We live in a digital age, yet many of us continue to struggle with way too much paper clutter in our lives. We have to deal with junk mail, post-it notes, receipts, business cards, documents, magazines, user manuals etc. I was shocked when I read that the average American will spend 8 months of their lives dealing with junk mail alone. 8 months! Imagine how else we could spend that time.
I’ve been driven by two key goals — 1. reduce the paper clutter in my life and 2. create a ‘mobile lifestyle’ where I can easily access any digital document from anywhere in the world, on any device. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’ve made some great progress towards realizing those goals.
So here are the 10 simple ways how I have reduced paper clutter in my life so far:
1. Go Paperless with Bills & Statements
Most companies these days offer the convenience of ‘paperless’ bills. This can be a great solution for many people, as long you’ve got an effective system for tracking and paying those bills. I use a software product called Orchestra (which you can access either from a web browser or an iPhone application) to track my to-do list. When I get a bill, I just create a new task in Orchestra and set a reminder for either the 1st or 15th of the month (when I get paid). Then on the 1st and 15th of each month, I log into my online banking account and pay all the bills scheduled for that day. I usually spend around 30 minutes a month dealing with bills. I also switched my bank statements to ‘paperless’ versions since I can easily access those online whenever I need to.
2. Opt Out of Receiving Junk Mail
Dealing with junk mail is a real pain for most of us. It’s incredible how much money and paper is wasted on direct mail advertising for catalogs, credit card offers etc. I usually toss all this junk mail into the recycling bin as soon as I walk into the house with new mail, but ideally I don’t want this junk mail even getting to my mailbox in the first place. I just signed up with Catalog Choice, a non-profit based in Berkeley, California that helps people to opt-out of junk mail for free. I tried something similar a few years ago and although it reduced my junk mail for a short period, in the long run it was just as bad as ever. So I’ll provide an update later on how it works out with Catalog Choice.
3. Stop Buying Magazines & Newspapers
I used to spend a lot of money on magazines and let them pile up around the house. I was never really a big newspaper reader, so that wasn’t much of an issue for me, since I got most of my news from the Internet. One day, I heard Tim Ferris talk about the low information diet and decided not only to stop buying magazines and newspapers, but also stop listening to and reading the news. I actually like being happily ignorant now. I do still follow the news, but in two simple ways – 1. I will check out the news headlines on MSN.com home page in the mornings and 2. glance at the front page of New York Times for sale in Starbucks as I wait for my coffee. If the news is important enough, it will be in one of those two places. If it’s not, then I probably don’t need to know about. This tip has not only reduced paper clutter in my life, it has also reduced the negative clutter in my mind that you inevitably get when you listen about so many negative things happening around the world.
4. Switch to Buying eBooks
Although 95% of the books that I purchase now are from the Kindle store, I still think of books as being the one exception to my ‘paperless lifestyle’ rule. Call me old fashioned, but there are just some books that I love to hold and feel the pages as I turn them. Also, since I read a lot of technical books, I sometimes find that they’re not formatted well for reading on the Kindle. But the overwhelming majority of my book collection is now stored in ‘the cloud’ and available to me wherever I go. I even purchased Kindle versions of some paper books that I already owned, when I found that I was constantly referring to them or just enjoyed re-reading them from time to time. I just bought myself a Kindle Paperwhite which makes it easy to carry my book collection around and has an illuminated screen which lets me read at night time without external lighting.
5. Request Electronic Copies of Documents
I’ve also stopped accepting paper copies of documents from people when I know that electronic copies could be used instead. It’s rare for someone at work to send me a printed copy of a document — it’s nearly all received in email. And when someone does give me a paper copy of a document, I usually just ask them to email me a copy instead. This has helped to reduce a lot of the paper clutter in my work life. And the other benefit is that it’s much easier for me to work remotely (from home, coffee shops etc.) because everything I need is either on my computer or stored in the ‘the cloud’ and is a few clicks away. Depending on the type of work that you do and the type of company that you work in, it may not be as easy for us to reduce this kind of paper clutter. But wherever you can, you should try to encourage that people share from documents electronically to reduce paper clutter and hopefully save a few trees too.
6. Throw Away Business Cards
I don’t keep other people’s business cards anymore. A lot of people will tell you to take pictures of the business cards or to scan them. But frankly, that’s usually a waste of time. These days, anyone who’s serious about business (or at least serious enough to have business cards printed) usually has an online presence too with all their contact information. LinkedIn is the social network for business people and you can find just about anyone in business on there. So when I receive a business card these days, I just visit LinkedIn and invite that person to join my business social network and then I recycle the business card. Once that person has accepted my invitation, I have access to all their contact details and with the LinkedIn iPhone application, I can easily access that contract information no matter where I am. Now I just need to find a better of way of getting other people to connect with my online instead of asking for my business cards (which I still occasionally give out these days).
7. Efficiently Process Mail When It Arrives
I always try to process my mail as soon as I walk into the house with my mail. The steps that I go through are simple and usually take no longer than 5 or 10 minutes. First, I go through my pile of mail and through all the junk mail into my recycling bin. I am pretty good at identifying junk mail without even opening it, so get through this step quickly. The next step is to remove all the remaining mail from their envelopes and toss the envelopes into the recycling bin. This sometimes uncovers more junk mail that sneaked through my initial pass because the sender tried to make it look more ‘official’. What I’m left with then usually goes into two piles — 1. stuff that I should file because I might need it later and 2. stuff that needs some action. So the third step is to take my action pile and create new tasks for each one in Orchestra (see tip #1) e.g. “Pay phone bill $45.32 on Nov-1”. Then I take both the piles and put them all into my temporary filing basket (tip #8).
8. Get Rid of Paper Filing Systems
I used to spend a lot of time maintaining a very organized paper filing system. But eventually I realized that I rarely ever needed those documents again. And in most cases when I did, an electronic copy of the document would have done just fine. So I’ve stripped down my paper filing system to two things — 1. a temporary filing basket and 2. an expanding file for documents where a paper version is required e.g. birth certificates. Everything that I think that I may need goes into my temporary filing basket and once every couple of months I ‘purge’ that basket by making 3 piles — 1. stuff that I thought I needed but don’t really need anymore, 2. stuff that I need to file as a paper version and 3. stuff that I can file electronically. The first pile goes into my recycling bin (with anything confidential going through my paper shredder first). The second pile goes into my expanding file. And the third pile gets scanned using my Fujitsu ScanSnap mobile scanner. I love this little scanner. It makes scanning so easy and one one press of a button I can get my document scanned and stored either on my computer’s hard drive or within Evernote. If you really want to make the most of Evernote, then checkout Brett Kelly’s Evernote Essentials guide.
9. Use Evernote to Manage & Store Your Notes
I’m a big fan of Evernote. You can use it to capture notes and access them from anywhere and it’s free. However, since I rely on it so much and think it’s a great product, I upgraded to a premium membership many years ago which gives me several benefits over the free account. And at just $5 per month, it is very well worth it. I love being able to access my notes and documents from anywhere in the world and on any device e.g. my iPhone. I use Evernote to store several types of notes. Firstly, there’s the reference material type stuff e.g. list of medications that the kids have taken or are taking, so I can easily retrieve this information on my iPhone if we’re taking the kids to a new doctor. Secondly, there’s are notes for general thoughts that I capture e.g. ideas or drafting blog posts. And thirdly, there are notes that I make on paper and then scan into Evernote. Despite my love of technology, I still love to grab a notepad and mind map. So when I’m done, I like to scan the paper mind map and store it electronically in Evernote. I’m currently experimenting with the Bamboo Paper iPad application Bamboo Stylus to create mind maps. It’s the closet thing that I’ve seen on the iPad to using a paper and pen. And with just one click, I can save my electronic mind map to Evernote. So all my notes are stored safe in one place where I can easily search and retrieve.
10. Throw Away User Manuals
I used to have a piles of user manuals around the house e.g. for kitchen appliances, thermostat, digital cameras etc. But now I just throw all those away and access those manuals online. I usually do this in two ways — 1. if available, I download the relevant manual (usually as a PDF file) and save a copy in Evernote or 2. I save a link to the online manual (if it’s not available to download) in Evernote. Either way, I can just go into Evernote, search for what I want and find the relevant manual in seconds.
Where I Still Have Paper Clutter In My Life
Although, I’ve made a lot of progress towards a ‘paperless lifestyle’, there is still a lot of paper in my life, which includes:
- The endless supply of paper that both my kids seem to generate at home and school each day.
- My wife who isn’t as motivated as me to go ‘paperless’ and still has lots of paper clutter around the house.
- Endless receipts for meals and miscellaneous items that I still seem to end up collecting.
- My old filing systems which are stored away, but need to recycled or scanned.
So it’s not a perfect system yet, but I’m getting better at it every day. And I’ll write more at some point about how to tackle the rest of this paper clutter.
Question: how much paper clutter is there in your life and what from your recent experiences has worked for you in reducing that paper clutter? Join me on Facebook or Twitter and please share your thoughts and experiences.