Most of the stuff in the universe is not in my apartment. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of your stuff, although if I do, please remind me… I’ve written in the past about how I don’t have a nightstand or a coffee table. Another conventional item that I don’t have is a filing cabinet. This is pretty common amongst the chronically disorganized, and it’s a good tool for making sense out of scattered stuff. It’s possible, though, to graduate past the need for a physical file cabinet. Not having a filing cabinet is one of the many ways that I make my life easier.
There are three levels of filing:
Not having a filing cabinet means I need to be strategic about how information flows through my life. I need to plan my finances and my infrastructure. This strategic planning is how I control the flow of papers so I can always find what I need. It also keeps unwanted papers from taking over our house.
The first thing is to default to NO when it comes to papers. Refuse all brochures, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, catalogues, business cards, menus, free newspapers or anything else that is thrust out. Any information I need, I can look up online. There is no reason for contact information to be collected in paper form. The other advantage of this is that I’m in control of the research. Anyone who wants me to take papers from them is marketing something, which means they’re looking after their advantage, not mine. This is contrary for compulsive accumulators, who get swirly eyes every time they think they’re getting something for free.
Junk mail is in a category of its own. Opt out. Get your name off the lists. This can be hard to do in the case of postcards from local dentists or other businesses, but they usually only reach out once. Regular offenders catch my attention, and I go to their website and figure out how to get my name taken off their mailing list. After opting out, the second most important way to fight junk mail is to ruthlessly process it every day. When either of us brings in the mail, we’ve already sorted through it by the time we get to our front door, and all the junk goes into the recycling bin.
These two gates, resisting papers and eliminating junk mail, eliminate at least 80% of the burden of paper sorting. This is why they are so essential to the process. There’s plenty to sort when it comes to the relevant stuff, the papers we actually need. Having them mixed in with bags and bags of unsorted junk mail makes the process almost impossible.
What about the stuff we do need? As often as possible, we sign up for paperless billing. Almost all the time, we just use auto-pay. This is another area that is very contrary for my people. Even direct deposit for paychecks is too much for them; it makes them feel paranoid. I used to feel that way. At some point in the late Nineties, I changed my mind. Never once, not a single time, have I ever had a problem with direct deposit or automatic billing. Of course that’s not going to matter to those who are afraid of electronic banking. For those who just feel overwhelmed and dread the thought, it’s even more important to control the flow of paper, because there’s going to be at least ten times more of it.
Guess what? Once you’ve paid a bill, you no longer need to keep the billing statement. Or the envelopes, or the brochures. Any of it. You don’t need to keep paper copies of bank statements, either. We haven’t kept any for our entire marriage. This is why we don’t have a filing cabinet, because either we don’t keep these papers or we don’t generate them on paper in the first place.
We also don’t keep academic papers. My husband is active in his field of aerospace engineering, and his student work wouldn’t be all that relevant to what he does today. I haven’t needed or used any of my papers, either, although I did scan the ones I wanted to keep. They take up a small amount of space in my cloud storage. Most people keep old school papers because they miss being students.
What do we keep?
Our passports, social security cards, and marriage license are in the fireproof safe.
I have a red Manila file folder labeled PENDING that has certain papers that are necessary for the short term. For instance, I had a four-year battle with the City of Los Angeles, trying to tax me for income I didn’t earn even when I wasn’t a resident. I saved all the correspondence from them. That was about a dozen sheets. At some point, I’ll scan them and shred the originals. I just looked through this folder and pulled out an invitation to a party I attended and instructions for an eye ointment I no longer need. Then there’s a flyer from our apartment complex about repaving the parking lot this month. Well, I’m certainly not putting it on the fridge!
We have a cardboard file box. It measures ten inches deep. This is downsized from our previous file box, which was about twice as big. I keep it in the linen closet, where there’s room for it because we don’t keep threadbare old towels or wrong-size sheets. I just flipped through it. The majority of it is only in there because of how long it would take to scan it, and because if we get rid of another inch of papers, I’ll have to find a different storage solution. They’re holding each other upright. You know all those pictures on Pinterest of cute desks with decorative storage boxes on the shelves? Something like that would work.
What’s in our file box? School pictures of my stepdaughter. Instruction manuals, which I include with items that I resell when we’re done. Tax returns, of course. Race bibs from the different races I’ve run. A bunch of schematics and notes about various inventions, mine and his. Veterinary records, which, come to think of it, our vet has on file anyway. Essentially what we have is there due to entropy, not because we need to use these papers for reference. (The invention stuff should certainly be scanned). The only ones we’re legally mandated to keep are the tax returns, a file that’s about 1/8” thick. It could go in the safe and then we’d be done.
Papers, like many other objects, tend to be kept because we don’t believe we have permission to get rid of them. What do you want to bet that almost everyone reading this still has the tags hanging off their mattress? How many people have stuff in their house that was left behind by previous tenants? Why do we always keep all the spare hardware that’s left over after assembling something? It takes a certain amount of moxie to seize the initiative and make executive decisions about stuff. Do a little research and decide that there’s an entire category of papers you no longer need to keep.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.