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Letting Go of Paper and Books

I’ve received a few emails and comments from folks who are struggling with paper clutter. As an example, here is a recent reader question:

“As a writer, don’t you have a lot of writing materials, like journals, that will need a place in your new home? Not to mention, paperwork for your business side? (Do you have much computer gear? Printer, etc.?) Has that all been accounted for in the storage spaces of your new home? This is the area I struggle with the most – paper clutter! I’d love to hear how you will be managing the paper trail in your new space!” -Victoria

Rather than writing separate emails and comments, I wanted to share my response here. So let’s get started!

Right now I have a few pens, one journal, eight books, and hardly any paper in my life. Below are a few steps I’ve taken to pare down my paper trail.

Purging. When we started downsizing, we had a few filing cabinets full of paper, which included old college essays and bills. I slowly started going through our various filing cabinets and realized most of the stuff we were “saving” was unnecessary. We shredded a majority of our old documents and haven’t looked back. Now 95% of my personal and business documents are in digital form.

Tracking. I track what comes into and out of my life by keeping an inventory of my belongings. Tacking has forced me to keep things in check. As a result, I no longer hold onto a lot of paper, like old college essays, bills, and journals.

Printing. Logan and I had a number of arguments about whether or not we should keep our printer. He “wanted the convenience to print out tickets, directions, or photos at home.”

When we did the math it turned out that it was more cost effective to outsource our printing needs than to buy expensive ink cartridges. We finally donated the printer before we moved to Sacramento. We now write down directions and have our photos and tickets printed at a local shop.

Journals. I always carry a journal with me and a few pens because I’m constantly writing down thoughts for the book and blog. After I’m done with a journal, I look through the content and pull out pages that I want to keep. Then I shred the rest and start a new one. I love starting fresh because I’m forced to look at events and thoughts with a beginner’s mind.

Books. Last year, I wrote an essay on how to create a minimalist library for AOL. I noted, “Prior to downsizing my life, I had a huge personal library. It contained hundreds of books; some were new and others were old college texts that I’d been dragging around for years. I love books, but my massive library was weighing me down and taking up way too much space. So after a lot of thought and deliberation, I decided to donate the majority of my books to the local library. Now I have a little, minimalist library.”

Read the full article or watch a video on creating a minimalist library.

A catch-all box. We have a small clear plastic container, that’s about the size of a shoe box, that we use for storing excess paper. We put stationary, postcards, business receipts, and checks in the box.

Last words. We have worked really hard to let go of belongings we no longer need, which includes books, paper, and other odds and ends. I’m not paper free and I’m not opposed to paper either.

For example, on Sunday I spent a few hours in a lovely Portland shop called Oblation Papers & Press looking at stationary, journals, embroidered paper and old printing presses. I love writing letters and in journals too. But I carefully chose the type of paper I buy and what I keep in my catch-all box.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Casey September 19, 2011, 7:46 am

    Thank you so much for writing about this. I think this is one area that a lot of people struggle. I’ve noticed that when I have a desk, I am apt to make piles on it and in it. So I’ve rearranged in order to get rid of the desk and the space on which I’d like to pile. So far so good.

    • Tammy Strobel September 20, 2011, 6:36 pm

      @Casey – No problem! I’m happy to help. Prior to downsizing, I felt like I was being dragged down by paper and books. It felt really good to let it go. 🙂

      Wishing you well.

  • Clay Andrews September 19, 2011, 7:47 am

    Yeah, I finally decided to embrace minimalism and such after realizing that I’ve moved at least once per year for the past ten years. The books are the first to go. It’s hard to get rid of them though, since we’re ingrained with this belief that books are knowledge and that you can’t just toss out knowledge. But as long as you sell the to a used bookstore or pass them along to a friend, there really isn’t anything “lost” in the big scheme of things.

    The only real trouble I’ve had is that I’ve been keeping a physical journal for the past 16 years or so. I’m far too sentimental to get rid of them, but, dang, there are ten volumes now! Not really sure what to do with them…


    PS: It was nice meeting you last week 🙂

    • Tammy Strobel September 20, 2011, 6:37 pm

      @Clay – Thanks for stopping by!

      WOW that’s amazing. I’m impressed that you’ve been journaling for so long. Maybe you can sort through them slowly and recycle the ones that don’t serve you?

      It was great meeting you too. I had so much fun. 🙂 Hopefully we can connect soon.

  • Matthew September 19, 2011, 7:56 am

    Yay! “How to Make a Journal …” is such an awesome little book! I “stole” it from my wife when we were dating! = )
    Which leads me to my point (sometimes I have one, you know): There are a few titles that I read (or try to read) yearly. May as well keep those. There are a few books that belonged to my late mother (who was an English teacher and from whom I got my love of reading), and are thus irreplaceable – nobody’s allowed to even TOUCH those books. Other than that (and again, “Thanks, Mom!”), the best thing about a good book is sharing it … If it’s amazing and not irreplaceable, give it away! -M

  • Brittany September 19, 2011, 8:34 am

    Oh, gosh, I love Oblation! I applied there last winter for a temporary seasonal job, but never heard from them. What a lovely place to work, though!

    • Tammy Strobel September 20, 2011, 6:40 pm

      @Brittany – That store is my new obsession. I’m going to buy my next journal there. Until then, I’ll keep going in and looking at all the fun stuff. I love the cards made my local artists. So beautiful!

  • Danny September 19, 2011, 8:34 am

    Book collections: I too struggled with this one. There’s something about having bookshelves full of books that is personally satisfying to me. On the other hand, the thought of a bigger home mortgage to pay for the extra space needed to house lots of books is not so satisfying. (Not to mention the extra expenses that pile up with bigger houses.) So I compromised. Old paperback fiction goes to the used book store. New “paperback” fiction I buy as eBooks. History books I divide between keepers for which I’d like it on my shelf, and non-keepers that I buy as eBooks. To help enforce my rule, I’ve vowed not to add shelf space. So if I make a trip to Powell’s — an annual experience only since I live in Georgia — something first has to go to the used book store.

    Journal: I keep a number of journals, mostly for work related tasks, but more frequently for personal activities too. After trying many digital apps, and never being satisfied, I finally just this year settled (or I should say, returned to) Microsoft One Note. I have the OneNote app on my iPhone, which syncs wirelessly with the main copy on my MacBook. Now my journal entries follow me from my iPhone to my desktop and vice versa, and I have one less item in my bag. (Sorry for the product plugs. Hope that’s ok.)

    I took note of your “Beginner’s mind.” I’ll have to make a point to archive or delete old journal entries.

  • Jack September 19, 2011, 9:06 am

    When my girlfriend and I first moved in together, we had at least thirty boxes of books between the two of us, not to mention our comics and zine collections. By the time we got ready to move to Portland, we were able to cut it down to three boxes of books and half a box for comics and zines. It’s nowhere near as minimal as yours, but it allowed us to downsize to a studio apartment instead of a one bedroom.

  • Stephanie September 19, 2011, 9:09 am

    Great post!

    I donated most of my library after I read your AOL article earlier this summer and it has made a huge difference in clutter. I also recycled tons of old notebooks and sketch pads – I have no idea why I had been holding onto them for years.

    Even minimalists seem to find the idea of getting rid of books kind of sinful (this seems especially true with children’s books), so I was very happy to see your perspective. A person can only read so many books at once. Most of the books I read come from the public library anyway, so the others in my own collection were just gathering dust. I kept a few reference books, and an old book written by my grandmother, which fill up just half a book shelf. I haven’t missed the rest.

    Thanks so much for the insight!

  • David Stokley September 19, 2011, 9:18 am

    For me the best way to get rid of books is just to remember that I can get it for free anytime I want at the library. I had a huge box of books in my storage closet before moving recently, and I ended up donating at least 90% of them to Goodwill.

    They accumulated not because I wanted them necessarily, but because they were worth $0.01 on Amazon and I figured maybe one day I would get to reading them again. I eventually had the revelation that hey, if I can only sell it for $0.01 on Amazon I can also buy it there for that price if I ever want it again. Having the extra space and not having to deal with the clutter is worth way more than the $0.02 it would cost to give it away and buy it again.

  • Sandra / Always Well Within September 19, 2011, 9:32 am

    Tammy, This is an interesting one! I did at one point donate my cherished library of books – hundreds – keeping fifty important ones. Now, I generally buy books on a Kindle. But as Lynn Fang has pointed out the impact on the environment between paper and the Kindle is not that significantly different. I go through phases but I’ve been writing prolifically in my journal of late.

    I’m definitely far more conscious about using and collecting unnecessary paper generated items. But you’ve given me more to think about. The idea of going through a journal and just saving the important pages is an interesting one.

    Then there’s the question of what if the internet goes poof one day? Sounds impossible, right? But is anything impossible?

    • Tammy Strobel September 20, 2011, 9:05 am

      @Sandra – Sure, anything this possible. But I don’t like to live my life in a “what if” scenario. Besides, if the net goes out, I have a feeling we’ll be worried about bigger problems, like getting power to our homes, food, etc.

  • Brooke September 19, 2011, 9:48 am

    I struggled with a load of old art projects/drawings and other stuff from my childhood that my mom gave me, which included a baby book and a huge photo album. I really had no emotional attachment to any of that stuff, because when you think about it, all that stuff is for parents – and if they were giving that to me in their “spring cleaning”, what value did it really hold to anyone anymore? The baby book was filled with baby shower cards, a list of what was popular in pop culture when I was born, and a list of my “firsts”. Interesting to look through once, but of no lasting value to me. The photo album was a ton of repetitious baby photos. I pulled out a few that meant something to me, and, yes, I chunked the rest of the album, along with the baby book and all the art projects and stuff I created in childhood. Though most people would be horrified at the idea of throwing out irreplaceable photos, I have no regrets about it. I have one photo album with select photos of my life right up to the present, and it’s all I need. And if something were to happen to even those photos, I’d be ok. People all over the world enjoy life without photos, and people all throughout history enjoyed life without photos.
    I’ve been told that I am not sentimental because of my lack of attachment to most material things, but that is simply not true! I am VERY sentimental, but sentimentality is about memories, not things.

    • Amy September 22, 2011, 12:20 pm

      “I’ve been told that I am not sentimental because of my lack of attachment to most material things, but that is simply not true! I am VERY sentimental, but sentimentality is about memories, not things.”

      I could have written this myself! I agree with what you said about the photos, too. My sister gives me a hard time for not having many photographs of my children (and no professional photos at all). I would so much rather spend the time with my family than to be a bystander taking photographs…

  • Sepia Prince September 19, 2011, 10:35 am

    Tammy, you’ve shared some very practical ideas that incorporate ethics and understanding about the hows and whys of lessing one’s paperload. As I am scaling down myself, especially with plans to join the Tiny House Movement, this post is “write” on time.


  • rob September 19, 2011, 10:54 am

    Excellent ideas. I already own the house and bookshelves, but even so I am finding it satisfying to purge the books, and random other possessions that seem to migrate to the shelves. My 2-3 year plan involves selling the house and finding someplace much smaller to live, so purging for the next couple of years can’t be anything but good. I found that filling the first box of books to give away was really hard, but became easier as my standards of what I really “needed” to keep changed. I doubt I’ll ever get down to Tammy’s tiny pile of books, but I’ll get down to 1-2 shelves worth. Getting rid of other paper is a constant battle in this world, but I’m managing to go digital with most everything. At first I thought I’d need to scan a lot of paper, but ultimately it seems that, a Tammy observed, much of what we keep is pointless and comes from the “I’ll keep this just in case” mentality.

  • Storm September 19, 2011, 11:25 am

    I love your blog, and find many good ideas here. That said, it took an essay on another website to, pardon the pun, light a fire under me. It asked what readers might choose to save if they had 5 minutes before fleeing their burning home; it’s really got me thinking about offsite backup of what I consider important, as well as inspiring me to take a hard look at the clutter I own.

    My library is getting winnowed of “chaff;” the remainder is being divided into books I simply prefer in hard copy (such as the lovely hardcover Sandman graphic novel set gifted by my wonderful partner), and the books I still want, but would be just as happy (if not moreso) to have digital. My filing cabinet is also getting the winnowing treatment, though I confess to an intent to keep all of my paperwork relating to my disability (though THAT is getting scanned, bit by bit). My dresser has been winnowed; finding shirts I had forgotten I purchased, that fit better than the ones I’ve worn lately, is like getting to go shopping without leaving home! My closet is next…

    Finally, on the matter of my personal writing, I’ve taken to using Evernote. It frees me to write/edit my writing anywhere I have access to the ‘net, as well as a way to better organise all that writing (notebooks and “stacks” containing related notebooks). I recently received an Android tablet (again, from my other half), and I’m using it as part of my system to pare down all of the paper (books, etc.) I’ve surrounded myself with. With said offsite storage for our computer backups, I’ll be left grabbing the tablet and hunting down the cat (they hide!) should the house ever catch fire, or other disaster hit. Almost everything else will be accounted for (having their own legs and motivation to get out), or will be covered by insurance.

  • Debbie M September 19, 2011, 11:41 am

    Outsource your printing? Local shop? So can someone help me understand the mechanics? First, how do you tell them what to print? Do you need a memory stick for the photos? Do you bring a laptop? Do you send them an e-mail? (Yes, I am totally ignorant about this.) Second, what sort of shop is this? A copier shop?

    • Tammy Strobel September 20, 2011, 9:06 am

      @Debbie – We use FedX, which is down the street from our apartment. You can either send them an e-mail, bring your laptop or a memory stick. It’s really up to you. We use a local photo shop to get pictures printed out. 🙂

      • Debbie M September 21, 2011, 5:47 am

        Cool. Thanks.

  • Desi September 19, 2011, 11:43 am

    This interests me. I have a lot of kids in my life, and with them comes a constellation of craft projects, art supplies, little bits of things to improve fine motor development, and toys that seem to materialize out of thin air. My focus has been on paring down their things – which does have value. But, I think there is more value in paring down my own. You’ve given me much to think about. Thank you!

  • DJ September 19, 2011, 11:54 am

    I really love the notion of using a very small box to store your stationary, etc., in the sense that it provides a very physical limit to how much paper and how many blank cards you can have at any given time.

    I know what you mean about the books. They are EVERYWHERE in our house. The book collections of four people. And the sheer number of them is so overwhelming.

  • Victoria September 19, 2011, 5:22 pm

    Thank you Tammy! Very helpful. I have a long way to go to get down to the minimal amount of paper you have, but it gives me something to shoot for.

    I gave away most of my books several years ago too – but, like other things, they tend to accumulate over time and I definitely need to do another purge!

    I spent some time this weekend looking at various websites and videos of “tiny homes” (thanks to several of your links!) and this weekend we are going to go look at a travel trailer as our possible next abode. Thanks for the inspiration to do something like this!

    Cheers –

  • Arvind Devalia September 19, 2011, 10:59 pm

    Tammy, I wish my late father had access to all the features and facilities of the digital age. He was the classic paper hoarder – if only he could have read this article!

    More than 3 years after his passing, we have finally begun to go through the mountain of paperwork and books he left behind. You would not believe what stuff he’s collected!

    He kept newspaper cuttings from the 50’s and 60’s, all neatly categorised – and many in triplicate. It was fun going through his stuff – and even more fun to put most of it in the recycling bin:-)

    Now they say like father, like son – but thankfully I have managed to avoid this trait from my father. But my book shelf is getting rather full – time for a big purge. I do love that word “purge” in the de-cluttering sense.

  • Leigh Purtill September 19, 2011, 10:59 pm

    I did the “get rid of half my stuff” recently and donated a ton of books to my local Out of the Closet. My husband gave me a Kindle (which he got for free thru his Amex points!!) and I LOVE it. No clutter and I can still support my favorite authors. 🙂

  • Sunday September 20, 2011, 4:26 am

    I don’t think I have the guts yet to shred my old journals. I kind of can’t imagine doing it. I also think (now): how FREEING!! We’ll see how long it takes me to get my head around this and actually move forward with it.

  • Sandi September 20, 2011, 4:57 am

    As an avid reader, I found that donating my books was one of the more difficult tasks that I faced as I began my minimalist transformation over the last few months. I started using a Kindle and discovered that I actually read more when I could carry hundreds of books with me everywhere I went. It made parting with my books much easier. I donated all but a small box of books that are no longer in print. I no longer have to worry about storage and upkeep of a personal library. Experiencing the smell and feel of having that volume in your hand is as close as the nearest library. I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything but actually gained in stress-free living that a minimalist lifestyle allows.

  • Bo September 21, 2011, 9:27 am

    I’m an archaeologist, so I essentially work with human debris. Whenever I need to clean out my life (which I do frequently, and which gets more drastic every time!) I use a model I learned from combing through artifacts: will this endure? So many things I find in sites are, well, just rocks. But every now and then there is a well-made, beautiful, solid artifact. I want all my possessions to be like this. If I have a pen, I want it to endure and be a pen I have until I lose it or I’m gone. A beautiful, solid, “artifact-quality” pen.

    My mother has a similar tactic: the beautiful/useful/both plan. She makes piles, and strives to keep things that only fall into the “both” category. She has a lot more stuff than I do, but she’s happy!

    I currently live in a too-large house with a great partner, great roommate, and great dog. My partner and I plan to build our own small house in the future and we are currently downsizing in a major way. It’s liberating and profitable – Craig’s List and E-bay are our friends right now. I think a lot of people would consider us “furniture poor” but we are really happy the less and less we have.

    Are you still in the Sacramento area? If so, feel free to contact me, because that’s where we are!

  • Frank September 22, 2011, 8:34 am

    I have a feeling I’ll be keeping many more than five books, but I still find myself getting rid of most books after I’ve read them (I even got rid of some I hadn’t read yet after looking at them and deciding, what with life being finite, that I really didn’t want to read them after all). My dad is VERY well read, but has a surprisingly small collection. He only keeps valuable/collectible/irreplaceable books, and he gives away the vast majority of the rest to people he thinks will benefit from them.

  • Amy September 22, 2011, 12:24 pm

    I began purging a large collection of books after discovering and reading your blog and others minimalist blogs in recent months. Sometimes I like to be able to recommend a book to a friend, so what I’ve done is simply keep a running list of books I read and like in a word document. It’s an easy reference and keeps my shelves pared down to only my favorites.

  • marquita herald September 25, 2011, 10:22 am

    Interesting article and comments. I started cutting back on paper usage a few years ago. At the time my home was being used as the satellite office for the company I worked for and I found myself up to my eyeballs with every shape and size report you can imagine, brochures and incentive materials for the field. At one time I had three filing cabinets packed with paper. It took me several months to develop a new system, burned a lot of reports onto CD’s for instance, but once I got through it I’d managed to empty two of my filing cabinets … it was MUCH easier to find things, and I dramatically reduced use of both paper and printer supplies. Well worth the effort!

  • NLM October 19, 2011, 2:08 pm

    Thanks for the post–I feel lighter with each thing I give away. Peace.

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