How to Tame Paperwork and Digital Clutter

Three Folder Inbox
Three Folder Inbox


It’s officially March, a month we associate with the time changing, spring cleaning, voting and entering tax season. It’s a time of renewal but also potential financial stress. Since you need to get your paperwork and receipts in order for taxes (if you’re already done – congrats!), let me show you some easy steps to tame both physical paperwork and digital clutter. 

The Three Folder Inbox

The Three Folder Inbox is a simple system for organizing and processing your incoming paperwork each week. Let’s start with physical paperwork first – we’ll get to email in a moment!


Find 3 blank file folders and label them ACT, FOLLOW-UP, and FILE.

Here’s what I suggest you file in each of these folders:

ACT: Papers that require you to well, take action  – pay a bill, donate money, renew a prescription and schedule an appointment are all common ACT items.

FOLLOW-UP: Papers that need more information before you can act upon them or eliminate – you may need to locate a document, contact someone or do more research. Once you have the information you need, you can either complete the needed action (ideally) or move the item to the next appropriate file (ACT, FILE or the recycling/shredding bin).

FILE: Papers that need to be filed for record keeping purposes (accounting and tax purposes especially). Note: if you prefer paperless records, this is your SCAN file.

As with any organizational system, a few habits go a long way towards maintaining them:

Daily habits: Open and process your mail every day, and do so near your recycling bin or shredder. If you don’t have a shredder, you can also use a pair of herb scissors to quickly shred sensitive documents. Recycle any extraneous envelopes and ads. Keep your three folders nearby and sort the papers into the appropriate ACT / FOLLOW-UP / FILE folders. If you do this daily, the whole process should take no more than 5 minutes a day.

Weekly habits: At least once a week, create an appointment in your calendar for focused household admin work. This is the time to act on any items in the ACT folder (put a due date at the top of the bill if you are waiting to pay it), follow-up on any items you can complete that week and do your filing. If you do this weekly, the whole process should take no more than 30 minutes to an hour.

The advantage of creating consistent habits is that whatever you can’t finish one week, can flow over into the next week. For example, if your follow-up items take more time, perhaps you leave filing for the next week, or vice versa. Having a simple system in place also means you can quickly and easily locate any item when needed.


COUPONS & GIFT CARDS: Coupons tend to expire quickly, so put these in your ACT file or wallet/purse so you’re ready to use them. But ask yourself, “Would I buy this item if it wasn’t on sale?” Put gift cards directly into your wallet/purse so you remember to use them. Don’t think you’ll use the gift card? Check out 3 Ways To Use Your Gift Cards.

KIDS’ SCHOOL ITEMS: Keep a folder in your kids’ backpack for all school paperwork. When age appropriate, teach your children to put any parent information, awards, artwork, permission slips or homework in that folder. Process this paperwork with your children nightly. Sign any permission slips or homework and return them to the folder in the backpack when finished.

KIDS’ MEMORABILIA: For the awards and artwork your children bring home, create a small file box for each child and make a folder for each school year. Common file names: ART, AWARDS and SCHOOL PICTURE.

An easy way to rotate your child’s artwork throughout the year is by popping it into a floating frame. As new pieces come in throughout the year you can easily update the frame to accommodate your favs. 

At the end of the school year, clear out the file box and decide which items you want to keep and which items can go. Try and keep items that really express your child’s individual personality for that year. Services like ARTKIVE can scan the items for you and turn them into a photo book or a framed mosaic. 

Another way to help manage the paper piles is to cut down on the amount of mail coming into your home:

The service* allows you to opt-out of pre-screened credit card offers. Services like the DMAchoice* or PaperKarma* can help you unsubscribe from junk mail and paper catalogs. Consider signing up for paperless banking, investment and billing statements (especially if you do online bill-pay). Less paperwork coming in equals less time sorting AND less paper waste in the world…it’s a WIN-WIN.


Now that we’ve looked at paper files that come into your life, let’s apply the same simple folder system to email. In the paper world, I encouraged you to set up ACT, FOLLOW-UP, and FILE folders. But in an email world, you don’t really need to have a ‘FILE’ area, since you can quickly delete or file an email that arrives in your inbox. 

Here’s what I suggest you use for your folders:

1 – ACT: Use for emails that you are ready to act on but need more than a day or two to do so, put in a folder called 1 – ACT. The ‘1’ in front of the folder assures it shows up as the first folder in your list making it easier to separate out the most important action items. Use this folder for bills and high priority items that will need your attention within a given week. 

2 – FOLLOW-UP: Use for emails that require more information from you before you can act on them such as locating and scanning a document, contacting someone or doing more research.

Again, a few simple habits go a long way towards maintaining these systems: Open and read email every day and make time to work through ACT and FOLLOW-UP items at least once a week. Try and answer emails on your desktop computer to help cut down on distractions.


COUPONS: Sales based on a promotional code tend to expire quickly, so just as with paper coupons, delete them if you don’t have a specific thing in mind. There is no need to keep these items ‘just in case’ if you have your trash outbox set to automatically empty emails that are older than 30 days…you can find them there if you are shopping online and need the coupon code.

INSPO EMAILS: Many of us keep ‘inspiration’ emails that are full of the goodies that inspire and support us. THIS IS THE GOOD STUFF. File your favorite newsletters and feeds in a ‘TO READ’ or ‘INSPO FILE’ so that you have some ready-to-go good reads. [Hint: you can use rules to automatically sort/filter/file these emails.]

KIDS’ SCHOOL ITEMS: If you have kids, the ACT and FOLLOW-UP files are going to help keep you on task with school emails. Archive items you need to for your records in their own folder(s). I have a ‘BABY’ folder that will soon become “Olivia Medical” and “Olivia School.”

TICKETS FOR TRAVEL AND EVENTS: Personally, I like to keep a priority-3 file called ‘3 – TICKETS’ that contains e-tickets, vouchers and information for upcoming events and travel. If it’s in one folder, it is easy to pull up your ticket or event information on your phone while at the venue, airport or hotel. Delete or archive the emails after the event has passed.

You may find that you need slightly different categories (or added categories) depending on whether you manage both work and personal emails in one account. Adjust the numbering system of your ‘ACT’ or ‘FOLLOW UP’ folders to have them reflect YOUR priorities and workflows. 

Just as with paper items, the best way to help manage the clutter is to cut down on the amount of email coming into your inbox:

To cut down on the amount of email in your inbox, try a declutter that focuses on unsubscribing from newsletters, stores, and listservs that no longer interest you (see my blog post about The Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Unsubscribe).

Try sorting or filtering your inbox with unopened items with the word ‘unsubscribe’ to locate likely candidates to remove [Quick tip: in the search box in Gmail you can type unsubscribe in:inbox is:unread to see unread emails in your inbox that contain the word ‘unsubscribe’]. There are also apps and services that can help you mass-unsubscribe and create sorting rules for emails, but be sure to read the privacy policy and terms of service before you enroll: some of the ‘free’ services collect and sell your data or personal information.

As with the three folder inbox I introduced you to earlier, I invite you to try a similar approach with your email. I truly believe that a streamlined, simple system plus a few regular habits can help you reduce organizing time and manage the feeling of overwhelm. And remember, it’s your system…so tailor it to your life and home and play around with it until the system works for you!


*Clutter Healing®, Inc. is not affiliated with or an advocate for these specific services. Always read the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service before deciding if a service is right for you.