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.
Don't miss out! Sign up to get each new post of the EPL Blog delivered straight to your inbox each week!
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 Guide 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 it. 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!
Imagine standing in the bottom of a deep pit, looking up and wondering how you will ever get out! Actually, most of us don’t have to imagine that...we experience it every time we look at our long To-Do lists and bulging calendars (assuming you even have those...not having them is more like realizing you’re at the bottom of a deep well but being unable to even see the sky). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the only way out of a deep, dark pit of any kind is to climb out. You need a ladder, a rope, a staircase, or a lot of well-placed toe- and hand-holds. Then it’s just a matter of climbing one carefully-planned step at a time. Well, today I’m gonna teach you how to build yourself a staircase leading out of that pit of endless tasks, chores, projects and appointments that make up “adulting”.
As with building any sturdy, reliable staircase, the first step is always to set aside planning and building time. Constructing it in a slap-dash-as-you-go fashion will leave you with nothing but a rickety pile of lumber that could give way at any time, sending you back down to the bottom of the pit with potential injuries. So, if you don’t already have a calendar, get one. It can be an app you use on your phone/tablet or a good old-fashioned paper day planner...whatever works for you. Add to it a weekly appointment with yourself, preferably at a consistent time and in a quiet location with limited interruptions so that you can focus. Do not blow off this appointment...EVER! I know, I know...you’re busy...things come up...the kids never give you any peace and quiet. Just remember: you are stuck in a pit! Nothing can be accomplished--for anyone--until you manage to pull yourself out of it. So finding a way out should be your #1 priority!
During your first appointment, create a blueprint for your staircase by considering your hierarchy of life priorities. What’s at the top? Health and fitness? Time with family? Your career? Knowing exactly which side of the pit you want to emerge on will determine how you build your staircase, so it’s worth recording your hierarchy and referring back to it whenever you’re not sure how to prioritize. For more guidance on how to determine this, go back and read the Achieving Simplicity post from August 3, 2020.
Next, you'll need to gather all your building materials. This involves brainstorming about everything you think you might need to do this week. Include errands, chores, phone calls/emails, research, work and home improvement projects, appointments, volunteer work, meals, and all other commitments and responsibilities. This step will become easier in time as you gain a sense of which materials (to-do items) you really don’t need for your staircase and build up a stockpile of the ones you use each and every week. Keep a running task list that you continually add to as you think of new things.
Once you have a comprehensive list, identify the components you really don’t need and get them out of your way. In other words, delegate as many tasks as you reasonably can and eliminate or defer the optional things that don't align with your top priorities. (Here’s where that blueprint really comes in handy!) Where might you be able to relax your standards or expectations to make this climb a bit easier? What optional tasks can wait? By the way, relaxation time is not optional. While you may need to tweak how much of it you get from one week to the next, trying to make do without it is like building a staircase without any hardware. Eventually it will collapse under the pressure.
Now you just need to order your steps. Fill out your calendar and daily tasks lists while answering these questions:
Once you’ve completed your staircase, you’re ready to start climbing. But first, don’t forget a daily safety check. Each morning, consult your plan, just as you would double-check the reliability of each step before placing all your weight on it. If you discover a weak or missing tread up ahead, don’t panic...just replace it. It’s a whole lot easier to tweak your staircase as you go through your week, than it is to try to climb out of that pit without one.
Download our FREE Week-Ahead Planner to help you get started.
The best news is that the more staircases you build, the better and quicker your construction becomes. With a well-drawn blueprint and the right tools, building a staircase to any solution can be easy peasy.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a first aid kit, makeup kit, or sewing kit. 🙋If so, you’re already familiar with the concept of what I like to call “kit (or “task) organizing"...storing all the items you need to perform a specific task or complete a certain activity together. We tend to do this naturally with certain items, such as cooking and laundry, but there may be other opportunities you've overlooked.
Why organize this way?
Think about the steps required to complete a task...any task. Step number 1 is always to assemble all the tools and materials you need. At least it should be. Otherwise, you end up having to interrupt the task to go find what you need, and who has time for that? Well, kit organizing takes care of the first step for you. Assuming you remembered to put your tools and materials away the last time you performed the task, you only need to get out your kit again and voila! Everything you need is right there!
An even bigger benefit to organizing this way is that it’s actually much easier to put your tools and materials away when you're done. Rather than putting the scissors back where the scissors go, and the tape back where the tape goes, and the ribbon and gift wrap back where they belong, you simply put everything back in your gift wrapping kit and store that away for next time. Let’s face it...searching for the scissors and tape because they didn’t get put back in the right place the last time you used them is often the most challenging and time-consuming part of wrapping a gift. Kit organizing just simplifies the getting-out and putting-back (and consequently, the finding-of) everything you need to complete your task.
What’s the best way to store kits?
Contrary to the mental image you may have in your head, a “kit” doesn’t necessarily always involve a cute little carrying case. Many may, but what makes it a "kit" is not what kind of receptacle it's stored in, but rather that all of the items in it center around a specific activity. Some kits may include large items that take up an entire closet, while others are better stored in a small, transportable pouch. How you contain it depends on what type of task/activity it’s used for and where that activity is performed. Tasks that are always performed in the same location and have room to store the kit there don’t require a carrying case. For example, if you always put your makeup on at a makeup table with drawers, you can just use a drawer to hold the components of your makeup kit.
Conversely, if you like to do your nails at the kitchen table but don’t have room in the kitchen to store your nail kit, putting those items in a small bag you can retrieve from the bathroom makes a lot of sense. Anytime you have to carry stuff around, having everything already stored in a transportable receptacle makes it more likely you won't leave something behind by accident. Open caddies, small backpacks or totebags, lidded or open bins, baskets and zippered pouches are all great options for containing your kits. Pick the one that best suits how you use that particular kit.
Kits aren't just for home use!
Kit organizing can be particularly useful for items you use outside the home. Grab-and-go activity bags for trips to the pool, sporting events (or practice), or picnics take the stress out of preparing for fun outings. Being already packed and ready whenever the mood strikes will make you more likely to go enjoy yourself! And you'll be less likely to forget something if you've invested some forethought in what belongs in your kit and store everything together between outings. Just make sure you remember to remove anything you've accumulated during your trip that doesn't belong in the kit before you put it away.
What should go in a kit?
Chances are, you are already organizing this way for some tasks/activities. If you store all your camping equipment together, that’s a camping kit. But there may be items you can add to your existing kit to make life even simpler. For example, does your camping kit include all the "staples" you routinely take camping with you, such as paper towels, aluminum foil, and utensils...or do you still have to retrieve those from the kitchen each and every time you pack for a camping trip? It may not always be feasible to store everything you need in your kit, due to space or financial considerations. The idea is to make your kit as complete as you reasonably can in order to simplify assembling and putting away your tools and materials before and after use. (Tip: for camping or other away-from-home activities, consider including with your kit a list of additional items you know you'll always need to take with you but for one reason or another cannot store with the rest of your kit. This will help ensure you don't forget something.) How often you use your kit will also determine what goes in it. If you go camping multiple times each summer, it may be worth investing in a second set of cooking utensils to keep in your kit; if you only go every couple of years, perhaps not. Think about the types of tasks/activities you perform most frequently and make a list of all the items you use. Begin building your kit from there.
Would having any of these kits assembled and ready to go make your life simpler?
Space truly is the final frontier! Everyone seems to be on an endless quest for it...for space in their homes...on their desks...in their busy lives! Yet it eludes most of us. Just as soon as we find some....poof! It’s gone and the search begins anew. But what if instead of spending all of our space, we kept some of it….empty?!! Today, I’m making a case for space!
First, how is empty space even useful?
Preserving your empty space boils down to choosing space over stuff. You may be asking...if empty space is so valuable, then why do people tend to choose stuff over space? Good question! Clients usually call me when their lack of space begins causing a problem in their lives. They are aware that they need more space, yet still seem compelled to fill it back up again when given the opportunity. Why? Here are some of the most common reasons, along with my counterpoint for each one: Do any of these sound familiar?
Fear of being without something you may need (clothes, paper towels, shoes, serving dishes).
Counterpoint: If you run out of something, you can go shopping, do laundry, borrow from a neighbor, order online. If none of these are possible, you will likely find a way to make do in an emergency. Such emergencies will be very rare and far outweighed by the everyday benefits of having more space. Think up a back-up plan in advance if that makes you feel less afraid to part with something. (Personal aside: At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis when toilet paper was difficult to find, I came up with multiple contingency plans for if/when we ran out. I never had to use any of them, but now that I have them, I don’t feel a need to use up my valuable space hoarding toilet paper.)
Avoiding a deep-seated (and usually misplaced) perception of poverty and/or a misperception of “wealth”.
Counterpoint: Having more stuff doesn’t make you rich. It actually costs you more in the long run. Would you rather be “rich” in stuff that gets in your way, or rich in time and energy that can be spent on having new and meaningful experiences, learning more about the world, and forging/maintaining important relationships? Which will matter more at the end of your life? Remember, the old adage “You can’t take it with you” refers to your material wealth.
Unwillingness to make choices (aka decision deferral).
Counterpoint: Making decisions gets easier and quicker with practice and takes less time when you do it on a daily basis. Developing a habit of making decisions in the moment takes effort but will pay huge dividends in the long run.
Need to fill up the other aspects of life that feel empty (relationships, self-esteem, productivity, sense of control).
Counterpoint: Space gives us freedom. We need space to live in, move in, fill up with the people and activities that bring us joy. When we do that, we will not feel emptiness; we will feel fulfilled.
So how do we create and maintain empty space?
Simple: Choose space over stuff. Now that you understand the value of empty space and why you may have chosen stuff instead in the past, it will be easier to make more intentional decisions in the future. There are three key components to this:
With a little conscious decision-making and a few good habits, even holding onto empty space can be easy peasy!
Okay, so you've purged all your excess stuff, replaced single-function furniture and items with multi-function alternatives and organized what's left as efficiently as possible using all the techniques in last week’s blog and still don't have enough room? It's time to stare at the wall, or hang it up...literally. There's oodles of unlocked storage potential on those walls, as well as behind, above and on the backs of all your cabinets and doors. Tap into the wealth of vertical space, and you will be amazed at how much more additional storage room you actually have to hang stuff up.
Clockwise from top left: Paint cans hung from floor joists; Mugs hung from shelf; Bike helmets hung from tension rod; Toiletries stored in shoe pocket organizer on back of bathroom door.
Just a few ideas to get you started:
So the next time lack of space has you feeling down, look up for inspiration. The sky's the limit...literally
Don't miss out! Subscribe to the EPL Blog and get each new post delivered right to your email inbox.
My husband used to get annoyed with me for re-loading the dishwasher after he had already loaded it. Eventually, he stopped doing that task and now just says, "I'll let you work your magic." He knows I can always get a lot more in. But it isn't "magic" at all...it's just a matter of knowing how to use the rack space efficiently.
If you've been following @EasyPeasyLiving on Facebook, Instagram or this blog, you know that I've been sharing tips all month on how to create more space in your home. We started with the Declutter Challenge to get rid of all that excess stuff you don't really need. Then in last week's blog, I explained how seeking out multi-functional items to serve double-duty around the house, instead of buying multiple items that each only serve one purpose, can save a lot of storage space. This week, I'm going to share some tips for eking out even more space here and there -- without even getting rid of anything -- just by using the space you have more efficiently.
While it is true that neatness does not necessarily equal organization and vice versa, it does tend to be the case that most truly organized homes are also neater. Mostly that's because it's easier to keep it neat when it's organized. But did you know that being neat can also save space? Consider a pile of papers...not that I'm encouraging you to have too many of these, mind you. Which takes up less space on a desk, a cascade of messy papers, or a neat stack of papers? When items are neatly stacked or folded, you can almost always fit more into a smaller space. Adopting a few simple strategies can make a big difference in just how much space you are able to save.
As you can see from the photos above, I was able to fit 20% more into the basket simply by folding the towels. Not only that, the basket fits better on the shelf where it lives and towels are more easily-accessible when they are folded. However, folding alone doesn't always result in a space savings. You must also ensure you are folding items to the right size to fit your space efficiently. Don't always fold towels the exact same way just because they are towels, or you could end up with extra, unusable space next to them on the shelf. Instead, play around and figure out how to fold them in order to fit the maximum number on that specific shelf where they are stored. You may be surprised how many more you can get in simply by changing the way you fold them. I fold the dish towels above differently than I fold the hand towels that live under my powder room sink, even though they are roughly the same size. That's because they are being stored in a different sized basket. This same principle applies to clothing, sheets, blankets...anything! It's worth taking a few minutes to figure out a folding strategy for each space! Once you do, you'll be all set.
Purchase Matching Sets
While matching sets look nice and neat, that's not the reason I'm advocating this. Stacking items that are part of a set is generally easier and more space-efficient than stacking individual random items. This is because items in a set are usually the same size or have been specifically designed to be nested together or stacked. Think about it: dishes, food storage containers, storage bins, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, towels, etc. tend to come in sets that are intended to be stored together. You'll save tons of space by nesting food storage containers and then "filing" the lids, by size, upright in a bin or basket so that you can easily find the size you need. Sometimes lids within a set are designed to fit a variety of different bottoms.
Bundle and Contain
Have you ever noticed that odd-shaped stuff has a way of spreading out all on its own? I'm talking about bags and packets in the pantry, loose contents in drawers, charger cables, empty plastic shopping bags, etc. This "clutter creep" wastes a lot of space. The way to stop it is to bundle or contain it. When you store items like this in bins, baskets, boxes or drawer dividers, you are not only defining and limiting the amount of space they consume, you can literally fit more into that space. Imagine pouring a bag of sugar out onto the countertop. What happens? It spreads out across the surface of the counter into an inefficient mound. But pouring it into a canister eliminates gaps and contains the contents, consuming a smaller surface area. The same principle applies to your oddly-shaped items. Bundling and containing them also makes items easier to find and access.
Is your closet rod too tightly packed? Consider removing all the empty hangers from the rod and placing them in a basket on the floor of your closet. It's rare that you will be storing every article of clothing you own on the rod at the same time. Usually you'll be wearing some or laundering some, so why take up precious rod space with an empty hanger? And speaking of hangers, why waste space with a thick hanger when a skinny one will do the job just as well? Invest in thinner hangers to save space. Also, keep in mind that hanging clothes is more space-efficient than folding them and storing them in drawers and makes clothes easier to see and find.
Another big "filler" is the air in your off-season clothes and spare linens. Pack them in vacuum bags that eliminate the air when they are in storage. Similarly, save space in the pantry by dumping items like pasta, cereal and chips into airtight containers rather than storing big boxes that are half full of air. If freezing food in zip-loc bags, lie them flat during freezing so that they will stack neatly and save space.
Go with Corners
Whenever possible, choose square or rectangular storage containers over round ones, as they utilize the space more efficiently and leave fewer gaps between them. Also look for straight-sided bins rather than angled ones. It may not seem like this would make a big difference, but the space savings sure do add up.
Maximize Your Vertical Space
This is a big way to free up space in your home. Adjusting shelf height, using walls, backs of doors and cabinets, etc. can reap big space savings. In fact, there are so many ways to create space by going vertical that it warrants its very own blog post. I'll be covering this in more detail next week, so stay tuned.
With a little bit of tweaking in the right places, saving space without even getting rid of anything can be easy peasy.
If you have kids at home - especially young ones - no doubt you are well-acquainted with the pain of walking through a minefield of Legos. If you haven't had the pleasure, just imagine walking across a floor covered in broken glass. Or maybe you've encountered the slip-n-slide effect of stepping on a stray paper or magazine left on the stairs...or discovered a new life form growing in the sweaty clothes strewn across your teenager's bedroom floor. Ah yes, kids seem to have a special knack for sowing chaos, destruction and grossness, but they are equally capable of creating order and finding solutions with the right guidance, encouragement and opportunity. Which is a good thing, because you won't have the time or energy to keep up with their messes without a bulldozer...and not many of us have room for storing one of those. You'll need some help!
Maintaining an orderly home requires solid teamwork from the entire family, and raising a generation of organized, clutter-free adults begins at home with consistent coaching from you. Even if you struggle with organization yourself - in fact, especially if you do - there are still things you can all do together as a cohesive unit to transform your home into the calm and relaxed sanctuary you all deserve to live in.
Start early by training your young children to sort objects, put their toys away and make thoughtful decisions about their belongings. Establishing routines for everyone in the household (including you!) and stating clear expectations will help all of you stay on track. Instead of barking out orders and making chore-time feel like a punishment, underscore the unifying effect collaboration will have on your family unit. Offering age-appropriate incentives and finding creative ways to make the process fun for everyone will teach them that with a little planning and teamwork, orderly living and a home they can proudly share with others can be easy peasy!
No matter how old your kids are or what state your home is currently in, it is never too early or too late to start adopting some of these strategies:
Keep it Positive
Lay the Foundation
Go on Autopilot Whenever Possible
Evolve and Adapt
Make it Fun!
Parenting is at its most challenging when we are faced with the prospect of teaching our young ones something we, ourselves, are still trying to learn. But in my experience, some of the most special experiences I've shared with my children are the ones where I was learning alongside them. You don't have to be an expert at cleaning and organizing to begin teaching your children the importance of learning those skills. You just have to be willing to make the effort to model how to learn them.
With a little effort and collaboration, even maintaining an orderly home can be easy peasy.
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.