I call it “To Read” mail. You could also label it “Subscription Mail”, “Browsing Mail”, or “Fun Mail”. Whatever you want to call it, this refers to newspapers, magazines, catalogs, political propaganda, and paper newsletters...mail that requires no action other than to peruse it if and when you feel like it. Because reading it is purely optional, we tend to set it aside to enjoy with a cup of coffee or when there’s just more time. However, “when there’s more time” is a nothing but a mirage. So it sits...and sits...and sits...collecting dust in a pile somewhere...accumulating until the cluttered buildup forces us to finally take some action.
The good news is that we can let ourselves off the hook for reading it anytime we want by simply plopping it into the recycle bin. Yet the bad news is that very few of us can do that without experiencing some level of guilt. Why is that?
I suspect a combination of having committed yourself to reading it and FOMO (fear of missing out) is at play here. When you set aside each issue as it arrived, you were making a statement: I’m going to read this. You obliged yourself to take this action in the future. And you recommitted to that action every time you caught a glimpse of it and chose not to throw it out then and there. Even if you began reading it, the unspoken promise to finish it later has dwelled deep within your semi-conscious brain, even as you continued piling newer issues on top of it. Abandoning that goal weeks, months or even years later feels like failure. Besides, what if there’s something important or compelling lurking within those pages that you’ll miss if you never complete your mission? You could be allowing the perfect double chocolate mousse parfait recipe to slip right through your fingers! You could end up with the only home on your block with a yard lacking the latest trend in garden gnomes, all because you missed the big sale in last summer’s Gnomes R Us catalog. This, my friends, is how we convince ourselves that we can't just take the easy way out.
Thus, you are left with a choice: continue suffering from subscription buildup, or practice routine prevention. Here’s my three-part prescription for shrinking that mass of unread periodicals and restoring a healthy balance in your browsing mail:
1. Taper the dosage - First, reduce the amount of catalogs you receive by putting yourself on the Direct Mail Association’s National Do Not Mail list, or contact the companies directly to request removal from their mailing lists. Next, cancel all subscriptions you struggle to keep up with, or switch to an electronic subscription. Finally, establish some rules to help you manage the volume of reading materials you save for later. Some suggestions:
2. Use as directed - Create a plan for when and where you will actually read these items. Work it into your daily/weekly routine. If necessary, put it on your schedule and create a reminder to do it until it becomes a habit. Whether it’s reading the paper on your train ride into work, setting aside 30 minutes to browse through catalogs in bed each night, or reserving an hour each Sunday afternoon to curl up with your favorite magazine and a cup of tea, having your strategy planned out in advance will increase its effectiveness.
3. Discard when expired - Once you’ve read it or let it expire, get rid of it! The easiest solution is to simply recycle your old reading material, but here are some other alternatives:
With unlimited refills of this prescription, even fighting subscription buildup will be easy peasy.
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Controlling Your Paper Keepsakes
Every item in your home should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, it is only in your way and should be purged. That goes for your paper keepsakes as well. The purpose of keepsakes is to preserve moments from your past that reflect who you have been, are and will become. So many people struggle to maintain control over this category of items because they lack a clear vision of what that means. The bad news is that there is no one-size-fits-all description I can give you, because it varies from person to person. The good news is that you don’t need me to give you one, because you can create one for yourself. It’s not the specific parameters that matter...it’s that you have some.
Think about your paper keepsakes like artifacts in a museum, where you are the curator. These are items that you select that tell a story about your life. Another way to look at it is to imagine that your stash of keepsakes is a time capsule you are sending to your future self and those you leave behind. What is most important to remember? What are the milestones, achievements, values and memories that have shaped who you are? Who were the people that mattered to you or impacted your life?
I recently combed through my own enormous stash of disorganized keepsakes and made some tough decisions about what to keep and what not to. I was able to pare it waaayy down from four oversized plastic bins to four small boxes (one for each member of my family). It was a lot easier once I laid some boundaries. Here are some examples of the ground rules I followed in case they may help you in setting your own guidelines:
Those were my rules. Yours may be completely different. The point is to decide what they are first. Write them down as a guide for when those really tough decisions arise...and they will. While you are unlikely to miss anything you ultimately decide to toss, making the decision to toss it can feel in that moment like deciding to chop off your own arm. Be brave and remember that avoiding that unpleasantness is probably how you ended up with such a big pile of stuff to go through.
Try some of these strategies to make it easier:
When you take the time to define what’s meaningful, you honor your past without hindering your ability to live comfortably in the present and to make new memories for your future. With a little perspective and a few basic parameters, even controlling your keepsakes can be easy peasy.
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Filing Dos and Don'ts
Paper clutter seems to be an almost universal problem. Even in this digital world, most of us still have too many papers cluttering up the surfaces in our homes and offices, with more sneaking in every single day. It’s hard to keep up! Setting up a reference filing system requires us to first answer three important questions:
The answers to the first two questions can be found in "How Long Should I Keep It" document that is part of the Paper Tamer Bundle you can download for free on this site. The third requires a bit more thought and effort. All reference filing systems require some amount of maintenance, but here are tips to ensure that yours stands the test of time with minimal upkeep. (Note: The Paper Tamer Bundle includes detailed step-by-step instructions on setting up/tweaking your reference filing system.)
With a little bit of thought and effort, coupled with these simple guidelines, setting up a reference filing system that stands the test of time will be easy peasy.
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Prevent Paper Pileup
Piles of papers make me anxious. You will not find stacks of paper anywhere in my home. I dispose of any random slips of paper found in my pockets, purse or car as eagerly as tossing out used tissues. When I see unfiled papers, I see unmade decisions, incomplete tasks, and uncertainty, all of which provoke in me a sense of dread and anxiety. So keeping up with my daily influx of paper is my #1 organizing priority. Believe it or not, taming your own paper dragon can be as easy as changing a few bad habits and adopting one new one.
Nine bad habits that can lead to paper pileup:
1) Clipping coupons - Let's be honest...there are a very few people out there who do couponing well. The rest of us are just kidding ourselves. Unless you are a serious couponer who has a proven system that works, accept the fact that the time and effort you are wasting on clipping, saving, and organizing coupons that rarely get used before they expire might be better spent actually processing your mail instead. Toss all coupons but the ones you know you will 100% use. No, you don't need to look through them to see what you're missing. Your time is worth more than the few cents you might save.
2) Saving articles, ideas, recipes, or brochures for "future reference" - These days, very little of what we find in newspapers and magazines is not also available for free online. Chances are that it will take more time/effort for you to find a clipping you saved when you are ready to refer to it than it will to just Google it and find it online instead. Information on events can usually be found on an organization's website. Pinterest is great for finding and bookmarking decorating, entertaining, fashion, gift, and cooking ideas. You can bookmark links to relevant articles which are also often archived online by publication. If you really need to, you can maintain a list in your phone of places you hope to someday visit, helpful websites, names of recipe or other topic sources, etc. to help you find something later. There's no need to keep a stash of old clippings.
3) Using paper piles as a tickler for action items - Instead of creating an action pile, create an action file. Put the papers away and enter a reminder in your phone or calendar or on your to-do list to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Get in the habit of consulting these tools daily, or ask Alexa or Siri to remind you. Using the papers themselves as your tickler is ineffective because over time, as the paper clutter increases, they are likely to get lost or overlooked. By filing them, you will know exactly where to find what you need when you are ready to complete the task. The key is developing a system you trust for keeping your action tasks front and center in your mind, rather than on your desk or table.
4) Keeping papers out of fear/uncertainty - Do you really need to keep those old statements...receipts...canceled checks? Many people save old records unnecessarily because they think they may need them later. While it is true that there are definitely some important documents you should archive, many of us save papers unnecessarily "just to be on the safe side". it's worth taking the time to educate yourself on what you should keep and what can be tossed so that you can free up some space in your filing cabinet and make the filing chore less cumbersome. You'll find a downloadable guide here to get you started. Download the FREE Easy Peasy Paper Tamer Bundle for suggestions on what documents to keep and for how long. You can also check with your accountant or financial advisor if you're uncertain if you really need it. Just don't keep papers by default simply because you don't know whether or not you can safely get rid of them.
5) Saving information for others - Stop saving clipped articles for someone you think might find them interesting! Chances are, you will forget to give it to them, and they may prefer a text telling them where to find it online anyway. While it's nice that you are thinking of them, most people don't want more paper to deal with!
6) Saving papers to scan later - If you really want to scan it, scan it right away or schedule an appointment in your calendar for scanning everything and keep that appointment. Almost everyone I know with a "to scan" pile never gets around to scanning it and ends up eventually just tossing the whole pile.
7) Hoarding old magazines/newspapers - Keep only the current issue. If you haven't read it by the time the new issue arrives, toss it. If you find you aren't reading most of them, you should cancel your subscription. I'll bet you've never heard of anyone dying or suffering a significant consequence simply because they missed reading an issue of their favorite magazine...BUT, stacks of magazines and newspapers can present a dangerous fire hazard!
8) Reading/opening junk mail - Ignore the obvious junk mail! It's only purpose is to get you to buy something. If you truly need something, you'll remember without the solicitation and will seek out information on available options at the time you're ready to actually make a purchase. Tossing your junk mail will help you resist the temptation to acquire unwanted items that will only clutter up your home. If you feel a cursory glance is necessary, do it on the way in from the mailbox and then trash the sales pitch right away. It should never even touch any surface in your home!
9) Believing you have to shred everything - It may come as a surprise to many that your address is public information. Shredding everything will not keep it out of the hands of nefarious forces, unfortunately. You only need to shred items with sensitive information such as complete account numbers, your social security number, your tax ID, etc. Receipts that only contain the last four digits of your credit card number do not need to be shredded. Reviewing your credit report each year from each of the major reporting companies is helpful in protecting yourself against identity theft. If you have a large amount of old papers that really do require shredding, consider paying to have it shredded, or look out for free community shredding events in your local area to get it out of your way. Invest in a home shredder and keep it handy to shred as you go so that it doesn't continue to pile up.
One new habit to adopt:
Go through all incoming papers and mail each and every day before you go to bed and decide what to do with each piece. If you keep up with this, it should not take you more than 5-10 minutes per day to keep your surfaces clear of paper clutter once you get rid of your backlog. Set up a simple paper triage system to help you keep your papers neat, organized and put away out of sight (yes, that's right...see #3 above for why this is a good thing!) until you can complete any next steps like paying the bills or making a follow-up phone call. There are specific instructions in the FREE Paper Tamer Guide on how to set up and use a simple daily paper triage system to help you convert your paper piles into labeled files that are easier to manage.
With a little discipline and a large recycle bin, even preventing paper pileup can be easy peasy!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.