Inside: Conquer paper clutter and go paperless in your home.
I poked at the piles of paper in the fire, willing them to burn. Only a few reluctant flames appeared within the choking grey smoke.
After a marathon sorting session, I had packed a box full of paper clutter to get rid of. My genius idea was to burn it in the campfire on a family vacation. I pictured a raging inferno, but my plan failed. Surprisingly, piles of paper do not burn well.
Paper clutter happens
Oh, paper clutter. Documents. File folders. Reports. Brochures. Manuals. As a mom—and a professional biologist who works from home—I’ve had to deal with my share.
There’s the constant influx of mail, school notices, and children’s art. I had a behemoth of a four-drawer filing cabinet full of old business and personal files. Boxes held memorabilia and kids’ scribbles. And there were the piles that “needed sorting”.
In our small home, paper was taking up a surprising amount of real estate.
But even a small stack of paper can be overwhelming.
Should I sign my son up for this basketball program? Oh right—I have to review this insurance policy. Awww, here’s the card that my daughter made me. I thought I already filed these receipts for taxes! Hmm, will I need this later?
Handling papers can be exhausting. It seems like every piece of paper needs a decision. Did you know we make poorer quality decisions when we make too many? Decision fatigue is a thing.
But I was determined to power my way through the paper in our home.
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The perfect paper decluttering system
I finally figured out a paper decluttering system that:
- saves space in our small home
- is quick, with few steps
- avoids the dreaded decision fatigue
- lets me find documents effortlessly
- ensures my documents are safe
- allows me to tackle a small pile of paper, or much more.
This is how it works.
Every tool you’ll need to conquer paper clutter
Here’s a list of supplies you’ll need for this system.
- Inbox: I use a simple basket from IKEA that can sit on a shelf. Papers get tossed in there until I have time to process them.
- Fast duplex document scanner: I love the Fujitsu ScanSnap ix500. And I hardly ever love electronic devices, so that’s saying a lot. Scanning of documents is fast and effortless. Put up to 50 sheets in the scanner, press a button, and the document is saved as a PDF on my laptop. The ScanSnap is definitely a splurge, but it’s earned its keep.
- Computer: I use my laptop for everything. Working on professional contracts, following recipes in the kitchen, and blogging. My tech-savvy husband picked the HP Spectre for me and I couldn’t be more pleased with it. The specifications are beyond what I need. It also stands up well to my multitasking lifestyle. The touchscreen and metal body are sturdy and wipe-able. With sleek lines and rose gold accents, it never looks out of place.
- Paper shredder: You’ll need an eight-page (or more) paper shredder (this one is similar to ours). Don’t be tempted to buy one that is tiny or only shreds one sheet at a time.
- Online cloud backup: I use IDrive for daily automatic backups of my laptop files. This is a must. Anything can happen to a laptop—damage, theft, or malware. No matter what, I still have an up-to-date backup of all my digital files in the cloud.
- Small file box: The one I’m using isn’t fire-proof, but I’m planning to upgrade to this one.
- Art portfolio: You’ll need one for each member of the family. They are perfect for art and large format memorabilia (this one is similar to ours).
- Photo boxes: You’ll want boxes for storing loose photos and small memorabilia. These ones are acid-free and simple.
- To do list: Google Keep is simple and it syncs between my phone and laptop.
- Calendar: Google Calendar has worked for me for years. My multiple calendars—some shared—are always available on my phone and laptop.
- Notebook: I couldn’t resist the Leuchtturm1917 notebook with dotted pages
- Staple remover: Mine is similar to these ones.
Start organizing paper clutter
1. Set up cloud backup
This step is essential. Set up an online cloud system that backs up your computer files on a daily basis. Your digital files will be safe—even if your computer is lost, damaged, stolen, or corrupted. I’ve been happy with the cost and reliability of IDrive for years.
2. Create a workspace
Set up a temporary or permanent workspace for dealing with paper. The dining room table does the job for me.
- Sit with your computer, Scansnap, and staple remover on your work surface.
- Pick a pile of papers or files (don’t worry about whether they are sorted or not).
- Have the shredder and recycling/waste bins handy.
- Have the ScanSnap set up to scan documents in duplex mode, with the one-button “save to PDF function”. Select the default folder to scan to.
3. Paper organizing workflow
Take one piece of paper or document at a time. Handle each one according to its category:
- papers that need to be scanned
- this is the default category unless the ones below apply
- instead of deciding whether to scan something—just scan it! (it’s faster and less stressful)
- for multi-page documents: remove bindings or staples, then scan up to 50 pages at a time—they will be saved as a single PDF file
- combine multiple 50-page PDFs into a single PDF if you have a long document to scan
- if you know you’ll need the document in the future: immediately move the digital document into the correct folder on your computer as soon as you scan it (e.g. tax receipts, reference documents, etc.)
- if you don’t know if you’ll need the document in the future: save time and leave the digital document in the default folder on your computer (you can always find it there later)
- check with your tax jurisdiction to determine if you need to keep hard copies of tax receipts (digital is fine in my jurisdiction)
- shred or recycle as you go (when you’re 100% sure your scanning and backup systems are working!)
- download the online version (if available) and recycle the hardcopy one
- papers that are definitely not needed
- shred or recycle
- papers associated with events
- enter the event into the calendar
- scan only if needed, otherwise, shred/recycle
- papers associated with tasks that need to be done
- papers that must be kept in hardcopy
- few papers fall in this category
- keep hard copies of papers like diplomas, deeds, identity documents, legal papers, etc.
- scan (so you have a copy on your computer), then store in the small fireproof file box
- large format artwork or memorabilia
- file these in an art portfolio (one for each person)
- we’re just putting these aside here—don’t overthink this
- evaluate and purge these as a separate project
- photos and small memorabilia
- file in photo boxes
- we’re just putting these aside here—don’t overthink this
- photo organization should be a separate project
Keep a paper inbox handy—mine is in a central area in the kitchen. I put mail, school notices, and all incoming paper there.
Carry out the paper organization workflow frequently.
Control the proliferation of paper:
- avoid using sticky notes or bits of paper to record lists, tasks, or calendar items
- develop a calendar habit (wall calendar or digital)
- use digital reminders as necessary
- use a to-do list system to keep track of tasks
- if you like paper for writing down notes, lists, etc., use a notebook to keep things in one place
- bullet journaling is a great notebook system to try
- if you love sticky notes, consider putting them in your notebook
My paperless home
Many years have passed since the campfire incident. I no longer struggle to wrestle files into overstuffed drawers.
Today, our home is mostly paperless and we enjoy the space savings.
My 24 years of archived professional files live on my laptop. Tax and household files are digital. Hardcopy papers live in a small file box in a closet. Photos and precious kids’ artworks are set aside for safekeeping.
I’ve found it easier to keep personal, family, household, and business documents organized on my computer. I can easily find things in their folders. And—unlike a filing cabinet—there’s always the search function.
Over to you
Do you have any questions about going paperless? Please let me know in the comments.