Conquer Paper Clutter

Sick of the paper chase? Here's how to tame those piles fast!

You’ve got mail! No, not the electronic kind (though there’s plenty of that, too). We’re talking about the kind of mail delivered by the postman—catalogs, flyers, coupon books and, yes, bills—as well as the kind of mail that’s hand-delivered by your children: newsletters, flyers and reminders from school. Try as you might to stem it, the paper onslaught is relentless. A gifted few are able to nip the problem in the bud, but for most of us, these paper sculptures are part of the decor, seemingly attaching themselves to any flat surface in the house.

Here are some simple strategies for banishing those paper piles quickly and efficiently—and keeping them at bay forever.

Step One: Identify the Problem Areas

For most people, there are usually one or two spots in the house that serve as “ground zero” for paper accumulation. Usually, those trouble spots are the places where mail gets dumped or where pockets and purses are emptied after a long workday. Maybe it’s your kitchen table, a dresser, a desk or a coffee table. First, identify your particular trouble spots. That makes it easy to focus your energy where it really matters.

Step Two: Strategically Contain the Sprawl

Once you’ve identified the areas where papers tend to take up permanent residence, you need to come up with a plan of attack. Your weapons of choice: a basket, bowl or mail sorter and a trashcan—preferably nice-looking ones that you don’t mind keeping out in the open.

Next, it’s time to rally the troops. Place the basket on top of the surface you have identified as a trouble spot and explain to the entire family that throughout the week they must put all “paper stuff” only in this catchall—not on the kitchen table, not on the coffee table. Put the trashcan nearby and instruct everyone to immediately throw out any junk mail. Once a week, recycle what has accumulated in the trashcan.

Step Three: Name a Postmaster General

Name a weekly “mail master” (your husband or, if they’re old enough, your kids) to sort the piles. But if your husband or kids start slacking on the job, you may need to put yourself in charge to ensure it gets done. After all, your husband’s promises to “get to it” won’t keep the cable company from slapping you with a late fee.

Step Four: Create a Mail Bag of Your Own

If your paper trail still feels insurmountable, consider creating a portable “action bag.” Get a small canvas tote or drawstring bag and put a pen, some stamps, envelopes, your checkbook and note card paper inside. Keep it on a hook near the front door. Before you leave in the morning, grab a stash from the paper pile and put it in the bag. Whenever you find yourself waiting around (in the carpool line, on the subway or watching the kids’ soccer match), you can make a dent in what’s accumulated—it’s like cleaning your house on the go. Now that’s some impressive multitasking.

iVillage organization experts Sarah Welch and Alicia Rockmore are real women on a mission to help busy people get sanely organized. They cofounded Buttoned Up, Inc. Got a question for Sarah and Alicia? Go to their expert page to ask their advice!

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