Taming the Paper Trail of Clutter (or How to Effectively Use an Inbox)

How To Tame The Paper Trail and Reduce Paper Clutter & Use An Inbox

If you feel like stacks of paper are taking over your life, you are not alone. If I were to walk into your home, would I find paper filling up many of your flat surfaces? Where does the paper come from? Most of it comes from outside our homes (excepting preschoolers art work) and we carry it in with us.  Picture yourself walking into your house with this paper, maybe just a few pieces of paper or a few envelopes at a time — mail, receipts, school papers, flyers. Where are you setting it down? The papers you deposit in random locations along your way into your home is what I like to call The Paper Trail. Those few papers here and there add up really fast over time and suddenly your counters overflow with it! It ends up hanging around because you don’t know what to do with it or you don’t have the time right away to deal with it.

How To Effectively Use Your Inbox

***What I do***    All paper that comes into my house gets immediately quick-sorted and the trash goes into the recycle bin. Then I look to see if something needs to get taken care of immediately or before my next scheduled Home Management session (explained below). It is actually rare that something has to be done right that second. Excepting the immediately urgent, EVERYTHING goes in my inbox and I move onto other things. If I am too busy to even look through it, I’ll just put it right in my inbox. Worst case, I miss something for ‘right now’, but the consistent best case is that my counters don’t get clogged up with all the excess.

My Inbox hidden by my desk

My inbox system works ONLY because once a week I have what I call a Home Management session. You can read all that I do in my Home Management Session HERE, but basically I set aside time every week (make an appointment with myself) to take care of the secretary-like work necessary to making a home run smoothly. One of the things I accomplish during this time every week is to go through my inbox.

Right away, I —

  • pay bills
  • RSVP to any events
  • add events to my calendar, noting details in the calendar, so I can recycle the invite or flyer immediately
  • send replies to notes and cards
  • file anything that needs to be kept (PLEASE save yourself a ton of stress and read my post about managing your home office files!!!)
  • shred things that needs to be shredded
  • in the case of kids field trip forms and such, I fill all those out and prepare the envelopes to return to school
  • add things to my to do list that can’t be handled immediately (i.e. – buy a birthday gift for Anna’s party)
  • Kids artwork … definitely deserves a post of its own, but to summarize, now is the time I take a photo of the art and recycle while keeping the extra special ones in my kids memory boxes.

*You can imagine that my recycling stack is enormous every week, because I try to get rid of every paper after it has served its usefulness.

 You may think that this system sounds like it takes a lot of time, but really it saves you so much time! At some time or another, you are going to end up dealing with all of this. When you pay all your bills at once, you save so much time, because you are in the mode, you have all your stuff out and you can just go for it and be done. When you sit down to knock out your inbox once a week, it goes really fast and you have the peace of knowing you are caught up on everything and not forgetting anything important.

What if you didnt have to worry about paper clutter

The amazing thing about this system is the FREEDOM you feel all week when you don’t have to think about paper! Imagine that!

CAUTION: If you are not consistent, you will stop trusting yourself. When you stop trusting that you’ll actually get to the inbox, you start modifying the system and it doesn’t work as well. You’ll start making piles of “really important things” or things you “really don’t want to forget about”. Hello – that is what the inbox is all about! And if you start this modified system, you go right back to having piles of paper all over the place. My consistent Home Management session is THE ONLY REASON my inbox works and doesn’t become an overflowing mess. If you miss a week, move on and get back to it as soon as possible!

Pick a time and stick to it. Simple.

{Today’s post is like a can of worms, because now I need to write a bunch of new posts about Storing Kids Artwork and Memory Boxes. Don’t forget to check out the post about Home Management Sessions, because it could really change your life. Also, it almost seems like “how to get rid of all the current stacks so you can start fresh with the maintenance mode” would be a great topic too. So much to say and only so much time to write each week! Remember how I have those four little kids? lol. Good things come to those who wait!}

I’ve helped so many people tame their paper trail. Most of my clients and most people I know, need help with this. So, be one of the few people who knows how to Tame The Paper Trail and properly use an inbox. Man, I love writing about this stuff. I hope this system really helps you!

Happy trails to you!

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~~~And in other news, today I took my kids to a doctors appointment and the memory of today’s appointment will became a permanent traumatic memory for each of them. Totally earned my mom-title today.~~~

30 thoughts on “Taming the Paper Trail of Clutter (or How to Effectively Use an Inbox)

  1. GREAT advice, Mary. As to your last point, “pick a time” this mirrors what Julie Morgenstern says and what I tell my PO clients, “What gets scheduled, gets done.”

    also, though, I have to tell you I am in love with the chair in your office, or at least the fabric and slipcover. please please please tell me where you got it?

    1. I love the “What gets scheduled, gets done.” When something has to be done, it goes on my calendar instead of my to do list. :) And about the chair. It is all from Pier 1 – love that store!

  2. You crack me up! “Man, I love writing about this stuff.” ha ha
    I’m actually going through papers right now! I made myself a chore chart and Wednesday nights are my “office nights.” woot woot

  3. Oh my gosh, I needed this post! I have a major paper problem! I also need the post about how to dig out of your current mess so you can implement Mary’s brilliant strategy… so many problems; so little time :). Thank you!

  4. I am trying to get back to my weekly sessions. Lots of life changes have made me get off track to disastrous results. Keeping up weekly helps me feel that I am in control. Otherwise everything is out of control!

  5. Hi Mary – I am really enjoying all of your posts and can’t wait to start the declutter challenge. I was interested to know if you put together a list of steps of how to work on your current stacks of paper so you can get to maintenance mode. The paper trail is something we struggle with in my house.

  6. May I say something about organizing a purse that I learned from my grandmother? My system allows me to change purses in minutes. I have three cute zipper bags and a wallet. One bag holds what beautifies me. It contains a mirror, small pkg. kleenex, lenses wiper cloth, small wide tooth comb, lip stick and liner, toothpicks, fingernail sizzors and breath strips. Another bag contains “med” stuff. I have a little 3x4x1 inch plastic box divided into 4 compartments. I carry Claritin, pain reliever, tums, etc., you get the idea. This bag also holds my hearing aid batteries, band aids (my grand daughters love me here), dry eye drops. The third bag carries only paper stuff. Those little free calendar books become my scratch paper. If I hear something, see something or remember something, I can reach paper quickly. It contains pens, my son/daughters business cards, and a small calculator. Sun glasses, hand lotion, cell phone, and keys fit into the various compartments the purse comes with. Purses In my closet contain a plastic grocery bag stuffed with other plastic bags to hold the shape of my purses. This system has always amazed my friends.

  7. Hallelujah~ I think I have finally found the help I’ve been looking for!! Trying to help my mom organize the paper clutter overwhelming her life when I do not have the knowledge or skills myself has been so challenging. I am immediately starting the Inbox/Home Management session for both of us! Now that mom needs my help I really need something that will work for the both of us, and I am really looking forward now to this project instead of dreading it. Thank you, thank you so much for sharing your ideas and printables!

  8. I love this!!!! I will be putting this into my new plan. I do have one question…..I have a small house, no where to put a place that is just for me, where would you suggest for me to put my “in box”.

      1. Without an office, desk our kitchen comand space, I’ve been trying to find a place for my inbox too. After reading your reply, I just thought, a pretty box or basket on top of my fridge would be both convenient and accessible, while still out of the way.

        I’ve spent the last year clearing the paper trail, trying to do the “home management sessions” as it comes in but still get stuck with the stack of to dos that I just can’t to do in the moment every time.

        I am SO ready for my INBOX and excited to try your system out! Thank you.

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