By Amelia Bartlett

How to End Paper Clutter on Your Desk For Good


Creating your own paper filing system will level up your lifestyle, guaranteed.

Paper seems to always come in and never go out.

From the mail to work documents, party invitations, tickets, receipts… the sources are endless. Paper also has a knack for piling up and getting lost, while simultaneously becoming a crumpled mess clogging spaces where you need order.

When you create a paper filing system, you take charge of your documentation and your organization.

Creating a paper filing system is a one-time investment. Once you develop your system, gather your necessary tools, and establish a filing ritual, you’ll continue this way until it becomes absolute second nature. Goodbye, mess. Hello, organization.

The same way a minimalist judges each item as it comes into their home, you will become a paper-clutter minimalist. You will look at paper and ask specific questions:

  • What is your purpose? Have you served it?
  • Where do you belong for the rest of your necessary life?
  • Are you sensitive and need to be secured? Or, are you general and can live in a non-secure place?

When your paper filing system is established, set aside 15-30 minutes each week or month (depending on how much paper comes your way) to keep your system in check.

Let’s get started.

Collect the materials to set up your filing system

While it’s up to you to decide exactly what you need for your paper filing system, this is a comprehensive list of all the tools you could implement and how they can positively impact your organizational scheme.

  • 3-section paper filing sling or tray. This is the immediate first stop for the paper in your life. This will go on your desk or other perhaps on a table just inside your front door. Having 3 sections is important, we’ll explain later in the article.
  • Filing cabinet or expandable folder. Depending on your paper load, you may only need an expandable folder that has many slots inside labeled for different paper categories. If you’re in need of a filing cabinet, check out chic options and multi-purpose decoration at Target, IKEA, or Pottery Barn. Choose a secure storage location that is locked or difficult to enter. Even if you’re using an expandable folder, find a place in your home where you can store your folder securely. For extra security, look for options that are fire-proof and theft-proof.
  • 3-ring binder with binder punch, binder folders, and plastic binder sheets. Most of your papers (bills, receipts, letters, etc) can be kept in a binder and separated by tabs into different categories. If you love being extra streamlined and organized, you can slide each piece of paper into a plastic binder sheet for uniform pages and easy flip-through.
  • Stand-alone hard drive that’s larger than 250 GB. For those who like to scan and digitize backup copies of their paper files, having a hard drive that is separate from your computer doubles your safety: You are storing data in a place that is not constantly connected to the internet, meaning it’s far less likely to fall victim to cybercrime or become digitally corrupted.
  • Subscription to a cloud backup service like iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive. For non-secure documents, duplicating their backup locations from your hard drive to a cloud drive makes them easy to access from any device or location and also protects the documents in the case of a hardware malfunction. What could cause hardware to malfunction? Power surges, water damage to a laptop, losing a laptop or tablet, or your dog knocking over your computer tower while it’s running!
  • Paper shredder. Some may have access to a paper shredder at work, so shredding your documents on the job is a free alternative to purchasing your own. However, having a shredder in your home for unnecessary bank statements, copies of identification, medical statements, and financial applications are the best defense against having your paper data found and duplicated by a stranger.

Other tools to keep on-hand for optimum paper organizing:

  • Self-laminating sheets
  • Pendaflex filing folders
  • Envelopes & stamps
  • Sticky notes and tabs
  • Label maker

Don’t freak out. You don’t need to go buy a bunch of stuff  to start a paper filing system.

The above list is meant to prepare for you for a complete paper filing system, but starting with just an inexpensive inbox/outbox tray and a three-ring binder with a hole punch will get you going quickly and cover you for the basics.

Once paper enters your space, don’t set it down until it has a destination

Categorize all of your incoming paper into three categories. You will organize all incoming paper based on those categories, and slot it into the correct section of your 3-section paper sling or tray.

Do not put paper down anywhere else. It may take time for this to become a habit, but once it does, this is the key to ending paper clutter.

When you walk in the door of your home or office, you will categorize any and all papers that you have into one of these 3 categories:

1. Requires Action – Any paper item that requires you or someone else to take action in order for the paper’s job to be completed. Items you need to sign, appointments to schedule, forms to fill out, replies to mail, etc; anything that requires action goes in the top of your paper filing system.

Assess the next steps: What needs to be done? Who needs to do it? By when?

If the necessary action can be completed in the moment, do so. It’s best to not procrastinate when it comes to matters of organization. However, if it’s an action that’ll take time you simply don’t have, make a note in your planner when you’ll complete the action and how long it will take. You can also put a sticky note on the paper with any pertinent information like what action is needed and when.

Once the action has been completed and the paper has served its purpose, it can be moved to one of the following categories in your paper filing system.

2. Requires Filing – Paper that has either had all of its necessary actions completed or is a record that should be kept long-term goes in this section.

Possible Categories:

  • House (utilities, mortgage payments, etc.)
  • Car (title, insurance records, etc.)
  • Receipts
  • Taxes
  • Pets
  • Children
  • Insurance
  • Financial (statements, investments, etc)

Consider laminating or duplicating, digitizing, and securing these papers in a safe place. Remember that any papers you wouldn’t want to lose in a flood, fire, or theft, you’ll want to protect ahead of time.

You might also have some papers that aren’t critically important but you want to hold onto. These can be filed as well, but you can set them in a tray or binder that is gone through less frequently since they are less important.

This might include things like warranties, manuals, recipes, mementos, cell phone agreements, and other documents you want to hang on to “just in case”.

3. For Disposal – Quite possibly the most difficult for many people is deciding what papers to throw away. A common refrain is, “But what if I need this later??”.

If you have to ask, file it. When your papers are effectively organized, you don’t have to worry about over-filing. Every year or so, you can always go through your files and dispose of things that it turns out you no longer need.

In the moment, better to be safe than sorry and to file what you fear to lose — since you’re keeping it all organized, it’s no problem to hang onto a little extra.

However, if a document is no longer necessary, don’t fear letting it go. If there are no further actions to be completed and you don’t need to hold onto a record, you can toss it, recycle it, or shred it.

To shred or not to shred, that is the question!

If the paperwork contains any personally identifying information, financial or logistical, or has to do with your family, business, home, property, or plans, consider shredding it. It’s a great habit to be in so that you never have to worry about sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.

Finally, before disposing of documents, consider if they need to be digitized.

Sometimes, the digitization of files clears up the concern for disposing of them and greatly reduces your paper load. Many of your files can easy and securely be digitized and not kept in paper form — especially if they are backed up in more than one location.

Save yourself the organizational space and recycle what you don’t need.

Paper can be so consuming in our lives, but it is possible to create a system that reduces your clutter and helps you streamline paper taking up space in your home and office. How do you manage paper clutter?