Decluttering Cure

The 5 Types of Paper Clutter, and How to Deal with Each of Them

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Lauren Kolyn)
(Image credit: Kath Nash)

Some facts just stick with you. I’ll never forget a comment one reader, ecuadoriana—a collector of pre-20th century medical journals—left on a post I wrote about paper clutter last year. Apparently hemorrhoids, some time around the late 1800’s, used to be called “piles,” and ecuadoriana had formed a lasting mental connection.

“Every time I see piles of papers, magazines, wayward laundry, etc., start to build up in my house, I imagine that they are hemorrhoids—giant, ugly, painful pains in my butt—and I get rid of them immediately.”

Now you have this gift. You’re welcome. Love, ecuadoriana and me.

Paper piles have always been a big pain in the butt for so many people, because we tend to treat it like a strikable item on a to-do list instead of a major artery for our home’s homeostasis. Mail isn’t going to magically stop just because you finally cleared the tables and counters last weekend. You need a forever sort of system.

(Image credit: Anna Spaller)

Today’s Assignment:

Set up a system for handling paper clutter.

Before you can set up a system, you’ll need to deal with any existing paper piles. Take them all up by the armful and do one ruthless sort right now, getting all the trash and recycling into your regular bins, and shredding anything that needs to be shredded.

I have one hardfast rule for this initial sort, and every time you bring in mail hereafter: Don’t leave anything in its envelope! Often we end up hanging on to trash and letting it clutter our tables and countertops, all because we couldn’t be arsed to open it in the moment. Even the stuff you know for sure is important should be liberated from its envelope—because it’s going to make the pile smaller and more uniform instantly.

Once you’ve streamlined your existing piles, step two today is to set up a system for handling paper going forward. This system doesn’t have to be complicated or homogenous. It just needs to work.

You should have a plan or a place for each of these types of paper or mail:

Trash and recycling, including shreddables

Pretty straightforward. Toss your envelopes, inserts and bulk mail right away. For anything sensitive, if you have room for a shredder, great. If not, I swear by these shredding scissors; I keep them in my kitchen junk drawer near where I sort my mail so I can quickly cut through anything sensitive before I toss it into my recycling bin.

Short-term needs

This includes coupons you might want to use, or a flyer for an event you might attend. Basically, anything passive you might want to reference in the near future. Give these a home where you’ll see and remember them. You can stick them to the fridge, or stash them in a basket or tray somewhere. (I have mine in a toast holder on the kitchen counter.)

Action items

This category is for anything that needs doing. Bills that need to be paid, or invites that need to be RSVP’d for. (You might need to separate this by family member.) A good place for this type of mail is in or near your workspace—or wherever you tend to sit when you’re dealing with grown-up things like this. For instance, if you carry the same bag to work every day, put these things in your work bag to be dealt with the next morning as you settle in. Or place them in your favorite chair when you get home and commit to handling them before TV time that night.

Long-term filing

Anything you need to keep for your records should have a permanent (and ideally, fire-safe) place. Get thee a compact file cabinet and commit to putting long-term paperwork inside it the day it arrives.

Leisure mail

These are your catalogs, magazines and newsletters. You should drop them wherever you hang out at home—like right next to the sofa or on the coffee table. You can stay on top of this paper home library by retiring issues when you’re done reading them, or when the next issue arrives, or just on a regular schedule (say, recycle everything every Monday night).

Like I said, this system doesn’t need to be perfect. If you can’t commit to setting up formal spaces for each item above, I find that even just reading the list of the types of mail helps. Once you have a framework and a vocabulary for all the paper items that come into your house, you’re already better equipped to deal with them.

If you have any clever ways to handle your mail, or smart places to put them, share it with us in the comments!

And don’t forget:

Clear three things from your monster zone.

All month long, we invite you to share your progress here in the comments and on Instagram with the #septembersweep hashtag!

Check out all the assignments so far on the September Sweep 2018 Main Page.

(Image credit: Kath Nash)

Download the printable PDF calendar:
September Sweep 2018