Clear Out Your Paper Piles

“Three Rules of Work:

Out of clutter find simplicity;

From discord find harmony;

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein

Where do you start when your space is filled with papers?

Analyze Your Piles

Many answers to your organizing problems can be found within the piles that surround you. I ask clients to change their viewpoint and start to see piles as a symptom of postponed decision-making.

You might be in the habit of picking up advertisements, brochures, notes, mail, articles or other paper items for any number of reasons… but typically you will take a paper because it triggers some call to action or unmet need in your brain. When items are not acted upon or “activated”, and worse, if there is no place for the item to land that comes in, it is often placed in a visible area to remind you to do something. When you neglect to take the action initially triggered, the paper no longer has a purpose, and it ‘dies’. It lies around as a reminder of all those dead ideas that were not acted upon.

Before you know it, you have piles all over the place and most people are totally unaware of even what is in their piles!

It’s time to start learning from those piles and incomplete actions. If you begin to analyze your piles, you’ll clue in to some important habits and triggers that can easily be addressed. Here’s how:

The Set Up

To begin, I create a work area with everything a client needs to make decisions and move toward action on those piled papers. The work area usually has different types of sorters, a recycling bin, shredder, and a trashcan nearby. A pen, paper and my Action Pad ™ are critical supplies.

Macro-Sort Your Piles

The best way to clear old piles quickly is to FIRST to macro-sort them. During this sorting process, your ONLY job is to “decide” what you have to do next with the paper. This technique allows you to layer your decision-making – and forces you to make REALLY easy decisions first. Create a workspace and make three different labels: File, Act and Toss. Now, Macro-sort each paper quickly and efficiently into these three categories:

1. To File – a paper goes here if you already have a working file system for it, and you are sure you’ll need it for future retrieval,

2. To Act – a paper goes here if you need to take some type of action to complete the next step. If a paper needs to be filed, but doesn’t have a current working file – it should be placed here because your very next step would be to CREATE a new file. Any paper requiring action should be placed here.

3. To Discard/Delete – a paper goes here if it is no longer of interest to you, requires no action, or if it is outdated.

Remember that this is just the first tier of decision-making. It’s designed to STOP you from going into action on each paper. When you begin to take action- you lose control of the process, and if you go deeper and act on each item, you’ll never get the sorting process completed. Once you’ve completed this macro-sort, you’ll begin to see the amount of paper you hold onto that you may no longer need. You may also find clues to other missing pieces in your schedule. For instance – if you find that you’re picking up hiking brochures and activities, or recipes – perhaps you need to alter your time to spend more of it on things you enjoy and may be missing.

Activate Your Piles

The next phase to clearing piles is to call each piece of paper to action. (I offer a GREAT tool to help you with this process; The Action Pad ™ (available on my site under My Products & Solutions If you need help getting through piles, this post it pad will help you Get In ACTION!)

To do this, pick one paper up at a time, and ask each item:

1. What is the next action that needs to happen to this item? (Call, enter, develop, wait for, file, act…)

2. Is this something I need to do, or can I defer it or delegate it to someone else?

3. How long will it take me to do this?

4. Write the action (#2) and how long it will take (#3) on a sticky note and adhere to the paper.

5. Write any notes, or lists on the notepad

6. Put the paper in the appropriate Action or Activated File

7. Move to the next paper.

I suggest using a vertical sorter for items that require action. I call these “Action files” and take notes as clients sort through their paper piles to create broad categories that make sense to their unique workflow. Typical naming constructs for action files are: To File, To Read, To Send, Waiting on Someone, Follow-Up etc., but just because these are typical categories, doesn’t mean they will work for you. You must listen to your own internal voice and label your action files in a way that best works with how you internally categorize information. I’ve had different clients label their “Urgent” Action File anywhere from “Urgent”, to “Today, to “Current”, to “I Should Already Have Done This”. It doesn’t matter what the name of the action file is, as long as it triggers action for you.

Some clients enjoy using what is known as a Tickler File. The name “tickler” comes from the idea that every day (or week), there are things that should ‘tickle’ your memory – that you need to complete. Tickler files generally correspond with the days in the month and are labeled (1-31), or I’ve also labeled tickler files (1-5) to correspond with the number of weeks in each given month. This type of chronological filing gives clients the ability to “time activate” anything they need to do on a particular day of the month, or week. It works especially well for bills and anything that has a deadline or must be done by a certain date each month.

Create “To Finish” list

During the sorting process, use a notepad to write down any projects that need to be completed – and create a To Finish list. Make sure each item has a goal, an estimated timeline and a deadline. This will help you move efficiently through your piles and allow you to stay focused during that decision making process. Try not to work on the incomplete things you find – this is sure to derail your progress. Typically papers will trigger incomplete tasks, projects, and errands. Many people find it successful to create separate lists labeled as such to stay organized, and keep ideas in actionable categories.

Delete Outdated Stuff

Think of files as holding information that you’ll need to RETRIEVE someday. Keep only the paper documents you must have for legal purposes, future reference or for tax purposes. A good rule of thumb is to always keep in mind whether a document on hand might be available or found elsewhere. For instance, I have many clients who print out information they can easily find on the internet. Web information is already there, and will likely be there in the future – so keeping it as a paper document is something you probably won’t ever need again. A great tool to help you organize your internet information is Evernote. I use it frequently to remember websites and specifics. It’s easy to reference them in the future – because information is taggable and visually searchable.

Be ruthless with yourself if space is of concern. Remember the 80/20 rule – 80% of the papers in files are NEVER retrieved. Shred old bills, credit card statements, canceled checks, and documents that you will never need to retrieve. For a guide on how long to keep items – download my “Time To Toss It” E-book that provides guidelines for everything from kitchen items, to toiletries, to household goods. For the most updated guidelines on paper go to

Take Action & Tie Up Loose Ends

Take care of any small details, chores and errands you’ve procrastinated on this year. Return borrowed items, complete tasks, and follow-up on any undone items. Clear your piles, clean your workspaces and sit back and enjoy the fresh spring air.

Do you have any tips and ideas that help you clear out your paper piles? If so, please comment below!

Cena Block Sane Spaces

Cena Block is the Founder of Sane Spaces, LLC is a Productivity Consulting firm that offers training, coaching, and motivational speaking to individuals and organizations. We help clients increase productivity and minimize wasted time by achieving clarity within their spaces, systems, selves and support. Clarity + Action = Results. Get unstuck by releasing the areas where you are blocked. Our clients are high performers who want to see dramatic results. We are committed to partnering with you to create a work environment and a life you love. Cena is a NAPO National Member, the President of the NAPO-NNJ Chapter. For more information visit www(dot)sanespaces(dot)com Want a FREE DIY 12 Week Organizing Program? Check out: Get Organized and Keep Your Family Sane. For a limited time, I'm offering this DIY Program for FREE!! Go here to get started! !

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