One Trick to Control Paper Messes


When I ask clients and students what are their three greatest challenges when it comes to clutter, paper clutter is always included in the list.

Paper makes it’s way to our homes in a variety of ways. It comes in through the mail, it is given to us as we walk through a city festival or at the farmers market, it ends up in purses and wallets as we go through our daily lives.

Paper also comes into the home in packs of empty sheets. Those sheets then are loaded to a printer and eventually produce printouts that add to the pile.

And that is where the problem lies, I just said it in the previous paragraph. It is the paper piles that are the problem. Piles are the horizontal accumulation of paper that ends up producing “mountains of paper!”

The fact is, as soon as you put down a piece of paper horizontally, you are asking for trouble.

This is the one trick that will resolve all your paper messes: Keep paper vertical. Paper that needs to go in a drawer needs to be in a vertical filing system. Papers next to your desk for you to tend to in the immediate future need to be in a vertical paper holder.

Let me show you here how to immediately tidy up a space by grabbing a pile of paper and making it vertical, without organizing the papers at all.

You might find this hard to believe, but the two photos above are of exactly the same content.

Grab the whole contents of your paper pile, and place them in a vertical organizer, plastic, wire or wood, without going through them.

Once the paper is vertical thumb through it to find the papers you need to address first, or simply pick up one piece of paper at random and decide what to do with it.

You can make a commitment to yourself to pick up three pieces of paper from your vertical file every day and make a decision to:

  • Take action. (For example, pay a bill, or RSVP to an invitation)
  • File away. (You do keep a filing cabinet at home, right?)
  • Recycle. (All clean paper can be recycled, including window envelopes)
  • Shred and recycle. (Make sure to shred or tear up sensitive documents!
  • Put back in the vertical pile to deal with it another day. (Yes, you can do that too!)

You see, it is a lot easier to locate papers when you are thumbing through them in a vertical holder than when you are having to lift every single sheet in a pile of paper to see what it is, until you find what you are looking for — or not!

The only paper you should keep horizontal are reams of unused paper. Everything else need to go vertical!

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  1. You are SO RIGHT! In my house, paper collects on Every. Single. Horizontal surface. I joke that I’m going to build a house with NO horizontal surfaces! This idea is really good if you only have one or two piles, but what about when you have 10+ large piles?? Going through it all is so daunting!

    • The same principle applies: keep paper vertical. You could get a vertical paper holder for each pile, or you could get a filing system and devote some time to organizing papers this winter. I have a six drawer filing system for our home: one drawer for household related bills, another one for family interests, another one for financial papers, another one for medical files, insurance, etc. In my book Declutter Your Own Spaces I talk about how pre-deciding what to do with different types of papers is key to reduce the number and size of piles.

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