Organizing Tips

Sep 13

Clearing the Information Backlog: how to get rid of paper and email clutter

Now that you’ve taken action to stop paper clutter before it gets in the door, how do you deal with the backlog that’s accumulated?  So many of my clients feel overwhelmed by the idea of sorting through stacks (and often bags and boxes, and sometimes entire rooms) of paper.  Your first step is to stop freaking out.  Got it?  Good.  Don’t think “holy crap, I’ve got to go through all of these mounds of paper.”  Think “slightly less holy crap, I’ve got to go through this one handful of paper.”  I promise it’ll all get done, but not if you’ve gone into some sort of paper-hysteria and are coping by eating cookie dough and watching Project Runway reruns (both noble pursuits, just not when you’ve got stuff to do).

So you’re calm, you’ve put the cookie dough away, and it’s time to get started!  Choose your first handful of paper from somewhere that’ll make a visual difference-preferably a surface that needs to be cleared rather than a bag or box that’s already contained.  Clearing something out in the open will help you stay motivated long-term.  You need to have a bag for recycling, a bag for shredding or the shredder itself, and a spot to put papers you need to keep (the floor or table next to you will work fine). This method works perfectly for sorting through email and computer file clutter as well.

Remember that information (paper or electronic) management is an ART: Act, Reference, or Toss.  Those are the only things you can do with a piece of paper, email, or file, so don’t postpone the decision of which it’s going to be.  Ready?  Pick up your first paper or choose your first email and let’s go!

Step 1: Question: How will I use this information?


A. “I won’t”:  Recycle or shred immediately.  Laugh maniacally as paper descends into shredder.

B. “I need to call/email/pay/read it/put it in my calendar”: Put it in an Action! (exclamation point required) pile or file, and don’t forget to schedule time to work on your action items.   Group similar actions like “call” or “put it in my calendar” with paperclips and do all like tasks at the same time.

C. “I might need it someday”: The dreaded someday.  Chances are you’ll never look at it again.  However, in this situation, ask yourself two additional questions.  If the answer to either one is yes, out it goes:

-“Can I get the information online?” (recipes, how-to articles, etc.)

-“Can I request the information from the organization if I need it again?” (I’m lookin’ at you, 5 years of bank and credit card statements)  You may want to check with the organization on how long their records are available electronically.

D. “There’s no action to take, but I need to be able to reference the info for a specific situation, like doing my taxes, research for a current project, etc.”: This is a reference item, so go ahead and set it aside to be filed.  The key here is that you must be able to say specifically how and when you’ll need this information.  Unless you already have a simple and unambiguous filing system set up (future post on how to do that!), don’t try to file it right now.  Make sure your to-be-filed piles are specific; group financial papers together, health papers together, and so on.  This includes mementos that are special enough to keep.

Step 2: Repeat for each piece of paper, email, or file.

This process speeds up as you get used to asking yourself the necessary questions.  Devote 10-15 minutes a day to clearing the backlog and you’ll be back in control of your paper before you know it.  The important thing is to be consistent and ask yourself these questions about every new piece of paper or email that comes into your life.  Now go show that information who’s boss.

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