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How to Organize Incoming Paper Clutter in 4 Easy Steps

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Introduction

Let’s talk about how to organize incoming paper clutter. With the monthly focus for July in the Clean Mama Cleaning Routine being Organizing Systems, I thought this would be the perfect time to cover this dreaded topic we all deal with on a daily basis. 

photo on top of disorganized mail in a white organizing pocket, photo on the bottom of manila folders and a floral notepad in a white organizing pocket

Paper clutter is the WORST. Dealing with old piles of paper in our homes could be an entire post in itself, so in this post we’re talking specifically about how to organize incoming paper clutter. How do you nip paper clutter in the bud and develop a system to keep it under control from the get-go?

Because let’s face it, if you do a mega declutter of old paper clutter in your home, but don’t set up a system for how you’re going to handle new paper clutter coming in, you’ll be right back where you started in no time. How do I know this? Uh, please don’t ask… 

Step #1 Pre-Decide Categories to Toss or Shred

In looking at how to organize incoming paper clutter, mail is usually one of the prime trouble areas. When the mail arrives, deal with it right away whenever possible. Do not set it down on the kitchen table or on top of the microwave. If you let papers sit around without a home, they will breed. It’s true, isn’t it? Paper attracts more paper.  

pile of shredded paper
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay 

Immediately recycle or shred things you know you don’t need. This will usually eliminate more than half of the paper that comes into your home each day. Most of us know this step and try to do it, but it’s the next part that always trips us up. What do we do with the stuff we need to keep?  

Step #2 Establish a Place for Paper You Need to Save

I call it a holding spot, and it can take whatever form works for you. When you’re figuring out how to organize incoming paper clutter, this step is crucial.

stack of mail in a white organizing pocket against a cream background

My husband and I each have a white magnetic pocket on the side of the fridge. This is our holding spot. Anything my husband needs to see that comes in the mail, I stick it in his pocket. For me, I have a few labeled filing folders in my pocket, and anything that needs to be saved goes in one of these labeled folders. 

4 file folders stacked on top of each other labeled "coupons," "clean mama," "to file" and "misc."

Step #3 Any Paper Needing Action Goes on a To-Do List

I know what you’re thinking. If I put a bill or an invitation into that pocket, I would totally forget about it!

I would, too. Thus, Step #3.

Before it goes into the pocket, if any piece of paper requires an action (i.e. paying a bill, making a phone call, RSVPing to a party, etc.) I put that action item on my to-do list in my bullet journal

an open journal showing the days of the week written out and a to-do list, with a smart phone and several pens beside it

For example, if I get a bill for a doctor visit, I take note of the due date and write on my to-do list to pay the bill on the required date. If I get a bill for a doctor visit and I have a question about the charges, I write on my to-do list to call the doctor’s business office the following day. If I get a bill for a doctor visit and I have a question for my husband about it, I write on my to-do list “Talk to hubs about doctor bill question” or something like that. You get the idea.

I transfer the action from the piece of paper to a to-do list that I reference on a regular basis. My magnetic pocket is not an inbox where I stash stuff that could be important and then promptly forget about it. I don’t thumb through it a few times a week to see if there’s stuff I need to take care of in there. It is a holding spot for papers I’ve already looked at and “processed,” so to speak. I’ve determined what actions need to be taken, and I’ve then transferred those actions to a single to-do-list. 

Step #4 Periodically Clean Out Your Holding Spot

David Allen in his book Getting Things Done talks about going through your inbox and doing a  weekly review. This book is an awesome read (yes, even for stay-at-home moms!) if you’re trying to figure out how to organize incoming paper clutter. I don’t follow his system exactly, but his “what’s the next action” principle has revolutionized my life in so many ways. If you haven’t read the book, I’d encourage you to check it out! 

a white magnetic pocket on the side of a white refrigerator with manila folders and a black and cream notepad in it

So, I don’t exactly subscribe to his “go through your inbox” idea (although I do a weekly review pretty much every Sunday). Since I assign an action item to my to-do list immediately when I get a piece of paper, rather than just throwing it in an inbox, I don’t really have an inbox to go through on a weekly basis. 

So…when do I clean out my holding spot?

Whenever. I. Want. 

Since there’s nothing I’m worried about falling through the cracks in there, I clean it out when I have time. The biggest time-suck when I clean it out is stuff that needs to be filed. I’ll be honest, I’m lazy and I procrastinate on this task as long as possible. However, it does get done, and I’m never worried there’s stuff I’m going to pull out of my magnetic pocket and go, “Oh yikes! I forgot about this!”

Everything that has an action tied to it, is time sensitive, etc. has already been put onto my to-do list in my bullet journal. So, I empty out my holding spot and put things in their permanent home at my leisure. 

Conclusion

Knowing how to organize incoming paper clutter can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. Develop a reliable capture system for yourself (referencing David Allen there again). For me, it’s my bullet journal. That thing is my brain and I rely on it. For you, it may be some sort of electronic calendar or to-do app that allows you to capture all of your action items quickly and easily. If it’s not quick and easy, you won’t sustain the habit. It’s just that simple. 

a brunette woman in a navy shirt and peach colored pants sitting at a long table writing in a notebook. A window is in front of her and a cup of coffee in a travel cup is on the table.
Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

I hope this has been helpful for you! Drop a comment below if you have some great ideas for how to organize paper clutter and ease this pain point which is so common for all of us.

There’s a ton more to talk about on this issue of paper clutter, so let me know if you’re interested in hearing more about how to deal with old paper clutter, how to set up a good filing system, etc. I’m kind of weird because I’m really passionate about this topic, so I’d love to delve into it more if it’s helpful.

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pile of colored paper and envelopes

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