How to eliminate and prevent clutter

Paper clutter was my weakness.

I’ve written before (in Letting go) about how important releasing clutter has been to making progress in my life. Sometimes I feel an urge to clean, purify, organize … and I always listen. Once when this happened I bought a beautiful vintage Deco sideboard for my dining room, and organized all my cloth and paper napkins and silver in its drawers.

Recently I got an invitation to a clothing exchange, and took the opportunity to purge my back closet of all the ‘too good to donate’ items I’d been hanging onto. At the exchange, I really enjoyed seeing someone fall in love with a vintage polka-dotted raincoat that didn’t work for me. That same day, I had a major breakthrough, realizing I needed to move on in another area of my life. Coincidence? I believe it was more of a chain reaction.

Several years ago, my paper clutter was so pervasive that it took persistent and sustained effort, organization, and systems to clear it and keep it at bay. Here’s what worked for me …

When I started, I had every magazine that had ever crossed my path, every paystub I’d ever received, every letter or card I’d ever been given. Thank you notes for doing things for people I couldn’t remember, never mind the favor I’d done. Boxes upon boxes of paper. Somehow I believed I needed all this stuff. As always, first my belief needed to change.

Eventually I realized that everything I’ve encountered, read, experienced is already part of me. I don’t need to hang onto the physical evidence, and in fact, doing so can hold me back from what’s next. I realized it’s to my advantage to slough off everything that isn’t currently serving me.

So I started making a bit of time to sort through it all. I’d set the timer for 5 minutes in the morning and evening, and sort papers into the recycling (the most common destination) or my filing system. Five minutes was my minimum commitment, but often I’d get into it and work longer.

I loved it when I’d have a breakthrough that allowed me to clear a bunch of things all at once. I had a whole cardboard box full of letters from a childhood frenemy with whom I’d corresponded into early adulthood. Reading some of them, I admitted to myself that this person hadn’t been a good friend to me, and we’d been thrown together–I’d never really liked her or chosen her as a friend. This realization allowed me to dump the whole lot into the recycling. Whee!

Printed information is so pervasive today that I believe having a system in place to deal with it is really necessary–at least for someone like me, who places such importance on the written word. It’s important for me to distinguish between written words that are life-changing, written words that are helpful, and written words that are of no value to me whatsoever.

My mail comes through a mail slot in my front door, and less than 10 feet away I have a basket whose designated purpose is recycling. I stand next to it or sit on the sofa, and toss in whatever I can decide about immediately, including circulars and opened envelopes. Bills go into the nearby bill drawer to be dealt with biweekly, and the rest goes into a basket in the bath. Every time I go in, I look at something in the basket. It then either goes into the recycling, the cross-cut shredder, on my to-do list, into the bill drawer for consideration when I make monthly charitable donations, or into my filing system.

Anytime I come across a stash of paper that appears to need sorting out, into the basket it goes. So without any extra commitment of time, I’m now able to ensure a paper clutter issue never develops again.

With the magazines, I started reading the covers and asking myself if I really wanted to read this content. Did it resonate with me now? When the answer was no, the magazine went into the recycling. (I filled a 64-gallon cart several times.) When it was yes, it went into a basket or onto a shelf for reading later. I typically read magazines when I’m taking a tea break or eating by myself. I read a mix of new ones and older ones, and when I finish one, I select another of the same type (new or older) to put into the rotation. The ones I’ve finished I now donate to a SoulCollage facilitator. I find it helps me let go of anything when I know it’s going to serve a useful purpose with someone else.

These books all inspired me at various times when I needed a clutter-clearing push, and challenged my beliefs about my stuff:

  • Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui
  • Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back
  • Peter Walsh’s It’s All Too Much

I hope they’re as helpful to you as they were to me!