The Paper Quick Sort


"Don't make the decision -- whether to toss it or keep it -- 
a hard one. If you have to weigh the pros and cons
for too long or agonize about the right thing to do, throw it out."

Gail Blanke
Throw Out Fifty Things

For many people, paper wins the prize for Most Challenging Clutter.

And here's the main reason why: each piece of paper represents a 'to-do' or an action or a decision of some kind.

So it helps to keep that list of 'to-dos' as short as possible, while still making sure you're moving forward on the things that you truly want to do.

One of my favorite ways to simplify your papers is what I call the Quick Sort.

This step is about sorting your papers into categories (and ONLY about sorting). 

During the Quick Sort, I recommend that you:





  • leave the handling of anything in your piles until later (rather than taking 'just a minute' to fill out a warranty card or read a letter you've been looking for) 
  • turn off the phone (or let it go to voice mail) 
  • ignore any other distractions that show up in your mind 

This step is designed to go quickly. You may find it helpful to set a timer for 10 minutes. If the bell rings and you need more time, set it for another 10 minutes.

Create five categories for the Quick Sort

Create five categories of piles (either with post-it notes to mark the piles, or use boxes or manila folders for each of the categories): 





  1. Do (some kind of action is required) 
  2. Read (articles you have clipped and so on) 
  3. File (be ruthless. Only keep papers that you truly need - for tax purposes, for a current project, etc.)  
  4. Undecided 
  5. Toss (aim for at least 50-75% of your papers to end up in this pile if possible. The bigger this pile is at the end of this step, the better.)

Sort through your inbox

Start with the piece of paper that's on the top of your inbox, and simply place it in one your five categories (Do, Read, File, Undecided, or Toss).

The reason I call this the Quick Sort is that the only decision you need to make is what pile that one piece of paper goes into. You don't need to take action on it yet, and you don't need to spend more than a few seconds on any one piece of paper.

Once you've placed that piece of paper in one of the categories, move to the next piece of paper and do the same thing, through to the bottom of your inbox.

One more pass

Now let's reduce what you've got on your plate one more time.

If you're like most people, you likely have way more to do than any twelve people could do in a lifetime. And having more on your plate than you could possibly accomplish not only clutters up your inbox, but also adds an enormous amount of stress to your life.

Start with your Do pile. These are the pieces of paper that you decided represent actions you need to take.

Here are some of my favorite tips around reducing your Do pile even more:





  • Much of what you think you need to do, you do not actually need to do. Get very good at tossing that stuff. Consider letting go a lot of the 'would be nice to do' or the 'when I have time' stuff. You likely already have plenty with the really important things! 
  • Consider tossing any paper older than one month old (you could even go to anything older than one week old.) If it needed to be handled and it's a month old already, maybe the time has past.  
  • Let go of the guilt and let go of the shoulds as you are tossing.
  • In gardening, both 'weeding' and 'thinning' are very important if you want your favorite plants to grow well. You can use the same ideas when you are thinking about your papers.
    • Weeding means getting rid of things that are not what you want. 



    • Thinning means getting rid of some of the good stuff, simply because there is too much of it, to create room for the very best to flourish. 

Next, go through your Read pile. For most people, this represents magazines, trade journals, articles they've clipped out or printed from the internet, newsletters, and so on.

My recommendation is to read things when they are fresh, and if you don't have time to read them, toss them. By the time you have time to read them, they are often already outdated.

I have a guideline: if I don't read it either the day I get it (or at the very far end, within that week), I toss it. For that reason, I no longer subscribe to magazines or newspapers, because it keeps me tied to a schedule of reading rather than being inspired internally to find out about something I'm interested in. If the idea of creating your own guideline appeals to you, simply choose a timeframe, and after that timeframe, give yourself complete permission to get rid of the item.

Then move to your Undecided pile.

My recommendation for this pile? 

Ready for it?

Take a deep breath, and place it on your Toss pile.

Yes...the entire Undecided pile, without going through it again.

If you weren't sure if it needed action when you did your initial Quick Sort, it's probably not important enough to save.  :)

After your Quick Sort and one more pass through everything, your papers should feel much more manageable!