Justin Tadlock

The life-changing magic of sorting papers

Old college notes and highlights from an English an essay on literacy.

I had an entire tote of papers, notebooks, and folders from college filled to the brim. Not one of those tiny totes. It was the kind that’d break your back attempting to move it. For the life of me, I could not think of a single reason to hold onto my old German-language notebooks. I wasn’t even particularly fond of the mandatory two semesters of a second language at Auburn University. I was even less fond of my calculus class, so it made no sense to still have a folder with notes and old tests.

Over the course of a brutal three hours, I managed to whittle my mountain of papers down to a much smaller stack of things that were important to me. I kept a heart-tugging tale of one of my first serious girlfriends. I kept a story about an Alzheimer’s patient I got to know while working at a nursing home. I held onto these essays and stories because they helped shape who I am and are a good reminder that I should continue pursuing my dream of one day being a novelist.

I’ve now completed Lesson #3 of Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Papers.

Fortunately, I had already cleaned out my filing box last year and purged it of unwanted material. Getting rid of cable bills from 2006 was long overdue—if I’d only known about Marie Kondo then. Most of what remained was tax forms, which I’d love to throw into a fire. They don’t spark joy; I have little choice but to keep them.

When it comes to paper, I was once a master-level hoarder.

Years ago, I realized that I didn’t need to hold onto every piece of paper that found its way into my life. At one point, I was saving every magazine, newspaper, and random note jotted onto a scrap of paper. Moving around as much as I did, I had to learn to let go. Lugging around boxes upon boxes of stuff that I’d never read again got tiring after a few moves, so I trashed those things. Until this past weekend, I was still holding onto things that didn’t matter to my life anymore.

The things I did hold onto during this process were things that made me happy. I found it hard to give thanks to old calculus and German course notes. However, I did look back fondly on some of my experiences in those classes. The people I met mattered. The professors. My classmates. The experience is what changed my life, not a question I noted in some random lecture because I thought it might get asked on a test.

I did cross into the sentimental items category (Lesson #5) while in this stage of the tidying process. For me, paper things tend to hold a lot of sentimental value. Old letters and holiday cards should probably be handled in that final stage. But, I rifled through that particular box and sorted it anyway. I didn’t throw out much because I can’t see myself letting most of those items go. However, I did organize them.

In the end, I discarded 4 grocery sacks and one full garbage bag of paper. Not bad for a couple of days of work.

The next step of this process will be komono—miscellaneous items—which encompasses a wide range of things. I’ll probably break it down into sub-categories and tackle one or two over the coming weekends. I imagine this upcoming step will be one of the toughest. Everything from kitchen gizmos to my massive DVD collection will come under review in this stage.