5 Easy steps (and some tips) to tame your paper tiger

Conquering clutter is a difficult challenge for many of us, including me.

I don't know why I'm mysteriously able to accumulate so much paper even though I'm also being bombarded with new digital clutter in my inboxes every day.

What I do know is that clutter suffocates me, and when it's in my office, it seems to take up all the oxygen in the room. That sucks big time.

According to Entrepreneurship Life, "it's essential for your for your productivity - and your mental health - to keep your workspace clutter-free. Some of the negative impacts of clutter include the fact that it's distracting and can create difficulty focusing, for some people it hinders creativity, time spent looking for papers is time wasted, it can cause stress and anxiety, increases the risk of falls if items are left on the floor, makes it difficult to keep the space clean (we're talking hygiene here), encourages procrastination, can cost money (you can't pay your bills if you can't find them), and can cause feelings of shame and/or guilt.

The list goes on, but I'm sure you get the point.

So, I'm not going to go all KonMari on you, but having just gone through the minimalist version of the process myself, I thought I'd share.

1. Get rid of junk mail or other useless pieces of paper immediately. When you're trying to get out of a hole, stop digging. Get rid of useless paper as soon as you get it. Hopefully you're recycling (no pressure), which means that the junk mail and other paper can go right into your recycling bin. If not, the trash can is the next best place.

Beware of any confidential information that might be included which could pose identity theft or other issues for you. Those pre-filled credit card applications are a great example. They should be shredded along with anything else that has personal information.

2. Create a filing system that makes sense for you. How hard can it be, right? Even though it's a little bit of extra work, you'll thank yourself in the end if you take the time to map out (outline) your filing strategy before you start trying to file papers. There are lots of suggested lists online, so you might want to start with one of them and modify it to meet your specific needs, or start your own from scratch. You'll probably find that you don't need as many different categories as you would if you'd started creating a folder every time you couldn't figure out where to put a piece of paper.

3. Keep personal/family and home business files separate. Yes, if you have a home business, or you do a lot of work from home, that means two different filing systems. You're going to have to trust me on this one. It makes life much easier - especially at tax time.

4. Decide where and how you're going to store your files. If you have a home office, that's the obvious choice. Things get a little trickier if you don't have a dedicated workspace. Do you really want to keep your files in the kitchen or under the dining room table? Depending on how many files you have, a nearby closet might be a good choice.

Or, consider buying or upcycling a multi-purpose piece of furniture that can double as file storage space. For example, build a filing chest like this one or turn one or two filing cabinets into a desk. I bought a tall, 4-drawer file cabinet from Goodwill for $10, spray painted it hot pink (about $5) and now have tons of space for files in my home office.

5. Just do it. It's easier, and much more appealing, to set aside 10-20 minutes at a time whenever you can, but I'd strongly suggest scheduling larger blocks of time. The faster you get this done, the better you'll feel. It's the perfect project for a rainy weekend day.

The trick to making any project easier and less stressful, as well as ending up with an end result you'll feel good about is to have the right tools or supplies.

Here's what I used:

  • shredder (one that fits on top of a small trash can is inexpensive and works just fine)

  • file folders

  • hanging file folders and plastic labels

  • pens or markers

  • file cabinet(s) or file storage box(es)

  • shallow inbox of papers that need to be filed (DO NOT use a deep box, it'll only invite you to stack up more papers in it)

  • recycling bin or box

  • scanner (optional, but very nice to have, many home office printers can scan documents)

And of course a how-to post wouldn't be complete without some cool tips:

  • If you're a visible and/or creative person, incorporate pops of color, like color-coded file labels or file folders

  • consider switching to paperless billing (this one doesn't work for me, but LOTS of people do it)

  • unsubscribe to magazines and print newsletters that you no longer want to receive

  • purge your filing system at least annually - I purge mine at the end of each year and place all those old bills and bank statements that I don't think I'll need but want to keep "just in case" in a large manila envelope with the year on it and store them in my attic. Every few years I go through the box of envelopes and shred/recycle whatever's in them. My theory is that if I haven't needed to open the envelope in the last few years, I probably won't, so there's no need to keep it.

  • Create tickler files. I have four quarterly hanging files with three file folders in each (one for each month in that quarter). This is where I store everything that I need to act on at some point in the future, but not now. For example, I have my piano tuner's business card in my March file to remind me have it tuned once a year... and I don't have to go searching for his card either. I also put a copy of my quarterly estimated tax payment form in the folder for each month that it's due. At the beginning of each month, I review the items in that month's tickler file and I'm good to go.

  • I know it's easy to look up just about anything online these days, but I still keep the user manuals for as long as I have the item. I've also started stapling the receipt to the manual so they're always together if I ever need it. I do the same with warranties, AFTER I go on-line and register the product. These can get pretty bulky, so I found a nice box with a lid that I put them all in.

  • Receipts are another item that can be tricky. I have a folder for each month that I use for receipts.