You'll have already heard of the expression "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" to help you cut down on waste.
But for the last couple of years I have been working towards reducing the amount of paper I use. And the system I have devised is not so much "3 Rs". It's more like "RDK RDRR".
Know your why
Before starting, as always, it is worth taking a moment to consider why you want to reduce your paper usage.
My original impetus was to cut down on the amount of clutter I had hanging around. I was also about to move house, and did not fancy taking it all with me!
I did a huge purge. My housemates started joking about the perpetual shredding sounds coming from my room!
Since then, I have been reluctant to allow paper to build up like that again. It is so satisfying knowing I have everything I need, and nothing extra. It is so quick to find anything I want, and super-easy to decide whether to keep something, and where to put it.
You may be embarking on your minimalism journey. You could be working towards a zero waste life. Or you might be feeling like the time is right to put your affairs in order.
Whatever your motivations are for doing this, hold them in your mind while you are go through these 7 steps.
Also, make a cup of tea and put some music on.
Learn to recognise the types of paperwork that you are dealing with.
One way to do this is to collect all the papers in your home, and put them into one place. This helps in a few different ways:
- seeing it all in a different place from usual puts into perspective how much space it is taking up in your home.
- it lifts your "clutter blindness" if your brain has got into the habit of ignoring the papers lying around.
- it enables you to sort like with like, if you had been tucking things away in different places across your home.
Once everything is together, you can take a close look at what it is you have allowed to take up space in your home.
For me, there was a lot of "official correspondence" (e.g. from banks). These papers didn't carry any information I needed, but I was keeping them because... you know, it looks official.
There were other things that I don't know why I was keeping! Old notes, doodles, lists and reminders. I mean, why?!
Take a moment to recognise the categories of stuff that you have accumulated. This will make it easier for you to make blanket decisions, category-by-category.
The most important thing to do is to learn what you actually need to keep.
Some things will be obvious - your passport, birth certificate, any contracts or deeds.
Others might need some research. For example, you might be planning to get a mortgage in the future. So you will need to hold onto your P60s for the past 2 years, and your payslips for the last 3 months. You don't need to keep either of these for any longer.
Some things are your call. I got rid of all my essays and stuff from uni, but kept my reading lists.
Take a moment. Have a think. Do some research. And then -
Make a decision - only once, and right now - about what you are going to do with each category.
If you do Steps 1 and 2 well, then your papers will never pile up again. Whenever something comes into your home, you will always recognise whether to keep it or not.
When you come across a category that you decide to keep, create a home for it.
I have a single accordion file, where I keep everything. On the labels for the dividers, I remind myself of the decisions I made in Step 2.
"Payslips (keep for 3 months only)"
"P60s (keep for 2 years only)"
I always know where to put new things. It is also super-easy to apply the one-in-one-out rule to stop myself holding onto things for too long.
Unless a piece of paper has a home in my filing system, I will not keep it for any longer than I am actively using it.
Once you have filed everything you want to keep into its proper home, take a look at the categories you have left.
Can you stop any of these categories from entering your house?
- unread magazines? Cancel your subscription, or switch to a digital only subscription.
- bank statements? Banks usually allow you to download these. Check your bank offers this, then opt to "go paperless". If you don't want to do this, then decide how long you are going to keep your statements. For mortgage purposes, you only need to keep statements for the last 3 months. If you only want to keep proof of address, then keep only the most recent.
- charity, society, alumni memberships correspondence? Get in touch with the organisation, and ask them to communicate with you via email in future.
Opting out of the categories is much less wasteful of paper and shredding-time.
Another benefit of going paperless is that you can access your stuff from wherever you are. You don't need to wait until you get home to dig out the relevant piece of paper. You can download your bank statements direct from your online banking platform. You can store other electronic documents in the cloud, and access them from any device.
Not everything will need shredding. But a lot will. As a general rule, shred anything that identifies you personally. Even some junk mail (especially credit card offers) may need to be shredded. There is some more info here. But if in doubt, shred it.
Make sure your shredder cross cuts, i.e. cuts the paper in two different directions. This makes it much harder for someone to piece back together. There are tons of cross-cutting shredders on the market, but the one I use is this one.
Keep your shredder accessible, and get into the habit of shredding things as soon as you have the info you need. Make it easy to protect yourself against identity theft.
(A side note. If you are getting rid of old bank cards, cut them into at least four pieces and throw into at least 2 different bins.)
If you use lots of notes and lists throughout your day, why not use the back of your non-confidential papers? It lessens the feeling of guilt about throwing paper away. And it saves money on buying paper or notepads just for scrappy jottings.
I have been doing this for years. I even make little notebooks by punching holes and using treasury tags.
It also speeds up the process of tidying up. I know that if I have jotted something down on scrap paper, then it is not something I need to keep.
If you have shredded paper, can you reuse that? Will it do as bedding for a pet? Or you could use it as a packing material if you are storing breakables in boxes. You can also compost it, if it is not shiny paper.
The most important stage of decluttering - and often the biggest obstacle - is getting the stuff out of your home.
You might be able donate some things. For example, a school may appreciate old magazines for arts and crafts projects.
But most of the time, you will have to recycle the paper you are getting rid of. There is a reason why this is the last step on this list. While it is better than sending it to landfill, recycling is not a waste-free solution. Your focus should be on reducing and reusing, and recycling is the last resort.
Are you actually going to go through this process to reduce your paper usage? If you are - that is fantastic news - I hope these steps help! Feel free to share your before and after photos on Twitter! If you tag me @ArchiveRobin, I'd love to re-tweet them!
It's a big and daunting task - especially if the paperwork has built up over a few years. But from now on, much less stuff will be coming into your home. And Future-you will always know what to do with any piece of paperwork, and it will never pile up again.
I hope you enjoyed this article about how to keep on top of your paperwork. Usually my articles focus on how to keep on top your your digital stuff. So if that sounds useful to you, do check back next week because I publish a new article every Tuesday. Or if you would like these sent straight to your inbox, then why not get them all in one monthly email?
Thank you so much for reading all the way to the end! You're a star! Good luck and see you next week!