Let Marie Kondo bring joy to your paper pile

Most of us have probably heard of tidying guru Marie Kondo, whose books and Netflix show have taken the world by storm. The “KonMari Method” is everywhere these days, and is it any wonder? Her simple rule—only keep the items in life that bring you joy—is a simple and straightforward way to approach clutter in your home.

But what about the things in our life that don’t spark joy, but are necessary nonetheless? In particular, the thorniest question for many of us: what do we do with all of our paperwork?

The KonMari method can help you pare down that pile, even down to one folder (I can attest, it’s possible!). Let’s talk about the KonMari approach to eliminating paperwork.

Why sort memorabilia last

Trust me, do not touch any sentimental documents until the very end.

I mention this right out of the gate because, at least in my experience, it is the easiest way to get off track when filing paperwork. The KonMari method for organizing your entire home stipulates that you organize your memorabilia last, and for good reason. First, because you need to hone your skills for determining what sparks joy before making tough decisions about which mementos (and, therefore, memories) make you happy. Second, because this area is the most likely to get you off track.

When I was younger and my mom would ask me to clean my room, it would take hours. Why? Because I would start by going through piles of mementos and spend the entire afternoon walking down memory lane. I could not have dreamed of getting rid of anything in this sentimental state.

The same principle applies to paper. Do not start off by sorting letters, cards, kids’ artwork, etc. You won’t want to get rid of any of it, and you probably won’t be able to finish sorting in one sitting. Instead, start with everything else: bills, account statements, legal documents, mailers, and other kinds of paperwork.

Why deal with everything at once

The KonMari method also stipulates that you should organize items by category, not by room. That means gathering up all of the papers from everywhere in your house and putting them in one place, whether that be the dining room table or the living room floor, in order to sort them. This makes it easier to determine if you have duplicates of anything stored in another room. And the big piles taking up all that space are their own incentive to hurry up and organize!

You should also take this time to gather any organizational materials: folders, filing boxes or cabinets, labels and label maker, markers, etc.

What to keep and how to organize it

Once you have all of your paper in one place, it’s time to get organized. Sort your papers into several piles:

  • Requires immediate attention (e.g. bills, time-sensitive forms or permission slips, etc.)
  • Keep for now (e.g. tax documents, billing statements for the past year, receipts for returns, etc.)
  • Keep forever (e.g. birth certificate, contracts, etc.)
  • Throw away (e.g. old billing statements, old receipts, etc.)

If you are unsure which pile a document belongs in, do some research before throwing it out (you can start here).

This system will help you identify what papers you do and do not need. If you’re unsure about anything, create a separate “Maybe” pile to revisit at the end.

Once you have determined what documents you want to keep, it’s time to create your own organizational system. The system itself will largely depend on what works for you. I use a filing box from Walmart for all of my “adult” paperwork, separated into taxes (pay stubs and charity invoices), billing, and government documents. I keep an “other” category for odds and ends.

If you run your own business or handle paperwork for your spouse and children, you might consider investing in a filing cabinet with designated drawers for different people.

Making decisions about paperwork rarely sparks joy, but this principle will come back into play when it’s time to address the memorabilia pile. I recommend keeping sentimental documents separate from business items (I have a decorative floral box where I keep all of my letters and cards). Start with the no-brainer “keep” items before working your way up to the tough choices.

When it comes to memorabilia, it’s okay to give yourself permission to hold onto things. You may need some time before you are ready to let go of certain memories that perhaps do not spark joy. That’s okay. There’s always tomorrow.

How to discard sensitive documents

If you find that you have sensitive documents like credit card statements in your discard pile, protect yourself and your family and deal with these documents appropriately. Consider investing in a shredder or pay to use a shredding service. If you decide to rip up the documents by hand, you can separate the pieces into separate trash bags. You can also burn old documents (an especially satisfying way to get rid of anything that does not spark joy!) or turn them into pulp.

Where to store sensitive documents

What should you do with those sensitive documents like your birth certificate or home mortgage?

It could be a good idea to invest in a fireproof safe. A big one for your whole family can cost over a hundred dollars, but cheap, small models like this one are a good alternative.

When it comes to government documents like your passport, it’s also a good idea to make hard copies and upload digital copies to your computer (though you should not do this with documents that could put your identity at risk, like your credit card). When I left my passport at home with my parents, the scanned copy came in handy for filling out paperwork at work.

Once you have completed this process, I think you will find that your paper pile sparks a lot more joy than it used to! It will be much easier to file new paperwork as it comes in, thanks to your new system, and a lot easier to discard old paperwork when it no longer serves its purpose. Happy sorting!