The hottest segment of my Marin County Professional Organizing business right now is working with clients in their offices, trying to get stacks and piles of paper under control. Wait! This is the 21st century, the 3rd Millenium! Where is the paperless lifestyle we were promised in the 1990s? I suspect it is stuffed in the cosmic closet of the universe, wedged up against the personal jetpack promised in the 1950s, or under the seat of those flying cars from the 1960s.
So, what is all this paper, why are we so paralyzed by it, and how can we control it, cull through it, and store it sensibly and efficiently, even as more paper continues to shuffle into our busy lives? And why is it so much harder to deal with paper than it is to clear unwanted clothes out of a closet or outgrown toys from a playroom?
Blame the brain. Unlike garments, gadgets, objects, and even sentimental souvenirs, paper is covered with writing. Writing is a complex communication system that elevates human beings and forces the brain to engage in a way that is far more complicated and exhausting than simply scanning an item and thinking “Toss!” “Save!” “Eww?! What IS this?”
Here are two scans of brain activity. The brain on the left shows neural activity when the subject looked at a picture while on the right is a brain involved in reading text. Perhaps that brain is sorting through papers on a desk, trying to figure out what to do with them and realizing there are several bills that were supposed to be paid last week.
Eureka: The unique problem that plagues paper organizing vs. stuff organizing is the neural processing that goes on inside the brain. I would cite a medical journal here to prove my point, but they were all incredibly long, had dozens of multi-syllabic words, condensed text and virtually no pictures, so I just kind of skimmed it all and found some pictures of brains looking at images vs text.
When I am working with clients and their paper, the first priority is to identify known categories such as bills, photos, articles, etc., and assign bins for each category. As we dive into a stack of paper, the process involves picking up a sheet of paper, reading at least the top 1/3 of the sheet, and saying, “This is an important bill,” or “This is an article I intended to send dear Aunt Gertrude three years ago when she came down with shingles.” The process gums up almost immediately because the client’s brain is alternating from glowing in small patches of one or two colors to blaring rainbows of “OH MY GOD I NEED TO ACT UPON THIS PIECE OF PAPER RIGHT NOW”. After all, that is often why they finally called in an organizing expert – to help them find an important document in the deluge.
No wonder people look at their stacks of paper and just avoid the whole thing. It is very tough to set aside time to make decision after decision after decision without getting frustrated or depressed by all of the information that requires immediate action, nevermind trudging through all of the obsolete information that we have been safely storing for months or even years.
Here’s how to succeed at sorting paper without giving in to your psychedelic rainbow brain.
1) Set a timer. 30 minutes is a good first time goal. When the timer goes off, walk away and do something non-visually exhausting. Listen to music, go for a walk, cook something delicious. You can come back to it later. Funny thing: it will all still be here, but you’ll feel fresher for round 2.
2) Use that entire 30 minutes for sorting only. Do not get hooked by an individual sheet of paper. If you know you are going to find terrifying things that need immediate action, make one of your containers “The Red Hot Lava” which will be your first priority after the sorting is done.
3) Be prepared to detach yourself from obsolete information. Your aunt does not need or want any reminder about shingles, and there is probably a small mountain of paper that is no longer relevant in your life. Toss it, shred it, get it out of the prime real estate of your office.
4) When your session is done, stack containers neatly, set the unfinished piles in a less prominent spot, and go wash your hands thoroughly.
I can tell you that even after one brief session of sorting, tossing, and categorizing paper, you will feel better. I sometimes look around when the paper is flying and worry that my client is going to freak out, but they are usually delighted and enthused. Just starting has boosted their energy. I like to imagine that their souls are now glowing from smoky gray shades to hot pinks, greens and yellows.