Declutter your papers in 5 easy steps

The weather in England lately has been glorious. Time to get your dusters and mops out, and your black bags to part with your clutter! The area that most of my clients find the hardest to tackle is... paperwork.

5 steps to easy paper decluttering

Paper decluttering and organisation forms the backbone for your focus and inner peace.  Studies have found that you refer back to only 20% of the papers that you file away. So why are you keeping so many papers? Parting with your papers successfully is a magically liberating feeling. You owe it to yourself to experience that true inner sense of peace that only comes with a working paper system.

The ability to keep track of your papers is one of the 11 executive functioning skills.

Are your papers making you feel overwhelmed and anxious? Paper clutter and disorganisation is like a black hole that sucks you in. In this section, you will learn how to break down the seemingly mammoth task of paper decluttering and find a suitable paperwork organised system.

Paper decluttering and organisation and organisation is a skill like any other. Once you learn the skill tailored to your brain, you will be able can do it.

Step 1: Understand your executive functions

Executive functions are the skills that are embedded in your brain that help you get things done. There are 11 executive functions. When challenged with paper clutter, the cause may be executive function deficit.

All of your executive function skills are challenged when you need to sort and stay on top of your paperwork!

Here are some of the executive functions and examples of how they may be challenged when dealing with paperwork clutter.

  • Self-awareness - Being aware of the root causes of disorganisation and being able to easily and independently find personal solutions. Excuses are the opposite of the metacognition strength.
  • Self-motivation - If you find paper sorting boring and difficult, you will not have the internal motivation to start independently and even when you do manage to start, you will quickly give up.
  • Deficits in working memory - That small table of information held in one’s mind. 
  • Sustained focus - Your focus being drawn to what is currently going on, and having difficulty keeping relevant information in one’s mind for a length of time.
  • Controlling emotions - Your emotions take over your consciousness. It is common to forget where you have put your papers during that emotional overwhelm phase. Even when you have decided to sort through her papers, it can get so overwhelming that your limbic system takes over, and your brain shuts down. You will also get very easily frustrated and give up.
  • Decision making and prioritising-deciding – You find it difficult to decide which papers to keep and which to throw out. Every paper represents a decision that has to get made. If this is a weak point for you, you will end up procrastinating, and soon will have a mountain of papers. 
  • Flexible thinking - You find it difficult to find out of the box solutions for your paper clutter.

Being cluttered and disorganised leads to your stressed life. This stress builds up as your life progresses, which may lead to health problems and even be fatal further down the line. Decluttering and creating effective paperwork systems will massively boost your mental state and your health.

Step 2: Decide quickly, right now!

Decisions are tough. The decision-making process puts a huge strain on your executive functions. You need to think on your feet in a split second. As you progress through the day your brain gets tired, and it gets harder to decide quickly and easily. Your emotions often prevent you from deciding with ease. The torment taxes your brain, tiring you further.

If you have problems with decision making please understand that it may be difficult for your brain to recognise and prioritise what is important to you and what you can filter out.

Realise that you will never find the perfect answer. Understand that you are looking for the ‘good enough’ solution.

Step 3: Paper sorting

Only set aside a reasonable amount of time to sort your papers, two hours is a good time frame.

Gather all your papers together. (This task is not for the fainthearted!) I do not advocate dumping all your papers onto the surface as with a regular decluttering session. This will result in overwhelm and mental shutdown!

You should have a rubbish bag next to you for the papers that you don’t want.

For paper sorting, you need to stand next to a table. Purchase a packet of Ziploc bags. Buy the size that your papers fit into, usually, A4 size works best. Stick empty labels on the bags. Lay about ten bags out flat in a row on the table.

Simply pick up a paper. Look at it. Decide if you should toss or keep. If you decide to toss it, then chuck it into a rubbish bag that you have at your disposal. If you decide to keep it then decide what category the paper belongs to. Write that category onto one of the empty labels.

Since papers make many people anxious, it is important to be creative in your labelling. For example, “taxes” can be called “Uncle Sam”. Bills can be categorised as “Oh no, not bills again” Labelling the different categories using verbs also helps. For example, “MOT” can be labelled “Drive to the garage to get the MOT done”. These simple ideas really do help to lessen the anxiety that many people have around clutter.

Pick up the next paper and repeat the method. It may take some time to sort those papers. With practice, you will get quicker.

When you have completed your sorting session you should put the separate piles into the transparent labelled Ziploc bags.

When you want to finish your paper sorting session, simply pile up the bags, ready for the next step. Putting the papers into Ziploc bags ensures that they stay safe, and you can continue your other activities with peace of mind, knowing that your sorted paper piles are not disintegrating all over the place. This sorting stage may be really taxing, and overwhelming.  Work at your own pace. Have patience, and you will reach your goals.

Step 4: Set up a suitable filing system

Before you set up a filing system that supports you, you need to first banish all paper piles from your home and office. Piles are a death sentence! If you have a working memory deficit you will need things in sight. This is because when things go out of sight, they simply go off your radar. Piles cause you so much stress because you only see the top paper, and you have totally forgotten what lies underneath.

Piles get out of control very fast. This adds great stress to your brain, and your challenged working memory. Piles take up a lot of surface space.

Every time You view a pile of any sort, the items in the pile “talk” to your brain, and distract you from what you need to do. This is the source of that “weighed down” feeling associated with piles of any sort. 

Get rid of all the piles. Remember the following rule:

“Vertical visual horizontal hiding”. All of your papers must be stored upright. If they are stored horizontally in piles your best-decluttering systems are doomed to failure. If you don’t have time to declutter and sort right now.

Here is a foolproof method that will help you to feel better right away.

Buy some upright magazine files, and simply place your paper piles vertically inside these files without sorting. This simple step symbolises total transformation. You won’t believe the difference.

For your new paperwork system, you will eliminate all piles. From this moment onwards your papers will be stored vertically. When papers are stored vertically, they take up far less surface space.

Banish filing cabinets forever. They don’t work. Filing cabinets cause panic attacks! They are a black hole. They suck papers into their depths. Once the papers have been sucked in, they are lost forever.

Get a transparent box with hanging files. Now take the contents of your transparent Ziploc bags. Duplicate the labels, and drop the papers into the relevant sections. It is as easy as that.

Step 5: Maintain your system

You will need to maintain your filing system on a regular basis. If you don’t, then you are doomed to paper chaos and overwhelm. Use the “interim box” to maintain your new system. All papers need a home. They also need an interim home until they are placed into their permanent home. No floating papers…

Your first step will be to set up an “interim box.” This is a simple magazine file that you will use to store your papers from the moment they enter your home until you file them in their long-term home. In order for this to work, you will need to store the magazine file in a convenient central place. Set an appointment with yourself once a week to empty the “interim box.” It should be once a week but can be more often. You will be amazed how quickly it really takes to sort the “interim box” This simple exercise will make such a huge difference to your life.

Spend five minutes each day sorting, throwing out, and filing your papers. This will save a lot of time later on.

If you liked this content, you will love my books 'Organise Your Home Like a Pro' and 'Own Your ADHD'.

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