Is Paper Clutter Burying You?

The most time-consuming backlog to sort and organize is paper. When it becomes a problem, it is full of question marks and what-ifs.

The major problems boil down to:

·       Documents to retain

·       Time-frames for keeping documents

·       Security concerns

·       Paper vs electronic trust

·       Retrieving something valuable or needed

·       Fear of mistakes

·       Legacy

Let me describe how the problem grows, based on my own thoughts and those I hear from clients.

·       Junk mail

I think someone may piece together disjointed clues of my financial life and steal my money, or worse, my identity. Therefore, I need to shred everything or blot out anything personal including barcodes before I toss. (Tossing creates its own questions . . . recycle? Of course, but do I? What out-the-door system do I have for getting rid of paper. . . do I have to tear out the plastic address window? What about paper clips and staples?)

·       Promotions and marketing catalogs

Let’s keep our comparative options available. If I need a credit card, I’ll want to compare. The catalogs are important in case I need __________. I do not have a computer or internet, so it is essential that I not lose this information. . . . or . . . I do not want my information on the computer because I do not want people to have access to __________. (News flash: how do you think the marketing became targeted toward you in the first place?)

·       Documentation and receipts, usually for taxes

I am right to be afraid of being audited. It is better to be safe than sorry, so I will keep things, just in case. Everything must be filed by categories and I need to do this before January . . . February . . . March . . . April . . . Oh ****! Is it already April 15?

·       Personal papers and photos

This documents my journey, and it provides clues to the intricacies of my life. When someone writes my biography, or tells my great-grandchildren about me, this card, recipe, journal entry, _______, will be the link that makes everything fit together.

·       Information

This is valuable information and I may be able to share it with someone when they think to ask me if I know anything about _________, or if I can find it when they mention a topic, or if I need to prove something.

·       Odd pieces of paper or greeting cards

This is good and one day I may need to wrap a small package and this will be just perfect. Oh shoot, I meant to send this birthday card to ________ and it is still here. I will send it next year and just keep it out to remember.

For some of you, what I have described is normal and acceptable. However, for others, you are hoping for something different, and you are wanting to challenge your thinking and actions.


Spend three hours in paper therapy on Saturday, January 27, 2018. Bring your unedited stack or box of paper (please no more than one box) to my Paper Management Workshop and learn what to keep, why to keep it, and how to retrieve it. After this workshop you will have a basic intuitive filing system, including three types of files, a framework for challenging your unhelpful thoughts and questions, and a CPA’s guide to paper retention.

Included in the registration are the basic materials needed to sort, organize, file and retrieve your paper while at the workshop. I will also be giving away one Smead Life Documents Organizer Kit.

Register here. Limit: 6 participants. Couples are welcome to participate together under one registration if sorting the same papers.


Address Clutter Sooner Rather than Later

I would love to peek into your clutter and help you address it directly. If you want to send a picture or two, I’m glad to reply with a few suggestions or questions. 

What is clutter?

My rule of thumb is that something becomes clutter when it has not been touched or purposefully moved for a designated period of time. Different types of things have different time periods. For instance, if you have not moved junk mail in a few days, it is clutter. If you have not moved your holiday decorations this year, it becomes clutter. (Exception: a circumstance like illness or unusual activity interrupted the normal activity.)

When something occupies space but is not examined closely or used, it becomes clutter. Learn how to purposefully address things that are kept but not used is the way to a decluttered home, office, or car.

In our house, we have a fair amount of Christmas clutter to address. Over the next two weeks, Bud and I will take down the holiday decorations for another year. Everything that we put out is purposeful and chosen to use. However, there are items in the boxes that were not used this year and some of these items have become clutter and can be addressed as such. Instead of seeing how quickly we can put things away this year, we are first going to look through the boxes and decide what to do with things that were not used. Earlier in my career, it was important to have a Christmas Open House for the churches I served, welcoming people into the parsonage once a year. During that period, we decorated everywhere and used every serving dish available. However, that day is done. Because we have had the space, we have been able to keep everything. Now, however, we are beginning to downsize and choose carefully what we keep. Much has become clutter in the Christmas boxes and in the attic.

We have now begun these steps:

1.       Remove everything that is left in the storage boxes and decide if we will ever use it again. What about the Nutcrackers? How about the fabric sled that holds a loaf pan?

2.       Take pictures of every item for discard and upload them to Google Photos, sending a link to our now adult children. They will have first pick. Anything they want will be put in a box for them. Through this action, the items have been purposefully touched and moved. While we keep the box for them until they are in more permanent homes, it is no longer cluttering our attic. Put on the bottom boxes that will not be used next year.

3.       Give away anything that is not claimed within a set time frame (1 week is my choice).

4.       Return boxes to the attic.

The attic? That’s for another day! But we will know that the Christmas corner has been addressed already.

Declutteringly yours,


Company Readiness Progression

Sometimes I do something that needs little explanation. Today is such a day!

How open is your house to people from outside right now? Identify where you are in the following progression. If you want help to move from any level to the next, I’m available! I enjoy working with people from the nearly organized to the never organized and would love to help you get ready for the upcoming holiday season.


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Insight 2

Again, I am posting a past blog.

Last week I spoke about insight into our hoarding and cluttering situations. This week I want to offer a few suggestions about increasing insight and moving toward positive change.

First, we need to pay attention to what we tell ourselves and others about the clutter and see if we want this story to continue to define us. What story do you tell yourself or another about clutter? “Leave me alone. I’m fine with the stuff and should be able to live like I want to.” “I don’t know how you live in this mess!” “I like having my things around me. I find it cozy.” “I’m frustrated with my stuff, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried before, and it just gets worse.”

A way to increase insight is to seek other ways to view our relationships with clutter and with other people, to find a new narrative about the stuff. Buried in Treasures is an opportunity to examine stories about your own clutter and to look for another way of viewing the problems your clutter causes. The new support group forming in September, for people affected by another person’s clutter, is another place to examine one’s stories.

According to Gary Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, our story is the way we frame and organize the details of a situation. He says, “These kinds of stories organize all kinds of details about a situation and depend on a few core beliefs we can call ‘anchors,’ because they are fairly stable and anchor the way we interpret the other details.”[i] He describes five ways that stories change: connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions, and creative desperation and illustrates this in the following chart:

An often ineffective way to increase insight is to try to persuade another person with logic and reason about a seeming contradiction. Anyone who has tried to address another person’s clutter readily knows the impasse this can cause. However, when we spot within ourselves a contradiction of thought or action, we can figure out what is askew and begin to experience change.

Another way to increase insight is to listen closely in places of curiosity or coincidence. According to Klein, this path of connection opens new possibilities for understanding. This can be of primary importance when more than one person is affected by a cluttered or hoarded home. As mentioned earlier, insight comes from within. Change cannot be imposed on another person. However, if people become open to each other at a level of mutual respect, insight may open between people that comes as a creative gift.

Coincidence and timing of ideas, thoughts, and comments from others is a part of this path of connection. Think of times when you turned on the radio while someone was talking about clutter, a book crossed your path that made you think about your stuff, and then within a short period you learned about the Buried in Treasures Workshop. All these things in close proximity prepares you to see your situation through new eyes.

Finally, low insight is a cause for much of the conflict that people experience, what Klein calls the creative desperation path. This is why I offer mediation to people who are in conflict about clutter or hoarding. As the person who is not in the midst of the fray, I am often able to reflect back what is happening in a way that allows both problems and possibilities to appear more clearly. This can be the beginning of increased insight, and with insight people experience greater control over their situations and awareness to improve relationships.

Insight rarely increases in situations where people have entrenched positions about each other and about the stuff. I want to help you shift conversations and prepare for a safer situation. Also, you can find camaraderie in places of conflict, collaboration in places of ultimatums, and increased peace.


[i] “The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight”, Farnam Street,


This post was originally written July 2016. I am posting it again along with its companion post.

Today I want to address the dynamic of insight as it relates to clutter. Insight is our awareness of our situation and how it is similar or dissimilar to that of others and to perceived norms. In an episode of Modern Family, Lilly is perceived by her parents, Mitch and Cam, as a very gifted child needing the stimulation of other gifted children. Mitch is excited about her new playmate until she is off the charts in exceptionality: play, music, memory and art. He finally explodes and calls her a “know it all” and immediately we see a young child who is just looking to find a playmate while she has the distinction of a photographic memory. As with other parenting situations, Mitch has again made a sitcom possible. A little insight can go a long way when trying to compare people and situations.

I often hear, “Is this the worst place you’ve ever seen?” “Please tell me it’s not as bad as I think it is.” “My place isn’t that bad. My spouse just makes a big deal of nothing.” Statements like these are common ways I gain awareness of the insight people may have into their situations. The level of insight lets me know where our starting point is and what I can hope to accomplish.

First, I must say that I’ve been in houses described as cluttered, disorganized, out of control, etc., and I was hard-pressed to see a thing I could do to improve the physical space. It can be as common for an in control space to be perceived as chaotic as it is for a chaotic space to be perceived as in control. At both extremes, people have skewed perceptions of their situation and can benefit from some “reality checks” against commonly perceived norms. Both ends do well to explore their relationship to possessions and personal organization to be able to live “at home” in their space.                                                                       

Second, people frequently turn to me for a “reality check” related to their clutter, often because it causes challenge to daily activities or conflict with another person who is affected by the clutter, either directly (in the same house) or indirectly (a family member, friend or neighbor). These reality checks are [Gu1] important. However, they are not easy to receive.

Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, in the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, tell of a woman who confesses to Dr. Frost that she doesn’t have a problem with her stuff until she knows that he will be coming and working with her in it. In other words, her personal insight about her stuff is very low when she is on her own. However, Dr. Frost’s presence causes her to have increased insight into her situation.

Pictures that someone else takes can also serve to help increase a person’s insight into how their space looks. I have taken pictures in homes which were unrecognizable by the person living in the midst of the space. “Is that what my room looks like?” I say yes, and often their eyes drop as though they have never seen that space before.

One of the frustrating aspects of insight is that it is particularly low in situations of hoarding because the mental clutter is as normal as the physical clutter. The mind can only see what the mind can see, and in hoarding disorder, the mind’s perception is skewed. Also, another frustration is that people closest to the situation are least able to increase insight, and most likely to increase defensiveness when they try to address the issues that are interfering with relationships, safety and life quality.

Part of the work I do is to help increase insight into the clutter situation while we work amidst it. With awareness comes tools of thought and behavior which can be used to address the mental and physical clutter. Insight is the key that increases hope for change. In my next blog I will address ways to increase insight. Stay tuned!