Facing the Dreaded Pile of Papers


The book had my name written all over it. Actually, it only had my first name. Still,when I spotted "Lighten Up! Free Yourself From Clutter" (HarperPerennial) by Michelle Passoff atop the mountain in my "in" basket, I was mildly curious.

Thanks to another de-clutterer--author Elaine St. James of "Simplify Your Life" fame--I had already gotten rid of some of the stuff that was gunking up my life. The treadmill that wasn't being treaded on, the long-expired medicines that littered the bathroom.

But the one area that remained unconquered was papers. Insurance papers, tax papers, bills, receipts, bank statements, canceled checks, personal correspondence. If someone had demanded at gunpoint that I produce the title to my car, I would have had to say, "Shoot me."

I don't fear many things, but those papers scared me something fierce.

Over the years, I dealt with them like any self-respecting chicken. I stuffed them in folders, drawers, cabinets, closets. On shelves, under beds, in shoe bags, in the liquor cabinet.

The only papers I treated with any modicum of respect were bills. They were tossed into a small plastic basket that, with any luck, I cleaned out every two weeks.

"Lighten Up!" was a book after my own cluttered heart.

It's divided into three sections: "Getting Started," "Learning Skills" and "Living Clutter Free."

Passoff, a New York-based consultant who leads workshops and offers private de-cluttering sessions, writes in a clear step-by-step manner--something we clutterers need. Otherwise, we would put the book to the side and--like everything else in our lives--promise to get back to it later.

Since I have a small office space at home, it was especially important that I organize my papers.

Passoff's approach is so basic that she dwells on issues such as buying the right file cabinet. Not all file cabinets are created equal, she writes, nor are they loved equally.

I already had a file cabinet, but I used it the same way I used the laundry basket. Just toss everything in. But at least the laundry basket was cleared once a week. Not so with the file cabinet.


With book in hand, I headed to Staples and bought a big plastic file cabinet (legal size), a pack of Manila folders, a pack of hanging folders (I went with purple) and file labels.

Proud of my buys, I carried them home and put them aside. Then I dug into Project Paperwork. Passoff warns that this is going to take a chunk of time. It took me 5 1/2 hours. But well worth it.

Basically, you gather up every piece of paper in your house and toss it in a pile. At this point you might be tempted to pour on the kerosene followed by a match, but resist ye clutterers. Instead, Passoff suggests that you put the papers into six piles:

* Trash

* Financial

* Personal

* Professional

* Names / Addresses / Phone Numbers

* Immediate Action

Then, working your way down, start sorting.

"Although this methodical approach--from the top of the pile to the bottom--may seem pedestrian, it is one of the most important clutter-cleaning skills, and it will help you develop the muscles to live a clutter-free life. Don't underestimate its importance," she writes.

To divulge more about this book would be akin to telling you the ending to "The Street Lawyer," John Grisham's latest.

But I will share a Passoff passage that has become my mantra: "Keep areas that you have already cleared off grounds for more clutter. . . . You can continue being reckless to your heart's content by tossing stuff elsewhere, but not in the place you have already cleaned of clutter."

I've done this at home. Not a misplaced paper to be found. Next up? To borrow from that Dynamic Duo: To the batoffice, Michelle.

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