Paper Pile Makeover (Before)

Obviously, for a makeover, this would be the “Before” shot.

So this picture– um, yes, it’s mine.  (What, did you think everything was perfectly organized?)

A couple of years ago in a frenzy of spring cleaning before Lane was born, I had all of my files in order.  But then life got busy, and I started placing a few pieces of paper on top of the files.

Then I stacked a few more, and the piles grew.  A few “stash-n-dash” cleaning sprees later, and it ended up like this.  Which brings us to the first principle of paper-organizing:

An organizing system only works if you USE it.

Apparently I should have filed, not piled.  Oh well, live and learn.

To get my papers how I want them to be, I’m going to do a paper pile makeover.  I’ll be writing about it as I go along, so if you want to go through some of your papers too, you’re welcome to join in.

I placed it all on the table so you can see what I’m dealing with.  It’s every paper in the house, not including books or photos.

10 cubic feet

107 pounds of paper

Clearly, this needs work.

What is your *BEST* paper-organizing tip?  And what is the hardest part?  I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Update: Would you like to see the paper pile makeover results?

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Set yourself goals for getting rid of the paper. I guaruntee you’ll find outdated magazines and unimportant records that you’ll be tempted to keep, but set a quota and make sure you hit it to avoid this temptation.

    To get your quota, take stock of the pile of paper and estimate just how many “items” (that’s anything that isn’t connected to something else. Individual papers are single items, books are single items, etc) and then cut it in half (or down to a quarter, whatever you’re comfortable with).

    For example, I’d estimate you have at least 300 “items” there. Make it your goal to relocate 50% into the trash can.

  2. ooh you naughty girl..
    Our weeks post goes in a pile and than I spend a few minutes every Sunday dealing with it. I either pay it, file it or shred it!
    We are also paperless on every thing we can be.
    The hardest part is deciding what to keep and what to throw.
    Good luck :)

    Laura’s last blog post..Organising: Spending Diary

  3. Hi Rachel!
    I’ve been reading [lurking] your blog for months now and love your approach to simplicity! Paper clutter in our home is my biggest project right now.

    What ‘s helped me is to really evaluate, do I need to keep this record on this piece of paper? Can you scan it, or record the most important information on a digital medium? I’ve found that for most things, you really don’t need the actual piece of paper.

    We’ve gone paperless on just about all of our bills, and this has really reduced a lot of unnecessary paperwork. This post was really one of the guides to motivate me:

    Good luck! :)

  4. My best tip, and the hardest part (well for me anyway) is to deal with things straight away! Junk mail into recycling, statements filed or shredded immediately, bills and other correspondence dealt with accordingly.

    When I’m good, I’m really good about this. But when I’m bad… Well let me just say, I have totally been there with the dining table full of paper to deal with!

    Moving house also seems to give me a push in the right direction.
    And moving my filing cabinet to right beside my desk has also helped me to keep on top of things.

    Good luck with the clear out and I can’t wait to hear how you go.

  5. I have a bad habit of not being able to part with old magazines. I now have a next door neighbor that appreciates my old cooking ones so it encourages me to pass them on to her. I also promise myself that after a big purge I am allowed to buy 2-3 new magazines (which is a luxury because I hardly buy them anymore). But I have to throw them out/pass them on immediately once read.

    • I no longer buy magazines (that was my 2009 resolution ;)) Anyway who needs them when you have such great blogs like this! ;>

  6. I try to deal with papers as they come into the house and throw away/shred as much as I can. I also keep a 6 inch deep basket in my office where I can pile papers that I need to file or reference later. Once this basket is full it becomes #1 priority to sort/file/trash the pile before it grows any larger.

  7. I always think that I will deal with things when they come in, but life (and inertia!) often gets in the way. I’ve come up with a quasi-solution that works pretty well. I have one small stack of papers by the front door and the phone. This pile is for mail, notices from school (they just won’t stop coming), etc. I go through this every couple of days and in a few minutes everything ends up in the right place. I got a little organizer with a bulletin board and slots for bills, and this helps organize this pile a lot.

    The other thing I’ve done is we got a small stand that goes under our computer table, and it has a small drawer in it. Anything that needs to end up in my household files (paid bills, medical paperwork, tax info, etc.) goes in the small drawer. When it is full, I file the paperwork. So far, this works for me, but there are still errant papers scattered about the place. Baby steps, I guess!

    Mother Necessity’s last blog post..Knowledge Can Be Expensive

  8. Read your mail by your recycling bin!

  9. I have the same problem, and most of it ends up being junk mail or shredder fodder. It seems to go into a box, a bag, or a pile somewhere until it annoys me enough to go through it. I hate paperwork! I recently just went through about 3 months worth and now have a pile for the shredder and a pile to file.

    I totally blame this on having an unorganized office. I hate going up there because things are either stored in plastic totes and stacked, or stacked on shelves. It’s so unorganized, I just want to pull out my hair anytime I am in there.

    My goal is to get a basket to put at the base of the stairs of our office to put paperwork in, then deal with it every weekend. I’ll let you know how that works out, lol!

  10. smallnotebook says:

    Great tips everyone! I need all the help I can get.

  11. I’ve recently gone (almost) paperless- still have one drawer of paper files to deal with, but those are mostly things I thought were important enough to maybe keep on paper and/or would take a really long time to scan and shred.

    My best tip is to stop adding any new paper to your piles. Get a scanner and shredder set up and process incoming paper there first. That allows you time to build up a new system and gives you time to gradually deal with the old piles.

  12. I’ve seen articles before about which documents need to be kept and for how long. Does anyone have a link to something like this? My problem is that I file everything! It is sometimes nice to have everything but I know I don’t need most of the bills I keep.

    I agree with everyone about recycling and filing right away. That eliminates a lot of paper clutter. I also like the idea of having files or notebooks for certain things that you want to keep but don’t have the time to deal with at the moment. I have an “ideas” binder. Who knows if I’ll ever get to them but at least it is just a little notebook instead of piles of magazines and articles.

  13. The best organizing tip: you don’t need to be holding onto nearly as much of that paper as you think.

  14. I have piles too. I keep a basket of papers to file (Like paid bills, important papers) on top of the filing cabinet. I’m supposed to file like once a week or once a month or even when the 3 inch high basket gets full.
    We realized a couple weeks ago at a seat belt check that our car insurance cards were outdated. I knew that I must have forgot to tear them out ot the bill when I got it so last night I remembered to look for them in that overflowing basket — what a mess. So now I am working about 5 minutes a day to file all that. Then I will try to go back to my once a week or once a month but like you said a system only works if use it — maybe I should make myself do file all paper immediately when I’m “done” with it!
    Glad to see you have piles — sometimes I feel like I am the only messy person alive!

    Mindy’s last blog post..{un}Organizational Chaos

  15. Get yourself three binders and a fire/flood proof lock box. One binder is Taxes. One is Money. One is Family Life. Then subdivide.

    Taxes: Keep only last seven years tax info in Taxes (duh).

    Money: Keep budget, bank account info, insurance, recent bank statements (ie this months only), various insurance policy info, retirement account info, this months paid bill statements (only the current month), your last credit report and the current year’s pay stubs (toss after W-2 comes).

    Family Life: The Family Life binder will have a divider for each family member, a section on family activities (vacation plans, brochures for local attractions you might want to take kids on), church newsletter, local pool open swim hours, YMCA program guide for this season, etc), a section for frequently called phone numbers, a section for maps and directions, a section for pet info, a section for school info.

    In the family member sections put soccer practice schedules, play rehersal, music lesson info etc that is pertinant only to a family member in their section. Also include a PHOTOCOPY of SS card, birth certificate, and imunization records (at least the shot records–the others depend on how secure you feel about where you are keeping the binder).

    The lock box is for originals of marriage license, parent/spouse death certificates, divorce paperwork (even if you’ve remarried), bankrupcy paperwork (even if it’s been over 7 years–a copy should go in your Money book), birth certificates, ss cards, passports, adoption certificates, and wills. I have a zippered pencil case (the ones with the clear panel to see through–on clearance in the back to school section right now) in a different color for each family member–only the pertinant info for each family member goes each pencil case. All the cases go in the lockbox. Lockbox goes under your bed. When my kids leave home I’ll just give them their pencil case.

    This has worked for me for over five years. I just toss old stuff as I’m opening the binder to put in new stuff. It keeps me from accumulating the paper.

    I address the mail daily as it comes in the door. The junk mail goes to the recycling bin, the bills are opened and the inserts (all that junk that is NOT the bill) is put in the recycling bin and the bill goes into the bill box. The bill box (a labeled and decorated shoe box) contains stamps, my checkbook, a calculator, return address labels, a pen and the bills as they come. Every payday(every two weeks) my DH and I sit down at the table together, balance the accounts and pay the bills. We also discuss the coming weeks event’s, make our calenders agree, make the grocery list and plan two weeks worth of meals.

    I have other organizational issues (like laundry), but paper isn’t one of them.

    • Hallelujah! Someone that thinks like me! You are spot on with the notebooks, see through bags and safe. The only thing I can add is I went back to a paper day timer where I keep lists of: ongoing to-do’s, to-buy, books or music I want, presents to get others, references, positive words, and so on. As well as daily and monthly calendars, and a general hourly chart of what I should be doing on what day categorically for example: family time, errands, work, planning… (I use the Julie Morgensten system with Franklin Covey day timer-awesome). Thanks for the info and keep up the great work!

  16. my junk mail never even reaches the house – I recycle it on my way back in from getting the mail. I actually have a tendency to throw/recycle to easily. I have had to dig through recycle more than once to find something important. oops!

  17. This year, I tried something new. I bought a expandable divided file folder. Which, I actually spent a little extra money on so that it would be durable and last me through the year.

    It has 12 dividers in it, and two little pockets in the back.

    As bills come in, I put them behind the divider for that month. If I have any pending activities (insurance, refunds, etc), I keep that paperwork in the front. I keep withdraw slips in the little pocket in the back. It’s also nice to have the entire year of bills all together in case i need to look back at something from the month or two before.

    When it comes time to pay bills online, I can efficiently pull the bills out, enter the amounts online and print out one slip to verify the payment. It takes less than 2 minutes to do this. Since I don’t have internet at home, I need a system down that takes just a few minutes.

    All other paperwork is either filed on Saturday mornings when I clean the house, or thrown away when it comes in the mail. Other schedules/coupons/etc are kept to a minimum & clipped on the side of the refrigerator hidden by the cabinets.

    Has worked well for me this year.

  18. LOVE the picture. I have an identical pile (and the funny/awful thing about it is that I created a system months ago but am just piling things on top of it lately) and will be decluttering along with you.


  19. The hardest part is dealing with the anxiety and stress that you feel related to what is on or related to the piece of paper, therefore causing me to avoid the physical object :)

  20. smallnotebook says:

    Happy to have the company Lisa! And Mindy, I’m glad my mess can make someone else feel better.

    Jo, I know what you mean. But I sometimes think that waiting to deal with it makes it even harder. It does for me anyway.

  21. Wow! There are so many great ideas on here – what a blessing :) We just found out we’re expecting child #2, which mean no more guest room / file cabinet / storage. I LOVE the binder idea from Kirsten – I am seriously going to start implementing that because even with enough room, I have always wondered if there was a more efficient way to store paperwork & yet still be able to find it easily enough. What great ideas! Thanks for the post!!

    Vicki’s last blog post..A little theology – Part I

  22. I try to deal with the papers as I go but it doesn’t always work that way. I sort mail as I go through it, putting everything I can into trash or recycling. Monday is my bill paying day and also my filing day. We have a safety-deposit box as well as a lock box in our house for the important things — passports, SS cards, will, etc. I have a box in the girls’ closet for must-keep papers which include report cards, special notes, art work, etc. They can decide what to keep and what to purge when they get older. I’ve also framed some of their art projects and they are now hang on my walls.

    Nancy’s last blog post..It’s All About the Food

  23. I may be particpating in this. Our papers, well, their every where. I don’t have a designated area actually. We have the drawer in the bedroom, the small junk drawer in the kitchen, the file cabinet, my desk drawer, the hubbys desk drawer, the counter where all bills go before I get ahold of them, the list goes on!

    My paper situation is a mess. I’d have to say the hardest part about organizing all of the paper we have in the house is deciding if it holds any importance or not. Sometimes that paid bill from two months ago can be thrown away, I just need to convince myself of that!

    Oh and I did at one time have a good filing system for all of our paper, it was in our file cabinet. Then drawers got in the way.

  24. I’m looking forward to making some progress on this with you! ;) I have paper problems myself. I do try and dispose of junk mail as it comes into the house. I’m also trying to store “the rest” of the paper in one spot so I can deal with it in small chunks as I get time…sounds good in theory but isn’t working so well for me just yet!

    Steph @ Problem Solvin Mom’s last blog post..Menu Plan Monday – Ike Style

  25. Ugh, I so feel you on this one. Every time I go to set the kitchen table I have to move a pile of junk that I’m “going to get to! Honest! Probably tonight!” I’m really excited to see what you’ve got up your sleeve here.

    (Hi, by the way–I’ve been lurking for awhile!)

  26. I’m so joining in on this. My home office is a disaster! I have a filing cabinet but it’s been ages since I’ve purged my files and I have piles of paper everywhere in the room. It’s so discouraging…but I know I need a new system, especially with a new baby in the house, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed.

    I plan to take a stab at starting to organize (or at least lay out a system) this weekend! Lots of great ideas in the comments here.

    Lauri @ A Day Spent’s last blog post..BPA-Free Baby Bottles on a Frugal Budget

  27. Ah, now that looks familiar. I have a basket on my kitchen counter. The idea is that when it’s full, I’ll file everything. However, it often gets up to the bottom of the cabinets, sometimes crawls across my flat-top stove, and has even been known to round the corner to the sink. Lol. That’s when we end up microwaving or eating cereal until I clean my “pile” as dh calls it.

  28. I would just like to say I like the view behind the pile! Great window!

    I’ve got my own stack of mostly books and some paper! Thanks for the encouragement to tackle it!

    joyfulmom2boys’s last blog post..If you’ve never used a chain saw…

  29. It’s already been said here but tackle that mail as soon as it comes in. Junk is trashed, bills go with bills, then set up a place to put your reading material.

    If you get overwhelmed handling a pile of this magnitude set a timer and work on it 15-30 minutes a day.

    Most importantly, do not add to this pile. Set up a system that works for you and start using it for the NEW incoming papers. Then take care of the OLD stuff in the pile.

    Love your site by the way, I will be back :)

    Tanna’s last blog post..Get Organized, Save Gas

  30. I love organizing paper piles! But even though I like doing it – they certainly get the best of me most days.

    One thing that has helped with my kids is that I took all those little tote bags I have and started giving them specific jobs. This tote bag is only for violin lessons (violin books, notes from the teacher, etc), this backpack is only for library books. This tote is for Awana (church) handbooks, etc. It’s helped so much!

  31. I’m with you! We just went through all of the paperwork in the house (including an entire filled filing box with things waiting “to be filed”). We are using the system in Smart Couples Get Rich though there are definitely some folders that need to be added to that to keep important documents and receipts, manuals for various things, etc. I also just took our huge shred pile to a community shred as it had gotten too big for us to realistically shred with our shredder (which had been sitting dormant for months….).

    We’re embarking on a new system as those above have mentioned. Dealing with the paperwork everyday and recycling, shredding, trashing, filing every day so we don’t end up with the pile. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on how you do it!

  32. Hi Rachel!
    the book “Getting Things Done” has a ton of great tips that I’ve incorporated into my office. The main idea is to pile everything in one location and name it your “In-Box” then start processing and try to get through everything in one sitting. Doesn’t mean you have to act on everything but sort it. I have a pile of things to file, papers to shred, calls to make, even articles to read. Then when I have some down time I tackle a sub-pile. When I’m watching movies I put decorating ideas into a folder I keep or cut recipes from a magazine. When I’m in a destructive mood I shred. I keep an ongoing list of folders to make for my file cabinet and try to deal with all new mail the day it comes in. Also, I try to put away everything on a project before the day is up. Not always successful but I do build in 15 minutes of clean up time to most of my projects.

  33. has an article titled “What financial records to keep, how long to keep them.”

    Great topic. If most of my papers were destroyed in a fire, I’d probably find that I didn’t need them again.

  34. I always have a pile of stuff to deal with, but I keep it in a nice-looking basket. I have finally learned to recycle/toss right away, but it’s the things I need to process in some way that pile up. Sometimes it’s procrastination, sometimes I’m just tired – like tonight!

    Vintage Mommy’s last blog post..Vel-a-cro, Spungie Cords and the Mirr-o

  35. Hi there

    Nice to meet you :)

    I just posted on paper yesterday – so I’ll redirect you to that post

    I love the look of your blog and can’t wait to read all these comments too – you see, I’m a weird sort of person who loves to organise anything officey :)

  36. Old habits are hard to break and sometimes (for whatever reason) we feel we need to change them. Piles aren’t always so bad. It’s the cluttered, messy, “I-can’t-find-anything-in-this-mess” look that’s the problem, isn’t it? These days, we have paper coming in from 100 different directions so it’s natural we’ll have something that looks like this (your pic)!

    So, instead of trying to completely transform what we’re used to – we can gradually become better organizers (…baby steps!) – and going at it cold turkey, which means we’re less likely to stick to it long-term – try changing the “system” to fit your habits.

    I’ll try to be brief…

    I’m a natural piler. That’s just my “system” of staying organized. My desk often looked like the pic and it drove me crazy. How can we be productive that way? Well, I purchased some inexpensive letter trays that stack. I labeled them: TO DO, TO CALL, TO CLICK, TO READ, TO PAY, TO FILE. The most pressing items go in the TO DO (always on top). When I’m feeling chatty, I grab the TO CALL pile and spend time on the phone. When I’m at the computer, I work on the TO CLICK stack. TO READ, TO PAY, TO FILE…you get the idea.

    It works for me. I still have my piles. Just not all over the place. Plus, I’m using vertical space, which just looks much neater!

    Hope this idea helps you or some of your readers!!! Be blessed!

    Eve’s last blog post..Off to a great start

  37. One thing I should add…There are 5 in our family and EVERYONE knows that ANY AND EVERY piece of paper goes on my desk. I go through that pile daily and sort into my letter trays.

    Eve’s last blog post..Off to a great start

  38. Some great advice I’ve heard is to only touch a piece of paper once – that means directly into the trash, the filing cabinet, the to-do list… Taking action not only helps you make a decision (no waffling later on), but prevents the paper pile from increasing!

    To avoid letting old magazines pile up, I’ve started annotating articles as I’m reading, then I tear out the ones I want and throw away the magazine. When do you ever read back through an entire magazine? Just hold on to the information that has value to you! The annotating helps not only to remind me why I liked the article, but also holds the key to the train of thought I had, since it may change the next time I read it. The key now will be to deal with the folder full of articles – but it’s better than a stack of magazines!

  39. really really think about it before keeping any piece of paper – throw away lots more (I’m guilty of being a packrat), scan & save digital copies of the “essentials” and only keep paper copies of the “absolute essentials” – I scan and keep things as pdfs, and I’ve yet to be sorry that I threw away a piece of paper, and a digital filing system is much easier to manage! Now it’s much easier for me to keep up with info I need.

    I also try not to keep magazines…I used to have years of Southern Living & others…now I only keep the 2 most current issues. If an article is super important, I scan and then throw it away. So far I haven’t missed a single old issue – and most of that info could be found online if I did suddenly realize I “needed” something again!

    jodi @ bpr’s last blog post..What makes exercise work for you?

  40. Hi everyone, new reader here, I am catching up with the reading and find great ideas here. Just a comment on the paper problem. I am in the 3rd year of a 2 week organizing challenge, I have discovered that while I love organizing the files, landing strip, folders etc. actually doing the filing and using the tools it’s taken weeks to set up elude me. I intend to keep working on it and hope to find the answer someday. Love the site, keep up the good work.

  41. Midwest Mainer says:

    I love the idea of scanning but it takes a village to get me all set up to do that. I have a hard enough time scanning photos. It works but a little something easier…taking a picture of the document. It doesn’t work for every record or document…sometimes you need to see the details. Other times, a photo will catch what you need. I lay them all out on the floor on a sunny day and take pictures, download and file under ‘inventory’ or reciepts. Whatever works. That’s how I handle kids’ artwork, too.

    Love my camera. (I use it to take notes on vacation. I take pictures of stores, restaurants, and hotels I want to ask about, learn about, or visit next time. I also take pictures of maps so don’t have to carry it with me! Subway maps, city maps..) I see a blog post here….

  42. My problem arose when my now deceased husband ailed for about 5 years and I spent every day with him. When I came home it was time to bring in the mail and eat a frozen dinner, do what I could just to read the mail, and go to bed. Most of the mail did not get read, just stacked, until there was no longer any place in the living room, the dining room, or the kitchen without piles of paper on top. This includes sofa, chairs, tables big and small, and 3 card tables side by side in the living room. My daughter helped me one day so that at least part of the dining room table can be seen.
    I do not have a Website.

  43. I wanted to PRINT all these great ideas, but thought better of it and didn’t want to ADD to my paper pile!! LOL, these are great ideas, too bad there hasn’t been a post since 2008!

  44. Melanie Arthur says:

    Hello to all well i thought i would share my way to organize my bills and important pappers i have a shoe bag hanging on the back of the door it is perfect for pappers bills go in and if i need to evacuate we live in lousiana i just fold it and i am ready