What’s in my wallet?

Less is clearly more when it comes to paper

Because I had a bit of free time the other day, and because I’m a responsible adult, I decided to clean out my wallet. Over the previous several months it had grown to twice its normal size, and pieces of paper were now protruding from its inner recesses. I’d put off the task for some time, but papers were now falling out each time I opened the thing, so I couldn’t put it off much longer.

I found a comfortable chair and pulled out a giant wad of paper—a mix of old receipts, some cash, a few business cards, and miscellaneous memos and notes I must have jotted down thinking that I’d need them at some point. As I began to sort through the mess, my mind had other ideas, and wandered off to find something more interesting to do. Soon it was occupied with an unresolved work issue from the previous day, and the pace of my sorting slowed.

Perhaps I ought to be more mindful, I thought, and resolved to be more present. I focused on my breathing, and on the other sensations I was feeling— the texture of the paper, the sounds it made as I uncrumpled it, the way the sunlight played off of its surfaces. For a minute I felt more relaxed. And then my mind rebelled. Surely we’re made for better things than dealing with paper, I thought; isn’t that why we put off this sort of routine chore? Maybe so, but with the paper contents of my disgorged wallet piled in front of me, I didn’t have much choice.

I filed a few of the sorted papers, tossed most of them, and moved on to the pocket holding the credit and debit cards. In addition to the plastic cards, a few more paper items— a gift card, business cards, membership cards, and some more receipts—had made their way into the pocket. I flicked most of the paper into the trash. Unlike the papers, the cards were at least easy to handle and organize, being made of plastic and of the same size. I quickly reshuffled them, moving the debit card—the one I use for most of my purchases — to the top.

I lifted the wallet. It felt more streamlined, more useful, more valuable. Removing the paper from the wallet made everything in the wallet more accessible, and made the wallet itself easier to handle. Less was clearly more.

It’s never been easier to keep paper from intruding into our daily transactions. Receipts can be received by email, or purchases tracked online. Contact info can be exchanged in a text or email. And cash is superfluous for many consumers. The net effect of these innovations is the removal of friction. We can do more, in a shorter amount of time, thanks to technology. Unfortunately, manual processes like tossing out paper haven’t sped up. Instead they seem to take longer than ever, making this 15 minutes feel like a bigger waste of time than it might have in the past.

Cleaning the paper out of the supply chain is a bit more involved than cleaning it out of one’s wallet, but the benefits are even more pronounced. E-invoicing technology is allowing business to work more efficiently and the paper that’s limited the growth of business is rapidly disappearing, enabling businesses to do things faster.

I took a last look at the wallet. It had a taxidermied look about it, like some dried out, extinct animal whose era and come and gone. Some day, it really might be a thing of the past, along with all the paper it was designed to hold.

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