Clutter

Bills, Bills, Bills: How to Beat Back Your Paper Clutter

Junk mail, electric bills, schoolwork — the daily deluge of paper is overwhelming! If your filing cabinets are bursting, and stacks of paper litter every surface, use this system designed specifically for adults with ADHD.

A big pile of paper clutter on the desk of someone with ADHD
Stacks of paper and file folders

Like many of my clients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Sheila can’t seem to get organized and keep up with her paper clutter at home and at work.

OK, that’s putting it mildly; her apartment is one giant in-box, filled with letters, articles, bills, and receipts.

“Here’s the thing,” says Sheila. “If I clip an interesting magazine article — and they’re all interesting to me — or get a tempting credit card solicitation, it’s here to stay. I can’t act on it right away, so I put it aside, so that I’ll have it when I figure out what to do with it.”

Each month, the average U.S. household receives 80 pieces of junk mail, three magazines, six catalogs, and 10 credit card solicitations. And that’s just snail mail. When you add receipts, articles clipped from magazines, and ATM slips, it’s no wonder that piles of paper are as common in our homes as furniture (and sometimes are the furniture).

Barbara Hemphill, an adult with ADHD and the author of Taming the Paper Tiger, sums up the problem this way: “The stacks represent unmade decisions. It’s difficult to focus long enough to make a decision about each piece of paper. And if a document needs to be filed, someone with ADHD can think of 17 different ways to file it. Then there’s the fact that managing paper is boring. Our minds wander off task.”

Maybe our children’s children will have their reading material stored in a belly-button-sized nanocomputer. For now, we’re stuck with paper.

Documents Represent Actions

What’s the solution to your paper problem? Stop treating each piece of paper in your home as something lifeless. Instead, see each as an action to take.

Let’s say you’re digging out from under stacks of paper. Sort everything into three categories. “Toss” papers get discarded. “File” papers get filed. Papers that require more nuanced action go into your “Action” pile; I’m talking about anything that necessitates a phone call or an e-mail, that must be given to someone else, that requires faxing, that requires a signature, that pertains to an ongoing project, and so on.

Sort quickly, and don’t agonize over your decisions. Ask a friend or family member to be your “body double,” working alongside you and mirroring your actions. Or, like Sheila, you can hire a professional organizer.

Recently, I spent four hours helping Sheila sort her papers. She had no trouble figuring out which papers were Toss, File, or Action. The only challenge was figuring out what to do with the papers that wound up in the Action pile. Well, as I told Sheila, I have a system for that, too. It’s called Paper-Action-Next Encounter, or PANEC.

Tackling Your “Action” Pile

The idea of PANEC is to take each piece of paper in the Action pile and write on it the very next action that is needed. Not the final action, mind you, or all of the actions to take. Just the next action, described with attention-getting words and phrases. Move each annotated Action document to a place you think will prompt you to actually complete the action.

Like most of my clients, Sheila got PANEC right away. On a page ripped from a catalog, she wrote “Order by June 1.” On a credit card offer, she wrote “Apply or Die.” She put both papers on her desk, because that’s where she takes care of financial activities. Grocery coupons? She taped them to the refrigerator. She wrote “Give to Bobby.” on an article about hybrid cars, and then stuck it in her son’s sneaker (the only place he’s sure to see it). And she taped an application she needs to complete to her bathroom mirror, so she’ll see it each morning until it’s done.

Sheila takes about 20 Action papers at a time and distributes them around the house to their Next Encounter locations. She says that makes the process less monotonous, and helps her dissipate pent-up energy. You may prefer to do things a bit differently. That’s OK, as long as you stick with the basic idea.

PANEC works for people with ADHD because it reduces the uncertainty about what to do with each paper. Everything is either Toss, File, or Action. Just make sure not to cycle papers endlessly. If you move a document more than twice, your call-to-action phrase probably isn’t specific enough — or maybe you need more information to decide what action to take.

Depending on how many papers you have, digging out might take one morning or several days. Once your paper-handling system is in place, you can keep paper clutter to a minimum. What sweet relief!


Get Organized: “Emotional” Filing

Stick a piece of paper in a folder, jot a name on the tab, and put it out of sight? Face it, filing is sooo boring that you’ll probably do almost anything to avoid it. When you do file something, you may have trouble retrieving it later on. Did you file the title to your car under Car? Auto? Ford Taurus? What a nightmare!

It’s better to let your filing system reflect how you remember things. “I never forget that my children’s immunization records are filed under ‘SHOTS,’ says my client, Marcia. “I used to put them under ‘HEALTH’ or each child’s name, but ‘SHOTS’ says it all.” She filed the title to her breakdown-prone car under “LEMON.”

You can also try using Paper Tiger software. It lets you create multiple key words for each file, so there’s no need to remember one specific word.

Whatever filing system you use, don’t be an “infomaniac.” Impose limits on what you save.

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