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My Simple System to Eliminate 99% of the Paper Piles


This post was originally published in April 2015.

Recently, one of my friends who comes over to our house frequently commented about how she can’t figure out how we don’t have pile of paper anywhere. She wanted to know how on earth I accomplish that and what systems I have in place to maintain that.

At first, I told her I wasn’t sure; I just didn’t like piles so we didn’t have them. But being the analytical person I am, I spent some time thinking about it over the next few days.

Are there systems I have that I just don’t realize I have? Are there things I do on a regular basis to tame the pile monster?

I thought about it for quite awhile and slowly realized that I DO have systems. However, they have been in place for so long that I do them without thinking about them. I guess those are the best kind of systems, aren’t they? The ones that just happen without you thinking about them.

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So, here are my systems and how you, too, can eliminate 99% of your paper clutter:

1) Find Out Where the Paper Is Coming From

Start paying attention to where the paper piles are coming from. Are they school papers your kids are bringing home from school? Is it bills? Is it mail? Is it newspapers?

Figure out the source of your problem and see if there’s anything you can do to cut down on some of the inflow. For instance, can you automate your bills with online bill pay? Could you throw junk mail out in the outside dumpster before you even walk in the house? Could you cancel a subscription to the newspaper if it’s just piling up and not really being read?

2) Stop Hanging Onto Anything You Don’t Absolutely Need

Very few papers really need to be saved. Ask yourself: “If all my paper piles were all burned up in a fire tomorrow, what would I desperately wish I had saved?”

Only save those really meaningful papers and get rid of the rest. There’s no sense in letting things that don’t matter to you take up residence in your home and personal space!

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3) Implement the “Touch It Once” Policy

If you’ll stop to really pay attention, I bet you spend time each week moving paper piles. And you probably let them bog you down, too.

Here’s the truth: I rarely touch a paper that comes into our house more than once. For real.

I’ve determined that I just don’t want to spend hours of my life moving a pile from one place to another place, so instead, I institute the “Touch It Once” policy for all papers that come into our house. In almost 99% of the cases, this completely eliminates paper piles.

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Here’s how it works for me: When a piece of paper comes into our house, be it bills, kid’s papers from their activities, a magazine, an invitation, there are one of four things that will happen to it when I have it in my hand:

I either Trash It, Scan It (and then trash it), Display It, or File It.

Pretty much every single paper can fall under one of these categories. And doing one of these four things guarantees that it doesn’t become the start of a pile.

Practical “Touch It Once” Examples:

Some examples of specific kinds of papers and how I deal with them:

Ads: These are trashed immediately — as soon as I go through the mail. You can pretty much always find all ads online. I may glance through them and might jot a note on my Google Calendar about a sale or a reminder of something in them and then I trash them immediately (or, stick it in the recycling bin if you recycle).

Kid’s Artwork: I either display artwork on the fridge (I rotate these display regularly. When I take one down to rotate in another, I take a picture if it’s something I want to remember and then toss it), mail it to grandparents or our Compassion children, or take pictures of it on my phone so I have a record of it and toss it. If it was something really special — such as a very touching note or beautiful picture, I’ll store it in our Keepsakes & Mementos tub.

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Bills: Pay immediately and then scan and shred. If possible, switch to online bill pay so that you don’t even have to worry about remembering to pay bills.

Invitations/Notices/FYIs: Immediately make a note on your calendar of all the details you need to remember — times, due dates, details, etc. If you want to save the invitation for some reason, pin it to a board that’s designated for this purpose or display it on the fridge. Be sure to regularly cull these things on display, though. More than a few on display and you’ve sort of created a “Display Pile”!

I make notes in Google calendar of all events and details and then will put a reminder a few days before if I need to buy a gift, write a card, make a dessert, etc.

How to Eliminate 99% of the Paper Piles in Your Home

Cards/Letters: Want to know the truth? I don’t keep very many cards and letters from people. This might sound incredibly unsentimental of me, but the reality is that I’d have boxes and boxes of cards with signatures if I kept all the cards I’ve received in my life. So my rule of thumb with cards and letters is to ask myself, “Will I wish I had this in 25 years from now?”

If the answer is, “Yes!” than I’ll put it in our Keepsakes & Mementos tub. If not, I just toss it. You could also scan cards and letters to have an electronic record of them.

How to Eliminate 99% of the Paper Piles at Your House

I dare you to try the Touch It Once System for two weeks just to see if it makes a difference. If you hate it, you can always go back to piling. But you might find, as my husband did, that it saves so much time and effort and keeps your office, countertops, tabletops and more much, much cleaner!

What are YOUR best solutions for dealing with paper clutter? I’d love to hear!

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  • Janell says:

    Does Crystal have anything in the bundle?

  • Patty says:

    Tossing cards is only bad if you didn’t open them to begin with. Once you have enjoyed the moment spent reading the card and feeling the love then it has served its purpose.

  • casey says:

    Thanks for the great tips on how to tame paper clutter!

  • Jen says:

    I found something on pinterest where I can cut part of a card out and crochet the edges of it into an ornament. I like to save Christmas cards from my grandma, but I never look at them after I put them in a box. This way, I can look at a few at Christmas time and hang them on the tree.
    Then I can get rid of the rest!

  • Julie C says:

    I take a picture of any photo cards at Christmas/Thanksgiving and use that on my iphone; when friends or family calls, I see their thoughtful photo and enjoy it again. 🙂

    I have a 1/2 inch thick 3 ring binder that holds any in-case-I-need this papers; I go through it once a blue moon and declutter it. It has been a great help to resource names of a prescription (I don’t save all that paperwork), name of the grass-fed beef local farmer (husband contacted him first time so I was glad to find his receipt in there) and other similar might need contacts.

  • Rosanna says:

    I also have systems in place to tame paper clutter. I also don’t really think about them at all because I have done them for so long. For me, I don’t scan and trash kids pictures immediately but I have a special shelf in the homeschool room where I keep them. I usually go through them every 2 months or so. At that point, I decide whether I scan them and trash them or just trash them. I also don’t keep cards and letters, unless I want to reply to them. After I’ve replied to them, I trash them. I actually have one magazine holder on my kitchen counter that I will stick papers in until I get to them if I’m busy. It works really well for us because I go through it weekly.

  • Ruth says:

    I just wanted to say that after you posted this last year I made a concentrated effort to do this. When I would get the mail I would try to trash/recycle/file as much as I could. It made such a difference. My office isn’t as disorganized as it was last year. This simple step really paid off to keep things easier in my home.

  • Kariane says:

    I also use a Touch it Once Paper System. It is a great way to reduce paper piles. I wrote about it here:

  • These are great suggestions! Paper can easily get out of control, especially when you have little ones bringing artwork and completed homework home. My 5 year old freaks out if she sees me throw something of hers into recycling. To them, they worked so hard to get that good grade or completion sticker. But you have to ask yourself if it’s something that will bring value (or sentimental value) later on and commit to sorting/discarding things. We have a keepsake bin for our children and I only keep a select number of school items (if any) in their bins to simplify our lives.

  • JP says:

    Thanks for these great ideas! Unfortunately the first time I see mail or paper I’m in the car. Stuff gets thrown out on the way home but as soon as I get in and I usually have a stack to shred, other pressing needs overtake this one task and I’m left with bags of paper to sort or shred. 🙁 will try this method with a “2nd look”.

  • SueAnn says:

    Thank you so much for your post, as I am having a terrible time getting things organized and thrown out. I am very sensitive and it is hard for me to let things go. However, I am going to try this system, what do I have to lose, nothing but a very organized home afterward. My husband bought me a Kodak copycat of the Neat, it is time, I put it to use!! Thank you again!

  • Samantha says:

    What is the software you use for organizing what you scan?

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