When You Haven’t Filed Papers All Year, Reduce Them by Half

I don’t file my papers on a regular basis. I know I’m supposed to, but my life is busy. Most of my papers go into a special file labeled, “I’ll Deal With This Later.”

So every year in January I try to control the damage and file the papers that I have let pile up. I know it’s actually February now, but as Alicia said, February is sort of like extra January.

It’s been more than three years since I did my first Paper Pile Makeover, and that one was a doozy. I had been trying to organize it all, and I learned that I should have been purging it. I got rid of a massive pile of paper by asking the question, “Why do I still have this?”

Now most of my incoming paperwork is digital, so even though I haven’t filed papers all year, the good news is that the stack I currently have is only seven inches tall.

Most people will give you the advice that you should start at the top of your stack, pick up the first piece of paper and deal with that one. Either file it or recycle it, but only touch it once before you move on to the next. Personally, I find this method to be painfully tedious and dull. I am motivated by quick results and makeovers. And also easiness.

Since I don’t want to spend all day working on my papers, here is my approach:

Reduce them by half.

Some papers are easier to deal with than the rest. I can make a big impact on this stack just by going through and quickly recycling the papers I don’t need anymore. I can file a few of them, and before I know it, the stack is half its size.

The next time I sit down to sort the papers, I’ll reduce it by half again, either recycling or filing them. They won’t be as easy this time, but the stack will be smaller. Each organizing session will have fewer papers to deal with, and by the time I get to the papers that I’ve been avoiding, I’ll almost be done.

I keep my physical papers in an inexpensive plastic crate that I’ve used for more than a decade. Most of my papers are scanned and on the computer. I keep my computer next to me so that I can update my calendar, address book, and to do list with notes as I go through the papers.

What you’ll need: a recycle bin, a scanner, your computer or notebook, and files.

Start your timer, and see what kind of impact you can make in an hour. I spent an hour working on my paper stack, and I managed to get the stack down to half its size. It was originally seven inches, and I worked it down to three and a half by recycling and filing.

Bonus! I found $155 in cash and checks that I had forgotten I had.

This is not the end. There is still more work to do, but it’s enough for today.

If you want to read more about how I deal with papers, you’ll find all the ideas in the Real Solutions: Paper section of this blog. We’ll also be talking about it more in the coming weeks.

Do you have a stack of papers too? What papers are the hardest for you?

clear the clutter

About Rachel

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


  1. I wish I had a stack of papers like yours… my problem is my papers are still scattered throughout the house! But thanks for inspiring me :)

  2. Ah, you got me. I just crammed so much paper into an accordion file that I had to streeeeeeeetch it to make it close.

    I love the crate idea!
    Amanda@EasyPeasyOrganic´s last post…SuperPower Smoothie

  3. My method is almost exactly like yours, only I try to sort every 3 months or so since we have such a small house and no space at all to put my pile. My question is, what do you do with those monthly 401K/retirement account letters? We get one from TIAA CREF about every month and I never know if I should keep them all or if they are just an update on what is in the account (that’s what they seem to be) and I can just look at it and then shred.. help please?

    • I keep the latest monthly statement from retirement accounts, and also the last one for each year since those are January to December summaries. All my statements are digital and I download them on the computer.

  4. February is extra January! Love it! I suddenly have more time to get all those organizing tasks done!

  5. I’m laughing because whenever my husband asks me where something is, I say, “did you check the pile?” For years we had no system whatsoever. I learned my filing from him, actually. When I first me him, his coworker told me, “when he cleans off his desk, everything goes into a box. Then he’ll deal with it once he gets a phone call.” Our brains just don’t work in an organized fashion, but we have other gifts to offer the world.

    Anyway, finally I instituted “the pile” a few years ago. This year I found four stackable paper trays hidden on the floor in the kids bathroom closet (???) and brought it down to the kitchen. Each member of the family has a tray, which makes school stuff much easier to keep track of.

    My biggest challenge now is figuring out what to do with “active paper.” One solution I have read about (in Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder by Susan C. Pinsky) is a “basket case.” She suggests an slender upright basket to keep all important papers easily accessible and visible. I thought it was brilliant, but I can’t find the right basket for the job!

  6. I’m laughing at the title of this…because I haven’t filed papers all year! Your title seems to indicate I’m not alone :)

    I have a scanner, but I’ve not yet begun to scan my papers for filing purposes. My big concern was eating up the memory on our hard drive. We just set up a new external drive though, so I think it’s time to start. Thanks for the encouragement :)
    Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy´s last post…No Wonder They Call It The Marriage Killer

  7. I haven’t filed papers in um…six months? I think I’ll take your advice and try and get rid of a bunch of them before actually filing! I’m generally too impatient to scan things, but I’m sure that in the long run if I sat down and scanned them it would make everything so much better because of the clutter reduction.

    Also, “February is sort of like an extra January” is GENIUS!
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…Love of Reading: The Comfort of Rereading

  8. It used to be my goal to tackle paper pile-up in January but last year it got pushed back to July. Oops. It took me all afternoon but I shredded and scanned a lot of papers including furniture/appliance receipts and manuals and took pictures of our house for those just-in case moments if we would need it for insurance. Then we saved everything on our Media Fire storage site. It felt good to get all that done but here I am again, in February and haven’t touched last year’s papers yet!

  9. When we moved a little less than a year ago it was the perfect excuse to purge! Since we had to move the filing cabinets I sorted through all the files. I also got rid of the pile, since I couldn’t justify packing a pile of papers on it’s own. So now I’m only 9 months in, but trying really hard to purge as i go.

    Yesterday i even purged outdated papers and invitations off my sister’s fridge!
    Jessica @ Stay at Home-ista´s last post…Heart Art

  10. I have a basket that I throw these types of papers to be filed in. I used to be vigilant about sorting through and properly filing every few months but now it happens like once a year. I do first of all throw away (shred/recycle) everything possible. The part I dilike the most is looking for anything necessary for taxes – especially when I *forgot* (was too lazy to file properly)medical expense receipts, etc. Blah!
    Kika@embracingimperfection´s last post…Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

  11. I’m great at dealing with paper the second it comes through the door (opening everything, throwing away extras, whether my husband needs to see it, etc.) but I’m terrible at filing The Pile. Then it takes me all of 30 minutes to deal with six months of paper and I get really annoyed with myself.

    Over the past three years our paper management system has greatly improved and I think I’ve figured out the next step. Outdated records clutter our filing cabinet which lives on the back porch. If we put everything but the current year in our basement files we can fit everything in the filing drawer of our new desk. Hopefully this will encourage me to take 10 seconds to file things IMMEDIATELY so the piles will go away. :)

    • Oh, I’ve also made it my new project to eliminate junk mail as much as possible. Even the grocery store adds. The amount of crap we put in the recycling bin without even looking at it Bothers Me. I even shelled out $7 for a Catatlog Choice envelope that holds up to 15 pieces of junk mail.

  12. Karen (Scotland) says:

    Oh, man, the librarian in me is having a small freaky fit right now.
    I deal and file as I go. More than four or five pieces of paper in the magazine file next to my computer and I’m twitchy and nervous.
    I’m annoyed at the moment as I have some paperwork from a power company and I’m waiting for the updated, accurate bill to arrive so I can file the whole lot. Can’t file it until then. Annoying.

    So, a year of paperwork?
    Never going to happen…
    Karen (Scotland)

  13. I’m with Karen. And I’m a librarian. I don’t understand where you keep this pile. Where would I put a 7″ stack of papers *looks around house* there is just nowhere.

    • Karen (Scotland) says:

      Well, I do have flat surfaces (although it would kill me to put a pile on them) but I also have a two year old with crayons and fancy scissors, and a cat who eats certain “flavours” of paper…
      Karen (Scotland)

    • I’ve been keeping it either in a basket or a tote bag.

    • You’d be surprised how many places you can find to stack papers if you look hard enough. I think there is a spectrum of personality types. I am on the disorganized side of the center. I really can’t imagine spending time every day filing papers when I could be doing something else. Anything. Much rather set one time every few months to do it.
      Catherine´s last post…Dairy Free Coffee Ice Cream

  14. your method of continually cutting the pile into halves reminds me of when we learned about the half-lives of radioactive isotopes in college. when i look at the pile of papers i’ve allowed to stack up for the past year, i’d say it’s a good metaphor.

  15. oh lawz. You have NO idea about the stacks of papers. Dave and I moved here with the help of folks who just jammed stuff into black plastic bags and when we got here we shoved those bags into a corner of a barn or shed or…you get the drift. We started restoration and after 1.5 years came to a screeching stop. We were exhausted, living here amongst the construction while being newlyweds; it was a nightmare. Fast forward 16+ years and my husband drops dead of a heart attack…totally unexpectedly and quite sudden…and I’m left with PAPERS. I’ve actually found papers belong to his deceased first wife who never even stepped foot in this county. Somehow, all that “stuff” was brought here and I’ve been dealing with it every since November. Did I mention it’s a nightmare?
    Did you know each state has a government department that deals in lost property?
    I searched on our government site and found money, bonds, stocks, etc. in my MIL’s name, my husband’s name and my name. Now to file the neverending paperwork to claim our property.

    • I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. I hope you can find a way to work at all this an hour a day or a half a bag a day or some process that won’t wear you out.

  16. I am a bookkeeper by trade and have found a method that helps my clients keep up with their paperwork. I make “to be kept forever” files for them (very few) like “2012 Medical” – anything medical for the year goes in that file, and “auto repairs,” “household repairs” etc. I make monthly files for all other filing – anything paid in Jan. goes in the Jan. file (cable, electric, water, etc.) When they reach Jan for next year – out comes the prior years’ papers – usually nothing in there to keep. It has had great results. Especially for my client that just kept buying new filing cabinets when one got full! Exception is business receipts – those get filed by year and saved. Good luck!

  17. the worst papers for me to get rid of are recipes i tear out of magazines. i’ve started pinning them on pinterest instead, but i still hang onto the papers. i worry if i file them away i’ll forget about them forever.
    oh, clutter.

  18. I didn’t even want to read this post.

    That’s how much I like to avoid dealing with my own paper pile.
    Katherine´s last post…Practicing What I Preach

  19. Great idea to ‘reduce the stack by half’! I like to go through all our paper folders each January (or…before the summer ;)) and pitch last year’s bill statements, renewals etc. – anything that I know I’ll get a new one of the next year. If I ever hear one of us cursing the lack of available room in our small two-drawer filing cabinet, then I know it’s time for a major purge! We keep receipts in envelopes by month in a bankers box after they’ve been entered into our digital spreadsheet. Tax forms and warranties/manuals have their own smaller accordion file boxes. Thanks for the tip!
    Danielle´s last post…Of Dogs As Rainbows on Mondays

  20. I can’t tell you what an emotional help this was to me. I’ve got so many papers to get through and it really helped to see that another blogger, especially one who focuses on simplicity, has a hard time with this as well. Thanks!

    And, by the way, I’ve sort of done it this way myself. But I can’t say I ever finish :-).
    Adrienne @ Whole New Mom´s last post…Nut Butter Filled Chocolate / Carob Candy (allergy & sugar-free options ~ similar to Reese’s)

  21. Papers have always been the bane of my existence. My mother, rest her soul, was a horrible influence. She kept every paper and there were piles and piles all around the house. I have gotten MUCH better through the years and finally have a system. Not a great one, but one that works for me.
    I have a filing system for things like birth certificates, social security statements, tax papers, car titles and insurance stuff (my husband is a car collector, so this is a large part of our papers, lol!) Most of those type things get filed right away.
    Everything else, goes into a basket on my desk. If I am looking for an important paper that is not in one of the aforementioned categories, it will probably be in the basket. Yes, I have to search for it, but the reality is, I hardly ever need anything in the basket! And about twice a year I go through and throw most of it away and file whatever else may need to be filed, but most quickly goes in the trash. I do not have kids at home anymore, but I did this even when I did, I just had to go thru the basket a few more times a year.
    A couple of exceptions. Towards the end of the year I designate a specific folder on the desktop for incoming documents that have to do with taxes. Also, I keep up with the annoying little medical bills for our 20% of lab work and x-rays, etc, so I keep those bills in a separate folder for me to address each month.
    All our other bills are set up electronically so there is no need to have a paper copy of those.
    I believe I shall have to write a post on this subject. It is time for my desk to be cleaned up anyway, lol!
    Bernice @ The Stressed Mom´s last post…Moms, stress, and matters of the heart

  22. I never keep records of things like bills, receipts, or retirement summaries if I can just call and get a copy from the company or bank on the off chance I need it. I also have a manila envelope titled “taxes 2012″ or whatever year it is in a drawer and when things come in that need to be kept for taxes, they go in there until they go to the accountant in January! Bills go on the counter by the phone and get paid on payday! Pile gone!

  23. It would be so much easier if you would just come do it for me! : )

    Actually, last year you really inspired me to make-over my closet and thanks to you, I did a great job. And–it’s still clean. Woo Hoo!

    Perhaps I need to work on the paper now. Just clear out the filing cabinet. It’s time. Sigh…

  24. I am just so happy to see someone else who rejects “just touch it once” paperwork advice. That is nonsensical.

    I put all my papers in a bin and when it starts to get too full, or I get spare time, I go through and purge/file. Most of my filing (bank statements, utility bills, etc.) goes into a single folder for the year. I also keep a yearly tax folder into which I toss tax-related documents all year so it’s ready to go when it’s time to start working on taxes. Easy!

  25. Thank goodness you’re here! I’m organized, not cluttered, leanings toward minimalism, love clean and clear spaces and “systems”! But i seriously have a basket I refer to as the “deal with it basket” (similar to your pile). I deal with my basket a little more often than once a year but same principle. Whew! A real person who does NOT organize everything from the minute it enters her home! I dislike paper!!!

  26. Ugh.

    I’ve paired down our paper clutter from 4-drawer legal-size file cabinet down to a 2-drawer letter-size file cabinet & I’m still overwhelmed with all the senseless paper.

    All my bills I pay online & receive online statements but stuff like tax receipts, vet records, home insurance, mortgage records, retirement papers, military stuff, business licenses, professional licensing stuff is a must keep & everything else I have in the file cabinet seems like a waste. But yet when I go to pare down the paper again – all of a sudden all the other stuff in the filing cabinet seems “important”.

    Funny thing is when we need to find something – rarely do we go into the filing cabinet first. We head online & then backtrack to the filing cabinet if need be (which is like never anymore).

    I’ve thought about taking all the “other” stuff out of the filing cabinet & putting it somewhere else in order to get used to it not being there (but close enough to retrieve it if necessary) but I feel that only makes more work for me & then I gotta find a place to put the “other” stuff at in the meantime.

    Again, I say….


  27. Since my mid-twenties I have had a system of stack & file. When the stack got too big it was stressful, so one day I took an hour just to work my way through it. Then I decided that panic and worry and procrastination was not a workable system for me.
    Thereafter, my first day off of the calendar month I would make a little ceremony of preparing a cup of something nice to drink, lighting candles on my desk (yes, even on warm bright summer mornings lol!) and I would pay all my regular bills for the forthcoming month with postdated cheques, balance my chequebook against my statement, sort through my pile and file or toss everything.
    The first few months of this it took about an hour each time.
    Then I realized that often thereafter it would take about 3-10 minutes once a month, because I would think, as mail came in, oh, I can put this in its file folder right away, it will take me 10 seconds, then I don’t have to have it sitting around for a month.
    That system worked well for about 10 years, then I moved overseas and in the past 5 years have had to rethink everything as the filing systems and available office supplies are quite different. There are no hanging filing cabinets here. Companies use binder systems, with circular towers, or banks of wall units with binders and plastic sleeves. I also receive most bills electronically.
    DH and I both take work home and we’re getting creeping stacks again. Grrr.

  28. The recycling bin can be a very good mate…
    Tasmanian Minimalist´s last post…Time To Get Real…Holidays Cost A Lot !

  29. In “real” January, I finally tackled a pile that was threatening to topple over an crush my 3 year old. Turns out the pile was older than my daughter! I found stuff in there from 4 years ago! YIKES!

    I went through a process similar to yours, Rachel. I found a giant clear plastic tub, put all of the papers in there, and sat down next to the recycling bin. I was able to recycle far more than half, and the stuff that remains all fits into categories I already have for filing.

    The next step for me is to clear out my existing files, to make room for the “new” stuff. Before I file anything “new” I’ll go through it all again, just to see if there’s anything else I can eliminate.

    Thanks for the reminder to get back to it, now that we’re in “extra January”!

  30. I have somewhat of a system. In the left top drawer of my surround computer desk, I toss everything paper related. When it is too full to close without the papers spilling out… I sort through them. Toss what won’t need. And put the rest in labeled files I have in three two-drawer file cabinets rescued from the trash bin at hubby’s old job. My system seems to be working ok.
    Donna´s last post…Crystal’s Bead Challenge Reveal: My Kissing Hearts Necklace

  31. That’s an interesting method, better than what I imagined when I read the title of the post — that you just grabbed half of the papers and pitched them! Yikes!

    It goes against my principle of handling a piece of paper as few times as possible, but I can see how it could work anyway.
    Lori´s last post…Unsolicited Advice: Put Your Servants to Work

  32. One of my biggest paper clutter is drawings and art work by my child, he draws at least 10-15 arts per day, and some of them are too precious to throw away or recycle, so it is always tough. I keep some for sending to grandparents etc, some for collection, and some of wrapping the gift, but still there are some that needs to be recycled. That is toughest for me, so I take pictures and recycle.

    Does anyone have better solution?

    Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last post…50 Ways To Show Your Love

    • Carol Kruizenga says:

      Glue them back to back and laminate to start a set of placemats. Doesn’t matter if same size or not. You’ll be surprised at how your kid(s) will just love to set the table in the years ahead b/c of this. You can even make sets to give to those g’ma’s and g’pa’s. Be sure to include the funny/sweet things they say onto the papers. Also, use the drawings as “wall paper” or a “border” in various rooms. Lastly, when he’s drawing, give him the idea to make it “be” for someone in particular (friend, pastor, teacher, cousin, nursing home resident you visit, etc.), then help him mail or deliver it.

    • What about using some of them as wrapping paper for birthday presents, or Christmas presents, if you do them?

  33. thanks, rachel! just the motivation i need to get started:)
    Mary Biskup´s last post…Design am Main

  34. So true!I usually go through my papers and realize I didn’t need to keep half of them. Good inspiration to purge again!
    Johanna´s last post…Encouraging Our Children to be Life-Long Learners

  35. what?! I file papers every WEEK. I have an inbox and I make myself deal with it every week because I would feel terrible otherwise. I used to pay bills and deal with paper sporadically, and it just led to missed appointments and late charges.
    January is when I clear my files of last year’s papers and put them in storage for 7 years.
    This year, kindergarten brought an influx of paper, so there is a pile of artwork on top of the filing cabinet. That needs to be dealt with.
    Margo´s last post…Counting

  36. I’m so excited for more things to be done electronically! Since we’re still in limbo and living with my parents I’ve tried to keep up on the daily pile–immediately throwing away junk and repeat bill reminders. That way I know what’s in my stack is REAL stuff that needs to be dealt with. I sort the mail by the trash can–makes it pretty simple :-)
    Kait Palmer´s last post…My 28-Week-Old Valentine

  37. Anxiety and OCD make a lot of things nigh impossible, but paperwork seems to be one of the worst. I have at last count 6 grocery bags and 2 baskets of paper under my bed. And we have to move soon.

    Thank you for the advice. My plan for now: I’m going to pull everything out of one bag and cut the pile in half. Give it a couple days then do the same with another bag, and marry the bags. I’ll just kind of keep doing that until it’s gone or we have to move. Then I’ll have at most half the bags to move, and can continue the process as we unpack.

    Actually, this may be a great way to deal with unpacking, as well. When half your boxes are books and clothes, it makes it easy to cut the unpacking down to half right away. As the unpacking gets more difficult, there is less of it to need to accomplish at once.