your box are now things that have an action to do.  At this point, I find it helpful to get a pad of sticky notes to make some category labels for sorting.

You can create your own personalized labels to fit your situation.  Just create them as you go along. 

Spread the sticky notes out on the floor and put anything that belongs in that category beside the sticky note. Some of these will be easy and obvious—mostly things that have a single, distinct action, like making a call or buying something. 

You can group all of these things together in a pile. I find it extremely helpful to create labels that state the ACTION that needs to be done for single-task items: file, call, buy, return, etc.

Other things may be harder, usually because the item doesn’t have a home (see above notes on homeless items) or is really a project that involves multiple steps, like planning an event or building something.  In this case, just label the project.

Does this begin to sound like the Cat in the Hat trying to get rid of the spot by making one big spot into a bazillion little spots?  I promise, breaking things down into small, actionable things is the key to working your way through the pile and actually getting stuff done.

Interlude: some practical advice about when and where to do this

How long is this going to take?

If you have a single stack of papers to go through, it might take an hour or two to do all of these steps.  But what if you have huge stacks of paper?

Let’s be realistic: these piles weren’t built in a day and it will take time to get rid of them.  If you have many boxes of paper, it will take many hours over the course of weeks to go through them. 

Please pace yourself!  Just work on it steadily every day if possible, even if it is just for 10 minutes.  You can make serious headway in a pile of paper if you really focus for short bursts and stop before you have decision burnout.

The key is to work in short bursts consistently.  Try to do at least one session every day.  If you get on a roll, go with it and do back-to-back sessions.  Every session is progress!

What if you don’t have room for all this?

Now, if your situation does not allow you to spread out on a big floor with little piles everywhere (like, you have small kids or pets, or you can’t get through it in a single session), I suggest that you create folders in a box instead of making piles everywhere (I’m assuming that most of your pile is paper).

Put the temporary sticky notes on the tabs.  Then, find a box that you can “file” in while you sort things out.  Just take one paper at a time and put it in a file folder that identifies the ACTION you need to take or the PROJECT that it belongs to.


Are your paper piles becoming critical? Get more help with Paper Emergency 911

Click here to join the waitlist for more information about this program

Let’s sum up where we are at this point.

Step one: sorted everything into: 1) keep, 2) decide, 3) toss

Step two: e-VALUE-ated your “decide” container into: 1) definitely keep, 2) donate, 3) toss

Step three: sorted out the keep box by: 1) something to do, 2) calendar event, 3) reference (or physical items to put away), 4) project support (or physical items that ARE a project)

Step four: sorted your “something to do” by next actions (like “file,” “buy,” “call,” etc.) OR made project folders (“create a home,” “plan event,” etc.) and filed them into a “projects” box.

As you go along, keep putting anything you can into the recycle bin and donate box!

Step Five: What’s the next action? Do the work

At this point, you will have a lot of small, labeled piles (or folders) that have concrete, single actions, or are multi-step projects.

Each pile should now be put into a folder with an appropriate label (if you haven’t already done this).  The folders should be put into a file box so you can easily see the labels.

Depending on the volume of papers, you will have one box (or several) for all the folders (TASKS and PROJECTS) and one box that contains non-paper items that are part of a project.

Toss (or shred) the papers in the recycle bin.  Get the donations contained and ready for delivery.  Work on getting your tasks and projects done.

You can start knocking out the single action items in order of easiest or fastest tasks first.  This gives you the win of seeing major progress. 

For me, this means putting non-paper items away and then doing anything that can be done in less than two minutes.

You would be surprised at how many things can be done in less than two minutes.  Things that take longer than two minutes and multi-step projects can be tackled another day as part of your weekly plan to get your work done.

What’s Next?

If you made it this far, the next step is creating a system for dealing with your to-do list and inbox on a weekly basis (instead of creating a new pile!).

Get an inbox tray to act as a place to collect all new incoming papers.  Once a week you can go through the steps with new papers to “process” them. 

If you’d like more help creating a system, I suggest you join the STEP program run by April and Eric Perry.  They will lead you step-by-step to build a weekly routine for processing your papers, projects, and to-do list.

To find out more and get a taste of how they do things, you can sign up for a FREE webinar designed to help you finally stop drowning in piles, clutter, email, and to-do lists.  Sign up here.


Are your paper piles becoming critical? Get more help with Paper Emergency 911

Click here to join the waitlist for more information about this program

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