Every Christmas, we receive a few jigsaw puzzles — it’s a family holiday pastime to watch movies and put the puzzles together. Interestingly enough, as I spend time going through the documents I need to prepare for our family’s 2013 income tax return, I realize that the steps involved in organizing paperwork are similar to the steps in assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
Define the goal
When you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle you’ve always got the box that shows what the puzzle should look like once it is together. For most organizing projects, you won’t get a picture of the final product; you’ll have to invent it yourself. Imagine what you want the final result to look like. How do you want it to function when you’re done? Don’t worry about all of the details at this point. A rough outline is just fine. You could simply state, “I want to be able to find the documents that I need, when I need them. I want them to be stored in the filing cabinet for easy access and any documents that I don’t need regularly but need to keep for tax reasons, will be stored in the attic. Everything else will be shredded.”
Sometimes you don’t have the entire picture. Imagine only receiving one or two puzzle pieces a day. You would have to collect a few months’ worth of pieces to get an idea of what the finished project should look like. This is exactly why I have a big pile of paperwork to be sorted and filed!
In our situation, living in a foreign country as visiting military, we are required to keep certain documents beyond what we would normally keep in our home country. I really didn’t know how these should be organized so my solution was to keep all of the documents in one large folder. Now that we’ve lived here for six months, we have a good idea what the “finished picture” looks like and we are able to sort the documents easily into appropriate categories.
Make a work space
If you have a large project or one that you need a few days to complete, consider setting up in a place that has minimal impact on your day-to-day living. We assemble our jigsaw puzzle on a table in our family room, which is also the place I’ve chosen to do my filing.
Consider sorting paperwork into labelled boxes. Rather than have open boxes, consider getting boxes with lids. They can then be stacked up against a wall and out of the way when you are not working. You can organize one box at a time at a later time.
Define the edges
When we’re working on our puzzle, usually we try to get the edge pieces first and then group similar pieces together onto paper plates such as “sky pieces” or “purple pieces.”
Decide on the “edges” of your project. Chose fewer groups with larger categories within each group. For example, if you’re working on financial paperwork, separate by decade, then by year, then within each year, then by month. You may even find that everything prior to a certain year can be immediately discarded and shredded.
Do not take the “Only Handle It Once (OHIO) Rule” literally when sorting and organizing. I have never been able to take a puzzle piece out of the box, look at it once and put it into the puzzle in its exact place. Don’t expect to do it with paperwork either.
Every time you handle a document, it should be to move it forward in the system of processing so that it is in its appropriate place for the next step. Not only should you prioritize it immediately, you must identify when and where the next steps take place so that the item is not forgotten either accidentally or on purpose.
Zoom in – zoom out
When we’re working on our puzzle, occasionally one of us will zoom in on an easily identifiable object within the puzzle and work on that. On our recent puzzle, my daughter found all of the pieces for a large orange flower that was in the centre of the puzzle. It allowed us to work outwards from that point to complete the puzzle faster. However, while she was working on the flower, she kept it in perspective of the entire puzzle.
If you’re organizing and sorting paperwork, you may find you can easily complete a small portion of the project. You may be able to completely organize all of last year’s financial documents, for example. Congratulate yourself on a job well done but remember to zoom back out and look at the whole picture and remember what you want the final result to look like.
Create a Process
This step is where the similarities between puzzles and paperwork end. Once all of the pieces are put into the puzzle, the puzzle is completed and there is nothing left to be done but admire the finished project. Paperwork on the other hand, increases as soon as the postman arrives the next day.
Create a process to deal with all of your incoming mail. Know what to keep and what to shred. Check out some other posts on Unclutterer for tips and tricks on paper management.
The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past month, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.
When I travel (for work or pleasure) or have special projects, I almost always organize the corresponding paperwork in a three-ring binder. I like to have all of my necessary information in one storage system so I can grab it and go. I also usually have a scanned backup of the same data in Evernote or on Dropbox, but I see these digital copies as being useful only if something happens to my original binder. Usually I need physical copies of the papers I’m keeping, especially with projects, when the papers may be something I’m giving to clients or need to file with a legal entity.
Earlier this year, I was introduced to Staples’ new Better Binder system, and I’ve been using them ever since. I’ve taken them to a conference, on vacation, and am currently using one to store all the paperwork for our second adoption. When finished using the binder for one purpose, I’ve removed the FileRings and dropped them into my filing cabinet. They could also be useful for keeping yearly family or tax information or anything project where you’ll be actively using the paperwork for a period of time and then need to archive it when you’re finished with it.
In short, it is a three-ring binder whose FileRings spine pops out and allows you to file the contents of the binder directly into your filing cabinet. The binders themselves are reusable and additional removable FileRings are available for purchase. (They are currently in the $4 range for the replacement FileRings.)
Removing the FileRings is incredibly simple, especially after you see it done. Pull on the plastic pieces at the top and bottom of the FileRings spine to pop it out. You then push in the top and bottom plastic pieces to hang the FileRings in your filing cabinet. Inserting the FileRings is also simple — set them in place and then push in the top and bottom of the FileRings spine to secure them into the binder.
They also have available Better Dividers, which I really like. The tabs can be inserted on the top or the side of the divider, making them extremely versatile. There are times when having the tab at the top of my binder is helpful, especially when I only have a need for two or three divided sections.
The binder comes with a blank spine label you can tear off and easily slide into place, so you don’t have to cut up a sheet of paper to make one from scratch. The front panel of the binder also allows you to slip in a cover sheet of your own design.
Better Binders come in the traditional size (11” x 11-3/4”) for 8-12″ x 11″ sheets of paper. They’re available in 1″ (275 sheets of paper) for roughly $8, 1-1/2″ (400 sheets) for $9, 2″ (540 sheets) for $11, and 3″ (600 sheets) widths for $14. The binder comes with one removable FileRings spine, but additional FileRings must be purchased separately. Current colors are white, red, black, pink, orange, yellow, green, teal, blue, purple, dark teal, fuchsia, plum, olive, and multi-color combinations of some of these colors. I use the different binder colors to make it even more obvious which binder I need to take with me, in addition to the labeling I use on the binder.
Professional organizer Julie Bestry speaks from personal experience on how to organize medical billings and paperwork to avoid bankruptcy in her article “Don’t Let Hospital Billing Errors Bleed You Dry“:
Harvard University research indicates that approximately 62% of U.S. personal bankruptcies are caused by unaffordable medical bills. Given that, it’s vital to keep track of medical billing, particularly hospital billing, to make sure you are being charged a fair and accurate amount. In fact, some medical billing experts believe that up to 80% of all hospital and medical bills contain at least one error, underlining the importance of vigilance in scrutinizing your medical billing paperwork.
She discusses how to detect errors in your bills and also has a wonderful guide to how to organize this paperwork:
These five posts are a fantastic resource. Again, this is a time when I hope that you won’t ever have to use this information.
Reader Cody wrote to us a few weeks ago asking if we had any back-to-school advice for college students. Matt started our response to this question by addressing ways to organize a dorm room. Now, I’m going to discuss managing the constant flow of paperwork associated with college life.
My first piece of advice is to get your hands on Captio’s CollegeCase or a similar product. I wish I would have had something like this back in my undergraduate days. In times of emergencies, being this organized would have really helped. If you’re ever burglarized, in a car wreck, curious as to which cafeterias your meal plan includes, you can find all of these answers in one well-designed notebook.
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- Maybe you can take it with you…
Why leave behind beautiful solid-wood furniture for your heirs to fight over when you can be buried in it?
- Unitasker Wednesday: Microwave French Fry Maker
I have never had a french fry made with this contraption, but supposedly it allows you to microwave fries purchased in your grocer’s freezer and turn them into treats that taste like ones from your favorite fast-food joint. But, I’m sincerely doubting this claim seeing as we all know it’s the fat and grease that makes fast food french fries so yummy.
- Project Basement: Day 3
Except for a couple hours this morning pulling out the washer and dryer, sweeping the floor where they had been, and doing a general cleanup in the laundry area of the basement, I’ve been sorting, scanning, and recycling a couple hundred pounds of paperwork.
- Ask Unclutterer: Food storage containers
Reader Carla asks for a recommendation on the best type of food storage container that won’t clutter up her mother’s cabinets.
If you’ve been clearing out your file cabinet as part of your New Year’s resolutions, you’ve probably come across some papers that need shredding.
When it comes to shredding, people have two major questions:
Question 1: Which papers need to be shredded?
The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has a sensible list of shredding guidelines, noting the types of information you definitely want to shred if you decide to purge them from your filing cabinet. It also lists of other types of information you may want to shred — as well as a list of specific types of papers to consider shredding. The general guidelines are:
Destroy all sensitive information, including junk mail and paperwork, that includes:
- Account numbers
- Birth dates
- Passwords and PINs
- Social Security numbers
To protect your privacy, you should also consider shredding items that include:
- Phone numbers
- E-mail addresses
Question 2: What kind of shredder should I get and what if I don’t want to buy a shredder?
When it comes to products and services for shredding, you’ve got a number of choices, so pick whichever approach works best for you.
Shredding scissors. Shredding scissors aren’t great, since they produce a strip cut rather than a cross cut, which means it would be easier for someone to reassemble your papers. If you do use these, you may want to put some of the shredded paper in one trash bag, and some in another. I’ve also been known to put shredded stuff in with the used kitty litter I’m taking to the trash, to reduce the chance anyone would go through the garbage to get it.
Shredders. You’ll find a lot of choices here, and numerous recommendations. I’ve had my Fellowes 79Ci for years now, and it has never once jammed or given me any other problem, I’m a fan. And Erin recommended this shredder, too. More recently, Erin also recommended the Staples 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a lockout key. And the Swingline Stack-and-Shred products are interesting, since you don’t need to feed papers into them as you would with most shredders.
Shredding services. When it comes to services that will shred papers for you, you’ve also got a number of options. Some office supply stores are now providing shredding services in some or all of their locations: Office Depot, Staples, The UPS Store, etc. There are also dedicated shredding companies; you either drop off your papers or a shredding truck comes to you. A Google search should help you find one in your area.
Several years ago, organizer Margaret Lukens sent an email cautioning about some of these shredding services, and she has given me permission to share that caution with you:
Some companies tout their trucks that come around and do it on-site and let you watch. Sounds good, and I’ve used them myself on jobs in the past, but I’ve heard of whole checks making it through those shredders, and San Francisco hospital medical records showing up WHOLE in bales of paper purchased by California farmers as animal bedding. This typically happens because the teeth in the shredder get broken (someone accidentally puts their marble paper weight in the shred bin or whatever) and it costs the company too much to take that truck out of service. You see the paper go into the shredder, but you don’t see it come out — and that’s what counts!
Margaret goes on to recommend using an NAID-certified shredding company — NAID being the National Association for Information Destruction. Office Depot, Staples and the UPS Store all partner with Iron Mountain for pick-up, and Iron Mountain is indeed “NAID certified for document destruction at each Iron Mountain location in the United States.” However, Office Depot also offers in-store shredding for smaller jobs, which would not be under the control of Iron Mountain.
The non-shredding alternative: stampers. Stampers are designed to obliterate your confidential information so the papers don’t need to be shredded. If you’re considering this approach, I recommend organizer Julie Bestry’s comprehensive look at the pros and cons of using these products.
Related question: Which papers should I keep and which papers should I purge?
Erin’s infographic on What to shred, scan, or store? can help you answer this question. Also, check with a local accountant and lawyer to be sure you’re keeping the appropriate papers for where you live — some states have different requirements than the IRS when it comes to retaining original documents.
I’m a big fan of labels. Labels tell everyone where things belong. Labels indicate that only items of a certain type belong in a certain place. Labels help you remember where you put stuff.
There are many different types of labels that can be used and each type has advantages and disadvantages. The following are things to consider when choosing labels for your next organizing project.
Permanent or Removable
Permanent labels are intended for one time use. Peeling off a permanent label will generally destroy the label or the object to which it is attached, or both. Address labels on paper envelopes are a good example of permanent labels.
Removable labels are made with a special adhesive that, rather than sticking to the surface of the object, sticks to the label, and leaves the surface clean. Removable labels do not damage the object to which they are attached and can often be re-used. Post-It Notes are a good example of removable labels.
The object to which a label is attached and the conditions in which it is used can influence whether or not the label is permanent or not. For example, an address label that is designed to be permanently attached to a paper envelope may be easily removed from a plastic bin. It may not even stick to the plastic bin if the conditions are cold or damp. Sometimes removable labels may end up permanently adhered to surfaces if they are left on for a long time or exposed to excessive heat or pressure.
Always evaluate the type of material that you need to adhere the label to prior to purchasing the labels. Consider how long the label will be left in place and what the storage conditions will be.
Handwritten or Computer Printed
If you’ve got terrible handwriting, it may be better to use a computer or label maker to create labels because then everyone can read it. However, it takes time to make labels on a computer but it is easy to print many copies of the same label. Some labels are meant to be only for laser printers and some for only inkjet printers so always confirm that you’ve got the right labels for your printer. Some types of printer ink runs in damp conditions or fades in bright light. In these harsh conditions, it may be better to use a plasticized label.
Label makers print clear, easy-to-read labels that can be used in a variety of conditions. However, they tend to be limited in the sizes and colours of labels. Most label makers do not have a wide variety of fonts.
If the label is permanent on the container but the contents change, dry erase or chalkboard labels might be the best to use for your needs. They are a good choice if you are creative and enjoy making handwritten labels. An alternative is the Identa-label system. It is comprised of transparent plastic pockets that hold index cards. You can use a computer to print the index cards or they can be hand written.
While copper labels would look lovely in the garden, they would not be appropriate in a home with small children or pets. Labels can be detached and chewed on or swallowed. Some types of key ring labels may contain parts that could injure children and animals, too. Tag labels with string can be wound around tiny fingers and paws and cause injury.
Colours and Sizes
Once you have taken the above information into consideration, the colour and sizes of labels seems to be limited only by your imagination.
Full page stickers allow you to print your own design or create multiple stickers of any shape, size, or colour.
Tamper-evident hologram warranty void stickers can be placed on bins or boxes to ensure they have not been tampered with. This would be ideal for valuable items sent via mail or courier service. They could also be placed on boxes of paperwork containing sensitive information during a move or in a storage facility.
Iron-on name-tags for clothing are great for identifying children’s clothing for school and camp but they can also be used for labeling the tablecloths you take to the family potluck dinners.
You can purchase pre-printed magnetic labels for toolboxes or create your own with dry-erase magnetic tape. Speaking of toolboxes, “Eye-Saver” big typeface socket labels have imperial and metric stickers in different colours so it is easy to tell which sockets are which.
TrueBlock labels completely hide everything they cover. They are great if you like to reuse shipping and file storage boxes. When you need to get people’s attention, high visibility labels would work well. If you need to see the label in the dark, Epson makes glow-in-the-dark labels for its label makers. You can write on glow in the dark tape to make your own labels.
Plant pot labels can be used to tell your house sitter how and when to water your plants during your vacation.
For holiday parties, reusable cup labels allow each child to have his or her own cup. If all goes as planned, there won’t be any sharing of germs. Adding allergy information to the cup label is a good idea, too. For the grown-ups, there are wine glass labels.
Labels are a wonderful thing, but when they have to be removed, label sticker remover comes in handy.
This is part two of a two-part series on this topic.
It’s exciting to move into a new home and have a crew unload and unpack your household goods. As far as employment perks go, it’s a very nice perk. If you want to make settling into your home even easier, keep some of these tips in mind.
As with any move, plan to arrive a day or two before your household goods. Complete the deal with the real estate agents and lawyers, and clean the house if required. It is much easier to clean an empty house.
Designate a special spot for incoming paperwork and mail so that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of boxes and wrappings. Ideally, you should have a small portable filing box to keep the papers organized. You could store the box in your car during the move-in or designate a special spot in your new home. Make everyone aware of the location of the box and encourage everyone to put important papers in that box.
Set up disposal systems. Place a garbage bin in every room in a spot as close as possible to where the garbage bin will permanently live in that room. If garbage bins are not available, use Painter’s Tape to attach a garbage bag to the wall.
Decide where you would like to place the big pieces of furniture such as beds and sofas. You only want to move the heavy items once. There are some online tools you can use to easily plan and design your space: Icovia Room Planner and Roomsketcher.
When the unloading crew arrives, show them around the house and let them know where the furniture should be placed. Placing signs on the doors of the room with a sketch of the furniture layout will help the crew know where to put the furniture. (Again, Painter’s Tape is good for this task.)
Watch as the crew opens truck doors and examine the load to see if it shifted in transit. If so, take photos so you can include them if you decide to make a claim for damages.
The unloading crew will provide a list of tag numbers as all of the items were tagged prior to loading onto the truck. As each item, box or piece of furniture leaves the truck, cross off the tag number. Note beside the tag number if a box is damaged (scuffed, dented, torn or crushed). Sometimes tags fall off the item or get stuck to the wrappings so an item may be missing its tag. On a separate sheet of paper or the back of the list, write down the piece of furniture or the size of the box. At the end of the unloading session, crosscheck the “no tag” items with your tag list. You should find that all the tag numbers are crossed off. Note in detail any items that are missing.
Unpacking generally takes place the following day. However if you do not have much stuff, it may take place the same day. Most unpacking services are “flat surface” unpacks. This means the unpacking crew will unpack the boxes and place the contents on any flat surfaces (including the floor). Normally the crew will not place items on shelving units or in cupboards in case the shelving unit tips over or the shelves break. If that happens, your items may not be covered by insurance.
It is helpful if you can work side-by side with the unpacking crew and place items in their “homes” after the crew member places them on the flat surfaces. This is important in the kitchen where there are usually more dishes than counter space.
As the crew is unpacking, note any broken or damaged items. Take pictures.
One other tip: Unfold and lay flat all of the packing paper prior to it being removed from your property to ensure that all small items are taken out, such as the lid from the sugar bowl or the remote control for the TV.
Once the crew has departed with the boxes and packing material, you’ll be able to enjoy setting up and organising your new home.
This is part one of a two-part series on this topic.
Like many people, I had moved houses several times with the help of family, friends, pizza and beer. I prepared, planned, organised and the move went smoothly. After I married my husband and he was transferred for his job, we were entitled to full-service moves (pack, load, ship, unload, unpack) by professional moving companies. In our 22 years of marriage, we have moved 8 times with professional moving companies. On our very first move, I learned hard and fast that there are different things to take into consideration when working with a professional moving company than when doing it on your own.
First of all, declutter and organise as much as you can prior to the moving date. The moving company will base the estimated cost of the move on the weight and volume of your goods and effects. The less you have, the less the move will cost. The cost of moving household goods is approximately $6-$12 per kilogram ($3-$5 per pound) for a full-service move. The less you have, the less it will cost not only in shipping fees but in the time it takes to pack and unpack these items.
Prepare a home inventory. This is essential for your insurance purposes as well as any loss or damage claims you may wish to file with the moving company after your move. Although a list of goods is sufficient, having pictures of all your items is beneficial in case you need to prove that an item was in good condition prior to the move.
Ensure you understand the moving company’s policies regarding claims. Prior to the move, mark the claim deadline in your agenda at least one week before the claim needs to be submitted. This will allow you to gather your documentation for the claim and submit it on time.
Decide what to do with items that the moving company will not ship. Because of transportation safety regulations, flammables (matches, solvents), explosives (fertilizer, aerosol cans), corrosives, (bleach, drain cleaner), cannot be shipped. If the move takes place in the winter, the moving company may refuse to take any liquids (including canned food) because these items can freeze and burst. You may wish to transport these items in your own vehicle or leave them with friends and family. If you throw away any hazardous material prior to moving, please respect the environment and use a designated municipal disposal facility.
NOTE: Transporting alcohol, tobacco and firearms across state, provincial or international borders may require special documentation. Contact the appropriate government departments prior to moving these items.
If your household goods are clean, dry and in their proper place in your home prior to packing, they will be very close to their proper place in the unpacking phase. A little extra cleaning and organising in advance will save time and energy in your new home.
Although most moving companies are very good, occasionally something gets packed that should NOT be packed so empty all of the garbage pails before the packing crew arrives. Wash and sanitize your garbage cans so they arrive fresh and clean in your new home.
Keep your wallet, purse, valuables, and important paperwork locked in your car during the packing process, but, if you need to, designate a bathroom as a “Do Not Pack” area. This will make sure that essential extra roll of toilet paper won’t be packed.
When the packing crew arrives, introduce yourself and give them a tour of the house. Point out any fragile or oddly shaped items that require special care. Let the crew know that you are available to answer any questions.
Before your goods are loaded onto the moving van, politely ask if you can look inside the cargo area. You may not be able to enter the cargo area because of liability reasons but look inside if possible. If you notice any stains, greasy spots or holes in the walls or roof of the cargo area, politely point them out to the driver. Contact the moving company if you are concerned about possible damage to your household goods.
ANOTHER NOTE: During the loading day, never leave an open moving van or house unattended. A member of the loading crew or one of your friends/family members should be in the house and truck at all times. Passers-by can easily walk away with a box or two!
Before the truck rolls away, do a final walk through of your home. Verify that all the closets and cupboards are empty, especially on the highest and lowest shelves. Check behind doors too! Exchange contact information with the driver. Ask when he/she expects to be arriving at the destination and what route he/she expects to be travelling.
Say your final good-byes to your home and as you drive away you can look forward to your next adventure in a new and organised home.
- Managing active files and papers
Even in the digital age, many people can work with active files and papers. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this mass of paperwork.
- Spring is here and cleaning is in the air
Around 1:15 this morning, those of us in the northern hemisphere officially started spring. The local weathermen explained to me as I sipped my coffee that because this is a leap year, spring showed up on the calendar a day early. If spring sprung up on you and took you by surprise, the following 10 tasks are what I consider to be the most valuable spring cleaning activities. These are the Firsts, the things to get to before the other activities.
- Ask Unclutterer: Simple baby-proofing solutions
What is a good computer set-up that can also be locked away to keep little fingers away from the keyboard, mouse, and tower? We’re looking for something relatively inexpensive, but we haven’t found a good solution that would also fit in a living room, since our computer/monitor also functions as our TV/DVD player. Any suggestions?
Quick Note: We are updating the Unclutterer Forum with a new and exciting system. Sorry for the disruption. Wonderful changes are on the way. Stay tuned!
- Project Basement: Day 3
Except for a couple hours this morning pulling out the washer and dryer, sweeping the floor where they had been, and doing a general cleanup in the laundry area of the basement, I’ve been sorting, scanning, and recycling a couple hundred pounds of paperwork. Watch out, basement clutter!
- Ask Unclutterer: Food storage containers
Reader Carla asks for a recommendation on the best type of food storage container that won’t clutter up her mother’s cabinets.
- Using a three-folder system to keep e-mail under control
Checking, reading, processing, replying to, and stressing out about e-mail can all be sources of clutter in our lives. And, according to a recent Fast Company article written by Gina Trapani titled “Work Smart: Conquering Your Email Inbox,” it might be taking up half of our workweek.
- Multifunctional printers
If you have a home office and space is rather limited for all of your peripherals, you may want to look into multifunctional printers.