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How I Finally Let Go of Paper Clutter

Dig out of your paper piles and feel lighter, freer, and more creative

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Of all the clutter in our homes, paper pileups are some of the biggest bugaboos. According to Fast Company writer Jane Porter, “It’s not just stuff, it’s emotional baggage and unfinished business that’s standing in your way.” Emotional baggage and unfinished business. Wow. Does that resonate with you as much as it did with me? It’s especially been evident in my home office, which for several years has been buried in a Pompeii-like paper situation. But I’ve been digging out, and I feel lighter, freer and more creative than ever. Here’s what worked for me; I hope it helps others who might be struggling with a bad paper habit.  

I released judgment. No longer do I look at something and think, “My god, this has been here since September of 2014!” I simply deal. With the piece of paper. It’s challenging and I can feel my brain straining to refocus on the task, rather than the emotion behind the invoice/newsletter/kid’s drawing, but doing this has been liberating. For me, it’s been key to moving through the paper-shame accumulation.  

I shred like Shiva. In Hinduism, Shiva is both the creator and the destroyer. So I stand at the paper shredder, as master of my universe, in a power pose and have at it. Destroying the old tax documents and insurance cards, I also move through the expectations for life that have worked out and not worked out. Destroy. Destroy. And behold, Create. Look at all the room I now have for my actual life!

I’ve redefined a “good job.” In the great new book Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess, author Rachel Hoffman suggests, “try to realize that any small improvement is more attainable and therefore more important than a perfect result ... Even if you can’t finish completely, you can at least get started and find yourself having made some progress rather than having made none at all.” Instead of waiting to deal with the extremely scary giant stack of mail on some imaginary perfect Sunday, I now rip open two or three envelopes at least once a day, and move on. The pile is diminishing, as is my stress level.

I’ve condensed my to-do list. To-do’s go onto an ever-evolving list, not onto the floor or my desk. A lot of us are scared we’ll forget to do something if it’s not in plain sight, which is all the more reason to use a digital list that can be set with reminders. I’m a huge fan of digital ToDoist, or try one like Wunderlist, or Remember The Milk. Are you a paper person? That’s cool! Try Appointed.

I set goals. I’m going from several giant bins of paper to one neat little filing cabinet, so a lot has to go. From reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I learned I really don’t need to save product manuals—so vast heaps of paper, gone. If I need to find something, the information is online, Kondo points out. And how many times have I consulted that grill manual, after all? Zero, in six years.

I act like a haughty monarch. “Clutter is postponed decisions,” says organizational expert Barbara Hemphill. Now every time I get near my desk, I grab a piece of paper, eyeball it with the murderous calm of Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, and trash it or file it. My realm is becoming very tidy, indeed.

Tell us in the comments section, what works for you with paper clutter?


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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