Taming the Paper Dragon

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Permission slips… junk mail… bills… and more. If you’re like my best friend, Becky, all this paper sneaks into your house in a constant rustling stream. And if you’re really like Becky, a full-time working mom with three young kids, this paper stream finds its way onto your counters, tabletops, even the bassinet meant for your newborn baby.

But fear not, good people. The paper dragon can be tamed. But you must first learn the ways of the dragon master (me).

Becky was smart enough to call the master. I didn’t take much convincing… I couldn’t resist the doubly delicious thought of 1) seeing her for a whole weekend, and 2) organizing her stuff. So I packed my van with my own three young kids and headed up to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a weekend of wild kids and tame paper.

Here are some before shots.


This is Becky’s self-proclaimed “drop zone”, an area near her front door where keys, papers, and other miscellany are dropped upon entering the house. Many people have spaces like this. And many people, like Becky, find that the paper dragon is not content to stay here. Like Daenerys Targaryen knows, dragons grow and need to spread their wings, with sometimes disastrous results. While a paper dragon won’t terrorize the countryside, he will invade your countertops, tabletops, and yes, even the aforementioned baby’s bassinet.


Becky calls this the “bassinet of shame”. (Can you see why I love her?) I think most of us have the equivalent of a bassinet of shame somewhere in our house. (It may be the junk drawer of shame, pantry of shame, linen closet of shame, you get the idea.) Instead of housing a beautiful, sleeping baby, this bassinet became paper overflow.

It was time to get to work.

As Iggy Azalea would say, “First things first, I’m a realist.” (How happy am I that I’ve referenced Game of Thrones and Iggy Azalea in one post?) You’re gonna have paper in your house. Those pictures of paper-less homes in Better Homes and Gardens are glamour shots. You just gotta give that paper a HOME and KEEP IT THERE.

Enter the INBOX.

The inbox has two stages: COLLECTION and PROCESSING. Let’s talk about collection first.

Stage One: Collection – Like your email inbox, your paper inbox is a collection point or holding tank for stuff before you organize it. This is where you dump the mail when you walk in, the paper your kid hands you from his teacher, the receipts from your wallet. It all goes here. Remember, this is just the collection stage. Don’t worry about what to do with it yet. Just corral it and get to it later. But do get to it… otherwise the dragon rears his ugly head and the piles of paper start spreading…

Stage Two: Processing – Once you’ve collected your paper, you need to process it. A very important rule: you  must process the inbox from top to bottom, no skipping! (Skipping stuff = piles of paper = bassinet of shame.) Here are the steps to processing your inbox:

1.  Follow the two-minute rule – if something requires an action that will take less than two minutes, do it NOW. For example, when Becky processed her inbox, she found a paper dog leg that had been ripped off one of her children’s lift-the-flap books. “This will take less than two minutes!” she said, as she ran to the living room and taped the leg back on the appropriate book. She then declared, “That feels awesome!”  (Ah, nothing makes the dragon master happier than seeing the power of the two-minute rule in action!)

2. Calendar time-sensitive info immediately – That invitation to the neighbor’s BBQ in two weeks? Write it on your calendar (along with all pertinent info, such as the start time and “bring side dish”) and toss the invitation.

3. Tickler – I will devote a future post to the tickler file, but for now think of the tickler as “Do later.” This is the place to put paper items that need action, but not yet. That handout from your child’s teacher that says you are responsible for snack in two weeks and lists about 10 things the kids in the class are allergic to? You need to keep that but you don’t need to act now.  To make a quick and impromptu tickler, get yourself 12 manila folders and label them with each month of the year. Put your future-action papers in the month they correspond to and wait with bated breath for me to reveal the full tickler magic later!

4. Add to categorized To-Do lists – Read my earlier blog post about how to create these types of lists. (Note: I have recently ditched my paper lists in favor of the Reminders app that came on my iPhone. It works pretty much the same as paper but is more mobile.)

5.  File for Reference – Again, the word “reference” is key here. Don’t file things that need action. Those go in tickler or on your to-do lists. Also, don’t file information that could be found elsewhere. For example, if your bank statements are on paper, but also online, you don’t need that paper.

6. Shred – Keep an area for shreddable materials near your inbox. (I use a small plastic wastebasket labeled “Shred”.) Keep your eye out for free community shred days in your neighborhood to empty this basket.

7. Delegate – Ah, my favorite! Pass it along to someone else! For example, if your spouse handles all the bills, put bills into his inbox. Every teenager and adult in your household should have their own inbox. (These are also great places to put random stuff that those adults and teenagers like to leave lying around, like phones and wallets. I can’t wait until the day when “Emptry your inbox!” is one of my kids’ regular chores.) Becky created inboxes for herself, her husband, and her babysitter.

That’s it. Really.

But… if you have lots of piles of paper in your house, I have some good news and bad news for you.

The Bad News First: In order to tame your paper, you will have to have a one-time, all-out, no whining, no complaining, no stopping MAJOR inbox collection and processing event. This may take a long time and not feel so fun. (But I promise, the end result of having no paper piles is truly fun!)

The Good News: You will only have to do that ONCE! Becky and I scoured her home for all errant paper, collected it in a cardboard box, and processed for about two hours. This was intense, but it is the ONLY time she will ever have to process like that. Now that she has processed her inbox to zero once, she will only need to process a few times a week for a few minutes each time to keep paper under control.

Here’s a shot of Becky doing her one-and-only major inbox processing. You go, girl! Tame that paper!


And see her clear drop-zone with labeled inboxes for each adult? Fabulous! We used magazine files (found at office supply stores) for her inboxes because they stand upright, taking up less space. But any tray, box, or bin will do, as long as it can hold a regular 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper.


And the best part of this paper taming project? Putting this cute guy back where he belongs. The bassinet of shame has been officially banished from the kingdom!


Yes, it is possible to tame the paper dragon. You were but a learner, but now you have been taught by the master. Go, and become a master yourself.

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