A Real Life Guide to Getting Rid of Paper Clutter

A Real Life Guide to Dealing with Paper Clutter

It’s there. Lurking in your house. Mocking you. Causing that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach every time you glimpse it.

The dreaded paper pile.

You know, the one full of school papers, junk mail, insurance statements, bills, and the occasional card from a friend?

Even in this digital age we live in, dealing with paper clutter is still a daily reality.  For years, I struggled with piles of paper and mail.  The more the pile built up, the more overwhelmed I felt. It was always there, a nagging presence in the back of my mind, and it stressed me out.

Thankfully, over the years, I developed a simple and easy system for managing paper – going from stressful to streamlined.  

Are you ready to break free from the paper clutter monster? Here’s what to do.

First, lay down on the couch and talk about your feelings. 

Just kidding. Truly though, dealing with any clutter – paper included, starts with the psychology behind it.

You’re never going to feel excited and happy at the prospect of tackling paper clutter.

So, let’s stop worrying about emotions for a second.  Just realize that like a dirty diaper, dealing with paper clutter is simply something that has to be done–the sooner the better.

When it comes to tackling paper clutter head-on, remind yourself of these truths:

  • Tackling this chore is a gift to my future self
  • I am practicing self-care by getting things done
  • Uncompleted tasks are proven to have a negative psychological impact
  • I am modeling how to be a successful adult for my kids

You’ve got this. Now here’s the practical side.

Each day, when paper comes into your house you need to do one of three things:

  1. Recycle it.
  2. Shred it.
  3. File it.


Determining what to recycle is often the easiest. Junk mail, advertisements, and random pieces of paper your child scribbled on all fall into this category.

I keep a recycling bin in the house to make the process as easy as possible. 


The Federal Trade Commission offers a comprehensive list of items you should be shredding (or keeping). It includes credit card offers, ATM receipts, and canceled checks. Various organizations in Linn County offer free shredding throughout the year if you do not own a shredder.


Filing papers is often where the system breaks down (and the clutter builds up) for most people. Even if you do have a filing system in place, it’s often tucked out of sight, difficult to get to, and is way too complicated.

Here’s what I’ve found works best from year to year:

The Basic Tools

Keep it simple with a file folder basket, and 10-12 file folders.

I use a small open-top file basket kept on a buffet table where I’m tempted to pile mail. Avoid file systems with covers or straps for ease of use.  Don’t tuck your filing system out of sight – because then it will also be out of mind!

I open all of my mail immediately, sorting out envelopes and unnecessary papers for recycling. Then I file or take action with the rest.  All in all, the daily process takes about five minutes.

How do I label my files? Here are a few examples:

  • Health and Dental 
  • Investments
  • Utilities
  • Phone Bills
  • Bank Statements
  • Important Receipts
  • Keep for Taxes

The great thing is you can tailor your files to your family’s needs.

Year to Year

When a year is over, everything except our tax documents is stored for one year. (Our tax documents we keep for at least seven years). Once the year is up, we shred those documents. Then, I refill our file basket with a new set of file folders labeled for the current year.

What If My Paper Clutter is Already Out of Control?

First of all, stop the bleeding. Set up a filing system, and commit to opening and immediately dealing with any mail that comes in from this day on.

Knock It Out Night

Choose an evening of the week to handle unpleasant responsibilities. For my husband and I, we have Knock It Out Mondays, where we tackle tasks that no one feels like doing. If your paper clutter pile is out of control, assign opening it to a specific evening, and commit to taking care of it in one sitting. 

There is nothing so rewarding as reaching the end of that clutter pile and having a plan in place for preventing it. You’ll also know where to find an important document the moment you need it.

Handling paper clutter doesn’t earn you a merit badge. But you will have increased peace – both in your home and your state of mind knowing you’ve got this.

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