Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?

For many people, paper is the hardest type of clutter to process. There are an extraordinary number of reasons why paper is difficult to manage; the following are some of the most common reasons, along with strategies for solving these problems.

Paper is a bunch of small stuff

When I help people sort through a paper backlog, things often go like this: junk, junk, junk, incredibly important paper, junk, junk. Handling paper is time-consuming because you need to look at every piece, so you don’t miss the important stuff.

Then, you need to make a decision about each piece of paper — the same type of decision you would make when evaluating what to do with a hammer or a pair of jeans, except those are larger. You can go though a stack of papers and make hundreds of decisions and not see the same amount of obvious progress you can see with other types of clutter.

Strategy: Tackle the backlog in short-enough bursts of time that you don’t hit decision-making fatigue. And don’t be harsh with yourself if the progress seems slow, as that is just the nature of the paper beast.

More paper keeps coming

In general, we can get control of other types of stuff by doing our uncluttering and then avoiding any more unwise purchases. This isn’t the case with paper because it keeps coming in the mail, often unbidden.

Strategy: Remove yourself from mailing lists you don’t want to be on (for catalogs, charities, etc.) to limit the incoming paper.

Paper represents information

Many of us are addicted to information; it feeds our curiosity or our desire to know as much as we can about the field in which we work. Our paper piles can include huge stacks of things we feel we should read — magazines, professional journals, etc. — or should keep filed away.

Strategy: What-to-read strategies are the same for online information and for paper. The article four questions for preventing information overload may help you decide if something is really worth your time.

When it comes to the toss-or-file decision, imagine under what circumstances you will pull this reference information out of your files. If you’re planning to write a paper or give a speech on a given topic, keeping related articles may make sense. And certain reference papers are just so good that we do find ourselves coming back to them, time and again. But all too often, we file away informational papers that we’ll never use, many of which we could find again if we had an unexpected need for them.

Paper represents an investment in time and/or money

Notes and handouts from classes or conferences often languish in piles or files, never to be seen again, yet we may hesitate to throw them away.

Strategy: As Scott Belsky said, “Separate the wisdom from the action.” If you haven’t already done so, identify the to-do items buried in those notes, and incorporate them into whatever system you use for managing to-dos.

Then, decide what to do with the “wisdom.” For the papers that are keepers, consider how best to store them, so they can be found and used in the future. It may be more helpful to file them by topic, rather than keeping everything from a given conference together. You may also want to scan the article and run it through OCR software so you will easily be able to search its contents later.

Not all papers will be keepers, even from a worthwhile class or conference. Sometimes, the major benefits of a conference are connections made or a few key insights gathered. You don’t need to feel bad about dumping any paper that isn’t useful to you. Also, notes from old classes and conferences may have been useful at the time, but not so useful a number of years later.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Locker Rocker

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

A long time ago, I went to high school. (True story. This awkward phase actually happened.)

Like most everyone who ever went to high school, I was issued a locker. It was a brown, metal, industrial, rectangle with a door that had been embedded in the wall of the school since before my grandmother had gone to school there. It was utilitarian and stuffed with books and notebooks and supplies and my coat and purse and about a thousand pony tail holders. It was not glamorous because it was a locker, not a night club, and I wasn’t an extra in a teen movie.

High school kids today, however, must either have enormous walk-in lockers or not need books or notebooks or supplies or a coat or purse or ponytail holders because the other day in The Container Store I saw this: A Locker Rocker.

Why?

Why would any student have need for a chandelier in his or her locker?

Are lockers really so large today that students require task lighting in these spaces?

Well, if a chandelier isn’t enough proof that lockers today must be the size of small cars, check out the locker rugs and locker wallpaper you can get to go with your chandelier. (I’m not making this up. Really, I’m not. Chandeliers and rugs and wallpaper.)

Kids must bring their contractors and interior designers with them on the first day of school.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2010

  • Nest 8 saves space in the kitchen
    Joseph Joseph’s Nest 8 collection of nesting kitchen items is a fantastic way to save space in your cupboards.
  • Uncluttered collecting
    Being an unclutterer doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have collections — but it does mean taking an active role in ensuring your collection doesn’t become clutter.
  • Ask Unclutterer: I’m organized but my workplace isn’t
    I’ve heard about some companies doing a 2x a year “office clean-up” day — I don’t know if my office will go for it, but I’m interested in hearing if others have experience with this method.

2009

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Frozen Food Safety Monitor
    So, in addition to having rotten food, you also have a monitor to tell you that your food is rotten — how about that!
  • Do it now
    I try to hold true to the two-minute “Do it now” policy at work, and an extended five-minute “Do it now” policy at home.

Organizing writing projects by year

Andy Ihnatko is a technology journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, an author and a podcaster. I’ve followed Andy’s career for years, as I admire him greatly. Last January, he tweeted a strategy for organizing his writing that I immediately adopted.

Andy’s organizing system creates a “2014 Omnibus” in an application called Scrivener. The program is intended for use by professional writers and is immensely helpful when working on a large writing project that requires research, organization, revisions, and more. It can be used by anyone, though, who has writing as part of his or her job — briefs, reports, studies, analyses, website posts, tweets, etc. I used it to write my books and occasionally use it when I’m working on especially demanding articles. Thanks to Andy’s suggestion, I now also use it to store and catalog my writing.

Scrivener lets you organize your work into projects. A project can be broken down into chapters, revisions, and whatever else you utilize during your writing process. Further, you can use folders to group these features together as you like. To set up my “2014 Caolo Omnibus,” I followed these steps:

  1. Create a new blank project called “2014 Caolo Omnibus.”
  2. Create 12 folders, January through December
  3. Make several labels, I used ones such as “Unclutterer,” “TUAW,” and “Guest Posts.”
  4. Add articles into the appropriate folders with the appropriate labels.

The next step is to create a backup. I tell Scrivener to save my project to a folder in Dropbox, so if something happens to my computer, I still have an online copy. The software also has several export options, should I want to get my work into another format. Finally, I can see how many words I’ve written at a glance (I’m at just over 89,000 words in 2014 so far).

Scrivener is Mac-only, but this trick would work just as well in the platform-agnostic Evernote system. When your work is to create something ethereal, like words on a screen, it can feel like you’ve got nothing to show for your efforts at the end of the day. This practice doesn’t solve that exactly, but it almost gives you the sensation that your work is tangible. Also, if I wanted to find highlight pieces for a portfolio, this setup makes that much easier.

Disappearing office supplies

I often wondered why items disappear from shared spaces, such as pens from the reception desk or coffee mugs from the lunchroom. I read about a group of epidemiologists from Australia who published the results of a study in the British Medical Journal documenting the disappearance of teaspoons from their lunchrooms. They purchased both high and low quality teaspoons and distributed them throughout the lunchrooms of their research centre. They examined teaspoon disappearance in common lunchrooms and private lunchrooms.

They found in private lunchrooms half the teaspoons had permanently disappeared in 11 weeks. However, from communal lunchrooms, it took only 6 weeks for half of the teaspoons to disappear. The researchers concluded that in order to keep their employees satisfied with the amount of teaspoons available, the research centre should purchase over 250 teaspoons per year.

I found this study interesting from an organizing perspective because it indicated items disappear faster when left in a common area where more people who have access to them. This is a problem in office settings as time is wasted looking for items and money is wasted in purchasing extra supplies. In a home setting, items are more likely to be picked up and moved by someone else in your home when left out in a common area instead of being properly stored after use. Organizing and simplifying procedures can minimize loss and misplacement of items.

Suggestions for change:

In an office setting, educate co-workers as to what is happening. Let them know how much the missing items affect the bottom line of the business. Spending a hundred dollars on replacing teaspoons means less money for other things. Encourage co-workers to bring their own personal items such as coffee mugs, water bottles, and teaspoons to use at work instead of stealing from the cafeteria or lunchroom.

Ensure people have the supplies they need. At work, each employee should be issued with a standard set of office supplies as necessary (e.g. stapler, tape dispenser, scissors, hole punch). Also, review common areas to determine what shared items are needed in these work spaces. At home, if your children are in school, they will need their own supplies for their desks instead of needing to take them from the kitchen or from your home desk.

Purchase specialized items for common areas to make them obviously shared items. For example, coffee mugs in the office lunchroom could all be exactly the same size and colour and have the company logo printed on them. The stapler and hole-punch at the photocopier could be bright red and labeled with a gold permanent marker. In your home, you might decide to get supplies for each person/area in specific colors (red for son, green for daughter, purple for mom, brown for dad, black for the kitchen, and yellow for the craft room). If you don’t wish to share an item with a roommate/family member, be sure to put it away after use to reduce the risk it will be picked up by someone else.

Some larger companies are using vending machines to dispense tools and supplies. Employees type in their employee ID code or swipe their pass-cards on the vending machine. This is an ideal solution for companies who cannot afford a full-time stock controller. It also allows management to track employees to find those who routinely misplace, hoard, or even steal tools or other supplies. It may not work with all offices, though, and certainly wouldn’t work well in a home.

While all the systems listed above may work, nothing beats a system where the items have a designated area and people are educated on the importance of returning items to where they belong. At home, a simple walk through the house each night before bed to relocate out-of-place items can also help to return items to their proper storage space so they don’t “get legs” and disappear for long periods of time.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Wax Vacuum
    This week’s unitasker is a product that doesn’t do what it claims to do (suck wax out of your ears) and doesn’t do what I wish it did (erase embarrassing memories) and is only “Similar” to an As-Seen-on-TV product. Oh, Unitasker, you make me sad.

2012

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Cork Presenter
    This is one of those unitaskers that makes me believe manufacturers think their customers are suckers, patsies, easy marks. In their eyes (especially manufacturers that target pregnant women and people who like to cook), we’ll buy any doodad and gizmo they tell us we need. Them: “You need this gadget that does the same thing as what you already own!” Us: “OF COURSE WE DO!!”

2011

2009

Effective note-taking

A few years ago, Unclutterer readers started a discussion on effective note-taking. Several of you had great suggestions, and looking at that old thread got me thinking about my own note-taking techniques. They’ve changed quite a bit since I was a young student, though I do still fall back on old techniques now and then.

Best practices

We take notes so we can recall important information later. It’s a real hassle to sit down to a review of your notes only to realize you’ve got overly complex notes that actually hinder your recall process. Avoid this frustration by keeping your note-taking simple. Use clear keywords and avoid the temptation to hurriedly write down everything the teacher, lecturer, or coworker says. I put things into my own words unless I hear a fantastic phrase that I’ll want to recall verbatim. When that happens, I use quotation marks.

That said, a logical flow that works for you is most important. When I was a young student, I learned the hierarchical Arabic system that started with a Roman numeral, and added a capital letter under that, etc. That served me well through high school, but once I was in college I found it was hard to keep up with lectures using this system.

That’s when I adopted a system of dashes and dots. Large dots identified a main topic, with dashes and smaller dots marking sub-categories beneath those (similar to the “Dash Plus” system Patrick Rhone uses on to-do lists). It was quick and effective for me.

Taking notes is only the starting point, of course. Just because you write something down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recall/find it later. My system to help me find information later couldn’t be easier. As a matter of course, I write the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page of notes. When a new topic begins, I circle the page number. Then, I make a bold line across the bottom of the final page of those notes to represent the end of that topic. If I’ve got a lot of notes, let’s say more than 12 pages, I’ll write an index for my own reference. For example, “Sample service schedule, page 11.”

You might also benefit from trying to create your index from memory before writing in page numbers. Creating this list mostly from memory will start you on your recall process.

Technology

For many, paper will be the answer for which technology to use for taking notes. If that’s you, I understand. Paper is tremendously flexible. You can capture a grocery list or solve very complex problems with a sheet of paper (or note card or napkin or sticky note) and a pencil. But, if you do use paper, I strongly recommend you scan your paper notes and run them through a hand-writing recognition program (like the one standard in Evernote) so you can easily search your notes later and have a backup of them in the Cloud.

If you’re not a paper person and you want to use something electronic, consider the following:

Mind Mapping. I’ve written about my love of Mind Mapping before on Unclutterer. It’s a non-liner way to capture ideas quickly. It’s especially useful when one aspect or idea will quickly spawn several others. On the Mac side, I love MindNode Pro. Windows users will want to check out Mindmeister.

Evernote. Here’s a great solution that’s platform-agnostic. It’s like working with paper, so you can use any system you like. The real power with Evernote is how searchable everything is. You can find any word or phrase you like and even create saved searches that monitor your notes for criteria you determine in real time.

Sketchnotes. If you’re an extremely visual person, you may benefit from taking Sketchnotes. The app Adobe Ideas (which easily integrates with other Adobe products) and Paper by FiftyThree both have high reviews by Mac users. And INKredible is well-rated for Android users.

I find that note-taking is a personal thing, with people using a wide range of methods. The important take-aways from this article are: keep note-taking simple, stick to important keywords, use a markup system that makes review helpful for you, and don’t be afraid to abandon systems that are no longer effective.

Unitasker Wednesday: Nutmeg Grinder

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

I appreciate a little freshly ground nutmeg on things like chai lattes and roasted carrots. To use it, I grab my multi-tasking cheese grater that has a zesting plane on one of its sides, and I grind a bit of a nutmeg seed onto whatever it is I’m preparing. Fresh nutmeg seeds store almost indefinitely in a sealed container (I use a little glass jar), so as long as you keep them away from light, heat, and moisture, you don’t really need anything special to keep a few in your kitchen.

Noting how easy it is to have fresh nutmeg on hand, I have to admit to being confused by this device specifically made to grind nutmeg seeds — the Nutmeg Grinder:

First, this device is about the size of a travel coffee mug. It’s not small, like a salt or pepper shaker. For a single use device, it takes up a decent amount of space in your cupboards. Second, and this is my main beef with it, it’s not electric. The piece on the top folds out and you have to hand-crank the grinder. You use the same amount of effort as you do if you were to manipulate a nutmeg seed across a zesting plane. I thought initially that if you had arthritis or another hand complication that an electric grinder might be useful, but since this one requires hand strength and agility it doesn’t help anyone with those needs.

When outfitting a kitchen, it’s fine to consider single-use devices if they are extremely convenient and save you time and space and you regularly use them. But, even if you regularly use freshly ground nutmeg, this device won’t save you time or space and its purpose can be easily duplicated by a multi-purpose device.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2010

  • Excerpt: Six tips for organizing your time spent on the telephone
    Since most of us spend time at work dealing with facts and data, the phone should be taking a backseat to other forms of communication. That being said, it’s impossible to avoid the phone in the workplace. And there are times when picking up the phone is the best way to handle a situation. The following are suggestions for how to use the phone in an organized way during those times when you need to rely on it.
  • Ask Unclutterer: Best methods for recycling?
    I recycle almost everything. In passing magazines along to a charity, is it much more likely they will end up in a landfill?

Nine questions to help unclutter your recipes

For people who like to cook, it’s easy to wind up with overflowing recipe files. While this may be more of a problem for those who keep paper files, even those who keep their recipes in a digital format can get overwhelmed at times.

If you would like to unclutter your own recipe collection, the following nine questions may help you to reduce your number and better organize those you wish to keep:

  1. Does this recipe fit with the way I eat? Our food preferences change over time, so our recipe collections should evolve, too. You may also have health reasons — your own, or those of family members you cook for — that lead you to change the type of recipes you cook.
  2. Does this recipe call for things I don’t have? If a recipe calls for a number of ingredients you don’t normally use, the recipe might not be one you want to keep. The ingredients may be hard to find or just things that will linger on your shelves, unused, and taking up space. (Of course, sometimes trying a new ingredient is a fun adventure. If you are feeling adventuresome, buy the smallest container of that ingredient you can.)

    I’ve also found that if a recipe calls for a tool I don’t have and wouldn’t use regularly, such as a tajine, I’ll probably decide it’s not worth keeping unless I can readily borrow that tool from someone else.

  3. Does this recipe take a long time to prepare? Sometimes, a time-consuming recipe is worthwhile — for a special occasion, perhaps. If the recipe will make many servings and it’s something I can refrigerate or freeze for future use, that helps. But some recipes just don’t seem worth my time, and I let them go.
  4. Is this another recipe for something I already cook? If you have a favorite recipe for brownies, do you need another one? For some people, the answer may be yes. But, if you know you’ll always choose your old reliable recipes, you can get rid of the others.
  5. Am I keeping this recipe purely for sentimental reasons? You may have recipes you want to keep but never intend to cook: recipes inherited from your parents, for example. In such cases, you may want to store the recipes with memorabilia rather than with recipes you do use for cooking.
  6. Alternatively, does this recipe bring back unpleasant memories? If a recipe is strongly associated with a person or an event you’d rather forget, you may want to ditch the recipe.
  7. Am I keeping this recipe because I think I should prepare it? Maybe a friend or a health practitioner gave you the recipe. Or maybe you have some other reason why you think you should prepare this recipe. I’m giving you permission to stop should-ing yourself, and let the recipe go if it’s not one you want to make.
  8. Have I kept this recipe for months or years without trying it? If you have many such recipes, you may want to create a plan where you try some of them on a regular schedule: once or twice a week, perhaps. If you don’t plan to ever make it, you may want to let it go.
  9. Why am I accumulating so many recipes? If you subscribe to numerous magazines for the recipes, maybe it’s time to reevaluate at least some of these subscriptions.

Organizing: valuable and inexpensive

Getting organized is valuable but it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many ways to create customized organizing solutions with a small budget.

I often look around the house to see what items can be re-purposed. We use chewing gum containers to keep office supplies organized. It is easy to see what is in them. They are easy to refill and they have a little slot so they can dispense one item at a time. These containers are the perfect size for cotton swabs and hair elastics, so we use them in the bathroom to organize cosmetics.

Blister pack chewing gum containers and inserts from boxes of chocolates can be used to organize earrings in a jewelry box or craft supplies such as beads.

CraftSanity has instructions for how to construct magazine holders and a literature sorter out of cereal boxes. Lifehacker has an article describing how Lego minifigures make great computer cord organizers and bits of Lego can be used to make key holders. Lego bricks can also be used to make holders for kitchen utensils and napkins. (Interesting fact: the exterior case for the first Google server was built with Lego bricks.)

Discount and bargain stores have great organizing supplies (Dollartree in the U.S., Dollarama in Canada and Poundland in the U.K.). You can find baskets, bins, file folders, desk caddies, hangers, hooks, and over-the-door pocket organizers. And, not to leave out the most obvious, Amazon has almost 500,000 items in a range of prices to help you get organized.

Purchasing unnecessary or unsuitable organizing supplies is one mistake some of my clients have made while trying to get their houses in order. Creating inexpensive do-it-yourself organizers like those mentioned above will allow you to experiment with different organizing systems. Once you find the products and systems that best suit your lifestyle, you may eventually want to purchase a durable, higher quality version that coordinates with your décor.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

2011

2010

  • Repercussions of uncluttering and organizing
    We often talk about the benefits of uncluttering and organizing, but we rarely even hint of their being downsides. Today, I thought we’d break that trend and discuss all the work that — at least in the short term — uncluttering and organizing create.
  • Stumped!
    Over the years of writing about organizing and working with clients, I continue to be baffled by how to neatly organize a small number of items. Whenever I see these items or hear about them, I cringe. Organizing them successfully is a complete mystery to me. Maybe you have a few, too, in your home or office — a specific item that always seems to be out of place, cumbersome, or impossible to store well?

2009

  • Ask Unclutterer: Is something put away if it’s in cardboard?
    In your situation, one of you believes that the cardboard box is in its place against the wall and that the stuff inside of the box is in its place, too. The other of you believes that the cardboard box and the stuff inside of it are all out of place and they need new places to live.
  • Book review: The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook
    Published in 2006, this gem is essential reading for anyone who finds themselves in a cluttered kitchen of any size.
  • Three laws of basement storage
    If you use your basement for storing things other than root vegetables, let me introduce you to my Three Laws of Basement Storage.
  • Off-beat solutions for organizing your mail
    If you don’t immediately process your mail when you come home each evening, then I strongly recommend having a set place to store your mail until you do have time to process it.