How To Declutter Paper Fast With Just Three Folders

Do you find yourself avoiding certain areas of your home because of piles of paper? Whether you work away from home, at home, or have a home office for your personal paperwork, attempting to declutter paper is a problem most people face frequently. The paper just keeps coming in, and we can be overwhelmed if we let it accumulate.

What does the top of your desk (or the place where you work with papers) look like – right now? If it’s totally clear of clutter, then you might just have a handle on it. But if you’re like most people, your desk or workspace can leave something to be desired in terms of neatness and organization. 

notebook on folders beside computer and coffee cup

As for the three folders in the title of this blog post? Yes! It really is totally possible to manage the papers cluttering your desk or work area starting with just three simple file folders. 

Successfully Declutter Paper

I am an over-complicator, so I tend to go overboard with any system I have ever tried. Helping my ADHD husband find a simple way that worked for him to stay on top of things at his desk helped me to develop an easy system that actually works very well for both of us. 

  1. And even after years of using this system, I still find this three-folder method of managing paperwork to be very useful. In addition to the efficiency of this easy system, it has very little extra cost, beyond the actual three file folders. And there isn’t a lot of thought needed, since the folders each contain broad categories of papers. 

Let’s get started right away. First, a warning: This article does not address a large accumulation of old papers or stacks and stacks of papers all over the house (For this, see Overwhelmed By Clutter? What To Do). Here we are tackling the immediate need to corral the papers on your desk or the place where you do paperwork. 

Folder One: To File

paper clutter solutions - new day of simplicity

The first step is to create a TO FILE folder first, so grab any file folder (a pretty one is a bonus, but not necessary) and quickly label it TO FILE. What you put into this folder will be simple and straightforward because the papers you will put in here will require very little decision-making. 

This folder will contain papers that are headed to a final resting place for storage or use. You may already have a filing system, but if not, I’ll be giving you instructions for creating the simplest of filing systems in an upcoming blog post. 

The type of papers you will gather to put in your TO FILE folder are things you no longer need on your desktop but may need to keep or refer to for future reference such as:

  • bank statements
  • tax documents
  • store receipts for things that may need returned or proven at some point 
  • bills that have already been paid
  • coupons on their way to your coupon pouch or purse to use at the store
  • current insurance policies
  • medical records
  • pet records from the vet
  • business cards
  • contact information for someone or someplace

Go ahead and get started. Depending on how many papers you have to weed through, this could take a bit of time but don’t labor over it. If in doubt, just put it in your TO FILE folder. You’ll be able to think through it later when you are ready to actually do the filing. 

I give you permission to get rid of (yes, I mean throw in the trash or paper shredder) any papers that you do not need to save for any reason. Again, if in doubt, place it in the folder. 

And at this point, your desk area will be showing improvement. Since you’ve put approximately one-third of the paper clutter into your TO FILE folder, now you only need to deal with 2 more folders, and you’ll be finished. 

Folder Two: To Do

paper clutter solutions - new day of simplicity

The second folder will be labeled TO DO. This is where action items will be place, papers need something done, like paying a bill, making a call, or responding in some way. 

Some of the papers that belong in the TO DO folder are: 

  • paper bills that need to be paid
  • reminders or notices of any sort 
  • cards that need notes, addresses, and/or stamps
  • receipts that have not been logged into your budget 
  • papers or letters that you need to read 
  • sticky notes or slips of paper you wrote on but haven’t done anything with
  • bank statements that need to be reconciled
  • reminders for cards you need to write and send
  • invitations you need to respond to and put on the calendar

In short, this is anything and everything that is on your desk area that you have not taken any steps to deal with as of yet. Now you can go ahead and gather up everything in your sight that fits into this category and put it into your TO DO folder.

Folder Three: In Progress

This one can be labeled “IN PROGRESS”, “PENDING” or “ACTIVE”. This category is for things that are in motion or maybe in a holding pattern. Keeping track of this category of papers prevents losing track of papers or projects that you might other wise forget about (until it’s too late). The IN PROGRESS file folder will contain two kinds of papers: 

  1. Projects that you’ve already taken some kind of action on, but that are not yet completed. 
  2. Things that you’re waiting for a time or a person in order to finalize. 
  3. Anything and everything that is in the works but not yet completed 

This could include papers such as:

  • unfinished projects
  • items that require action from someone else in order for it to move on 
  • plans that are not yet solidified 
  • cards for which you have already written a note but still need an address or stamps 
  • things you have delegated but are waiting to make sure are finished 
  • all papers that you wouldn’t want to lose track of because there is something else that needs done before adding to the TO FILE folder. 

You can pause here to gather these types of papers from your desk and place them in

paper clutter solutions - new day of simplicity

Bonus Folder Suggestions

If you feel like you have more papers than what will comfortably fit into these three categories, here are several more ideas that you might want to eventually add to the mix, but for starting out I recommend sticking with only the original three file folders.

You could create a THINGS TO READ folder if you have lots of papers, articles, or clippings that you haven’t yet taken time to read, and don’t want cluttering your TO DO folder while you are getting to it. 

A folder titled TO DECIDE or MAYBE can be used for new ideas and other things that no decision has been made on or discussed. As an idea becomes a reality, it will be time to move it into your IN PROGRESS folder. 

And some people like to keep a folder called DREAMS or WISH LIST for things that aren’t even possibilities or reality right now or maybe ever, but they still want to keep track of them. This is a great way to hold onto a bucket list, dreams, vacation ideas, or business thoughts that you’re just not ready for as of yet.

I keep a separate folder for RECEIPTS. I have a ton of receipts because of my husband’s business. I track and record every receipt (even those for our personal budget) and also scan them into a rewards app. 

You could also make a file folder for SENTIMENTAL PAPER, for those papers and flat sentimental items you just don’t have the heart to shred or throw away. 

Maintaining Your 3-Folder Paper Clutter Solution

Now for a few hints for the best way to get the most out of your folder system: The main three folders (TO FILE, TO DO, AND IN PROGRESS) will be of the most value to you if you use them daily, or every time you are at your desk. 

It’s a good idea to keep your folders at front and center so that you don’t forget to look inside frequently. A great habit to develop is checking your folders each time you sit down at your desk. By doing this, you’ll prevent the inconvenience (or catastrophe) of missing something important. 

You may find it helpful to track where you are on each of the items in a folder by putting a sticky note on the outside of the folder listing your highest priorities for the papers inside that folder. 

Make yourself a personal rule that when you come across something that can be done in less than 2-5 minutes and you won’t get distracted by doing it right now – then do it right now and finalize it. This will save time and effort later.

I must say that these three folders have made a huge difference in my own desk paper clutter. Whenever things start to get out of hand, it’s because I’ve neglected using my folders, and when I open them and get started, the decluttering process is quick and painless, and everything comes together for a neat desk in very little time. 

I have tried using multiple bonus folders (see above), but this has always ended up in my being less than productive. When I have more than four, I tend to neglect checking them. This leads to missed deadlines and goals. So I stick with my three original folders, plus RECEIPTS and it’s a smooth process. 

The temptation to leave something lying on the counter or the coffee table, in plain sight, will diminish as you check your file folders on a regular basis and become more confident that your things won’t be lost somewhere in the house or office. 

When you don’t feel the need to keep everything spread out for reminders, you are on your way to clear and clutter-free surfaces, not only at your desk but all over your home. Gone will be the days of forgetting important bills or responses to school forms. 

You will feel like you have more office space with a desk clear of the mishmash of junk mail, important documents, and other paper piles.  

As with all systems, you may need to start over with small changes in the system multiple times. No system will work perfectly for your family or office until you work with it and personalize it, tweaking it to just the right fit. Don’t give up, just keep trying. 

The relief you feel when you finally have a cleared workspace will make this easy decluttering project worth the effort. 

I’d love to hear in the comments how this works for you, and what you’ve done to personalize and tweak this easy and efficient file folder system to your own benefit. This is an excellent decluttering project for beginners. 

tame your paper clutter with just 3 folders - pinterest pin

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