Organizing Paper Clutter

Q: I have been fighting an ongoing battle with clutter, and the clutter has a long record of victory. Here’s one quandary: I clip articles from newspapers and magazines on a variety of topics such as travel, health, finance, and helpful hints on how to declutter. Filing them is hard, because there’s very little overlap, so I’d end up with dozens of folders with one item in each. Also, I seem to be a slave to the rubric of “File it, forget it.” But I’m equally a slave to “Put it in a big messy pile and forget it.” Is there any option other than tossing them all out and leading a neater but more boring existence? — Mimi K., Larchmont

A: Carmela Sirico is a trained organizer in Hawthorne who teaches adult education classes on the subject, one of which is entitled, “Ask This Organizer … She’ll Tell You.” So I asked her. And she told me, without a moment’s hesitation: “Neater but more boring is best. Eighty percent of the stuff people file away, they forget about and never look at again. So why bother to do it?”

But what if you’re already knee-deep in clippings? And what about that other 20 percent? First, Sirico’s advice on filing: “Pick categories that are meaningful to you — finance, gardening, things to do someday — and don’t create a folder until you have at least three pieces of paper on the same topic. And no ‘miscellaneous’ — that can be dangerous for those with issues of clutter.”

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Once your files are organized and you’re busy forgetting what’s in them, we come to Sirico’s advice on unfiling. “Get on a purge schedule, so the paper doesn’t become out of control.” If you’re dealing with a big backlog, she suggests setting aside a half-hour or an hour a week to go through files (or your messy, as-yet-unfiled pile). “Set a clock and decide what to keep and what to throw out. Don’t get overwhelmed. In the beginning, it will take a while, but then maintenance will be easier.”

And how does a person who clips and saves things make herself throw them out? “Judith Kolberg wrote a book called Conquering Chronic Disorganization,” Sirico responds. “One of the exercises is to go through stuff and ask, ‘Is it a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger?’ You can apply it to objects, furniture, clothing — even pieces of paper. Friends you keep; acquaintances, you ask, ‘Why do I want to keep it?’; strangers you throw away.”

To organize clips, Sirico suggests: “Purchase a cheap scanner. You scan the stuff you want to keep and create an online filing system. Then it’s easy to find everything.” (Staples offers a flatbed scanner for about $100.) For general organizing on the computer, Sirico is a fan of Outlook, a free program within Microsoft that includes a calendar, a task manager, and a journal where you can jot down notes about all those clips you’ve scanned. If you have a Mac, Smart Folders are terrific — they automatically organize files by type and subject matter, and update themselves as you add and delete. (Beware: although it’s less physical mess, it’s possible to become cluttered digitally.)

“Decluttering is a process,” Sirico says. “You won’t get there in a day, so go easy on yourself. Here’s another maxim: take yourself out of the story. Try not to be emotionally tied to what you’re doing. And apply the ten-second rule: hold onto something for ten seconds and make a decision. It’s all about letting go of stuff. Once you’ve done it, it’s very freeing. I’ve had more than a few people say it’s like a weight has been lifted when they can see the top of their desk again, or the piles around the room have gone, or they can walk into the closet.”

So is Sirico’s house a model of organized neatness? “My husband is an accomplished golf fanatic, so my house looks like golf central,” she responds. “The living room looks like his hall of fame.”

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