A Foolproof Method for Finally Slaying Your Paper Clutter Monster

published Oct 3, 2016
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(Image credit: Selena Kirchhoff)

Living small has its disadvantages—and the biggest one just might be how a tiny apartment seems to magnify your mess. If you’re going to be a small-space dweller, you have to be ruthless: sorting through your things on a daily basis, deciding with a swift hand what stays and what goes (and most of it should go).

If that daily practice has escaped you for, say, the last several months—It’s OK. When the mess at home seems to get out of hand, you—champion of living small—can re-gain complete control in just a week. We’ve mapped out a five-day no-excuses exercise aimed at helping our readers in small spaces spring their places back into shape. And after you’ve tackled The Great Small-Space Cleanout, you’ll be in the best position to keep your humble home in show-offable condition straight through the holidays and beyond.

Here’s the plan: Starting today, we’ll focus on one problem spot in your apartment, helping you to make sense of the mess there and—most importantly—how to tackle it. As you work through each mission, you’ll be uncovering a cleaner space, day by day. We’re going to power through paperwork, cull in the kitchen, break down the bathroom and then, finally, work through your wardrobe. And when you get to step five? The only task on your to-do list is to get it all out the house for good.

Ready to get started? Here’s your task for today:

(Image credit: Andrea Posadas)

Step 1: Power Through Your Paperwork

Paper—unopened mail, receipts, the notes you’ve left yourself about things that mattered a lifetime ago—it’s the enemy of a tidy home. And it seems to grow like a fungus over your scarce surfaces. Today’s mission is all about sorting through that mess.

Grab a bag or a box and walk around your apartment, collecting every errant piece and pile of paper that’s floating around. Don’t waste any time looking through any of it just yet—just get it all into the bag.

Once you’ve collected all the paper from your room(s), find an open space at a table, or on the floor or bed and set out to sort through it. You only really need to bring your bag of paper with you, but you might find it helpful to also grab a letter opener, scissors and a stack of binder or paper clips. We’re going to slay the paper monster in two (possibly three) passes:

First Pass

On the first pass, your objective is just to slim down the pile by taking everything out of its envelope, and also by setting aside any “extras”—things like strings of coupons, marketing flyers or other enclosures that you can quickly toss into a “to recycle” pile. All that filler (and the tattered envelopes) is making your paper problem seem much worse than it is—so pull everything out of the envelope it was sent in, and clip off the mile of coupons you were never going to use from the end of the receipt you’re saving. If there is loose paper from the envelopes that you need to keep together, fasten it with a clip and move on. At the end of the first pass, you should have a much slimmer version of your exact same pile.

Second Pass

The second pass is where you actually take stock of what’s in your paper pile and sort it into three distinct stacks: To file, to shred and to recycle. If it helps, you can grab boxes or bags to collect each pile, but don’t waste too much time or energy on it—I prefer to just lay out three labeled sticky notes right on the floor, and build my piles below each. Working piece by piece through your slim stack, here’s how to sort:

  • To File: Anything you need to keep—whether long-term, like a benefits letter from your employer, or short term, like a receipt for the dress you’re not sure about yet.
  • To Shred: Paper that you don’t need to keep, but that has potentially sensitive information on it, like financial details. Since (I’m guessing) you don’t waste your precious storage space hanging on to a paper shredder, it’s a good idea to sort this particular pile into a bag or basket that you can leave alone for the week.
  • To Recycle: Everything else. For now, I’d recommend just tossing this pile into a plastic bag for the rest of the week, but if you feel like getting your recycling pile out of the house right away, jump ahead briefly for some handy tips on what can and can’t be recycled.

If you’re feeling accomplished but tired, you can stop here. But if you’ve got a little bit of energy (and time) left for a final exercise, take a third pass…

Third Pass

For the third pass we’re going to quickly handle the only pile you should have left: “To file.” Take another pass through each item in the pile, and sort it into one of two final fates depending on how long you anticipate hanging on to each piece: short term and long term (just like we defined in the second pass). The long-term stuff should (eventually) end up out-of-sight in a cabinet or file bin, but the short term stuff you can drop into a dedicated paper tray or a decorative basket that lives somewhere in your space.

Give yourself permission to make this tray the permanent (and only) home for any paperwork that enters your space from now on, at the same time making a vow to clean it out as soon as the paper pile outgrows its container. When that happens, you’ll just put into play a shorter version of this same exercise: Slimming the pile of envelopes and extras, while sorting things into piles to be kept, recycled or shredded. Then you can leave short-term paper (minus anything that’s expired or outlived its usefulness) in the basket for a while.

Have you tackled this step one mission? Chime in in the comments to share your experience, as well as any lessons or advice you have to share.

Up next: A Flowchart to Help You Cull Your Kitchen Cabinets and Pantry