Two weeks ago, I decided to clear my office by devoting 15 minutes at the end of a writing session to declutter.
I’ve learned something since then: It’s easy to put away Things, but not so easy to put away Paper. It’s the Paper that is the Problem. The piles and piles and files and files of paper.
It makes me never want to write on a piece of paper again. But I know I will so I need to learn to deal with the Paper Dragon.
When I pick up a piece of paper, hold it in my hands, and try to decide where to put it, one of these things happens:
- I start reading it and thinking about it, or
- I start to make a file for it, or
- I start to DO what is on the paper (email, phone, buy), or
- I hesitate, decide to think about it later, and basically decide not to decide.
My sister, one of the Ever Organized People, told me about her method.
Step 1: Pre-sort
The idea is to pick up a piece of paper and place it into one of four categories. Do not ACT on the paper, simply place it in a category. The categories are:
- File – if it goes to an existing file, or needs a file made.
- Act – if it requires phoning, emailing, buying, some kind of acting upon.
- Put away – if it’s a large item like a book that needs to return to a bookshelf, or pad of paper that needs to go where loose paper is kept. (You may need to create that space, but not yet. For now, it simply goes in this pile.)
- Toss – what a lovely pile this is!
Step 2: Get rid of the obvious stuff
The Toss category goes in the trash. Put the books back, put the clothes and dishes back. Throw out the old magazines. Group like items – the emailing, the phoning, the buy list.
Step 3: Decide
Now we need to deal with all those loose papers that need filing. Or do they really belong in the Toss category? This is the bottleneck, the time where we procrastinate. It helps to have a friend at this point.
Pick up the top piece of paper, and make a decision.
Can’t decide? Have your friend ask these questions. Ask them rapidly. Get some momentum going.
- Will I ever actually need this?
- Did I even remember that I had it?
- If I did need it, where would I look for it?
- If I did need it, could I find it faster on the internet, and thereby let someone else worry about storing it?
Decide, then write what the action will be on the paper (or a stick-it note). Possible actions could be file in an existing file, create a new file, read, give to someone else, put in a scrapbook, donate, whatever. Don’t do it, simply write it down and put it in the pile of like actions. And go on to the next piece of paper.
Your friend rapidly picks up the next piece of paper. You decide. If you’re slow to decide your friend starts asking The Questions. Sometimes you can’t come up with a good reason to do anything with that piece of paper and you decide to put it in the Toss category. The faster your friend puts each new piece of paper in your hands, the quicker becomes your decision making. You may find that you are often deciding on the Toss category. And that is probably going to be a refreshing feeling.
unruly paper stack from bigstockphotos.com #3476524
Oh Suzanne…such wonderful information. I’ve heard similar plans before but somehow they get lost in the clutter in my head! This is slightly different than the “handle paper only once” I remember from another de-cluttering plan. I like this one better and seeing it all so clearly outlined reminds me that a tidy office is possible. As I sit between the stacks and boxes of paper, I am gathering my resolve to follow the steps. Another one I remember has to do with mail. “Stand over the garbage can and toss as much as you can immediately. The rest goes in [the stacks as you’ve outlined above.”]
I have heard that a tidy office IS possible. I’m just not sure that applies to writers. 🙂