I’ve always been bad about letting papers pile and pile and pile. And pile. And pile.
I’d say I’m letting you in on a secret, but it’s not really a secret. If you know me, you’ve probably seen my piles. Lurking. Stretching. Towering. Do you remember that poem about Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout? Well, had I been Silverstein’s muse, that piece would have been about paper.
Finally, a year or two ago, two major things helped me kick the habit: Creating a tight system, and changing the habits that kept me in piling slavery. This isn’t to say I’m not still tempted to pile, or that I never get behind. But whereas I used to never see the end of my papers, these days I regularly do. For me, that’s some serious progress.
This week I’m working my way through a good-size pile of junk I got behind on over the summer. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the things that have helped me slay the piling beast over the years. (I’ve also included my paper work-flow at the end.)
For all my fellow pilers…
Tips for the Bad Habits
All I’ve learned about habit-breaking can be summed up in four words: Do the hard work.
When we choose the path of least resistance, we continue to be who we’ve always been, snarled in the same tangles we’re always trying to break free from. But when we start bushwhacking a new trail, eventually that becomes the path of least resistance.
It’s kind of magical, really. But, yeah. Do the hard work.
Tips Toward Fewer Papers
No, seriously. Stop it!
Okay, I know it’s not that simple. I mean, I knowwwww. It’s hard (see above). But it’s not impossible.
Here are the three questions I use to help me purge papers:
- If/when I ever need this, will I want/prefer this one, or one that is more up-to-date/current?Unless it’s an academic work, I nearly always search for something current. This question helps me be excited about finding new things in the future, and that excitement enables me to let go of this one in the present.
- If/when you ever need this thing (a recipe, a decorating idea, an article), are you going to consult this paper, or the internet? (If the internet, junk it.)With the bazillion ways of finding and sharing things on the internet nowadays, will I ever be at a loss for information, ideas, visuals, etc.? (Not a rhetorical question, btw.)
- Will I miss it?Again with the magic questions. When I ask myself this question the whole paper circus seems ridiculous. No. I’m never going to miss it. I never think about it now and I won’t later. There are exceptions to this, of course, but they’re rare.
Incidentally, those questions work for lots of other decluttering and hoarding, too. (Ah!!! I just said hoarding!!!)
Help for Specific Kinds of Paper
If you have an overabundance of a certain type of paper (receipts, articles, personal thoughts strewn on scratch paper), try this:
Take a few minutes to stare that particular issue in the face and decide something different to do with them from this point on.
Here are a few ideas…
- Set a price threshold and don’t keep receipts for items under that amount
- Force yourself to shred more and more receipts. (I did this. It felt risky at first, but I’ve never needed a single one of them.)
- Put all your non-major-purchase receipts from a single month into a folder or ziploc bag, note the date on the front, and pitch it after six months (when most items are no longer eligible for return). This doesn’t address the habit of accumulating, but it can be a helpful crutch to help you make progress.
For Personal Thoughts/Ideas:
- Digitize and tag them with something like Evernote. (Ask around for your friends’ favorite apps for this.)
- Create “idea” documents and regularly add your new scribbles to them. The key is regularly.
- See if they are available online and bookmark/tag them.
- As a habit-changing practice, try this piece of psycho-babble: Acknowledge that you really enjoyed this article, but that its time has passed. There will be more wonderful articles in the future, and keeping this one around will just taint that lovely tomorrow.Of course sometimes you’ll find something so brilliant that you memorize it and want to keep it forever. Like David Segal’s review of Britney’s Oops I Did It Again Album. Not that I ever memorized a pop record review. That would be silly. But that sort of thing might be worth holding on to. Of course, it’s actually available online, so there’s no real need for that.
- If you really can’t bear to part with it (meaning that it gets past the above filters), scan it AND make sure you’ll be able to find it on your computer. Spend some time figuring out what will work for you and do that.
Tips for the Closed System
If you do not yet have a reliable system for collecting, sorting, and using the stuff (papers, ideas, thoughts, projects) you collect, I highly recommend reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done. He pinpoints why so many of our techniques leave us wanting and outlines a solid alternative. This book calmed my chaotic brain. The following tips originate from Allen’s work.
- Process regularly
- Things pile because they aren’t dealt with in a timely manner. Figure out what it will take to force yourself to deal with things regularly: reminders, friends that will hold you accountable, rewards… whatever works for you, do it.
- Resist the temptation to leave anything for later. Force yourself to make a final decision about each item. And dropping them in the trash can is something you can do with them. Poof! Problem solved.(As a side note, This is probably the most liberating thing I’ve learned about dealing with paper. After a few hard decisions early on, the process started speeding up dramatically. Which was motivating. And once I got the hang of choosing the recycle bin over “doing something with it”, it further sped up the process). Major win here. Major. Win.)
Okay, so this isn’t technically a “tip”. But because the following process works so well for me and because I don’t know anyone else who uses it (which isn’t saying much because I don’t go around asking people for their paper-flow all the time, I’m going to share it. Again, this is largely inspired from Getting Things Done.
I collect things all in one place. That bin gets a lot of action: everything from new receipts to random small office supplies to files I didn’t put back or whatever I had in my hand when I passed by. Because of #2 below, I can freely pile away inside that bin. (And I kind of love freely piling.)
2) Engage Regularly
Ideally, I “process” the bin twice a month. Also, I don’t let the bin overflow. The pile in the picture (yes, it’s mine) is so large because I emptied a full bin of files and haven’t gone through them yet. And also because I’m a little behind.
I go through the items one by one, forcing myself to do something with each one before moving on. This mainly means:
- Putting it away (if it’s not something that needs to be processed)
- Putting it in the recycle or shred pile
- Filing it (even if I must create a new folder to do so)
- Scanning and Tagging it (Here are links to my portable scanner and my file-tagging software in case you’re curious what I use. Yes, that super-small super-fast scanner is expensive. It also fits in my carry-on and lets me leap tall buildings in a single bound.)
A Quick Recap
To effectively beat the paper problem, deal with both the habits and the practices (or system). To create new habits, force yourself toward new practices. Do the hard work.
As for the practices/system:
- Reduce paper-collection
- Process regularly
- Empty the pile
Again, for a wonderfully complete treatment on the closed-system concept, check out Getting Things Done by David Allen. I know I’ve said that a few times now, but if you have major paper trouble, or if you don’t really know how to organize all your thoughts and ideas, I have no better tip than this book. It’s not that I applied everything in it, but it gave me an entirely new way to think about my papers and workflow.
I suspect if you’ve read this far, you identified with some aspect of the paper problem. Did you pick up anything try-worthy?