Here’s How to Clean Your Paper Clutter for Good, According to Marie Kondo
With a to-do this daunting, we went straight to the gurus: Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein, whose recent book, Joy at Work, helps you tidy your work space (at home, in the office, on the road) for real this time.
Put Paper in Its Place
The general rule for papers is to discard everything. My clients always look dumbfounded when I say this. Of course, I don’t mean that we should eliminate papers entirely. I’m just trying to get across how much resolve we need in order to choose only those that are absolutely necessary and to discard the rest. Sheets of paper seem so slim; we often hang on to them without really thinking. The more papers we accumulate, the more time it takes to find particular documents, and the harder they are to put in order.
Start by gathering all your papers together in one spot and looking at each one. Even papers that are in envelopes should be taken out and checked page by page in case advertising leaflets or other unwanted material is mixed in with them.
It can be helpful to sort papers into categories while you are skimming through the content. This makes filing them when you’re done quicker and easier. Papers can be broadly divided into three categories: pending, save because you have to, and save because you want to.
The pending category includes papers that need some kind of action, such as outstanding bills. I recommend storing all of them in one upright filing box until you’ve dealt with them. That way they won’t become jumbled up with papers in other categories.
Next, let’s look at papers we’re required to save. Sort them by category and file them in a cabinet or in folders on a shelf. If you don’t need to keep the originals, you can scan them and store them electronically. In this case, rather than scanning them as you sort, it’s more efficient to put them in a “to-be-scanned-later” pile and do the scanning all in one go.
The last category is papers you want to save for other reasons. These might include documents you want to keep as a reference or ones that actually spark joy for you. But because rebound is a common problem when people hang on to things “just because,” keep in mind that the basic rule for papers is to discard them all.
In my tidying lessons, when a client has trouble deciding which papers to keep and which to discard, I fire off questions about each one—things like “When do you need this?,” “How long have you had it?,” “How often do you go back and look at it?,” “Can you find the same content on the internet?,” “Have you already saved it on your computer?,” “How much of a problem would it be if you didn’t have this?,” and “Does it really spark joy?” If you balk at the premise that you should discard them all, try imagining that I have just walked into your office and announced that I’m going to shred all your papers. What would you do? Which ones would you scramble to save from the shredder?
How to Store Papers So You Never Rebound
As long as you follow my three rules of storage, you’ll never return to paper clutter.
1 Categorize every paper down to the last sheet.
Start by sorting your papers into clear categories, such as presentations, project proposals, reports, and invoices. Use whatever system works best for you. Now is the time to categorize your papers in a way that makes your life easier.
2 Store your papers upright.
For optimal efficiency, it’s crucial to store papers in a hanging-file system. Put each category of papers in a separate folder and store them in a filing cabinet or upright in a filing box placed on a shelf. Storing them this way makes it easy for you to see how many papers you have. It also looks neat and tidy.
Once you have sorted your papers and decided where each category belongs, look at your work space and determine the maximum amount of space you have available for storing them. When you exceed this storage capacity, papers will begin to overflow. That’s a signal that you need to reexamine what’s there. By checking regularly like this, you can keep your papers tidy at all times.
Corral Your Book Collection
A best-seller you hoped to read someday, a how-to book about accounting you bought to improve your skills, a book received from a client…what kinds of books do you have in your work space?
Books are filled with valuable knowledge that can help us do our jobs. When kept at our desks or on our bookshelves, they can give us inspiration or a sense of security. Reading them can boost our motivation, and just displaying them can add a personal touch to our space. In reality, however, we often keep books at work for the wrong reasons.
One of my clients had a bookcase in her office filled with unread books. When we counted them, there were over 50, and more than half had been sitting on the shelf for two years or more. “I’ll read as many as I can during my next vacation,” she declared. When we met again, however, I wasn’t surprised to hear that she had given up partway through. Most of the books that she had managed to read were her most recent purchases. “To leave them unread seemed such a waste that I decided to speed-read to get through them,” she said. “But I began to feel like I was just doing it out of a sense of duty. It wasn’t bringing me any joy. This seemed even more of a waste, so I decided to let a lot of them go.” In the end, she decided to keep only a carefully selected 15 in her office.
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When tidying up your books, begin by gathering them all in one spot. Perhaps you’re thinking it would be better to just choose them by looking at the titles while they’re still in your bookcase, but please don’t skip this step. Books that have stayed too long on the shelf have become part of the scenery. Your mind doesn’t register them, even when they are directly in your line of sight, and that makes it hard to decide which ones spark joy. Only by taking each one in your hands can you actually see them as separate entities.
If you find it hard to judge whether or not a particular book sparks joy, try asking yourself certain questions. For example, when did you buy it? How many times have you read it? Do you want to read it again?
Another question to ask yourself is what role that book plays in your life. Books that spark joy are those that motivate and energize you when you read and reread them, those that make you happy just knowing they’re there, those that bring you up to date on the latest information, and those that help you perform your work better, such as manuals.
One last question to ask is whether you would still buy that book now if you saw it in a bookstore or if it has passed its prime in terms of your interest in it. Just because you paid for them doesn’t mean that you must finish reading every book.
The purpose of asking such questions isn’t to force yourself to mindlessly purge your books. Rather, it’s to help you explore your relationship with each one you possess. If books spark joy for you, then the correct choice is to keep as many as you want with confidence.
Marie Kondo is the author of bestsellers The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up ($12, amazon.com; $16, bookshop.org) and Joy at Work ($10, amazon.com; $23, bookshop.org), and is the star of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo on Netflix. Scott Sonenshein is a professor at Rice University and the best-selling author of Stretch ($23, amazon.com; $28, bookshop.org).