I was helping a first-time client with organizing papers, piles, and cleaning out his office. On day one, I always want a tour of what’s in the office, on the shelves, in the desk, and in any closets. A tour lets me know what I’m getting into and gives me clues about a client’s state of mind.
As this client was giving me his tour, he kept saying, “Oh, and look – another stack of papers! Oh, here’s another stack, too.” And then he’d open a drawer to reveal more papers stashed inside.
Let’s begin talking about paper piles this way:
Clutter is the inability (or unwillingness) to make a decision.
A cluttered space is a cluttered mind.
Clutter tends to breeds more clutter.
Now, I’m not going to go all hard-ass on you and insist on a paper-free, clutter-free office 100 percent of the time. After all, my husband has taken some shocking photos of my desk when I’m in the middle of a big project. Papers, papers everywhere!
That being said, I can tidy up my office space in three minutes flat because everything has a place and there’s a place for everything.
And today, I’m going describe the most common reason you can’t seem to conquer the paper clutter.
Let’s go back to my client above. When we pulled out a stack of paper, I asked him to go through it with me so we could begin identifying patterns (or categories) of paperwork (invoices, bills, client paperwork, articles he’d printed out, bank statements, cards from family, etc.).
He pulls the top sheet off the stack. It’s an overdue bill for something. He looks at it, explains what it is to me, sighs loudly, and sets it off to the side.
Back to the pile, he takes the second paper off, looks at it, tells me he needs to do something with it and sets it over near his feet.
Going back to the pile, he throws the next four or five sheets away and says, “I already handled it.”
Then he starts rifling through the pile, pulling some pieces out, throwing some more away, and putting more individual pieces around on the desk.
I stopped him and said, “Do you see what you’ve done here?”
He looks around, confused.
I said, “We started with one stack of papers. Now, in going through that one stack, you’ve created a dozen more piles. See how clutter breeds clutter?”
He laughed and exclaimed he was hopeless at organizing papers and piles. I assured him that was hardly true.
Here’s the deal: yes, you’ll make a bit of mess as you begin to go back and sort through papers. And, if you pay attention and stick to my system (described below), you’ll be able to easily and quickly sort through things. And once the sorting and purging is done, you’re on to the “keeping up” phase. Then, as I’ve said before, it’s far easier to keep up than to catch up .
So, here’s the plan for handling paper piles:
- Gather together a trash can, recycle bin, and shredder. You should have those anyway because we talked about them in an earlier post.
- Grab two additional files, boxes or bins (depending on how much paper you have).
- Grab two big sticky notes. Label one “ACTION” and one “FILE”
- Then, methodically going the stack, touching each paper in the stack only once, you decide if the paper in your hand requires ACTION (something to do, something to capture – like a phone number, someone to call, etc.) or you decide if it needs to be FILED. If it doesn’t fit into one of those two categories, toss it, recycle it, or shred it.
- Continue working your way through piles until there are only TWO piles left – those are your ACTION and FILE piles.
- Next, depending on how large those piles are, schedule work blocks on your calendar daily or weekly to take action and to file. It might take several months, but with dedication and focus, you’ll get it done.
Admittedly, this is a very simplistic way to look at decluttering papers. However, it gets to the heart of the issue: clutter is the inability (or unwillingness) to make a decision.
Once you decide where something must go (Action, File, Trash, Shred, Recycle), then it becomes very, very easy to make that decision. And as you exercise that decision muscle, the easier and faster sorting papers will go.
Once you’ve set up a solid filing system, you’ll never again have to wonder where something goes. You will, however, have to commit to making the time to take action and file. Papers won’t file themselves, as I’m sure you know.
If you’re still having trouble with this, I can help. I’m a whiz at creating custom organizing solutions and guiding my clients as they adopt new, more effective habits (around anything). A little support and encouragement goes a long, long way.
Make Some Room,
P.S. Have you forwarded any of the 31 Days of Organizing to share with another person? I hope you will! I strongly encourage you sharing this great information with other business leaders and professionals you know who want to be organized, productive and super in charge of their time. Thanks for sharing!
P.P.S. When you’re ready to do something about your disorganization, procrastination, or overwhelm and you want to be guided by someone you trust, I can help. Let’s schedule a Clarity Session and get you into action.