Living in a jungle of paper clutter? Try this simple, four-folder system.

The image of a creative person surrounded by piles of stuff, lost in the throes of messy inspiration, is iconic and romantic – and also not as glamorous as it looks.

Sure, I’ve had those moments where I shut out everything around me as I crank out pages of writing in a messy office, completely in the creative zone and ignoring the piles of paper around me. But those experiences have been the exception, not the rule. The truth is, I’ve produced my best stuff when I have worked to minimize the distractions. And this starts with getting a handle on paper clutter.

Paper clutter costs time, money and mental energy
It’s difficult to concentrate on the creative task at hand when you have piles of stuff looming around you. And when the stacks of clutter begin to intrude into your main creative work area, you have no choice but to drop everything and deal with them:

“Hmm. I thought I paid that bill. I’d better put this right here on my keyboard so I can take care of that right away … and what’s this? A tax receipt? That’s a huge deduction, so I need to make sure I don’t lose this … what the? … THAT’s where those meeting notes went? …”

By the time you get done shuffling through the stacks of paper clutter dominating your workspace – and taking care of urgent items like paying that misplaced bill – you’re thoroughly distracted and have lost a chunk of your creative work time.

Help get your creative focus back by prioritizing your workspace and creating a distraction-free zone.

Speed decluttering
When you’re dealing with paper, there is the added element that once you’ve processed clutter, you have to put it somewhere – and preferably not in another stack.

A simple, four-folder system for creatives
I recognize that not every creative has the special love affair that I do with color-coded file systems. In future posts, I’ll discuss ways to set up extensive paper filing systems (and digital file management systems) that can help make you even more efficient, storing everything you need to manage clients, projects and personal items.

However, these types of systems take time and energy to implement, and when you’re facing an ever-growing stack of paper clutter and losing creative time trying to deal with it, the last thing you want to do is spend hours setting up a new system. With that in mind, here are some quick steps you can take to help immediately impose order on your clutter chaos.

Paper Clutter: Simple 4 Folder System


Start by creating four new file folders (you could also use four school folders or a letter tray system with four levels):

1. Hot: In this folder, put anything you need to address in the next few days, such as background on a new client project that you need to review or a coupon that you don’t want to forget for an upcoming oil change.

2. Bills: In this folder, put any bills that you receive in the mail, or which you receive via email but want to retain a paper copy.

3. To Review: In this folder, put anything that you don’t need to deal with right now, but that you do need to process eventually, such as a tax receipt that needs to be entered or a magazine that you want to read.

4. Inspiration: In this folder, put anything that inspires you and which you don’t want to lose. Interviews with other creatives you admire. Ideas that may some day mature into new projects. Ads for vacations you may want to take someday. As creatives, it’s important to gather the stuff that inspires us, and review these periodically.

And the most important step?
After processing all of your paper clutter into these four folders, place them outside of your main workspace, so that they are easily accessible but not distracting you when you’re trying to work. Then, plan regular times on your to-do list to process the items in each folder.

  • Hot: every day
  • Bills: once or twice a month
  • To Review: once a week
  • Inspiration: every quarter

By processing the stacks of paper clutter through this simple filing system, you can quickly clear off your desk and establish a distraction-free workspace. Then, by using this system to instantly file new paper items as you receive them into their respective folders, you can better prioritize all of the stuff that comes at you in a typical week – before it has a chance to turn into paper clutter.

Raise your hand if you’re living in a jungle of paper clutter. Would this four-folder system work for you?

For more helpful tips and resources, visit the guides library.

  1. Phil Ensminger

    Just clipped this to an Evernote folder “To Review”. ;)

  2. Thanks for this great idea, which I’m going to try – every few months, I find myself swamped with paperwork. This might do the trick to help sort my life out!

    • This is definitely a great way to impose order on chaos, quickly. Hope it helps you avoid sinking in the paperwork swamp.

  3. OMG thank you so much! I will totally incorporate this with my home office. I’m also thinking this might work for emails. Though it may need a bit of tweaking, but will put a bit more thought on that one :) thanks for sharing!

    • Stay tuned for more email taming posts. Developing a system for sorting email quickly can help you stay focused on more important things, like your muse. Good luck!

  4. Isaac A. Engel

    Thank you verymuchfor this time and energy saving system. This will greatly improve my productivity.

  5. Hilary Ververs

    Great tips! I do this at work; now need to implement at home! I have a similar technique for my mental clutter : a 3 – section notebook for keeping track of all the to-do’s. NOW – soon – later.

  6. Great idea! I would also suggest adding a “hold” or “pending” folder, as a home for those papers that you’ve taken an action on and are waiting for the next step.

    • Pat

      Great idea…..that will be file #5. Thanks.

  7. S T

    How do we use the 4 pocket folders & 4 trays?

  8. Joy Herron

    I see a risk of ‘reviewing’ papers in the ‘reviewing’ folder, numerous times – try for single handling and send it to final destination eg tax receipt on tax flash drive, or box of things you send to accountant

    agree with need for pending folder, or you will handle that paper waiting for someone else’s action, many times