The annual uncluttering of the file cabinet

At least once a year I do a clean-up of my file cabinets, and I just finished my latest round. Every time I do this, I’m amazed at the stuff I have kept that I really don’t need.

For your amusement (and inspiration), the following is what I got rid of this time:

Travel information

I tossed a lot of papers in this category, including:

  • Train schedules from 10 years ago
  • Clippings about recommended hotels and restaurants — from the 1990s
  • Brochures I picked up while visiting an area that I’ll probably never return to — and the brochures weren’t even that enticing

Inspirational and sentimental stuff

I worked for Hewlett-Packard Company for many years; the founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, are still two of the people I admire most. I had a lot of information about them, and I narrowed it down to the few things that were especially meaningful to me. I scanned many of those, and got rid of the paper.

Advice from Miss Manners

I really enjoy the Miss Manners columns, and I’d clipped a number of them. The ones I still found useful — maybe a quarter of the one I had saved — got scanned, and all the clippings were recycled.

Medical information

I’m talking here about general information, not my personal health information. Even though I’d discarded much of this before because medical information changes so quickly and so much is available online, I still found a few papers I had kept for no good reason. I really don’t need the newsletter from a local hospital, from 2004, talking about mini-incision hip replacement!

Song lyrics

Why in the world did I keep printouts of song lyrics? I’m not even talking about the nice inserts from old LPs, just computer printouts.

Writing tips

I had kept tips on good writing, which included things I’ve long ago absorbed. So, out went the April 1995 article on using quotes in articles.

Old information about the San Francisco Bay Area

There is a lot being written lately about high-tech companies and their employees ruining San Francisco (or not, depending on your perspective) and about these employees driving up housing prices in the area. These were good for a laugh, before they hit the recycling bin:

  • Three articles about dot-com companies and their employees ruining San Francisco — from 1999
  • An article showing examples of Silicon Valley houses available at the then-current median price, also from 1999

Miscellaneous oddities

Here are some of the other papers I found, and discarded:

  • A clipping from 2003 about how house sizes increased from 1900 to 2000
  • Printouts of documents I have on my computer — things that I probably printed some time ago for easier reading, but that I certainly don’t need in paper form any more
  • The manual for Norton AntiVirus 9.0, from 2004
  • A clothing catalog from Spring 2010, with something I was considering purchasing but never did

In summary, I’m getting rid of everything in my filing cabinet that is out of date, no longer interesting or useful, or readily replaced with online information.

What have you cleared out of your file cabinet lately? Please share your discoveries in the comments.

Go-bags

There are many things I’ve learned about organizing because my husband is in the military. Soldiers keep certain equipment and clothing packed in their rucksacks at all times. If they ever have to “bug-out” (called to duty in an emergency) they just grab their rucksacks and go. In these circumstances, it takes them five minutes to leave the house. Soldiers are provided with a list of what to have in their rucksacks at all times so they have everything they need.

I’ve implemented this system in our household for non-military purposes. When my children were babies, I had a list of items that I always needed in the diaper bag. Every time we arrived at home after being out, I restocked the bag with diapers, wipes, and creams. Then, I quickly looked down the list before heading out the door the next time to ensure I had everything in the bag.

As my children have grown older and are participating in activities, we’ve created a “go-bag” for each activity. Their items for that activity remain always in that bag unless being used or cleaned. We prepared a list of items for the bag, and even used pictures of the items to help them when they were younger.

The list was printed on an index card and laminated. On the reverse side of the index card was emergency contact information (child’s name, parent’s name and phone number, allergy information, etc.). The card was kept in a pocket of the go-bag or sometimes, attached to one of the zippers on the outside of the bag.

On arrival home from swimming lessons, the swimsuit and towel would be washed, shampoo refilled if necessary and the bag stowed on its dedicated hook in the hallway. Once laundered, the swimsuit and towel were returned to the bag.

This system works with sports gear and arts and craft supplies – and even your briefcase for work!

We continue to have a number of “go-bags” hanging in our entryway and I find that being able to get out of the house quickly with all of the necessary equipment is worth it.

Estate organization

No one likes to think about dying, but disorganization and lack of planning while you’re alive can lead to family disputes and large tax payments after you’ve passed away. The following are a few tips to help you get organized in case of an emergency.

List what you own

Create a home inventory listing everything you own. Most lawyers suggest you include everything with a value greater than $100. However, if there are sentimental items valued less than $100, list those as well. Non-physical items should also be inventoried. This would include digital music and movie collections and computer software applications.

Include other assets in the inventory such as savings accounts, life insurance policies, investments, and pension plans at various past places of employment.

List what you owe

List all of your debts including car loans, mortgage, and outstanding balances on credit cards. Create a list of any institutions or organizations you pay on a regular basis, for example your monthly payment to your gym or annual donations to a favourite charity. Include on this list any places that may have your credit card information on file such as your iTunes or Netflix accounts.

Simplify and unclutter

Once you’ve completed your inventory, you may decide that it is better to liquidate some of your assets while you’re still alive and well. You will be able to see the joy in people’s faces as you pass along some of your treasured items that you are no longer interested in keeping. If you have a certain collection, (e.g. Star Wars collectibles) ask your family members who would most appreciate receiving it on your death. You don’t want to burden your family members with something they would consider clutter. If you can’t find anyone, consider leaving instructions for selling it.

Get professional financial and legal advice

Each jurisdiction has its own laws, rules and regulations regarding estate planning, so it is extremely important to get professional advice. Lawyers and estate and financial planners can tell you which accounts should be made joint and which ones “transfer-on-death.” They can also provide advice on which accounts beneficiaries need to be listed. These professionals will provide information on what your executor would be expected to do when you pass away and what options are available for beneficiaries.

Choose an executor (estate administrator)

An executor is someone who administers your estate after you’ve passed. This person (or people) is responsible for locating and probating your will, making your funeral arrangements, paying taxes owed by your estate, and distributing your assets to beneficiaries. This can be a daunting task for many people so it is important to choose your executor carefully. Discuss your estate with potential executors. You may decide to choose co-executors, such asa family member and a lawyer.

Ideally, the executor should have enough free time to complete all of the tasks. (It can take up to three years to completely settle an estate). The executor should be organized and be able to keep complete and accurate records of all transactions pertaining to the estate. If you have assets outside of the country, your executor may have to obtain a passport and visas to deal with those assets. If you spend much of your time online (banking and investing), consider choosing an executor who is tech-savvy.

Getting it all organized

All necessary documents should be accessible by your executor when you pass away. I am the executor to my aunt’s estate and she has a folder in her filing cabinet labeled, “What to do when I’m dead (or almost).” I know that I should look in this folder should anything happen to my aunt. This folder contains important information such as:

  • The key for the safety deposit box where the legal documents are stored (Will, Power of Attorney, deeds, passport, birth certificate, etc.)
  • Names and contact information of lawyers, financial advisors, banks.
  • Home inventory list
  • List of people to notify of death (friends and neighbours)
  • Funeral arrangement details and contact information for funeral home

A file folder is a good option if the management of the estate is fairly straightforward, but if your estate is larger and more complicated there are a couple of organizational alternatives.

Portavault is a binder that holds hundreds of pages of documents in easily identifiable categories. It comes with a water-resistant case and lockable zipper that makes it secure and easy to transport in case of emergency. It comes with a list of handy tips and tricks to help you organize your documents.

For those who prefer a non-paper-based solution, The Doc Safe allows you to keep copies of your documents online. The advantage of a cloud-based system is that it is accessible from anywhere there is an Internet connection. If your executor is computer-savvy, this might be the best option to choose. However, you need to ensure your executor can access the system and is comfortable with it while your still alive.

Regardless of which system you choose, an organized estate may be the best legacy you can leave your beneficiaries.

Six great uses for old CDs and CD cases

Like a phoenix from the ashes, the lowly CD and its storage case are again ready for work.

While I was working on last week’s scouting leadership post, my wife asked if I wanted to see how she keeps her girls’ patches organized. As you may know, scouts can earn patches and badges to show that they’ve mastered a skill, participated in an event or otherwise done something deserving formal recognition. Keeping track of who has earned what can be daunting, especially when you’ve got a large group.

When I saw the wall of CD sleeves above, one per girl, I knew I had to share it with the Unclutterer readers.

What you see here is a series of soft plastic CD sleeves, like for a small CD binder, attached to a big piece of foam core board. Each girl’s name has been written in permanent black magic marker at the bottom of “her” sleeve, and there are even two extra sleeves for holding supplies. It’s effective, portable, and very inexpensive. I can see this working in classrooms, garages, kids’ bedrooms, and more.

Inspired, I took to the Internet to see how other people are using this nearly extinct technology. The following items are the best of what I discovered.

  1. Recipe card holder. I wish I had thought of this years ago. Typically, I tape a new recipe to the oven hood or stick it to refrigerator door and then have to worry about removing adhesive residue later. An old hard CD case makes perfect sense as a way to protect recipes from spills without any need for tape or Goo Gone.
  2. Cable storage. In this example, spindle cases that once held CD-Rs are repurposed for cables. I’ve got so many cables in my basement work area, and many are in bins I can’t see into. This solution puts the contents front-and-center. Love it.
  3. Mosaic photo collage. To use a plastic CD case as a photo frame is kind of a no-brainer, but this mosaic takes the idea and runs with it. Instructables has the detailed how-to for building an impressive wall display out of something you’d otherwise purge.
  4. Mini dry erase board. This idea is fantastic because it’s so simple — all you do is cut a piece of white paper and insert it into the plastic case. Boom, you’re done. A dry erase marker will wipe clean from the plastic. I’d use this as a last-chance prompt for that one thing I’ve got to remember to do. It could also work in classrooms where kids are writing down answers and then holding them up for their teachers to see.
  5. Closet divider. OK, this hack uses a CD, not the case, but it’s still a fun recycling idea. After carefully measuring the circumference of the rod in the closet, adjust the CD’s central hole as necessary and then apply a label. Slide the result onto the rod and you’re all set to organize your closet like in a department store.

I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed, but these are five good ones that I’d actually use. Do you use old CD cases for storage? If you feel like sharing, let us know about your recycling solutions in the comments.

Breaking the organizing stalemate

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that you couldn’t organize your bedroom until the laundry room is organized, but you couldn’t organize the laundry room until the bedroom is organized? This is a deadlock or stalemate situation — one in which several actions are waiting for the other to finish, and thus none of them ever is completed.

There are two basic ways to break a stalemate, one is by diplomacy and the other is by imposing military might.

Diplomatic method

The diplomatic method creates the least amount of disruption, however it does take a lot more time to complete the organizing process. It involves working a little at a time in each space, alternating back and forth. In the above example between the laundry room and the bedroom, you may choose to spend 15 minutes in each space each day organizing. You may repeatedly need to transfer clothing between rooms. You may decide to do a few loads of laundry every day. Additionally you would cart away clothing that is no longer suited to your lifestyle. Slowly, over the course of time, both rooms would become organized.

Military might method

The military might method may cause intense disruption for a short period of time, but the end result can be achieved more quickly than with the diplomatic method. The military might strategy involves clearing a full day in your calendar to complete the entire task and clearing everything from the space all at once. In the laundry room and bedroom example, you would gather up all of the clothing from both the bedroom and the laundry room and dump it in the living room where there is enough space to do a sort and purge. Once that is completed in the living room, your clothing would be returned to its appropriate storage area and the living room would be clear.

You may have to employ a combination of strategies, using both diplomacy and military might. There are no rules in love (of a tidy home) and war (on disorganization). The important thing is to get started and choose the method that works best for you and your situation.

Identifying a collection

Collections aren’t inherently bad. The first book collectors helped create libraries and the first collectors of antiquities helped establish museums. Collections help us identify with the world around us and introduce us to like-minded people. However, labelling a group of similar items a “collection” does not automatically make it one. The following are guidelines to help you identify a collection:

Intention. A collection is intentional. There are certain items that meet the criteria for being a part of the collection and others that don’t. For example, when you collect “vintage pig salt and pepper shakers” you wouldn’t have brand new salt and pepper shakers or vintage cow salt and pepper shakers in your collection.

Time. You are able to spend time managing the collection without sacrificing the time you spend on your job or with your family. You take the time to ensure the items are clean, in good condition, and properly stored. You enjoy spending time with other collectors discussing the collectibles, trading, or buying and selling pieces.

Money. Your collection does not put your financial security at risk. You know the value of the items, know how much new pieces cost, and where to find the best deals for new acquisitions. You may also have prepared a budget for your collection and have ranked new pieces in order of priority of purchase.

Space. Your collection does not take up so much space that it impairs the normal functioning of your home. Because your collection reflects your life, you’ve taken the time to arrange the pieces to complement the beauty of your home. There may be many pieces to your collection but each one is has a special place.

Investment. The investment in your collection should be the joy that it brings you. You might be able to sell a few pieces for a profit but you’re not counting on it for your retirement savings plan. The last time I checked there were over 2700 Star Wars figurines for sale on ebay and 95 per cent of them were selling at less than $100 each.

Future Provisions. You’ve made some decisions on what should happen to the collection when you are unable to care for it. If you’re giving it to someone, that person has agreed to take care of the collection and enjoy it as much as you have. If no one wants to take the collection, you’ve made appropriate plans to sell it.

Overall, the collection should be a joy to own. Seeing it should reduce stress and bring peace-of-mind. The collection should bring a feeling of peace and contentment and reflect part of who you are. If your collection is taking up too much time, money, or space and/or if it isn’t bringing joy to your life, it may have crossed into the clutter category and it may be time to let it go.

DIY lightbox for easy, clutter-free artwork photos

Photographing the kids’ artwork is a great way to keep from having to save everything junior creates in a physical form. Photographs save the memories without sacrificing storage space. Digital images are easy to organize, but getting decent shots of the kids’ work can be difficult. Creating a DIY lightbox can be a cheap, inexpensive solution for getting great, memorable shots.

A couple of years ago, I suggested a few strategies for organizing your kids’ artwork. Once you’ve picked out your favorites, it’s nice to frame them for a home gallery or to create an album, like those from Shutterfly or Apple.

But like I mentioned earlier, taking a good photo of Jr.’s art project isn’t always easy. Lighting and a “noisy” background can be troublesome. Fortunately, the solution is simple, effective, and inexpensive. The following instructions are how I made a simple light box out of materials I (mostly) already had at home.

What is a light box?

A light box, as I’m describing it, is a box that’s open on one end and has light-diffusing material on the sides and top, that lets you take nearly shadow-free photographs of objects. Professional photographers use them to get gorgeous product shots. You can use them for a variety of items. Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A large-ish cardboard box
  2. White tissue paper
  3. Tape
  4. A box cutter
  5. At least two light sources
  6. White poster board
  7. A ruler

Building your light box

To get started, cut the flaps off of the box’s top and then place it on its side. Next, use a ruler to mark one inch from the edge on the side of the box. Then use a strait edge to mark off lines one inch away from the edge. Use the box cutter to cut out that inner square section of cardboard. (You’re making the sides look like three cardboard picture frames attached to the bottom and one side of the box. See the image above.) Repeat that process on two other sides, leaving the bottom intact.

Next, add your light-diffusing material: tissue paper. Cut a sheet of plain white tissue paper so that it’ll cover the three sides of the box that you cut. Tape it into place. Now for the poster board.

This part is a little bit tricky. Cut a piece of poster board that’s as wide as the opening to your box but twice as long. Slide it into the box and up the back so that it’s touching the top. Make sure not to crease the poster board. If you do, that crease will really show up in your photos. The idea is to make an “infinite” background of white.

Test it out

That’s it! The box has been constructed. Now you need two light sources. I’m using two tabletop gooseneck lamps. Position one on each side, aimed directly at the tissue paper. Finally, put your camera on a tripod, stack of books, table, or whatever will keep it still. Finally, position your subject and shoot.

You’ll have to play around a bit to see if you need more tissue paper, to re-position the camera and so on. But really, you’ll see great results right away. When you’re done, upload the photos to your favorite service, do what you want with the digital image, and enjoy your great-looking archive of the kids’ beautiful art.

Additional tips: Above, I photographed a little clay sculpture. If you’re doing something flat like a painting, carefully remove the top piece of tissue paper and shoot down. Also, you can add more light buy putting another source pointing into the box from the top.

This whole project cost me less than twenty dollars (I bought two lamps) and I’m thrilled with the results. Also, if you’re not the DIY type, you can buy a premade lightbox for around $40.

Hobonichi Techo is my new favorite notebook

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — Han Solo

Han Solo accidentally gave great productivity advice when he made the statement above in the film Star Wars. Google “productivity” and you’ll find a seemingly endless supply of methods, systems (the “hokey religions”), tools, and gadgets (the “ancient weapons”) seemingly required to help you. Han understood that while those things have their place, they can’t compare to a tool that is reliable, tried, and true. In my case, my blaster is a Hobonichi Techo notebook.

I love working with paper and I’ve used plenty of notebooks over the years. Currently I’m in love with the Hobonichi Techo. This pocket-sized book is so pleasant that I find myself making excuses to write in it. It’s my planner, scratch work area, journal, and scrapbook. It even has an interesting history.

It’s a popular notebook/planner from Japan. The company, Hobonichi, began selling an English-language version in 2012. Each year, Hobonichi asks its customers for ideas and feedback that influences the next year’s production model, which is pretty neat.

It’s available in several sizes. I use A6, which is slightly larger than my hand. This is a good choice for me, as it’s large enough to write in comfortably, yet small enough to fit into the back pocket of my jeans.

The Techo is divided into several sections. First is a yearly overview, followed by eight pages of monthly overview (two months per page). Next you’ll find several pages that look like a typical wall calendar, two pages for each month. What follows is the heart of the Techo.

The notebook has one page per day of the year. Each contains the date, day, moon phase, and an anecdote. Of course, there’s plenty of room to write on color-coded grid paper (one color per month). Also, there are five slots for to-do actions at the top of each page. I’ve been using these pages to outline articles, record to-dos, capture incoming stuff like “schedule that appointment” and jot down fun stuff the kids have done. This book has become a real companion.

In the back there are several completely blank pages, followed by sections to recored special dates to remember; restaurants, movies, music or stores that you love or want to visit/see; measurement conversion charts, and other random information.

I love devices that can handle more than one task and the Techo does so gracefully. I’m not as artistic as these folks, but I’m getting a lot done and that is good enough for me.

Are you a paper planner person, too? If so, what is your favorite and why? Finally, just to be transparent, I wasn’t paid or provided with any product in exchange for this review. It is genuinely what I use and spend my own money to buy.

Duplicates you can donate or trash

It is amazing how quickly certain items can accumulate. You are blind to realize how many of an item you have until you have too many.

Office

  • Report covers: A few years ago we had 65 of them — yes 65! I ended up keeping eight of them for children’s reports for school and donated the rest.
  • Pencil cases: You only need one per child and one spare.
  • Pens: It drives me crazy if pens are one colour on the outside (e.g. red) but write another colour (e.g. black). I try not to even bring them into the house.
  • Staples, elastics, paperclips and pushpins: Keep one small container of each and donate the rest.

Consider donating office supplies to charities. They often work on very tight budgets and may not have extra money for supplies for their own offices. Libraries, schools, and community centres may also appreciate the donation.

Kitchen

  • Plastic cutlery, paper plates, and take-out trays: If you regularly use these disposable items for school/work lunches, keep a week’s worth handy and let go of the rest. You can use the “one-in, one-out” rule. As soon as you get a new one, toss an old one. If you may need them for picnics or parties later in the year, store them in a less frequently used area of the kitchen.
  • Plastic Cups: Recycle plastic cups from amusement parks or sporting events. You really don’t need to save them to make a Beer Snake at the next cricket match.
  • Food storage containers: Get rid of any that are stained, broken, or have missing or ill-fitting lids. About a dozen 500mL containers are enough for the average family of four. Choose identical containers with identical lids to keep things simple.
  • Reusable shopping bags: Keep as many as you need for groceries. You may choose to use a few for carting around hobby and sports equipment. Charity shops, schools, or your local library would likely appreciate any bags that you are not using.

Laundry

  • Hangers: If you’re practicing “one-in, one-out”, there is no need for extra hangers in your closets. Keep a few for guests’ clothing and coats and maybe a few for your laundry room. Charity shops usually accept all types of hangers and many dry cleaners accept wire hangers. I always keep one wire hanger in my toolbox because at some point something valuable will roll under the refrigerator and I’ll need to undo a wire hanger to get it.
  • Towels: Keep only the best ones and keep only those you use. The old ones can be cut into rags or donated to an animal shelter.
  • T-shirts: It’s time to say good-bye to the worn out shirts with sports’ team logos and your favourite T-shirt from high school. Keep the best, let go of the rest.

Bathroom

  • Cosmetic bags: A free cosmetic bag with every cosmetics purchase adds up to clutter. Keep one for the suitcase, one for your gym bag, and maybe a spare one. Donate the rest.
  • Razors: Old, rusty, and broken razors should go directly to the trash. Say good-bye to any razor handles for which you no longer wish to replace the blades.
  • Hair Accessories: Broken hairbrushes and combs that you’re no longer using can go directly into the garbage. Other hair accessories in good condition can be donated after they have been cleaned and sanitized.

Remember that if the item is not in good enough condition to give to a friend, it is best not to donate it to charity. Always check with the recipient charity to ensure they will benefit from the items you would like to donate. Keep clutter out of your space and look for even more items you can donate.

Your keys to organizing

Not a big post today, just some inspiration to get you thinking about where to keep your keys so you’re not searching for them when you need to leave your house. Obviously, you can keep them in a bowl or on a plain hook, but you can also do something fun with them.

We found these two cute animal key holders on Amazon that also store mail and I think they’re super fun.

A Bear:

An Elephant:

Where do you put your keys? Are you in the habit of hanging them up or dropping them into the exact same spot each time you enter your home? If not, is this a routine you can easily incorporate into your life? It’s nice to know where your keys are in your house, especially in emergency situations.

Unclutter those little monthly bills

Most of us have two types of monthly bills — the big stuff and the little stuff. For the purposes of this post, I’m not talking about the big ones. I don’t mean the mortgage/rent, car payments, insurance, and so on. Those things are there and you pay them as part of your life responsibilities. No, in this case I mean the little costs, the automatic payments that are so easy to forget and that pile up quickly. You know, that $2.99 a month subscription fee or the $5.00 monthly rental fee. If we remember these at all, the temptation is to say, “Eh, it’s three bucks. I’ll deal with it next month.” Meanwhile, three becomes nine and then 12 and by the end of the year 36 — but for dozens of little things so the total is in the hundreds.

Once a year, I sit down and unclutter these little payments to decide what stays and what goes. If you’re interested, the following is advice on how you can do it, too.

Write it down

The easiest way to get look at what you’re spending is to write it all down. When I do this review, I chart it up on a piece of paper:

There are four columns:

  1. Name: The title of the company or service
  2. Cost: What I’m paying out
  3. Description: A plain-English description of exactly what I’m getting for my money
  4. Stay? After reviewing the information in the three previous column, I decide: “Does it stay?” If yes, I enter a “Y” in the last column. If not, it’s “N.”

In the example above, I’ve entered two services. First is Netflix. It costs me $7.99 per month to stream all the TV shows and movies I want. Is it worth it? For me, yes. My family and I spend more time watching videos on Netflix than we do on cable. For us, it’s worth it. Netflix stays.

Next is Blizzard. Blizzard is a game company that lets me play World of Warcraft online for $14.99 per month. Is it worth it? Well, a few months ago, I was meeting up with several friends so that we could all play together. That was great fun, but it has fizzled out. I don’t enjoy playing solo as much. So, I nixed it. That just saved me $179.88 per year! Hooray!

Why did I sign up for this?

Before you decide if a service stays or goes, concentrate on brainstorming so you get them all down. It’s possible that you’ve completely forgotten about one (or even more). Do you have a transponder in your car that comes with a monthly fee? Do you have a safety deposit box at the bank? Does your bank charge you a monthly fee if your balance falls below a certain dollar limit? Are you renting any large pieces of equipment? Do you subscribe to magazines?

Once you’ve remembered all your little costs, add up the total amount spent. It might be surprising. Once you’ve nixed the services you no longer want, you’ll feel really good about saving that money.

Hold onto your list

Although it’s a little morbid to think about, having all of these subscription services written down in one place would allow for someone else to help close your accounts or suspend them in case of an emergency. Store your list in an “In case of …” file so a loved one can find it. Also, you can reference it in six months or a year to help you brainstorm all the little bills you’re paying each month. You can then replace the old list (shred it) with the new list in the file.

As I said, these small monthly fees are easy to forget and tempting to overlook. This post is your prompt to unclutter them! In less than 30 minutes, you’ll have a good overview of what you’re spending, feel more on top of things, and perhaps save a little money for your trouble.

The paperwork puzzle

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.

Ignore OHIO

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.