This is how bad it is. I was working on my tablet while doing something else on my phone. I picked up a hard copy of a book, and a slip of paper fell out. There was a handwritten note on it, from me to me. I went to set it down next to me on the table, thinking, "I'll record this later," only there was already another slip of paper with handwritten notes on it. Apparently this is a really hard habit for me to break.
Papers are thoughts, and mine are all over the place.
I've been working on digitizing all the remaining paper in my life. It's incredibly tedious. Yet I am finding greater clarity through the process; the more the stack is whittled down, the more I feel able to trust that I'm not forgetting something or missing something vital somewhere. The majority of my artistic output from 1990 to the present is stored electronically in a couple of folders. For every page I decide to scan, there are five I decide I don't need at all. Out of all the pages I've decided I should type up, about half of them had already been done. Why I thought I needed both paper and digital backups, I can't recall. It must have seemed important at the time.
This is the root cause of the desire to hang on to paper notes. (And notebooks, and books, and digital files, for that matter). We're convinced that these older thoughts are significant and important. Perhaps more so than our current thoughts, or our future thoughts. Nowhere is this more true than in the insistence on keeping old academic papers. I'm in my forties now, yet I'm still convinced that papers I wrote in my twenties have some kind of special wisdom. The fallacy inherent here is that I also have poetry I wrote when I was fourteen. Doesn't it make sense that I'll be writing better, more interesting things at age sixty than I did at age twenty?
With age, supposedly, comes wisdom. We can hope that time will make us more competent at our careers, more decisive, highly skilled. We can hope that our educations will pay off, that we'll be reading more deeply with time. The more we read, the more we think, the more we write, the better we'll get at it. If any of this is true, then nothing of our past output would be as valuable as our future production. As often as not, when we read stuff we wrote years ago, we're embarrassed.
Why did I save this? Someone might see it!
Academic papers come in two categories: what we've written and what we read, or intended to read. Papers can be like a buffet restaurant. We want to have as many options as possible, and the last thing we want to think about is our actual capacity to consume. In grade school, I conceived the childish wish to go to the Library of Congress and read every book there. I thought I could do it, and that I'd still be able to read other stuff when I was done. I have trouble believing I can't eat a slice of cake the size of a skateboard ramp, and I have even more trouble believing that I will die one day without having read Every Book in the World. Surely my to-be-read pile is as nothing in the face of this grand wish!
In this sense, the papers I have written or read are thoughts. What, though, are the papers I've brought in without knowing the contents? I think they exert an unconscious pressure on our mental bandwidth in the same way that unused art and craft supplies put pressure on our creative drives. We think we're giving ourselves options, when we're really giving ourselves unnecessary constraints.
Papers can be categorized in another way: sorted and unsorted. Academic papers tend to be well-behaved, staying neatly in their three-ring binders, files, and spiral notebooks. It's everything else that tends to form a free-flowing vortex of paper chaos. Notes to self! Junk mail! Important mail! Recipes! Invitations! Takeout menus! Coupons! Shopping lists! Sticky notes! Index cards! Each and every piece has a thought attached to it. Usually, that thought is: LATER.
I'll deal with this later.
The trouble with these unsorted, unexamined papers is that we keep seeing them. We set them down and they refuse to vanish. If only the papers I didn't need disappeared as regularly as things I wanted to remember. "Why did I walk into this room just now?" The answer to that is dissipating like mist, while yet another new phonebook has materialized in my living room. The paper I need, urgently, is buried under a drift of papers I never needed and didn't ask for, most of them addressed to 'resident.' Resident doesn't live here!
When we clear the papers, we clear our thoughts. It's automatic. We can't get rid of things without making decisions, and nothing clears brain fog as well as making decisions does. More importantly and more interestingly, clearing our thoughts clears the papers as well. When we make firm decisions first, sorting papers can be quick and easy.
The first step is to decide how to handle incoming papers from today onward. I made a decision to take electronic notes, and I do that over 90% of the time. We've also made the decision to handle our bills and finances electronically, so it's rare for our transactions to ever appear on paper. We both loathe junk mail, so it's sorted and disposed of as soon as it comes in the door. We don't subscribe to any magazines. The result of these decisions is that we can handle our incoming mail in under five minutes. The papers in our house are, therefore, older.
When confronted with old junk, like my old notebooks, we can make a quick guess that is likely to be accurate. If I haven't needed it so far, I probably never will. Maybe I'll get audited by the IRS, in which case, I have a file folder of old tax returns. What would I need any of my other household papers for, though? We don't run a business, so we don't need old phone or utility bills. Medical records, maybe? Neither of us has any chronic health conditions. Any files a doctor would need would come from a previous doctor, though. It seems that I can only make an argument in favor of my own writing. The difference between the two categories is that I would save household papers out of concern for external requests on my attention. I save my own papers out of an internal concern: if I get rid of anything, Future Self will want it.
Saving academic papers is silly, in a way. Most of what we learn is eventually superseded by new findings, new research, new theories, deeper knowledge in the same subject area. The point of going to school is to learn how to learn, and to meet others who are better versed in the material. Oh, and to have access to the libraries, of course. Saving our own writing is silly in an even sillier way. If we're taking it at all seriously, then we're continually improving at the craft. Anything we wrote in the past will become progressively more painful to read due to its awkwardness. Probably we're saving it all as a physical manifestation of the wish to go back to school or to have more time for writing. It's not the paper we need, it's the wherewithal to redirect ourselves and get back into something we loved so much.
The goal is always to reclaim and expand our mental bandwidth. A major part of that is collecting our awareness, focusing our attention into a narrow beam. This means removing all the scattered bits that keep trying to float away, like leaves in a swimming pool. Filtering, filtering. Sorting through even a small stack of papers is a way of making decisions and creating greater order. The fact that this order is visible externally is a mere side benefit. Just because papers are thoughts does not have to mean that all thoughts become papers.
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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.