For Olivia who asked for a post on paper clutter:
Many of us find ourselves inundated with paper. It’s almost as though on some primitive Jungian level we still know that paper is precious, the written word is precious. We save and amass paper. We create personal libraries in books, and personal directories of material in our file cabinets.
I wasn’t immune. It’s Tanja here remember? I was flooded with paper during my packrat days.
I got a two drawer filing cabinet when I was young. I always assumed I’d graduate to a full size one later on. I kept it full of all the special things people keep. Bad writing, good writing, novel outlines and research notes, completed drafts of items sent out, art pieces I’d done, random sketches and doodles that showed more promise than the rest, for when I’d batik again.
I kept love letters from old flames, special poems and whimsies from friends and family, cards with meaningful messages. I also kept user manuals for all of the important things I purchased, instruction sheets for smaller items, directions to different places, brochures on vacation spots, recipes for cooking/gardening/etc/etc.
At some point the filing cabinet became too disorganized, and I abandoned it. My papers started learning how to pile in paper drifts all over my home. I had some contained in tubs, and other piles perched precariously on edges of desks, tops of coffee tables, on the floor next to the couch, in the corner of the bedroom.
Every single piece of paper felt so important to me, see?
That was the problem.
I’d look at the pile. I’d try to sort it. But my brain couldn’t figure out which ones it would be o.k. to get rid of.
I had amassed a huge amount of random paper in my life and I didn’t want to take the time to deal with it. It had become the proverbial albatross around my neck.
I was shackled to an unwieldy mass of tree pulp… and the stupid part was I couldn’t figure out which parts I needed to save. It was consuming a tiny spot of my time, my focus, my energy, my life.
And I wanted all that back.
It Took Time
No short and easy solutions here. I gathered and then I sorted repeatedly. I got rid of useless receipts first, owners manual to things we didn’t own anymore, the easily identifiable junk.
And then I sorted again, trying to get all the papers to fit into just two big plastic storage tubs. It took a few tries and then I got there.
And then I sorted. And… yeah you got it, I sorted again.
With each culling I pulled out as much as I could bear to part with and threw it in our recycling bag.
A Tipping Point
At one point towards the end of that serious length of sorting I came to an important realization. I realized that 99.9% of the paper I thought was so valuable actually didn’t have any place in my life at all.
It was junk.
My paper monster was made of catalogs tempting me to spend my money, credit card offers of people trying to lure me into borrowing money, receipts as proof of where temptation had led me astray, and a million unfinished projects, ideas, or things that were so important I would do them sometime in the future. ;0
I realized even the papers I thought were so precious, most of them were junk too.
I spent something like three years off and on decluttering my life, and decluttering my paper. It took a long time, a ridiculously long time and in the end I learned one important concept:
I learned to value the space paper takes up in my life more than I value paper.
Take that sentence and apply it to anything.
I learned to value the space that old treadmill takes up in my life more than I valued that old treadmill.
I learned to value my time and my space more than I valued the things, the paper, the clutter, the busyness.
So I got rid of the things, the paper, the clutter and the busyness.
Learn to value your space. your time. And see what happens to the stacks of paper around you. Watch them shrink and transform. Watch your life transform.
Action Plans and Three Step Programs
Patrick read through this post before I published it and he said, “Where’s the action steps?”
Sometimes you want to hear, “Get three boxes, and start by….”
And sometimes something on the more inspirational end of the spectrum can be even more powerful, and sometimes just hearing another person’s story on the subject can be the tipping point that gets you tossing tree pulp out of your life.
I wasted a lot of my life gathering too much stuff and then even more of my life conscientiously pouring over each item trying to determine if it had a space in my life.
I had to do something radical, something very, very different than anything I’d ever done before or I was going to have a pile of “must-go-through-papers” in my life forever, and I didn’t want to be one of those people, old and alone with all their stuff, no room for people in their life, for life in their life.
It was time for some tough decisions.
So I told myself that none of the papers were important. It was the only way for me to free myself of them.
I continued to sort through my papers, reducing the amount saved each time I went through them. I started off by trying to stack all paper I found in place in my home. Then I started going through each piece as I picked it up. At that point I was working on a “tubs full of paper” level of disorganization.
It was time-consuming and slow, but I worked through each piece.
As I did, I threw away a bunch of old junk, like receipts I didn’t need and user manuals to things I no longer owned. While I did this I got annoyed that I was having to spend my time sorting through old paperwork that didn’t even matter.
As a result of that, I started becoming more aware of how much I was bringing in.
I started taking steps to curb the amount of paper coming in.
I cancelled magazine subscriptions, stopped all of the catalogs that were coming to my house, and learned (with difficulty) not to bring as many free magazines home from work every month. I also learned to put a date on them and make myself give them away by that date even if I hadn’t read them.
I’m as close to a paperless life as I can be.
-I have one large accordion file that houses important documents like my Finnish citizenship approval, car title and land contract. My rule is, if the file gets full it’s time to sort it again. It’s narrowed down the truly important at this point, the 0.01%.
-The other paper in my life is one spiral bound notebook. I use it to jot thoughts and important save this concepts down. When the notebook gets full, I go through it page by page and see if anything is worth keeping. If it is, I input it into my laptop. I find I keep very little from the notebooks, but I tremendously enjoy the act of brainstorming my thoughts in one. It’s my one place where I can be scatter-storm creative. I love having an ever-changing notebook, and I love how notes to self and everything else land tidily in between it’s cover instead of on post-its across my home.
-The last category of paper I have are a very few special heirloom items like my passport as a baby, my favorite piece of writing by my father, and his obituary.
What I Do for Maintenance
-Sort through mail within a few days of it coming in.
-Cut back on incoming mail in the form of junk mail and catalogs.
-Unsubscribed from physical newsletters and mailing lists.
-Threw away all post-it notes and to-do list style “tear-off-a-sheet” paper pads. (They’re messy!)
-Set myself limits. When my accordion file feels too full, something has to go. I sort and purge the file several times a year.
Simple Living Action Steps
-Just start. Pick one small pile, spend ten minutes a day just focus on one question: Is this piece of paper trash or do I need it?
-Gather all of your papers and store them in one zone of your home. It’s a good first step for regaining control of the paper in your life (even if you’re still at broad tub-like levels of papers like I was).
-Vow to just throw away receipts. Spend twenty minutes this week throwing away every receipt you find to something you won’t be returning or don’t need for warranty purposes.
-Contemplate how paper is entering your life and how you can slow it down. It’s easier to stop before the threshold than take the time later determining it’s value in your life.
Is paper controlling your life? Or are you in charge? Ask your questions here or offer your awesome paper handling strategies. :)
p.s. This started off as an opening section to a chapter in Unstuffed. You’ll see a polished (and longer) version appearing in the finished book. I’ve been having fun sharing sneak previews of my writing projects with you here. :) Also, I will be working on Simple Celebrations and Unstuffed again this week, so I won’t be around quite as much on Minimalist Packrat this week. Wish me luck! (And thanks to each of you who has contributed a piece for Simple Celebrations. You all rock!)
p.p.s. I’m settling down on my latest site redesign. I’ve got it set at 900 pixels wide. Is anyone still having difficulty with the size? Do you have to horizontally scroll to read it? I shrunk it a bit to help accommodate some smaller screen resolutions.