The Mysterious Case of the Tottering Stalagmites

A guest post by Katharine

The Mysterious Case of the Tottering Stalagmites

Photo Credit Simply Placed Blog

In the magic land that is our home we have an enchanted forest. Trouble is the wicked clutter goblin chopped it down and made into paper that breeds when we are not looking.

It spreads chaotically across my ‘supposed to be for making things’ desk
It squeezes out of box files on the filing shelves, gasping for air
It haunts my attic
It pokes me spitefully when I am not looking from the sofa seat next to mine.
And that is just stuff belonging to me. My OH’s style of paper management comes in the form of tottering stalagmite’s formation dancing across the living room floor.

So I needed a plan of action for breaking the curse of paper clutter.

This is what I felt mattered

I can only get ruthless with the stuff I own, no one else’s, so focus on my stuff first. Everything needs a home so I can put away ‘like with like’ easily. No more malevolent life forms spreading homelessly over our living space. I don’t want to keep what doesn’t enhance my life now. I want to let go of ‘aspirational’ clutter: it’s contributing too much to an undercurrent of failure to achieve. I saw one way of eventually tackling the tottering stalagmites was to create more shelf space for their contents by getting rid of mine.

This is the variety of paperwork I had to deal with

the official that needs to be kept (finances/tax records, car records, pension info, health info, employment and qualification records) the practical (warranties/instruction manuals & a hoard of receipts; house maintenance records/rent/purchase contracts the sentimental including aspirational clutter and ‘information that might come in useful one day’.

This is how I did it

I discovered with quick research online that the 10 years of paperwork in the attic, including legal documents relating to flats I sold 9 and 12 yrs ago, all phone bills, utilities and bank statements was O.V.E.R.K.I.L.L. I weeded my official and practical paperwork from the systems already set up on my filing shelves and stored in the attic and shredded everything apart from specific tax related details for the last 3 years. The shreddings filled 4 dustbin bags and what is left fills two A4 envelopes. Please note I am in the UK. How long and what you need to keep for tax purposes may vary depending where you live. My banking is all online. I have now gone paperless for these accounts and my phone. For now, I wish to keep one year’s hardcopy of utility bills as I find it easier to monitor our usage that way.


A very good shredder, set up at waist height that is easy to access immediately (including waist height wall plug switch). Have a filing system that is easy to access and use. Be ruthless with mail as soon as it enters the house. Over the last year, we have actually got very good at this: the envelopes and inserts and marketing go straight in the recycle bin; bills are filed in my A4 ‘Bills’ folder . The official and practical felt like the easy bit. Much more difficult was the homeless mess of sentimental flotsam and jetsam.

This is how I did the difficult stuff

I tackled one small pile of mess one at a time, gradually ‘joining the dots’ with many small clearances, keeping in the forefront of my mind the release I wanted to feel by it leaving my home and setting me free to live now. I remember the high from getting rid of the most difficult thing for me ever, last year, my flute: nothing was going to be as difficult as my struggle over that one and it has felt great ever since. I took each single piece or scrap of paper and put like with like in piles on the floor, weeding ruthlessly as I went. At the end of each mini clearance, I put each group in designated box files/folders. It helped that I have been decluttering for 3 months now: I’ve build my ruthless muscles up in that time.

The piles roughly divided into these

Papers related to hobbies (unfinished writing project with lots of research notes & articles, clock & mosaic making and a titchy bit of selling.) Family history research written on scraps of paper Cards I have bought because they would be ‘lovely to frame’ (dating back years) Cards I have been sent. Cards bought to send to people but I didn’t don’t get round to ‘yet’. Entertaining articles cut out from papers. Useful ideas and quotes written on scraps of paper. Sentimental bits of paper; including doodles I liked or quotes, or half filled notebooks. Memorabilia; tickets, pamphlets (many of places we ‘should’ go to…) Information; magazine articles with a good quote in them or interesting picture Course notes from numerous evening classes Articles that might come in useful one day

Nearly all the cards went,(plus a number of unused frames bought 2nd hand for these cards and the two never met); the quotes; the scraps; loads of excess envelopes and writing paper we will never get through if we live to 110; the university brochure I appeared in; the badly written poetry; the half filled notebooks; the course notes I hadn’t looked at since finishing the courses over 5 years ago.


Anything just too difficult to chuck now, is now is a single box file and I can go through that whenever I am ready to. It’s ok to do this in stages. Results I was able to get rid of half a dozen boxes/files that were now empty, choosing to keep the ones I liked best. The attic is no longer haunted by the paper ghoul. I know I will do a further purge one day. My ‘creative desk space is clutter free and the sofa seat beside me empty. My total paperwork reduced to 1 ½ shelves. I have created 7 ½ ft of empty shelf space and one empty filing drawer for the tottering stalagmites. I converted 4 shelves down to 3 much more useful ones by raising them two inches so it takes the right size for OH’s files etc. So what next My next job is to “facilitate the organised & supportive demolition of the aforementioned tottering stalagmites, on to the shelves in a like with like labelled basis. Sounds so easy put like that…

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. yes! Thank you for the permission to get rid of these things. I found some diaries I kept as a teen. I read them, laughing at my young self and shedded them page by page. They were very good for me at the time, but now they are embarassing relics, I don’t have a clue why I saved them so long… but I felt so much lighter and happier with them gone!

    • Thanks for commenting Pol.I think we hang on to these things initially as they mean something to us, but gradually the feeling passes as life moves on, but we feel under some sentimental obligation. That feeling of lightness is in direct proportion to how long we have hung on to them I’m sure. And it is such a great feeling isn’t it? And I think the more we get to experience that feeling, the more ruthless we can become, because we know through experince we stay safe emotionally afterwards rather than devastated at some imagined loss.

    • Hi *pol,
      I have found the same thing about past writings, they were therapeutic at the time but now they are just embarrassing at best and would want anyone else finding them and reading them. Best destroyed.

  2. Now! onto the unfinished notes and projects that are cluttering my house and my concsience!

  3. I know. My ruthless muscles are in pretty good condition too. I have already thrown away about 6 boxes of paper and I love the new found space!

    • Have you amazed yourself Nurchamel at what you get rid of now, compared to when you began? I know I do.

    • Hi Nurchamiel,
      paper clutter what a curse. Last week I started to sort through paper clutter that hadn’t even been used for anything. Lined paper from the kids at school, half used note pads, Off cuts from printing projects. I am donating it all the the school up the road. Too bad they are on vacation at the moment.

  4. Katharine, I feel like meeting you might be like meeting a twin 🙂 Every category of paper clutter that you listed except one are in my guilty possession too. My husband also has tottering piles of paper of every description. Your methodical process is a good guide for me when I tackle my paper clutter.

    (And lest Colleen picks up on the fact that I haven’t DONE my paper decluttering yet, in my defense I have largely finished my dining room and kitchen clutter, made it about halfway through our bedroom, and spent the past week tackling basement clutter!! And I’ve been cleaning as I go. I think the paper clutter will be the last thing I do, because it just seems immense, but with Katharine’s help, I now have a plan. Thank you so much, Katharine!)

    • Wow, how lovely to feel I have been of some help!
      And I always fancied being a twin – which continent are you on? 🙂

      I’m sure that tackling your stuff is the only way to get a step nearer “facilitating” the organisation of your husbands tottering piles. Note: this statement does not constitute a binding guarantee,LOL.
      I think paperwork can become the over whelming problem as it covers such diverse areas. Having a home for every new bit that now enters my life is proving to be working so far (which includes dumping in the recycle bin much quicker – I am more realistic as to whether I will get round to doing what I previously might have planned to with it.)

      And well done on your other decluttering activities; it all adds up.

    • Hey Jo! Declutter paper is the hardest decluttering EVER! 😀 I did my backyard in two hours, but my office is taking me months :-O !!! So I guess we have to go at it in phases like Katharine did.

    • Hi Jo,
      I am watching and don’t worry I have my own clutter black holes like craft clutter but the day of reckoning is coming and soon. As you can see from my daily item there is always something being decluttered and I have always said that I started with the easy stuff and have been working my way through. The craft clutter is on my radar screen just like your paper clutter is on yours.

  5. I use an accordion file – everything that comes in (that seems important) goes into the monthly slot. In January, I go through the year’s documents and shred anything that doesn’t need saving, and file the necessary stuff. It makes sorting through the day to day paper much easier – if I can’t decide whether it’s important or not, it goes into the file. It’s amazing how much of it ultimately gets tossed.

    • Hi Julia – this is perfect proof of finding a system that works for you.
      I have had several accordion files over the years and they always end up repositories for junk that aren’t looked at from one year to the next so I know this wouldn’t work for me. I do like to keep each separate thing (car, finances etc) separate but it totally works for you = excellent.
      That’s the great thing about sharing ideas on here, because each idea is going to connect with someone.

      • Katharine,

        You are right! I tried so many paper organization systems before I hit upon this one. I still have occasional piles, but not too bad anymore.

  6. Hi Katharine! You did a fantastic job ;-D ! It is very dificult to get rid of paper. If it is not well planned, like you did, you may spend hours thinking: “But what if I need this paper later?” I am in the process of cleaning my office, and have been going at it since december, and it has been very challenging. Hopefully, with the new filing sistem that i have adopted things will improve. And how is spring? I lived in the UK a long time ago…

    • Aw, thanks Andreia. I think you are right – we do underestimate how difficult the paper in our lives can be, because each individual piece is… paper thin, it feel like it ‘shouldn’t’ be a big problem.
      How is spring – well, we think we may have had our spring and summmer all last weekend:)). But then you know us Brits; what would we have to talk anout if the weather played fair.

      • Oh yes, I remember those jokes. Hadn’t heard one of them in ages. Last Sunday was Summer 😀 ! I live in a city just like that these days. You wake up, it’s freezing, by midday, it is hot and sunny and you have to take your coat off, by afternoon it is raining and when night comes it is cold again. Lovely spring and autunm we have here as well. 😀

  7. By the way, your start “In the magic land that is our home we have an enchanted forest. Trouble is the wicked clutter goblin chopped it down and made into paper that breeds when we are not looking.”, made me laugh and look for the many wicked clutter goblins taht live in my office! 😀 😀 😀

    • LOL:be careful – they can be nasty critters – you know how painful paper cuts can be right? Well that’s the clutter Goblns fightng back.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story Katharine! I felt like reading my own words, because I’ve done the same process earlier this year. I did my major paper purge a couple months ago and just last week I was able to tackle the “not-sure-what-to-do-with” pile from the previous purge. Most of it went to the shredder.

    My banking is all online and I have also an electronic mail box (not the same as email) where I get invoices, pay slips etc. They store them for free for 7 years so I’ve eliminated the need to store those papers at home. Now I just need to get used to the fact that when I come back home from work there is rarely any mail waiting for me. 🙂

    • Thanks Anne. It’s good to hear what can happen to the left ‘not sure what to do with it pile’.
      I like the sound of this electronic mailbox. Have you a link or further info so I could find out more?

      • I’m afraid I can’t help you with the electronic mail box. I live in Finland and the service is provided by Finnish Postal Services. You might want to ask the Royal Mail if they have something similar. I think Canada has a similar system, but it’s only for bills. Jo can correct me if I’m wrong. 🙂

  9. Another incentive for me to tackle my desk–which I did this evening! Is it paperless? No, and it never will be because it’s my working desk. But now all the excess papers are gone!

    • Hi Willow,
      there are certain professions that make it impossible to ever be paper free and yours is one of them. Well done getting down to just what you are currently working on. That is the most one can ever expect.

    • And that is perfect willow – the excess has gone which will make using the desk more efficient.

  10. Katherine, what a great and timely post, especially since tax season here in the US is nearing its end. This is the time I usually shred the oldest tax records in my seven-year collection and go through other paperwork. I can identify with most of the categories of paper that you mentioned. I have a large filing cabinet that is pretty well organized, but much too full. I hope to follow your example and become much more ruthless in my efforts to get rid of the paper goblin. If only I could make snap decisions instead of scrutinizing every piece of paper, I might accomplish more in less time! 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your methods with us. It has inspired me to attack my files with renewed energy and motivation.

    • Thank you very much for your lovely comments Di. I am completely the same: I have to look at every single piece of paper, I can’t just dump a box full, even if I haven’t looked at it for several years. I think it is so I don’t panic later.

      In the UK, the tax year ends on 5th April. The historical reason for this is…
      The financial year was divided into quaters for the paying of rent and bills etc – each known as quarter day. Until 1752, the final quaterday of the year was 25th March, and it was the last day of the year, not 31st Dec. In 1752 the ‘Julian’ calender was dropped in favour of the Gregorian calender, used by the rest of europe as we were 11 days behind. So, we lost 11 days (just eliminated that year) in order to catch up with the european calender, so add 11 days to 25th March and you have the 5th April – rent collecting day!

  11. FANTASTIC JOB! Good for you Katharine.

  12. Hi Colleen, I am also interested in this. (Take a look at the latest article on my blog for more info.) Your post is enjoyable to read, you have most definitely provided me with some food for thought! – cars2scrap.

    • Hi Sarah,
      welcome to 365lessthings. I have added your business to my Recycling Options page. This page is a work in progress and is not very comprehensive yet.

  13. I’ve just discovered your blog via a facebook friend who *liked* your page. Wow, did this post speak to me. My mom, a dedicated packrat, died 7 years ago and I still have boxes of paper that she had saved. Sorting through it has been a put-it-off project because there are truly important things mixed in with nonsense stuff so I need to look at every piece. Add the whole sentimental aspect and…well…it seemed overwhelming. I think I can dig in and take care of it now. Thank you. :^D

    • Hi Susan,
      thank you for joining us here at 365lessthing and I would like to extend a very warm welcome to you. You must thank your friend on my behalf for directing you to my blog.

      If you dig around in the archives you will find many reader comments on the subject of belonging left after a loved one has passed away…
      This one is a real feel good story – In case you missed it. March 20 2011
      This is a comment from J ~
      A comment from Carman ~
      A comment from Loretta ~
      A comment from Deb J ~

      I am sure there are far more than this and there should be a couple of blog posts as well but there weren’t popping up with the search words I used. I am glad you now feel ready to deal with the task, it isn’t always easy when the pain is raw which is why we should all keep our homes at a decluttered level that won’t leave a terrible burden for someone else should unforeseen circumstances arrise.

      • Dealing with all of my mom’s stuff actually sent my husband and me into Stuff Alert Mode. It was a good boot into cleaning out our own cupboards, drawers, closets, etc so our kids won’t have to go through it! It also inspired us to start a notebook listing family treasures and the who, what, when. (Inspired by three family members on both sides who left behind a lot of mysterious objects, things we knew were family items but we had no clear history for them.)

        Thank you for the links!

        • Hi Susan,
          the situation you found yourself in is often the catalyst for a big clean out and a change of lifestyle. I am fortunate that I haven’t been through this but I have read enough accounts from others who have to not let this happen to my kids. We also kid ourselves that this is unique to old people but stuff happens sometimes so it is never too soon to get our affairs in order.