“My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.”
This line endeared me to Marie Kondo forever.
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo says that many of her clients have rococo-level elaborate paper filing systems. These systems, of course, never work (or these people wouldn’t be Kondo’s clients); they merely guarantee that their owners are drowning in paperwork and in the task of filing that paperwork.
There’s something compellingly “adult,” at least in my mind, about a well-ordered filing cabinet in which every incoming piece of paper automatically belongs somewhere. And like a lot of compellingly “adult” things, it’s one I never once managed to achieve, although I’ve spent my entire adult life trying desperately to do so.
Instead, I’ve simply lugged piles of paper from house to house, some of it for twenty years or more, telling myself that “someday” I would get it all filed. Yet the moment I try I get instantly overwhelmed: What goes where? How long do I need to keep something? What if I need this just in case?
Why Do We Own So Much Paper?
In the US, we tend to generate a lot of paperwork because we’re a legalistic society. Everything comes with a long trail of fine print on it, because we structure so many of our relationships according to contract principles.
We’re pretty cool with this when pressed about it from other angles. We see our court system as the basis of our fundamental freedoms (not without reason), and we’re willing to get into angery Internet conversations about Teh Constitution(TM) at the drop of a hat.
On the other hand, we also think “Kill all the lawyers” was good advice, we’re convinced that tort claims are just “whining” until they happen to us, and we never read the fine print on all that paperwork we get anyway.
And we really don’t read the paperwork we receive. The argument I repeated more than any other during my time at the law firm was “Plaintiffs had a duty to read their insurance policy.” It was rarely a case of incomprehensible jargon making that task futile, either; I handled multiple cases in which the plaintiffs had sued for coverage on outbuildings, which they referred to as “outbuildings” in conversation, when the policy said in bold all caps “THIS POLICY DOES NOT COVER OUTBUILDINGS.”
We do not read the paperwork we are handed. Somehow, reading it isn’t the adult thing to do. Storing it is.
Throw It All Away
I’m a bit surprised at the lack of negative response to Kondo’s “throw it all away” statement. Most of the sources I’ve found online embraced this idea as a relief.
It’s not the relief I find confusing; it’s the fact that “just throw out your paperwork” is seen as an extraordinarily juvenile thing to do, if not an outright dangerous thing to do. Yet no one seems to have pointed that out on the Intertubes as yet.
In Spark Joy, Kondo clarifies that she doesn’t want you to simply gather all the paperwork in the house and chuck it in the bin. Rather, she recommends that you approach the pile with the assumption that “This is all going in the bin anyway, so let’s see what is important to keep.”
To that end, Kondo recommends keeping three categories of papers:
- Things you need to handle in some way (bills, invitations, appointment reminders, etc.)
- Things you need to keep for a limited period of time (warranties, taxes, etc.)
- Things you need to keep indefinitely (birth certificates, passports, vehicle titles, etc.)
Anything that you can deal with on the spot while cleaning out the paperwork, Kondo says, do so. Don’t let that first folder get too big.
The Cull And What I Learned From It
This was my oh-so-adult filing system when I began:
(I tried with those file folders. I really did.)
Figuring out what I needed to handle was pretty simple: it was mostly all bills. Figuring out what I needed to keep indefinitely was also pretty simple: it was mostly in the fire safe already.
The second category stumped me. A few things with obvious expiration dates, like current insurance dec pages and the last seven years’ worth of taxes, were obvious. But I found myself with a growing pile of things that I couldn’t put a date on, but also wasn’t certain I could simply dispose of.
Here, the concept I started forming in the “books” phase of book-as-object versus book-as-experience, became extremely helpful. I asked myself, “Do I need this piece of paper, or do I just need the information on it?”
If I only needed the information, I scanned the document and then tossed it. Otherwise, I kept it. (I ended up keeping none of them.)
Scanning: Are We Just Moving the Clutter?
One of my friends brought up a worthwhile point during this process: “Am I really tidying, or just moving the mess to my hard drive?”
Kondo provides advice in Spark Joy about how to tidy your digital files (again, focus on what is worth keeping), but I found myself not too concerned about this question as I scanned.
Having access to the information in my paper pile actually does spark joy. Having papers lying around my workspace stresses me out. The scanner and the hard drive are the answer to this particular dilemma.
My external hard drives are relatively well organized. Sure, there’s a ton of stuff on there that’s probably worth deleting, but at least I know where it is and I can quickly distinguish it from stuff I continue to use.
Your mileage may vary, but for me, moving this huge stack of information from paper to digital was a massive relief.
The Other Papers
I’m an academic and a musician, and I’m also nostalgic, so getting through the pile of papers in my filing cabinet wasn’t nearly as daunting as getting through the other pile of papers: portfolios, scrapbooks, research and sheet music.
This used to be three full shelves:
A large chunk of it was old photocopied sheet music or pieces my husband and I had composed in Noteflight, Sibelius, or (in one case) Forte. Yes, Forte. Do you remember Forte? I sure didn’t.
I scanned all the photocopied sheet music. The not-photocopied stuff went on the shelf.
The bottom two shelves (one of which you can see at the bottom edge of this photo) are full of scrapbooks, photo albums, and my research from graduate school, the last category of which covers an entire shelf and a half.
Confession: I did not actually touch the research during the papers phase of tidying.
At the time, it was because I spent an entire day last year organizing it into binders by topic, sorting it by author’s last name, and typing out little bibliographies in MLA format to go in the front of each binder. And I thought, when I started this process, that I didn’t want to disturb that research.
Now, at the end, I’m rethinking that approach. Especially since I know I haven’t even read quite a few of the articles down there – and, four years out of grad school, I’m probably not going to.
Paper As Object
Here’s a whole lot of paper I kept as-is:
The smaller journals on the right date back to 1988; the notebooks on the left start in 2010.
I’ve kept notebooks since I was about ten. In 2009, I broke down the entire collection, sorted out what I thought was “important” (story chunks, journal entries, etc) from what I thought wasn’t (to-do lists), and put what I kept into a binder.
I’ve regretted it ever since.
The notebooks as objects spark joy, a fact I didn’t realize until I’d gotten rid of the first batch entirely. Scanning what’s in them, even if I did every page of every notebook, simply wouldn’t be the same. It’s not that I want easy access to the info; it’s that I want the presence of the notebooks themselves in my life. So here they are.
This Isn’t Even My Final Form
This is the pile on its way out to the recycling bin:
My filing cabinet now has 8 folders in it: One for each tax year and one for things I need to deal with this month (mostly bills). Once a month, I clean out last folder, deal with its contents, scan anything I need to keep and toss all the paper. The rest of the space in my filing cabinet holds office supplies.
And this approach feels a million times more adulty than what I tried to do before.
I know where everything is. I can find anything I need, either in the filing cabinet or on my external hard drive, in a matter of seconds. I’m not losing bills or paperwork anymore.
Thanks, Marie Kondo. I will happily throw it all away.
Next time: Komono.