Paperwork: How to Move a Mountain


“We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”

– Wernher von Braun

I thought you might like to take a break from just thinking about inner simplicity and do something tangible: clearing away some of the paperwork in your home. I know I feel more satisfied when I can see I’m making progress. We’ll get back to the lists later.

Many people have mountains of paperwork piled on the desk, the dining room table and the kitchen island. That doesn’t even include the papers lurking in drawers or the old magazines and newspapers covering the coffee table.

One reason we let paperwork accumulate is that it’s so much work to clean it up. Some of the paperwork is important, so we can’t just toss it all in the recycle bin and start over. We have to take the time to go through all of it.

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

– Confucius

If you’re like most people, it will take several hours (or more) to go through all your paperwork, so we’re not even going to try to tackle everything in one day.

Begin by collecting all your paper clutter and put somewhere you have room to do a bit of sorting, perhaps your dining room table.

You might be thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to get through this mess.” You’re right, you won’t get it all taken care of today, but don’t worry, it will get done, gradually.

“I have so much paperwork. I’m afraid my paperwork has paperwork.”

– Gabrielle Zevin

You’ll organize your paperwork later. For now, this is a quick and dirty task:  recycle the stuff you know right away that you don’t need anymore.

This violates the traditional OHIO rule that you “only handle it once,” but I find that plan works a lot better for maintaining your system than for purging.

Be ruthless. Get rid of old magazines, newspapers, catalogs and junk mail. Throw out the expired coupons and old sales circulars, as well as the flyers for events you’ve already missed.

This stage is all about reducing the volume. Don’t spend more than a second or two looking at each piece of paper. If you’re not sure what to do with it, keep it for now in “later” piles or boxes.

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.”

– Winnie the Pooh (A. A. Milne)

You’ll still have a bunch of paperwork, but before you can finish dealing with it, you’re going to need to figure out where and how you’re going to keep everything.

To reduce clutter and make things easier to find, you’ll be scanning some of the items you keep. Unfortunately, you probably can’t keep everything digitally, so you’re still going to need to store some paper.

There will be two types of paperwork (whether in paper or digital format):  paperwork you need to do something with (bills, coupons, magazines) and paperwork you’re storing for the long term.

Paperwork to store includes paperwork you have to keep (tax returns, birth certificates, insurance policies), paperwork you want to keep for sentimental reasons (letters, children’s artwork, certificates) and paperwork you may occasionally refer to (product manuals, recent credit card statements, medical records).

Later, we’ll develop a plan for storing these types of paperwork, as well as periodically reviewing your files to discard things you don’t need anymore.

You Need a Scanner

Most home office printers include a scanner, and unless you’re looking for a lot of bells and whistles, you can buy them quite inexpensively.

I bought our current Canon scanner/copier/printer on sale for $29.00. It’s a basic model and has to be plugged in to the computer instead of using WiFi (gasp!) but since I have Luddite tendencies, I’m okay with that. If you have a lot of scanning to do, you might want to spring for a model with a document feeder.

After you finish with your old paperwork, you’ll have a lot less scanning to do, so, in the interests of minimalism, if you don’t need this device for any other reason, you may want to see if you can borrow one from a friend or use one at work.

In the days ahead, take some time to start setting up folders on your computer to store digital paperwork in a way that’s easy for you manage.

“Paper clutter can be a nightmare, but you can do something about it.”

– Mike BurnsSimpler 

Since you keep paperwork for different reasons, you’ll need different ways to store it. Make “action items” where you’ll see them. Papers you rarely need should be organized, but they can be kept in a closet or a spare room.

For storing the paperwork you keep in paper format, try to repurpose something you already have. If you do need to buy organizers and storage boxes, don’t go overboard. Despite what you see in glossy magazines, you don’t need a lot of pretty-colored plastic to be organized.

Something like one or two of these wire sorters with some manila folders should work for all the stuff you need to keep at hand. Some people prefer traditional stacking trays, but I like the sorters better because I find it easier to file and find things. I can use color-coordinated folders and easily see the labels on each folder.

After you’re done purging and scanning, you won’t have that much left to store, so a couple of file boxes or accordion files should work for long-term storage if you don’t already have a file cabinet or desk drawer suitable for hanging files.

You might want to wait to buy anything until after you’ve completed purging and scanning so you’ll have a better idea of what you need. Future posts will discuss details of setting up your filing system, but start thinking about what methods will work best for you.

What the world really needs is more love and less paper work.”

– Pearl Bailey

Eliminate your junk mail. The FTC gives tips on how you can cut down on unsolicited mailings, calls, and emails. You can also call the companies who send you catalogs to request you be removed from their mailing lists.

Next, try to cut back on the other mail you receive. Most, if not all, banks will provide you with online statements, whether for checking and savings accounts, credit card bills or investment accounts. Often, you can get those thick disclosure pamphlets most of us don’t even read electronically as well.

You can also receive – and pay – most of your bills electronically.

Consider cutting back on newspaper and magazine subscriptions (only order what you actually read) and getting some or all of them electronically. Keep magazines and newspapers where you’re likely to read them. If you haven’t read a magazine or newspaper when the next issue arrives, recycle the old one.

Deal with mail as soon as you get it. Immediately put all junk mail into the recycle bin. Make tossing paperwork easy – keep a recycle bin where you open the mail. We keep a small bin under the desk.

The most important thing you can to keep your paperwork organized is to have less of it, so make that your number one priority.

3 thoughts on “Paperwork: How to Move a Mountain

  1. Ugh. I wonder if you can get any of it online? I was getting 2 copies of all those thick disclosure pamphlets from Wells Fargo because I have 2 separate IRA accounts (some tax thing I guess). I wondered if they had stock in a paper company. These Medicare guys probably do too!

  2. Ain’t that the truth! Just got a long response from my accountant on what to keep and how long to keep it…there’s so much paper in this place it’s starting to crowd me and the dog out.

    You think you’ve got paper now…just wait until you get onto Medicare/Medigap/Part D. You need to rent a storage unit to hold all the paper those outfits disgorge.

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