Disorganization: it’s EXHAUSTING.

Disorganization: it’s EXHAUSTING.

my desk

shown: my desk. not shown: the dreaded piles of papers

As I’m sitting down to write this, I’ve just spent 40 minutes pacing the house looking for two pieces of paper that are really, really important, and I still can’t find them.

The last place I saw them was here in my home office, on the daybed, where they don’t belong.

Setting up this new-to-me office was a priority when we moved in a few months ago. Not decorating it—we’re still getting to that. But the basics are there, mostly.

We wanted a functional space that was inviting enough for me to want to work, and the kids to want to hang out. That last part has been wildly successful. They love it in here, and I can’t blame them: the room has fabulous light, a cozy rug, a comfy chair, and a daybed for lounging. (It’s probably telling that it’s the dog’s favorite room, too.)

I love the room, except for one small detail: there are papers everywhere.

My desk is tidy, the bookshelves are straight, the bed is made, but the floor is covered with stacks and stacks of papers. And I realized today, as I dug through them for the umpteenth time, that the stacks are there because I haven’t made a decision about what to do with them.

My old college prof used to say that we’re all doomed to practice “repetition in search of mastery.” In our lives, we’ll keep circling back to the same struggles—consciously or not, learning a bit more each time—until we achieve a breakthrough or die trying. My prof was talking about significant soul-level stuff when he made his proclamation, and it seems petty, in the big picture, to say one of my major struggles is structure and organization. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I’ve come a long way. For years, I resisted structure of any kind, and only in my thirties have I finally come to accept how much better I do with a framework in place. And after multiple re-readings of Getting Things Done, I’m very good at getting my swirling thoughts into my head and captured on paper, and I have a good handle on my day-to-day.

I’m still not good at dealing with the papers themselves. I don’t even have a file cabinet in here. (Because file cabinets are ugly. Roll your eyes. I deserve it.)

But nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started (or the endless searching for elusive papers). There’s a proverb about taking action when the pain of standing still becomes greater than the pain of making a change, and I’ve reached that tipping point. The lack of an organizational system is exhausting me, and I’ve had enough.

I’d rather do the work than push the papers. But I absolutely can’t do the first without also doing the second.

I don’t need to find the perfect organizational system; I just need to get started. On that note, I ordered a few boxes of file folders. I replaced the batteries in my label maker. I found a project on Pinterest to turn our ugly filing cabinet into a halfway attractive one, and I’ve enlisted Will’s help in moving the (100% empty) file cabinet from the basement to my office.

Honestly, I’m embarrassed that these stacks of papers are freaking me out so thoroughly, and I’m annoyed that it’s my own fault. But I’m also heartened that while I created the problem, the solution isn’t that difficult (and if I’m wrong, don’t tell me!), and completely within my control.

I’d love to hear your tips on getting organized, combatting endless stacks of paper, and using chalk paint in comments. 

(And if you’re creating a problem for yourself that’s completely preventable and straightforward enough to solve, tell us what it is? And then go do something about it. We’ve all been there, and we’ll cheer you on.)

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  1. Terri says:

    i have several tricks for dealing with paper clutter. (1) Evernote and a scanner – I haven’t scanned the backlog piles but Ive significantly reduced the amount of paper I keep and made the documents more accessible. (2) file cabinets under my desk – My desk is a slab on top of two 2 small filing cabinets. Both the desk and the cabinets are super deep and they’re within reach when I’m sitting at my desk and working on the computer. (3) my inbox is a hanging file inside the file cabinet. I stopped using horizontal inboxes years ago; collects to much non paper crap. And this one is out of sight until I’m ready to deal. (4) simplify my file structure – the fewer categories I keep, the easier it is to put away and the more likely I’ll do it. I now keep most bills and other papers chronologically rather than by subject. I made the switch after I realized it wasn’t that hard to find what I needed in the (by default) chronological piles that were accumulating around the house.

    This past weekend I free cycled one of 3 big file cabinets in the house. The second one will go this week. Not to mention a handful of old file boxes. By the time we list the house in January, I expect all the older papers that i need to keep to fit easily into the remaining file cabinet. And my current papers get fewer every year.

    • Emily says:

      Yup! I’m such a big proponent of going paperless. Evernote is great, and I also keep running to-do lists and ideas captured through Wunderlist. No more tiny bits of paper floating around, and the sad fact is, since we always have our cell phones on us now, we always have what we need.

    • Mystie says:

      You know I’d vote scanning to Evernote and shredding, too – all but the tax and related folders, because those still make me nervous. But seriously, the search function (Evernote does character-recognition on images, so it will search for your word within scanned images) – and no filing cabinet – makes it totally worth it.

      We don’t have a ton to scan, and I use EN all the time, and I haven’t come close to using up the monthly space allowed in the free version.

  2. Coming in December I will have been in my house a full 7 years. 2 years ago I finally unpacked all my boxes (or got rid of it because really 5 years without stuff means I do not use it). I fostered a child this summer so everything from my spare bedroom (where the boxes used to live) got shoved into my office. I am an extremely tidy person. If I have a pile its an organized pile. However my office is a disaster and its finally eating away at my soul. I also replaced my windows this summer so I have messes etc from that. Christmas is my deadline. I will declutter and organize.

  3. Lori says:

    I agree with you. I hate the sight of a filing cabinet so I have relegated ours to the closet. It is not allowed to see the light of day! I also file the most important papers in folders and use pretty magazine holders to hold them in one of my bookshelves. Not so sightly.

  4. Beth says:

    It’s like you always read my mind for things that I also need to discuss and need advice on. Earlier this week I was freaking out about paper clutter.

    I’m certainly not good with ALL the papers, but I do have a basket I keep near the entrance where I put non-urgent mail and papers, that way at least some of the offenders are kept in one place and I’ll purge through the basket monthly and file anything that needs saving.

  5. Breanne says:

    Yes and Yes. My project- finish unpacking and deal with the piles that accumulate in the oddest places. Like my night table and dresser. And actually set up my desk/our office.
    It’s exhausting and I know if I put in the time, it would be that much better. But along with unpacking, there’s little people who need to be fed and read too and walks to take.

    We bought a shredder and it has been life-changing for finally dealing with paper that we don’t need anymore.

  6. Tracie says:

    I feel a connection with so much that you write. That ‘you too? I thought it was just me!’ feeling. When you talked about stress baking, I call it baking therapy 🙂 So much and now this. Paper piles have been my years long struggle and I found so much encouragement in your prof’s words and yours. I loved ‘I’d rather do the work than push the papers but can’t do one w/o the other.’ Personally, I’d rather clean bathrooms than try to organize and go thru papers. 🙂 I love the perspective of getting a little further in the struggle rather than my inner ‘why haven’t I conquered this yet? What’s wrong with me?’ Your last paragraph completely describes how I feel too.
    Lately I have found practical useful help for this area of life from Lisa Woodruff at Organize365. And lots of prayer because all of life has meaning and there is meaning in the struggle, even if it seems trivial. And thru prayer just this week on Monday I feel I was reminded of ‘Just do it!’ and started (again maybe?) to take that on as a mantra.

  7. Kelty says:

    Oh my, YES! The stacks of papers are about to drown me. They’re ubiquitous and relentless. And you’re absolutely right, they represent hundreds of little decisions that my brain just doesn’t feel like making right now (or any now.) My default filing strategy is to just let paper pile up until it makes me crazy and then I go through and find out that half the papers have become irrelevant since I piled them there. Not very proactive or smart.

    My mother-in-law and I were lamenting the fact one time that beach houses and vacation houses are always so peacefully uncluttered. I finally realized that it’s mostly because of the PAPERS! (and other clutter crap too, but mostly the papers.) Ah, such blissful uncluttered peace when they are absent.

    No solutions here. Just enjoying the camaraderie of knowing I’m not alone in this.

  8. Melodee says:

    The first piece of furniture my husband and I bought together was a gorgeous antique oak filing cabinet (to match my antique oak barrister bookcase). It was expensive, but so worth it in combining aesthetics and functionality. The problem: the inside of it wasn’t organized, so it wasn’t easy to file new papers. We just spent an entire day organizing the file cabinet and sorting through our piles that were overflowing the top of said bookcase—it feels so great and we have a system now.

  9. Ugh, paper. It’s my downfall too. For years (yes, years) I’ve had this great idea that my husband and I will spend date night filing all the papers that (for now) are all stuffed haphazardly in a box. But somehow, when Friday night rolls around, other activities sound much more appealing. I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s ideas for how to conquer this evil!

  10. Stephanie says:

    Paper clutter is a thorn in my side as well! The two things that have helped me the most recently are
    (1) the hint from that book you recommended, Organizing Solutions for People with ADD, to just throw all our receipts, church bulletins, school flyers, etc. in a basket as we come in the door, to recycle later or retrieve if needed (hello, clean purse!) and
    (2) the realization that there are a lot of papers in my life that I’m keeping entirely for sentimental reasons–little notes from my boys, the daily schedule I wrote out for my parents when they babysat my boys at an age when they were still napping (that was years ago!), the spelling test with gorgeous handwriting (after years of writing struggles), etc.–so that it makes sense to have a file just to toss these items into, instead of leaving them here and there and everywhere! And maybe I’ll purge some of them later, or maybe I won’t: no need to decide now, just corral them for pete’s sake… =)

  11. Sarah M says:

    Take photos of everything you think should be filed, and then shred them. Put the photo files into a non-shared drive like Google drive (so if your hard drive ever crashes and you haven’t externally saved it, it’s protected online). Then shred or burn, baby!
    Also, my rule of thumb is that I take care of bills same day online, recycle junk & extra envelopes right after I check the mail, so it doesn’t get left anywhere except the recycle bin.
    Sarah M

  12. christyn says:

    Like so many others- I too had a lot of paper, here’s what I did:
    -Scanned all the financial/legal stuff and saved it on a backup drive kept in our safe
    -Invested in cooking software that allows me to cut and paste recipes from online so I don’t print them out any more
    -Scanned my children’s favorite art work (also in the back up drive), framed some so I can enjoy it every day, and relegated them each to one :under the bed” box for the entire school career. if it gets too full, they get to decide what means the most to them.
    -Signed up for electronic billing on everything possible, and set reminders on my calendar that they were coming/being paid automatically.
    -Work papers/projects each project/subject gets its own file folder, and they stand in a standing file folder on my desk for easy access. Once its complete, these all get scanned and then recycled also.
    I’ve found that most anything, even legal documents (in my state of Washington) can be kept electronically to be reproduced if needed.
    All that being said- I do still print some things that I could store electronically (travel documents etc.) but that is a precautionary measure- once the trip is over the paper is gone!

  13. Karlyne says:

    As I was reading this I thought, “Oh, I’ll suggest looking under ‘file cabinets’ on Pinterest. They have tons of adorable ideas!” And then I saw that you did. Well-played! And, by the way, I’m looking for two the same size in order to build a bathroom vanity over them. Now that’s cheap and cool looking!

  14. Anne says:

    I have the Organizing for ADHD book mentioned above from the library (thanks to you). I have been hoping for time to implement her file system suggestions but haven’t gotten to it yet. Do you have the book? I can email bullet points if you want! Lots of great takeaways in this post, great comments, and I really relate to what you’ve written. In reality, I bet you’ve come farther in your quest for paper organization than you give yourself credit for…..you’ve got your own office! You are getting there!! Also, what would Laura Vanderkam say? I am thinking about All the Money in the World. Give yourself permission to purchase a pretty and functional file cabinet! Because they *are* ugly and not having one sounds like it is getting in your way?? Or, whoops, sorry, you said are doing a Pin: let us know how it goes! 🙂 Would love to see.

    • @Anne- sure, buy the pretty and functional file cabinet 🙂
      Though I myself don’t really have one. Well, I do, but it was full in 2007. There are lots of stacks of paper around my office. It’s kind of a personality thing. It honestly doesn’t bug me, whereas someone else can’t focus if there’s a pile lurking.
      I have one magazine file where I put anything that might be “important.” If I’m looking for something later, there’s a 95% chance it’s there.

  15. Tristan says:

    Someone else mentioned this too — get a scanner (ScanSnap is good) and Evernote, and scan everything into Evernote.
    Evernote is awesome because you can organize the information as much or as little as you want (keep it in notebooks, add titles, tags), but even if you don’t, it has amazing search capabilities and I have always been able to find what I was looking for just by entering a few relevant words.

    I have a giant filing cabinet that I am slowly working to convert entirely to digital — I haven’t missed the paper at all.
    Another advantage is that once something is in Evernote, you have access to it from anywhere.

    Note: I do the same thing with paper items of sentimental, rather than practical value — if I really want to remember that menu I brought up, or or a theatre program, or such, I just scan it.

  16. Shauna says:

    We have a ribbon board in the kitchen area (cork would work just fine). All papers that require some kind of action go there until we are ready to deal with them. This keeps clutter off the kitchen counter. When I’m ready, I take the paper(s) in the office, do what I need to do, and shred/toss/file it. Admittedly, it doesn’t always get filed right away, but the pile remains small. The biggest help was downsizing our desk. While it’s not possible for everyone, it really helps to not have a huge area to pile stuff. Finally, we got a cute file cabinet from IKEA.

  17. #1: Deal with new paper that comes into your house immediately. When you check the mail, toss the junk immediately, and deal with other stuff as soon as possible.
    #2: Sign up for paperless billing.
    #3: Display new children’s artwork. As they create more (and more and more and more) either put the old stuff in a special binder, scan it, or toss it.

    Uses for chalk? 😉 It totally counts as spelling/handwriting if the kiddos decorate the driveway in chalk, right?

    • Courtney says:

      Agreed on all three points! The more I let mail pile up, the less likely I am to tackle it because it feels more daunting. Keeping on top of it makes for much smoother sailing!

  18. Melissa Q says:

    Make your categories (or files) WAY more general than you think you should. For instance, just one folder called “Insurance”. If you find yourself constantly digging through it for your medical insurance info, then make a separate folder for that one. You will make yourself crazy if you have way too many detailed categories – filing will be more time consuming and you won’t keep up on it, completely defeating the whole point.

    You can tweak things after you figure out how you work best. Perfectionism now will just kill you…

    IMHO (and my experience)

  19. Pat says:

    I invited a friend over and we dumped every pile of paper onto my dining room table and sorted them into folders. That was 5 years ago. It’s time to do it again, with the contents of my filing cabinet!

  20. Courtney says:

    Another option might be Shoeboxed: https://www.shoeboxed.com/

    You can send them your stacks of papers and they’ll digitize everything for you. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but it was recommended to me recently and thought it might be worth sharing.

    I tackled a huge stack of mail a couple days ago, which had been sitting on my kitchen counter for weeks. Between a month-long road trip, moving to a new city, and starting a new job, I just didn’t have the energy to dig through it all. I finally got so annoyed with it sitting there that I sucked it up and sorted it into three piles: keep, toss, shred. Now my kitchen counter is (mostly) uncluttered again. I think the best you can do is just dive in a tackle it. The momentary pain is worth the lasting results! Good luck! 🙂

  21. Erin says:

    I am not perfect about paper, but better than a few years ago, because of the following system. I have 26 hanging file folders. Jan-Dec of the current year and previous year, and one for each of my two children. Pretty much any mail/bill/whatever I can’t decide whether to keep or not goes in its current month folder. In January 2015, I will quickly go through all the 2013 monthly folders. Most of the contents I will shred. Anything I need to keep goes into one folder marked “2013.” I will label the monthly 2013 folders to be “2015” and push the 2014 ones to the back to sit for a full year. This sounds way more complicated than it is! This system has taken away indecision. If I’m not sure, throw it in the folder. More than a year later, it’s super easy to get rid of things. And I’ve never had a problem finding what I’m looking for, because I can always remember what month something happened. Worst case scenario is that I go through two folders. But that’s really rare. Gone are my days of having a zillion specialized folders (“insurance” “bank” “car” etc etc).

    And for my kids, I use theirs to keep especially funny, thoughtful or otherwise interesting schoolwork.

    • Amom says:

      Wow! What a great filing system you have, thank you so much for mentioning it!! It sounds perfect for our family, so I’m definitely going to try it. :).

      All comments have been encouraging…I’m so glad I am not alone in battling the never ending paper war! 😉

    • Kathleen R says:

      I really like your system. I have 2 laundry baskets full of papers – about 5 years worth that I need to go through, file, recycle and shred. But I will implement the 26 (or for me 25) folders going forward. Thanks!

  22. Jamie says:

    I am a huge fan of the “handle things once” rule – it significantly reduces the amount of time and number of decisions involved in managing paper. Everything should have a designated spot, even if it’s only temporary, and go there immediately when it comes in the door (or gets emptied from a purse/backpack/etc.).

    I also advocate for scheduling paper management into your routine. Ten or 15 minutes once a week at a set time dedicated to filing, paying bills, and breaking down piles can go a very long way towards fighting the clutter long term!

    I would like to echo a previous commenter’s point on the value of simplifying – systems that get used are the ones that are easier to use than to not use. Consider putting your drop baskets, recycle bin, etc wherever you do your dropping/sorting and keep refining your system until you find something that works with your house/family’s traffic flow patterns.

    Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Tackling paper avalanches is a lot less overwhelming when done with strong coffee, good music, and a good friend (preferably one who is organizationally/structurally inclined)!

  23. Ashlie says:

    I deal with the paper issue at home (medical, legal, bills, financial statements, etc) and in my first grade classroom (benchmarks, standards, reproducible worksheets, etc), and it makes me itchy. I did something very revolutionary in my classroom earlier this year: I threw almost everything away without going through it. Because of Pinterest and district-wide email attachments, I can find most anything on the internet without needing to store it. I know that doesn’t apply to anything, but I’ve been having fun finding what I don’t have to save.

  24. Laura says:

    We got a dresser sized filing cabinet from my folks and I ADORE the thing! It looks more like a wooden dresser and it hides all of the important but unsightly papers we need!

  25. Ha, I know what you mean about file cabinets being ugly… However, we did find a nice one a few years ago that looks like furniture. It was pricey but worth it.
    I also like to scan papers and save the soft copies. It can be time-consuming at first, but it’s nice to get rid of some of the paper.

  26. oh, one of my favourite topics!

    Yes, I blog about organising but I actually HATE paper 🙂 except when it’s pretty stationery.

    I have a few “tricks”:
    1. stop it at the source – is there anything that can be stopped in the mail? Stop it.
    2. if it has to be mailed, deal with it over a bin. 90% of things can be jotted down and tossed.
    3. If you “must” keep it, have a system to deal with it at least weekly
    4. please ask yourself if you REALLY need to file it (most things you don’t actually need to keep). How often will you need to refer to those things?

    Because of these tips, I do only annual filing (true). It’s set me free 🙂 If you click to my \blog and type “annual filing” in the sidebar search box, you’ll see the pile I file.

    Good luck!!!

  27. I can really identify with this post, especially after having moved a short time ago…. and my office/library room is still stacked with boxes and will be even worse this upcoming week as a new floor and ceiling are installed while waiting for the shelves that are to be built in…. It’s a mess! And yes, it is exhausting!

  28. Sarah says:

    I’ve taken the Organizing for ADHD book out from the library a couple of times and have thought about buying it. I tried the box technique used in it, but have now moved to magazine folders, because we seem to do better with vertical piles rather than horizontal. I hired an organizer to help me with some things and that’s what she suggested. I still use some of my boxes. I have three wall-mounted file holders – one for each kid – to keep track of school papers. My husband and I each have a magazine folder, then I have a couple more for the broad categories of things I need to keep accessible. Within my magazine folder, I have a manila folder for things like mobile-deposit checks and receipts I need to hang on to. I’ve been using boxes for longer term filing, because I forget what categories I even have in a file cabinet. It takes up more space, but I like it better. I’m also starting to scan more things – it’s what my dad does, and he’s a small-business owner with complex finances. He scans things and then puts the hard copy (if he thinks he might need it because of a signature or some such thing) in a box just labeled by the year. Everything else, he shreds.

    I also find that the more simple the system and the fewer the categories, the easier it is to maintain.

  29. Molly says:

    Oh! I can totally empathize with the power of paper stacks to paralyze one! I have lived with stacks of papers and such for years (to one degree or another) whether they be on the desk corner, the floor, or in boxes/crates. As a teacher with ADD I make my own paper filing systems as I go. My file categories make sense to me but don’t always seem logical. I tend to color code everything since I am a very visual person. Orange for monthly/seasonal activities, green for grammar, purple for science (because green was taken), etc. Having recently gotten married I am slowly trying to put together a workable filing system for our paper work (everything from shot records to receipts to rent lease). The scary thing is my hubby is more scattered than I am.

  30. Jules says:

    We are moving house and country so I have had to pull out every paper from our filing cabinet and make a decision. Around 98% will be shredded. I love filing things and being able to produce papers immediately but really need to think more carefully about if I need to. I agree that filing categories can be very broad but within that you can break it down if you want. For example I keep a hanging file for vehicles and within that file have dividers with each vehicles description and registration number on it. I open the file drawer, find the vehicle file, open, flip to the correct vehicle by its tab and toss in the relevant paper. Insurance file has dividers with house, medical etc. within medical I have Manila folders for me, my husband and the dog (yes, she has medical insurance, vaccination certificates etc) I drop the mamilla folders in with the opening at the top so I don’t have to pull it out to drop papers into I I have a hanging file for appliance receipts, guarantees and handbooks. All get tossed into that file when purchased and at the same time the stuff relating to the old appliance, if it’s a replacement, is tossed. I have any bill possible sent electronically and also paid automatically from the bank. In every case I get two discounts, one for being paperless and one for paying in full on time. And I never have to remember to send a cheque! I also have all out banking online, not one statement from the bank in the house. I can go back to th bank website and search statements if necessary. They even pay our credit card bill each month so no interest ever paid there either! The only thing I do each month is go through the bank account and credit card statements online each month to check all transactions are correct. When I collect the mail I walk back to the house via the rubbish bin and drop in anything that is junk. We have way less mail with the online billing and not reading most flyers and junk mail reduces my urge to go shopping because of ‘bargains’ to be had! Conversely if we are in the market for something I read all the junk mail carefully and then it goes into the bin. Other paperwork is directly on my desk with a paperweight on top. Everyday I spend a couple of minutes at my desk checking for upcoming events such as birthdays I need to send cards for. I do that and file my couple of papers at the same time. Once a week the night before our rubbish collection I go through any papers on the desk or one the shelf where we keep newspapers, magazines and catalougues and bin any we are done with. I don’t have a huge space allotted to them so decisions have to be made to make them fit.

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