The Paper Chase: Decluttering

paper cartoon

Having too much paper is a common complaint. It’s something that we all have too much of.

I have a pile of papers next to my computer that needs to be sorted and I decided it would be helpful to take a look at this paper in a somewhat different way: by hierarchy, subject matter, and filing system.

We all impose a hierarchy on paper, often without realizing it. When we buy groceries with cash, the receipt goes in the trash. When we use a credit card, we save the receipt until the end of the month to reconcile it with the credit card statement. When we sort mail, the junk mail goes in the trash but the bills get top priority. How can I create a hierarchy for the items in my pile of papers?

It may sound like a no-brainer that we need to divide our paper by subject matter to make the pile more approachable and the sorting more doable. Yes, it’s easier to sort through and prioritize the papers, if we separate them by subject: health, financial, credit cards, insurance. How many categories and subcategories do I need?

Filing systems are good. But everyone’s brain, their memory, the intuitive way we understand things, works differently. A system that works for a professional organizer might not be right for me, my system might not work for you, your system might not work for your sister. How do I create a system that works for me (so I’ll be more likely to actually use it)?

Here are a few articles that offer help for paper clutter.

Curb Paper Clutter at Home This article has a very helpful way of going about curbing the buildup of paper clutter in your home, depending on whether you are a “filer” or a “piler.”

How To: 4 Steps to Less Paper Clutter Here organizing expert Carol Keller shares her four-step plan for having less paper: analyze, sort and purge, classify and label, create a regular decluttering routine.

10 Best Tips for Organizing Paper Clutter This article has some good suggestions for how to approach the problem proactively by choosing to go paperless for bills, and getting yourself off the junk mail lists.

What Documents to Keep, What You Can Toss This is a helpful list of what household papers to keep and for how long and, most importantly, when you can toss them.

The takeaway:

* Get rid of as much paper as possible (don’t bring it into your home at all, toss before you enter, go paperless).

* Create a system for keeping the papers that works for you.

* Declutter regularly.

* Revisit your system, as needed.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Letting Go of Some Favorite Things


As I began to write this post I thought of it as another in our occasional series “Getting Rid of…” but with a twist. But then I realized it’s more than that. It’s not abut finding places to donate usable items we no longer need, rather it’s a look at the process I went through to get to the point where I could get rid of things that were important to me. And the items seemed dear to me partly because they helped define who I am.

I was prompted to embark on this bit of soul searching by an essay I had read about one woman’s journey to let go of mementos from a failed marriage, or more accurately, mementos from the good times in a relationship that ended with a split. At first, I thought she held onto things that brought her pain and that seemed counterintuitive to me. Then I realized that she held onto things that reminded her of the good parts of the relationship but when she looked at them, lived with them over the years, they brought her, not joy, but sorrow. And she decided that she needed to move on from those feelings.

My exploration was less dramatic that the essay-writer’s journey but significant to me. Here’s what I got rid of.

My collection of Playbills. I have always loved going to the theater, starting when I was a teenager, and I go as often as I can, more often to off-Broadway than to Broadway shows because the tickets are more affordable. When I was in my early twenties, I saw an apartment where the bathroom was papered with Playbill covers. It was a small guest bathroom but, still, I was so impressed that someone had been to see so many plays. I never papered my walls with Playbills; I kept them on a shelf. A couple of years ago, when they started to overrun the shelf, I put them in shopping bags, a first step, perhaps, to moving them out.

Why were the Playbills so important to me? I’ve always been a reader – there are family stories about my reading at the age of four, I have several degrees in English literature, I’ve worked in publishing for most of my career, and I love reading books and going to plays. Having tangible evidence of my love of literature helps define the reader and playgoer part of me.

I came to the realization that I have the memories (or maybe not so much now as I age since sometimes I have to ask a friend to remind me what a particular play was about!) but could get rid of the items. So I sent the Playbills on to paper recycling…to serve, one hopes, some better purpose.

The response cards and envelopes from my wedding. I’ve been married a long time and for years I have kept a sturdy box from the printer filled with the extra response cards and the matching small envelopes addressed to me. I’m not sure why we had so many extras and I’m not sure why I kept them, except it felt somehow sacrilegious to just discard them.

Certainly the wedding was a seminal event in my life and the marriage helped define me as a wife, and later as a mother. The marriage has been a good one, or to paraphrase Jim Dale’s comment in his one-man show, we often have opposing points of view but end up seeing eye to eye. Do these seemingly useless items enhance the relationship in any way? Someone, a good organizer and declutterer I’m sure, once said that all you need to keep as a memento is one invitation, complete with all its parts if you like. So the cards and envelopes went out to paper recycling…perhaps to become the recycled paper that a current, environmentally aware bride will choose for her invitations.

Old videotapes. I have several shelves of old videotapes of movies and children’s shows, films my children enjoyed or videotapes of popular movies they were given as birthday gifts. (Although it may seem odd given today’s media, a videotape of a favorite movie or an old classic was an enjoyable gift when my kids were young.)

Even though the tapes do not speak to me in any particular way, the fact that I kept them helps define me as a clutterer because clutter is, as someone once defined it, postponed decisions. So I sorted through the tapes. I donated still good ones to a local thrift shop, sent damaged ones to electronic recycling, and put aside the tapes of my children’s performances, plays, and concerts to be converted to DVDs…a task that is now high up on my to-do list.

All of these things brought back happy memories for me. And I know that I can remember the pleasures without having the objects to look at, which is another way of expressing the mantra of our book and blog: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…”

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Aging in Place: An Interview with Rachel Adelson, author of “Staying Power”


Rachel Adelson, M.A., is a science writer specializing in aging and health, and the author of Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style (Sage Tree Publishing). She has covered everything from brain health and neurological disorders to human-computer interaction. In the midst of a downsizing move herself, Rachel recently made time to answer a few questions about “aging in place” for us.

What got you interested in the topic of aging in place, and what made you want to write a book about it? 

You don’t have to be old or contemplating your own aging or mortality to be interested in this subject.  I went back to grad school to study aging for two reasons:  First, it’s a fascinating subject, embracing everything about the human experience.  You can find your own piece of it and make a difference.  Second, the rapid expansion of the older demographic is going to influence our world in profound ways. I thought it would be exciting to be a part of that. I settled on “aging at home” because I had enjoyed learning about human factors and universal design earlier in my career and saw the obvious connection—and the obvious need.  And it’s fun to figure out “toys” that can help people; there’s a real problem-solving aspect that makes use of the medical knowledge.

What is the most interesting, or most helpful thing you learned in the process of writing your book? What do people need to know about aging in place?

People tend to think big about adaptations for aging – elevators, ramps – and get put off by the cost, complexity and appearance, so they stop right there. But with help from the experts, I discovered a wealth of simple, small, common-sense and affordable changes (some of which fit right in with your regular décor) that can aid accessibility and accommodate a wide variety of age-related changes. Most people can start small and adapt over time; should they need a ramp or a stair climber, they’ll know it. But for many people, simpler things—like contrasting friction tape and good lighting–can prevent a disabling fall and the need for more drastic change.

What are some of the medical or physical conditions that people THINK require moving out of the home, but don’t necessarily?

This is a good question, because the best ideas should directly respond to a resident’s changing needs.  If you are strong and agile, why would you need an elevator? However, if your vision is weak, you should address that issue instead.  I structured my book around the most common changes of aging–physical, sensory, mental–so that readers can focus on their own unique needs.  All the way through the life span, we’re not one-size-fits-all.

That said, stairs are such a big issue.  When people develop arthritis in the knees or the hips, they start to dread going up and down.  But even there, a main-floor dining room might become a bedroom, a pantry can become a washroom, and so on.  Or you can put in a stair climber.

With vision changes, often people would rather be in a familiar setting where they know the layout and placement.

And nearly any home can be modified to reduce the energy demands on a person, though as someone’s world shrinks, it gets harder to maintain a big space.  Reduced maintenance and increased clutter can lead to safety problems (a cluttered space is harder to clean and clear).

If everything else is in place, you can compare costs and convenience, who might be helping you and in what capacity, and so on. Some people would rather move from their homes; some would rather stay.  And sometimes it’s not about the house per se, it’s more about transportation to and from the house—for residents and for helpers.  Given that the bulk of older people live in the suburbs, transportation is a major issue, too.

Would you say that aging in place is a growing trend? What’s new on the horizon? 

Aging in place is a new term for what people have done since there were human settlements.  I believe the term sprang up only as a reaction to the mid-20th-century promotion of special, age-segregated housing for older people.  With people living longer and living better in the first phase of old age, there is less of a pressing need to move away. Also, living for 20 to 30 years in a “retirement community” doesn’t have the same appeal as it did when you expected, shall we say, a shorter stay.

Past that, it’s hard to say what’s on the horizon.  We’ve never had this many people live this long before, and a lot will depend on how the combination of finances, housing, health care, technology, transportation and social services plays out.  All we know is that the models of the past won’t work…but then, they rarely do.

What is the most challenging thing about getting a house ready for aging in place? The most rewarding?

The most challenging thing is that we’re all moving targets.  We may be fine one day and get a funky diagnosis or get injured the next. Setting up the home isn’t a one-time deal; it’s an ongoing project of adaptation over time.  That’s a mindset, an ongoing education.

That said, most of us have a nesting instinct.  Adapting our homes to meet our needs is just the continuation of that feathering, and “setting up shop” to keep ourselves safe, healthy, and happy can be very rewarding. People hate the idea of losing their independence; my book was written to help them overcome that often-equal hatred of grab bars, so that they can remain independent.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.



“A Gift to your Family: 10 Tips to Clear Clutter”

Our deepest thanks to Nanci Hellmich for her article in USA Today that highlights advice from our new, updated e-book. This was posted online on May 13, 2014 with an informative video with Nanci and appears in the print edition today, May 14, 2014.



Clearing out the clutter — from old tax returns to clothes you don’t wear to keepsakes that are no longer meaningful to you — can be a wonderful gift to yourself and your family, organizing experts say.

Linda Hetzer, co-author of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home with Janet Hulstrand, has talked to hundreds of people about paring down what they own…Read more



“Downsizing Lessons from Two Women Who Have ‘Been There, Done That’”

Many thanks to Janet Barclay for inviting us to share an excerpt from our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home) on her organizing blog. Our guest blog posted on May 8, 2014. Here’s the intro:


“Typically our guest bloggers here on Your Organizing Business fall into one of two categories: (1) professional organizers / productivity consultants who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues; or (2) experts in marketing or another aspect of business. Today’s guest brings the perspective of adults who have helped their parents through the process of downsizing.” Read more

“Downsizing the Family Home: What To Do With All The Stuff”


Many thanks again to Next Avenue for spotlighting our book in their recent story, and to Forbes for picking it up.

Here’s a link to the Forbes version, which posted on March 27, 2014.

Keep? Sell? Toss? These three options are ammo for the battle when clearing the family home after a parent leaves it.

Emptying a house full of memories and items takes an emotional and physical toll…

Read more


Aging in Place, Downsizing and Decluttering: Natural Partners

It’s easy to confuse the terms “downsizing the home” and decluttering it. Of course these two activities are often closely related, but they’re not exactly the same thing. Downsizing usually implies moving from a larger place to a smaller one:  decluttering simply means getting rid of an excess of “stuff.”

For some people a combination of dread of decluttering and fear of being forced to move out of a beloved home can be just two more reasons to postpone clearing away the clutter accumulated over a period of  years. If there’s too much stuff to move, then maybe we won’t ever have to move, right?

Unfortunately, denial doesn’t work any better in this area of life than it does in most others. When the time comes to move out of a beloved home, denial won’t help. And procrastination over the years just makes the inevitable more difficult if and when the time finally comes.

But what about those who elect to stay in their homes as they continue to age? Do they need to engage in downsizing–or decluttering–also?

According to Rachel Adelson, author of Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety, and Style, “It takes time for people to make the psychological shift away from seeing themselves as productive consumers of ‘stuff,’ in that near-constant acquisition mode of midlife – things for the kids, things for the house, things to treat themselves, expensive hobby equipment and tools, etc. Clutter may reinforce the sense that they’re still busy and active and in the middle of things, when the reality is that things have changed, and now their ‘stuff’ is obscuring the emerging requirement to make the home safer and more supportive of their changing needs.” Adelson’s book helps people focus on those changing needs, and shows how to go about providing for them simply and economically at home. Many of those adjustments require opening up additional space, to help people move more freely and sometimes to allow for the use of specialized furniture or equipment. That’s where decluttering can actually help people stay in their homes longer, rather than being a prelude to a move out of those homes.

Decluttering the home can also open a wider range of options for those who want to remain independent as they grow older. While the unspoken fear among many who resist moving out of the homes they’ve been in for a long time is that they will end up in assisted living or a nursing home, new options, such as senior villages, that didn’t exist in the past are flourishing as boomers and their parents swell the ranks of the retired. Our book has helpful tips for how to get started with this process–and how to get rid of much of the “stuff” while keeping precious memories.

We’ll be writing more about this topic in future posts…stay tuned!

For now, suffice it to say–decluttering the home and staying in it are NOT enemies–on the contrary, they are natural partners!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.




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