Paper Purge

Up until recently, my husband and my efforts to reduce clutter have been mainly focused on things like clothes, books, and miscellaneous household items. I am fairly satisfied with our progress and am pleased that the “public” areas of our house are, if not clutter-free, at least not embarrassing if someone stops by unexpectedly.

Now, we’ve turned our attention to the gobs of paper engulfing our offices. These include financial documents, articles and recipes saved to do something with “someday,” and an astounding number of lists – written on notepaper, on the back of envelopes, on post-its, and at the bottom of other lists. The paper that clutters the top of my desk is bad enough but lurking inside my file cabinets, and in boxes in my closet, are even more papers, and they need to be sorted, shredded, or recycled.

At least I know that I come by my paper problem honestly. My mother had a hand-made sign on her desk that read:

“Those who keep a neat desk will never experience the incomparable joy of finding something they thought they had irretrievably lost.”

I’m not sure if she was the author of the quote (she was a writer/editor) or if it was borrowed but it perfectly described her desk… as it does mine.

So, for the past several days, my husband and I have been slowly working through our piles and files. Boxes with documents for shredding are filling up, as is our big blue recycle can. Although we still have a way to go, we are motivated by three notions:

  • Security: We enjoy traveling and plan to continue for as long as we can. So far, we’ve been lucky to have trusted friends take care of our house while we are gone but that might not always be possible. Our goal is to have limited personal/private documents so that if we participate in a home exchange or arrange for a housesit, securing these papers will be easy.
  • Flexibility: Although we are happy with our current home and neighborhood, recently we’ve talked about alternative living situations. Would we be happier in a condo (no yard to maintain, minimal upkeep, more security when we travel, etc.)? How about an active retirement community or, at least a smaller town with walkable neighborhoods? This decision may be many years away, but why not start purging now so it won’t be as difficult later?
  • Reality: Am I really ever going to read the articles I’ve saved? Nope. Especially with the Internet as my go-to source. Some of the information is worth keeping, but most can be tossed. And those random notes and lists? I am trying to corral them all into one notebook, and as I cross out items, or no longer need the information, the pages can be ripped out and recycled.

Although the process has been slow, the experience has been very satisfying. My desk is neater, my files drawers aren’t nearly as full, and – even better – a couple of times I’ve experienced the incomparable joy of finding items I thought were irretrievably lost.

Author: Janis @

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

106 thoughts on “Paper Purge”

  1. We purged our entire life style when we made a cross country move about 15 years ago. Once we got rid of it all, we never wanted all that stuff back. Our entire filing system is in one desk drawer. Every few months or so, we purge the drawer and move on. As you said, most of any type of research is done on line so why keep all those papers. Of course, don’t ask me how many bookmarks I have. 🙂

    1. Oh, I’m a bookmark hound too! I envy your one-drawer system. If we can get ours down to two drawers (each), I’ll be happy. The hardest part for me is acknowledging that “someday” probably won’t come.

  2. I agreed with you, Janis, that the key is to keep it up. I also stopped the delivery of non-important incoming paper stuff like newspapers, magazines, flyers, etc. a long while ago.

  3. Although I love what your mom said, I hate paper and I never go back and find recipes or anything else I saved. I’m almost paperless.

    1. I envy those who can go paperless… I really do. Unfortunately, the closest we will probably get is less paper. It is getting easier, though, as I get older and I want to free myself from all those things left for “someday.”

  4. Kudos on your intentions! Consider the use of a bullet journal to corral all of those pesky to-do lists? Although don’t tell me to get rid of my stack of sticky note pads! The level of the urgency of the task determines the location of the note: microwave, refrigerator, back door.

    1. I have heard about bullet journals… perhaps I need to look into those more. I love sticky notes too and use them often (in fact, there are four of them on my computer screen right now 🙂 ). Thanks for your comment and the journal suggestion!

  5. For me there’s a deep satisfaction in purging anything and everything. When it comes to paper, though, I find that I need to keep lots of notes for potential future writing projects. The solution I’ve found is to digitize absolutely everything into an incredibly powerful database called DevonThink. I can find anything in there – it will even search on words within a document – and I love being assured that the material is there when I need it, but not cluttering up my library.
    Great to hear that you are doing your death cleaning now, Janis. It’s very wise for all of the reasons you’ve given. Enjoy the purging.
    Oh, and I love your mom’s quote. If it came from someone else, it’s not on the internet.

    1. Wow, I need to look into DevonThink! My big problem is that I feel a need to have reminders in front of my face… otherwise I’d forget. I really love the concept of “death cleaning” (much better than “tidying up”) and have done some reading on it. Although I hope my demise is a LONG time away, I don’t want to leave a mess for my family to deal with. So, de-accumulating now is good for us now and good for others (much) later 🙂

      I searched for that quote also and couldn’t find anything. She was funny and smart, so it definitely could have been hers.

      1. OMG a term for what has been lingering in the back of my mind since Dad passed: ‘death cleaning’. The need to actively decide what to do with all of my journals (I have a whole plastic storage bin filled to the rim with them) so that those who sort after I’m gone won’t have to, yet…what if they’re like me and would treasure a glimpse into the life & times of someone yet….
        However, as much as I’m a ‘collector’ – through out my life, I’ve also maintained a good routine of purging!

        1. A book (by an 80+-year-old author), The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, might be useful as a guide as you sort through everything. Good for you for regular purging… I’m hoping that we will continue to keep a handle on the piles also.

  6. I agree that the result is very satisfying! We did a ‘forced’ paper purge in order to carry out responsibilities as executor of an estate. Then we did a paper purge in our own home in order to make it easy for our children when they wrap up our estate some day!

    1. After dealing with my parents’ estate, I better understand the need to purge well before anyone else will have to deal with all of our papers (and, of course, we don’t know what “well before” is).

  7. You are an inspiration, Janis. Now I need to get off my butt and ‘Just Do It’!

  8. I am presently doing exactly what you are doing. Plus I have boxes filled with documents and photos which I am running through my scanner to be archived in external hard drives and then they go straight to our burn pile. I call this activity cleansing to the extreme. Good luck with your clean-up!

    1. Good for you! I haven’t tackled my photos yet (both prints and digital) but I know I need to soon. We have a lot of old family photos of people I don’t even know… they will go straight to the trash.

  9. Janis, you hit upon a widely shared problem especially amongst people who have lived in the same place for a long time. The longer one lives in a place, the more paper one seems to accumulate. While I do appreciate your moms dictum, I do think that there is satisfaction in a lesser paper burden.

    Three additional comments here:

    1) Having moved countless times, we have sought to limit our papers to the absolute minimum and it is amazing how much we shed each and every time we move.

    2) My father who is 92 still spends every single day of his life sorting papers. Always sorting them and has done so for over fifty years. His writings, his sketches, his articles, his work, his projects and mountains of collected news clippings that meant something at the time. It is fascinating (and a bit painful) to see him spend hours and hours in the last years of his life, focused on managing papers which will mean nothing to anyone else.

    3) With regard to lists: I have taken to a new approach that really works well for us. We use a piece of chalk and write directly on our wooden doors. As soon as each task is completed, we erase the list. If it is not completed, we take a photo with our ipad and wipe it down after a few weeks anyway. Voila, no more paper lists!!

    Peta (and Ben)

    1. Wow, #2 hit me hard. I don’t want to spend our precious time sorting through papers any more than we have to. This major purge should take care of most of the piles, then it’s just a matter of keeping on top of things (easier said than done, I know). Since we have lived in our house for over 24 years, the piles and files have slowly expanded. Of course, a lot of the documents and articles were filed away before the internet and digital documents were a “thing.” Now that most everything can be found online, I think the “need” to hold on to a tangible piece of paper isn’t as relevant.

      I love your method for keeping track of your to-dos! I do something similar with a whiteboard, but that’s not nearly as fun as chalk on a door. Unfortunately, not all my lists are for tasks. Some lists are for books I want to read, places I want to visit, or random pieces of information I want to remember. Yikes!

  10. My first thought was one of jealousy that you have an office to clutter 🙂
    My office is the dining room table and trying to keep the inevitable piles of paper under control is a constant battle. I periodically tackle a file that’s growing too large, or a stack of papers I haven’t looked at in a while, but never a major all-out offensive like you are doing – not that I don’t need to. That stuff is insidious and multiples while we sleep!

    1. Having a separate office is nice, but unfortunately, the mess seems to expand to fill the available space. I’ve gotten better about throwing out things like unread newspapers and magazines, but it took me a while to get over the “fear” of missing something REALLY REALLY important. I hadn’t thought about the piles expanding on their own but that sure would explain a lot!

  11. I tend to save tons of recipes I never use. I tear them out of magazines, print them from the internet, etc., and they sit in piles all over my house. You’re inspiring me to part with maybe just a few of them. 🙂

    1. Me too! The things is, though, that when I want to make something different or special, I usually just go to the internet for inspiration. Now, when I am tempted to cut a recipe out for future use, I ask myself if I really think I’ll make it… and the answer is usually no.

  12. I don’t consider myself a “packrat,” but as I look around I see so many things that should be pitched or recycled. Every time I take a box to Goodwill, I feel a little bit lighter, but it’s really time to downsize. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Spring is always a good time to lighten the load. I have a favorite second hand store that gets all my cast-offs – I just need to make sure that I don’t buy too many books there after I drop off my boxes.

  13. Oh my, we have so much paper left over from running our adventure group (all the bookings forms). All has to be shredded but currently languishing in the lot, apart from the 5′ high pile that is residing in our hallway. We tried turning ours into eco bricks, by shredding the paper first and setting it in brick moulds and they burn really well.

    1. I have never heard of eco bricks – what a great idea! We have a small shredder, but the amount of paper we have to shred after our purge will require using one of those shredding services. Fortunately, most of the paper we have can just be recycled since there isn’t anything personal on them.

  14. AS to your direct focus on paper purging: I tend to place papers not worth digitizing but needing to be ‘at hand’ in a carryall plastic file bin that is cleared out every 6 months…that way if it becomes something that somehow needs to be kept more permanently, it is still ‘at hand’ for awhile.
    The paper monster will never die, but I feel if I’m at least purging periodically, that keeps the beast contained at least!

    1. I have a couple of nice file drawers in my office that, now that they have been culled through, will hold my “at hand” files. My hope is that eventually, those two drawers of files will be reduced down to just one.

  15. I love to shred papers. The reward of a job well done is immediate. Less is more– especially when I admit to your number 3 which is my reality, too.

    1. There is something very satisfying about shredding paper, isn’t there? There is a part of me that is worried I’ll need some document in the future that has been shredded, but the chances are pretty slim. And those lists? I often have no idea what the heck I wrote when I look at them months later.

  16. That is the most difficult part. Whenever I take a paper to be shredded, I get this thought “ What if I need this some day and I can’t find the soft copy of it!”. And it goes back into the file. (As if I will be ever be able to find it if I need it sometime… ). Decluttering the papers is the most difficult and boring task.

    1. I know! I’m afraid the document that I haven’t needed for ten years will all of a sudden become the most important piece of paper at some time in the future! I have to keep reminding myself that it’s probably OK to shred it (and if it’s gone when I need it… oh well).

  17. I did a huge paper declutter before we moved. And yet we ended up moving boxes and boxes of paper files! I have another paper purge on my spring cleaning list. I need to decide what to do with my travel and recipe files … those magazine pages I’ve pulled out and kept. I have used the travel files when planning trips as they tend to contain info on off the track places. Recipes… I keep telling myself I’ll use them someday! Hah.
    And yes, I still have a box of work paper files (4 years… I should toss but much of that would not be found online) and another box of final work/retirement set up papers (also should be tossed). I’ve committed to get down another 50% on paper files…. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with zero paper. It’s comforting to think I’m to the only one with this problem!

    1. I think one of our big problems is that we’ve lived in our house for so long that we haven’t been forced to do a big move purge. I have travel articles and recipes too, but I really do find that I get most of my info online. Work papers and items can be tricky. Work was such a huge part of our lives for so long that it can be hard to let go. I have no illusions that I will return to work, but giving up some of the tangible parts of that past can hit me hard.

      Those zero paper people are pretty impressive, but I also know that will never be me.

  18. I’ve got an app called Tiny Scanner and I think it could revolutionize my relationship to paper. I have only been scanning things in slowly and filing them in Evernote but I think I could really pick up the pace of that and it would be great!

      1. I just checked out Tiny Scanner and I’m downloading it now! The key is that the PDFs it saves can be uploaded to a cloud service, like Dropbox or One Drive. Then it’s just a matter of keeping THOSE documents organized by month year or topic. As for the papers left after the purge I now have a stack of 7 “scrapping” boxes. Each contains documents from one year. (I know, I don’t even need to save all of those!) But they stack neatly on one tall closet shelf! Digital clutter can be just as daunting…it’s just waaay easier to get rid of! ~ Lynn

        1. I am intrigued by that app too. I realize that I am a little paranoid, but I’m a bit worried about scanning personal documents with your camera or tablet and having that info available to a hacker. I don’t know… are apps that secure? I think your system sounds pretty good, and seven neatly stacked boxes seems reasonable.

          1. I don’t think I’d scan any documents that have personal financial information, but I haven’t thought it through too much. I know that I still keep way more than I need.

  19. When Pinterest came along, I was thrilled. I spent a good deal of time finding my recipes on line. I got rid of file cabinets full of folders and recipes. Then I started purging all those travel articles. I love the internet.

    1. Pinterest – and the internet in general – was a real game-changer. When I went through my files, I realized that I had articles and recipes from at least 10 years ago that I never looked at once I filed them. And, I never will. Internet searches and digital financial statements make maintaining files almost obsolete.

    1. I think my husband and I are at about the same point paper-wise. Fortunately, neither one of us are too pack-ratty, but we do tend to let things build before we take action. Since we each have our own office, it’s easy to close the doors and ignore the monsters lurking within.

      1. John’s technique when a paper heap gets to big is to shove it in a cupboard till he has time to go through it (ha!). We could have so much more storage space without that!

  20. We are definitely traveling along the same road. For us, the motivation is replacing our second floor carpeting with hardwood floors. Everything has to be moved out of the rooms, and the second floor is where our two offices are, with all of the accumulated papers and books and STUFF. You will be my inspiration as I work my way through the piles.

    1. It’s nice to have a motivator like that! I put the “pro” in procrastination, so I’ve let things go too long because I could. Hopefully, this big purge will help us both maintain neater, tidier offices.

  21. Good for you! I try to do a paper purge at the end of each year. Not sure I’ve kept up but it is a satisfying activity to through a bunch of stuff away. I am lucky – I had access to secure shredding at work. So I don’t have to do home shredding.

  22. It’s amazing how much paper we accumulate in our home, isn’t it? Especially our desks…I cleaned out my file cabinet last year and was astounded at some of the stuff I saved for no apparent reason. But, just like you, I did find a few treasures in their! You mother was right.

    1. Isn’t it amazing to find something that you thought was important enough to cut out and save, but, when you look at it again, you have no clue why? I know that some of the recipes I kept were for a different me – one that liked a lot of complicated steps and hard-to-find ingredients. I’m not sure that me ever existed… I think I just thought it would be interesting to be that person. Not so much anymore.

  23. I have to secretly toss Hans’ old papers like receipts from fast food (really?) and other flotsam and jetsam he accumulates. It still comes from living paycheck to paycheck, then unemployment as a carpenter for 25 plus years. I just organized a literal paper cabinet today…I needed a spot for printer paper–I use hole-punched and regular (and I recycle one-sided used 8×11) for printing notes, lectures, etc for school. It’s amazing how paper piles up. We have an old green bin outside the front door under mailbox for stuff that will never make it into the house. I’ve learned to snap a photo of a printer cartridge box or other items on my phone rather than save the box, for future reference.

    1. Your secret is safe with me (wow, fast food receipts?). It sounds like you have a nice system and I’m sure Hans appreciates your efforts. Even those of us who have a hard time letting go of paper would really rather work in a less-cluttered environment. I also use my phone a lot for record-keeping and reminders. What did we ever do without them (in fact, the actual phone function gets used least of all)?

  24. It’s amazing how much “stuff” accumulates when you’ve lived in a home for a long time – for us that’s 35+ years. I, too, am in the middle of paper purging which has resulted in 4 boxes going to the recycling center just yesterday and another 2 boxes of items with personal information being fed to the wood stove. (Credit card receipts from 2011. Really? Whose idea was it to hold on to those for so long?) It’s a wonderful feeling to have space in the filing cabinets for the items that really need to be there. Plus, I did find some old photos from the first year we had our travel trailer – sweet! And, speaking of photos, that’s one of my next projects. But I think I might have to fortify myself with both caffeine AND chocolate to get through it!

    1. I think for us, it’s a lot of “out of sight, out of mind.” But, once we opened the file drawers and boxes… holy cow! It sounds like you’ve made great progress. And, if you can use the old documents to provide warmth, even better! Photos are a challenge for us to – both the ones we have in hard copy, and those on my computer. Good luck on your quest to organize and purge your photos – caffeine and chocolate should definitely help!

  25. Congratulations. I don’t keep papers anymore at all – living in a tiny home leaves me guilt-free about tossing that receipt that ‘might’ be important (but rarely is, and never is crisis-level important) Even so, I have kept one file with various papers from long ago that now needs purging. No one needs paperwork on homes they no longer own, right? Good luck on the new direction. We’ve decided home exchange isn’t for us, but it is still a tempting idea. And, if, in the next years, you find a fun ‘active living’ place, let me know!

    1. I think that there is a certain amount of time (7 years?) to keep tax-related docs, but other than that, I can’t imagine needing (or ever looking at) prior home docs. As far as home exchanges… we haven’t done it yet either, but it’s very tempting. We would need to have a HIGH comfort level about the people staying at our home.

      1. I hope, if you decide to have a home-exchange adventure, you write about it. We have friends who do it all time, quite successfully, and never really vet the people they exchange with, except to admire the houses they come from!

  26. We’ve moved so many times now that it’s become our default of way of decluttering. But that’s not a remedy I recommend to anyone. Lately I’ve been focusing on the need for tax returns. I always thought the rule of thumb was seven years, but our accountants actually recommend never tossing them. That was a disappointment to hear. It sounds like you’re getting a good a handle on your own situation, though. – Marty

  27. This is great, Janis! I love that quote of your mom. And, thanks to the internet, simplifying/downsizing our lives is so much easier. No need anymore for hard copy books, movies, diaries and even notes! Let alone recipes. 🙂

    I went through the same thing (last spring at my parents’ house), finally throwing all my teaching materials, lesson plans, creative projects, … in the recycle bin. Liberating, but a bit sad as well. Here in the US, I still struggle with the note thing, though. I have many notebooks with writing ideas and half stories. I’d like to consolidate them, but it hasn’t happened yet. I need more time!

    1. The internet has made the need to keep a bunch of papers obsolete. I do keep hard copies of recipes that I’ve tried, liked, and want to make again and I have a few travel articles with info on places I want to visit, but I’ve been able to recycle most of the rest. Notes are my downfall. I know that many people keep digital notes, but I have to have them in front of my face. If you come up with a system that works for you, let me know!

  28. Hi Janis
    Man, I thought I was the only one with all the crap to go through. I’ve been working on cleaning and clearing papers since January. Tax papers are now put away, but I have stacks of magazines, articles, notes, receipts etc. to still go through. I recently found a magazine article I’ve been saving since 2004. I never looked at it.
    Good luck with your clearing out

    1. It’s obvious by the comments that we aren’t alone. I don’t know if it’s collective spring cleaning or what, but paper purging seems to be going on in quite a few households. I’m sure I have articles older than 2004 still in my files… and when I come across them, they are out of here! Good luck to you also!

  29. Your blog inspired me to do some spring cleaning. My task is complicated by the need to go through things of my parents. I know I’m not alone in that. Since you mentioned treasures, in this purge I came across my grandmother’s scrap-book. None of us cousins even knew it existed! It made the hours of work worth it!

  30. Janis, I have just been through this prior to our move last summer. I threw away all but two banker’s boxes of career-related papers (25 boxes!) that were stored in our basement, and another 4 boxes or so or papers from my work office. It was painful but necessary. My new home office actually has some empty shelves in the bookcases, and the filing cabinet drawers are only partly full (for now).


    1. Good for you, Jude. Sometimes I’m tempted to put our house on the market just so I am forced to make a lot of hard choices 🙂 We’ve actually made some good progress in the last few weeks. Although I can’t boast about having any empty shelves in my office, my file cabinets are no longer bursting at the seams. Still a long way to go, but we are headed in the right direction.

  31. Congratulations! Those notes and recipes! So crazy, eh? Who ever reads them a second time? So now I put them on my phone and my “favorites” folders get stuffed. lol. At least they take up less space and don’t create a fire hazard.

  32. Your purging is inspiring! Husband and I need to do more of this and your reasons are valid. It is so easy just to keep things if you have room for them. We are considering a condo and need to evaluate all of our “stuff!” At our age we want more freedom. Cheers!

    1. We’ve been working on this project for a couple of weeks and have made good progress. The key is to not try to do everything all at once. Once you start to see the results, you’ll feel so much better Good luck!

  33. Good luck. I kept moving around with the same box of papers that needed shredding for years haha. They did eventually get shredded but it was quite a task. How do you feel about being totally paperless? I’ve written a post about it today.

    1. I just read your post and I agree: I don’t think I could go completely paperless either. We’ve gotten rid of a lot but some papers need to be kept… records, family history, letters, etc. I guess it’s all just a balance. Thanks for your comment!

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