Options for organizing papers

Reader Vicki recently made the following comment on the post “Keeping things simple“:

I really appreciate reading about options and choices when it comes to organizing. I tend to feel a little suspicious when I read that a specific way of organizing or a specific organizing tool is necessary.

Vicki, I understand your concern. While there are some general principles that apply to most organizing situations (such as keeping similar items together), there are also many specific products and techniques for addressing almost any organizing challenge. The trick is to find the solutions that work best for you.

The following are some of the choices you have when it comes to organizing papers. While this isn’t a complete list — that would take more space than I have here — it should give you an idea of just how many options you have.

Organizing reference papers

If you’re going to keep a large number of reference papers, you’ll need to decide how to file them. The most common choices are binders and file folders. You might want to use binders for certain types of papers and file folders for the rest.

Your decision might be driven by the kind of space you have available: file cabinet space or bookshelf space. Or your choice might be based on the type of papers you have and how you use them. I’ve found binders work well when I have a large number of papers I want to quickly grab and take with me to a meeting or event. They also work well for information you want to share with others, such as a babysitter. Ease of use is a big factor, too. Which tool would make you most likely to keep up with your filing?

If you’re using binders, do you want to put papers into sheet protectors or would you rather hole-punch them? Alternatively, would you prefer a tool such as the Itoya Profolio, which has built-in sleeves for papers, but doesn’t have a way to move the pages around? It’s lighter weight and less bulky without the ring mechanism, but it’s also less flexible.

If you’re using folders, you may prefer to use a ready-made filing system, such as FreedomFiler. Or you may prefer to create your own files.

If you’re creating your own files, you have some choices to make. Do you want to use standard file folders, hanging file folders, or hanging folders combined with interior folders? The plastic tabs on hanging file folders annoy some people, but there are options such as Smead’s hanging files with built-in tabs. Again, you can use a combination of techniques. For example, I usually go with just a hanging file, but my client files are standard file folders kept inside box-bottom hanging files.

Another folder decision is whether or not to use color-coding. Having certain types of files in certain colors can provide a useful visual cue (and help you find a misplaced file), but this approach also means you need to ensure you never run out of the colors you are using. It’s a bit of complexity that will help some people and hinder others.

In some cases, you may not need either file folders or binders for your papers. You could use the approach suggested by LJ Earnest, where you put all financial and tax-related papers for a year in a single box, with no folders.

Organizing action files

Action files are those related to things you’re going to do in the near future. Papers filed here could include bills to pay, election materials to read through and a ballot to complete, birthday cards to mail, dry cleaning receipts for things you need to pick up, the scribbled notes about a call you need to return, etc.

If it helps you to have these files out in front of you, rather than buried in a file cabinet drawer, the most common tools are an incline file sorter (also called a step file) and a desktop file box. The desktop file is more transportable, if that’s a concern, but files aren’t quite as visible.

Another tool you may want to use is a tickler file: 43 folders (or sections in an expanding desk file) where you file papers by the date (in the current month) or month (for upcoming months) when you want to deal with them.

There are certainly other choices, too. For example, you might want a series of clipboards mounted on the wall, mailing envelopes on the back of a door, labeled baskets on a shelf, or hang-up bags on a desktop or wall-mounted rack.

Organize a mini office for on-the-go productivity

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home. Despite the battles with distraction, it’s a real luxury that I definitely appreciate. I’d wager that those of you who don’t complete your 9–5 at home still have a home office, computer room, command center, or some such other space that you use to attend to professional and personal management tasks.

Although these home work spaces are helpful, it’s inevitable you’ll be ejected from it at some point. Flaky internet, construction right outside your window, your kid who needs to do research for a school project, your neighbor’s dog that just won’t stop barking … these factors can make your sacred space less than amenable to productivity. Fear not! There are many public options available, and early organization and preparation will make it easy to head out the door and get back to work. The following are insights into how I’ve organized a mini, portable office.

First, identify the equipment you’ll need, and then whittle the list down to the most essential. For example, I’d love to bring my laptop, folding stand, Bluetooth keyboard, and Bluetooth mouse to an off-site work session, but all I need to work is the laptop. Sure the trackpad stinks, but not as badly as hauling all of that stuff around. The idea here is to travel light.

I also bring a notebook and a pen, both small. I know myself well enough at this point to understand that I like to scribble and doodle random thoughts and tasks during my work day. Lastly, I grab a charger for the laptop and a charging cable for my iPhone. I put the lot into a bag and I’m good to go as soon as the jackhammer starts pounding out my window.

Or am I?

In addition to the items listed above, these next few items really make it a killer setup. Consider putting these things into your own bag to reach the next level of mobile office work.

  1. A little cash. Many people use a coffee shop or cafe as a backup office. Most proprietors welcome laptop warriors, as long as they buy some things in their shop. Save yourself a trip to the ATM by popping $5 or $10 in your bag now. Yes, the cafe likely accepts debit cards, but cash makes it easier to tip the staff. As a camper, you want to stay on everyone’s good side.
  2. A power strip. These are bulky, but hear me out on my justification for packing one. I like to work from my local library. It has free WiFi, huge tables, and very few power outlets. When I approach a crowded table and plug a six-socket power strip into the wall, I become The Hero of the Library. Try it yourself and bask in the glory of your appreciative peers.
  3. An extra AC adapter for your laptop. This one is a bit pricey but it’s worth it. The adapter I plug my laptop into at home is entwined in an under-desk cord manager and getting it out is a pain. Keeping one in the bag saves time and aggravation.
  4. A charging cable for your phone. You don’t want your phone to die, and you can’t always predict when you’ll be out or for how long. I don’t pack a wall adapter for my phone, as I’ll just connect it to my laptop which has its own USB adapter.
  5. A pair of headphones. This super useful item is the universal signal for, “Leave me alone, I’m busy.” You needn’t even listen to music if you don’t want to (unless the cafe’s radio station is especially awful).

I recommend packing this stuff into a bag right away and just letting it sit. When it’s time to go, prep time will be minimal and you’ll be on the road to productivity (and maybe a latte) in no time.

Get organized to run meetings effectively

There are a lot of things I like to do in this world, but running a meeting isn’t one of them. Years ago, I had a boss who would call me into his office and talk for a good half hour. As I walked back to my desk, I’d think, “So, what just happened in there?” Now, when I’m in charge of a meeting, I worry: will my attendees walk away with a clear idea of what was said and what, if anything, needs to be done?

I recently found myself in the unenviable position of sitting at the head of the table, as it were, but not until I had done some research on effective ways to run a meeting. There are a lot of articles out there on the topic, and here I’ve collected the best advice I could find. Now, please come to order and review these tips for running an effective meeting.

WikiHow provided advice that I’ve been advocating for a long time. Partly because of my admitted meeting anxiety, and partly because I really don’t like wasting time. Specifically, determine if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary at all. There are instances when you simply must sit down in the same room to have a conversation or spark collaboration. But, if the agenda is something that can be accomplished with an email thread or a quick conference call, do that instead. You’ll save everyone a lot of time.

They also suggest distributing the meeting’s clear goals in advance. I’ll admit that I’ve never done this. Instead, I hand out a paper agenda as people are sitting down to the table. This throwback behavior from the ’80s is distracting, as everyone sits and reads the paper or thinks ahead to the topic they’re most or least interested in. From now on, I’ll distribute the agenda a day or two ahead of time, so people can show up ready to go.

Forbes also has some great advice for meetings. For example, “spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would.” In other words, the clearer and more tightly-defined each item is on the agenda, the more efficient your meeting will be. I also like their suggestion to allot half the time you initially think the meeting will need. “Meetings are like accordions,” says Victor Lipman, “they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space.”

I used a similar trick on myself when I was in college, after learning about Parkinson’s Law, which states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a professor told me I had 3 weeks to complete an assignment, I’d tell myself I had two. Otherwise, I knew I’d be at my desk working feverishly on day 20.

Inc. has advice that addresses types of meetings. One type, the Action Meeting, is the format I’m probably most familiar with. The goal is to devise and implement a solution to a pressing problem or outstanding project. One trick I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is to end each of this type of meeting by saying, “OK, so my next actions are …” Stating this out loud confirms that you are clear on your assignment(s), and that your bosses are clear on that fact, too. Inc. also emphasizes the importance of keeping in touch after the meeting has ended. This is an area that I’ve struggled with in the past. While I’ll make a list of actions that I’ve delegated (my “Waiting For” list), I don’t always follow up with people responsible for these tasks on a regular basis. That’s something I’ll start doing.

Of course, a meeting isn’t restricted to the board room. You might be on a council or committee at your kids’ school or a church. Less formally, you may even have family meetings to discuss finances or monthly schedules or vacations. These lessons may apply there, too. If you have tips for running an effective meeting, let me know. I’m always willing to improve in this area.

Organize your notebooks for quick reference

Back in 2013, I wrote the article “Marking up your to do lists for increased productivity” about formal methods of marking up your notes and lists to make them more usable and easier to reference. I was reminded of it recently when I came across a Fast Company article, which introduced yet another trick for organizing a notebook that I like quite a bit.

I carry a little notebook in my pocket all the time. Even though I’m a a professional techie, I still feel that the best way to jot something down I need to remember is with a pen and a piece of paper.

Any problems I encounter with this system come from retrieving the information that I’ve written down. The rapid nature of quickly jotting something down often means poor organization of the captured information. To help solve this issue, this is where Rachel Gillett’s advice in the Fast Company article applies.

Cribbing from Adam Akhtar, Rachel suggests writing a sort of index in the back of your notebook while taking notes or jotting ideas down. This index is comprised of themes or topics that come up while you’re writing things down. In her example, she wrote down the following topics:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Social media
  4. CMS
  5. Analytics
  6. New Staff

She recommends leaving one line between each index topic. Then, when she writes something down that corresponds to one of these topics, she makes a mark on the edge of the page that corresponds to the line on which that word is written. The image at the top of this post illustrates this idea pretty clearly. Then, when she wants to find notes on writing, she can turn to the back page and quickly see the pages with relevant content. Flipping to them is quick and easy.

I think this system is a brilliant solution. It’s easy to see how this will work outside of business, too. Topics like “kids,” “school,” “work,” or whatever applies to your life would be perfect.

Again, check my older article for some additional ideas for adding a bit of organization to your notebooks. Jotting something down is easy. Finding it when you need it later doesn’t have to be a problem.

Protect your home business computer

Home-based businesses may be small, but they are (hopefully) a significant source of income for their owners and they provide a valuable service to their customers. For this and numerous other reasons, it is essential for these businesses to be able to quickly return to normal operations after a disaster.

One of the more frequent “disasters” in small business is data loss. This often happens when a virus infects the business computer or if the computer’s hard drive fails. The easiest way to protect your business from data loss is by ensuring you have up-to-date anti-virus software and to do regular backups of your computer’s hard drive. Daily backups to an external hard drive is an inexpensive way to ensure you can access your data and continue business operations should your computer crash. However, if your office were destroyed by fire or flood you would also lose your external hard drive, so I strongly recommend a cloud-based data storage solution, too. There are many inexpensive, secure online backup services available.

Protecting your computer system itself is important. Small business owners should purchase a surge protector and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery for each computer. A UPS will prevent electrical power surges from “blowing up” the computer system, and, should there be a loss of power, the battery will provide enough power for the user to back up data and shut the computer down safely.

Fire, flooding and theft are disasters that unfortunately occur all too often in small businesses. Having a detailed inventory of business assets (electronics, furniture, etc.) is essential in order to restore operations as quickly as possible and ensure the insurance company can process the claim promptly. Record the make, model and serial numbers along with receipts of purchase of all your business equipment. Copies of important paper-based records should be available after a disaster. Scan items such as insurance policies, cheques, and signed contracts. If you’ve stored this information on your computer and backed it up to your online storage area, you can access it easily and provide this information to your insurance company.

Disasters do strike, but if you’re organized and prepared your small business will be protected.

Review: ScanSnap iX100 is a fast, portable, uncluttered scanner

When I worked as an IT director in the early 2000s, scanners were huge, bulky slabs of plastic and glass. They demanded a lot of desk space, cranky software, and patience. I thought of those olden days while I reviewed the ScanSnap iX100 this past week.

This small scanner (pictured above with my computer’s mouse for scale) is just under 11 inches long and about 1.5 inches tall. It’s very light — only 14oz — and completely wireless. But don’t let the size fool you, the iX100 is a very capable scanner. I scanned everything from documents to 8″x10″ photos to playing cards with ease. Finally, the lack of cables makes my clutter-averse heart happy. The following is a detailed look at the Fujitsu iX100 ScanSnap wireless scanner.


It was very simple to get the iX100 up in running. Inside the box, I found:

  • A DVD with installation software for Apple’s OS X as well as Windows
  • A Getting Started Guide, complete with URLs for detailed instruction in 10 languages
  • A detailed handbook, again in several languages
  • Warranty and registration information
  • A micro-USB to USB cable
  • The iX100 itself

I was happy to see the USB cable, as I’ve bought a few printers that shipped without one.


The iX100 requires software to run, of course, and you’ve got two installation options. To get started, just insert the supplied DVD. From there you can install from the disc itself (the faster option), or download the lot from online. It’s a simple process and the installer walks you through the whole thing.

When that’s done, you can connect the scanner to your computer via the supplied USB cable and turn it on by simply opening the feed guide (the little flap on front). My Mac recognized it instantly, which was great. That’s cool and all, but wireless setup is even better.

The installer will ask if you want to enable wireless scanning. If you do, flip the Wi-Fi switch on the back of the machine so that the indicator light turns blue. The software will ask for permission to access your local network. Grant it and follow the instructions on the screen. When that’s done, you can put that USB cable right back in the box! Hooray! This entire process from opening the box to being ready to scan took less than 10 minutes.


Easy setup doesn’t matter if the thing doesn’t work, right? Well I’m glad to say that it definitely does. There’s a tiny feature here that I really like. On the far left of the feed guide there’s a tiny arrow pointing to its edge. That little guy tells you how to orient documents, as well as where to place smaller items. If you’ve ever wasted time by scanning something upside down, you how nice that tiny arrow is.

To scan a document, push it gently into the iX100 until you hear its motor give a tiny whirr. That tells you that it has hold of it. Next, decide if you want to scan in straight or “U-Turn” mode. If you decide on straight, it will spit your document out behind the scanner. If you decide on U-Turn mode, it won’t do that. To engage U-Turn mode, fold the top of the scanner’s case up. This directs the paper going through the scanner back toward the front. If you’ve got the scanner on the edge of your desk like I do, this is terrific, as you needn’t worry about anything falling to the floor or getting crumpled by an adjacent wall. Then tap the Scan/Stop button and the scan begins.

Once the scan is complete, a menu pops up asking what you’d like to do with the scanned file. I was elated to see my beloved Evernote included. You can either send your file to Evernote as a document in the inbox or as a note. Other options include sending it to a specific folder, email, your printer, Dropbox, Google Documents, and more. This set of options is really nice, as chances are you aren’t going to simply drop the file onto your computer’s desktop, but do something with it once you’ve made the scan. There are even dedicated operations for organizing receipts and business cards in the software.

Scanning to Mobile

This feature is super cool. Scanning to a mobile device lets to scan even if your computer is turned off or not around. Once wireless scanning has been set up, all you need to do is download the iX100 ScanSnap mobile application. It’s available for iOS, Android, and the Kindle Fire. I have an iPhone, so I tested the iOS app.

Once the app has been installed, and both devices are on the same wireless network, just launch it on your smartphone or tablet. It will immediately begin looking for the scanner, and once it has found it, it asks for the device’s password, which appears on a sticker on the scanner’s underside.

Now, all you’ve got to do is place a document into the scanner and hit the blue scan button in the app. The document is scanned and sent to the device. It worked just fine for me and it’s a super fast way to get a document into my phone and ready to share. When you’re ready to scan to the computer again, simply close the app.

In conclusion, I’m quite impressed with the iX100. It’s very small and light, takes up almost no room, scans quickly and offers a wealth of options for working with your scanned document. Setup was a breeze and scanning directly to my iPhone is super useful. It is perfect for a small home office and for anyone who travels for business. Anyone looking for a clutter-free and simple scanning solution should definitely consider the iX100.

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 place for everything and everything in its place, well, for the most part

At Unclutterer, we usually support the organizing standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” However, there are occasions when adhering to this motto is inefficient and might best be put on hold.

For example, most of the year our family eats meals in the dining room. During the financial year-end though, the dining room table turns into a horizontal filing cabinet for a couple of days while I prepare our income tax returns. During these few days, our family eats in the kitchen or in the living room on TV trays while the paperwork stays out on the table. This is a minor inconvenience for our family compared to the time-consuming task of packing up all of the paper work and re-filing it into the filing cabinet everyday. All of this paperwork does have a long-term place, but for this period of time it has a short-term place on the dining table.

You may decide there are other times when the standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place” should be temporarily ignored or when a short-term home should be established for specific items.

From time-to-time, your children may take on projects with their toys that are too much fun to go away after just a single play session. If your child is building a space station with blocks, confine the construction to a certain area of the room and let the building continue for a few days. A doll’s excessive wardrobe and shoe collection could be out for a few days and then sent to the “dry cleaners” (cardboard box) that can be easily moved so that housekeeping can be done. If you notice the projects haven’t been worked on in awhile, that is a good indication that the toys are ready to be returned to their permanent homes.

Rather than trying to obtain one those picture perfect houses from the magazines, think about how to manage your projects efficiently. When is it a good idea for you to ignore the “a place for everything and everything in its place” motto?

The simplicity of alphabetical filing

As the final installment of my exploration of alternative filling systems, I want to look at the simple system that is often overlooked: alphabetical filing.

When I became highly interested in productivity a few years ago, I noticed that my routines grew slowly, but steadily, more complex. On the digital side, I added rules to incoming email messages and later introduced tags, color coding, special mailboxes, and more. On the analog side, I made subfolders, employed more color-coding, and eventually had unique file bins for varying categories of documentation. I thought I was a filing ninja, until I read this old post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits that’s all about the simplicity of alphabetical filing.

I know that ABC filing isn’t exactly an “alternative” system. But for many of us, especially the folks who enjoy the pursuit of clutter-free, efficient organization, it can get overlooked as being too simplistic. Leo makes a great case for the opposite.

“I believe that most people only need one drawer for filing. Now, I’ll admit that there are some jobs that require much more than this, but for the average employee (or self-employed person), one drawer is all you need. And if you limit yourself to one drawer, you force yourself to toss out unnecessary files when the drawer gets full. Don’t overthink this. Just create a file, and file it alphabetically. Keep it simple.”

I like this idea a lot, as it’s incredibly intuitive. For example, say you purchase a new vacuum cleaner: you simply grab the manual, open your file drawer, and place the manual in the “V” folder (“V” for vacuum). No over-thinking, no deliberation, no searching for the right spot. Searching for the manual ends up being just as easy. Everything is in one place and easily found.

Now, a caveat. Many of us have home office situations or, more likely, work requirements, that prevent a simple ABC system. A medical office, for example, couldn’t file all patients whose last names begin with T all in the same T file. This basic system just isn’t for you.

But if the work you do doesn’t need to be subdivided, consider it. I recently bought a simple file box and several manilla envelopes. I labeled each one A through Z and placed them inside the file box. For a few weeks, I’ve been filing according to this system and loving it. One note: make sure your filing box or cabinet is within “swivel distance.” Swivel distance is the distance you can reach without getting up from your chair. Why? Because humans tend toward the path of least resistance. If it’s easier to stack folders than to walk over to the cabinet, you’ll be tempted to stack. And as Leo explained, stacking is not ideal:

[Stacks pile] up and then the pile gets a little intimidating and then before you know it you’ve got a huge pile that you never want to go through. Then you can’t find anything when you need it, and now you no longer have a filing system. I know some people think that their piles are organized into a kind of system, but piles are inefficient (if you’re not working on them at this moment) because you constantly have to re-factor what pile is for what and which documents are in each pile, and when you need a document, it takes too long to find it. Plus, it clutters up your desk, distracting you from your work.

Finally, if you’re going to try this, make sure you have plenty of fresh materials ready to go. A stack of folders, fresh batteries and ink for your label maker, a new marker, and so on. That way you won’t be tempted to “just put this down” until you get said materials from the store.

The Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) system

Two weeks ago, I started an exploration of lesser-know filing systems with the Noguchi system. This method, devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, utilizes manilla envelopes and the frequency with which you work on certain projects to organize your projects. Today, I want to delve into a system close to my heart, a system that uses index cards.

Image credit: Hawk Sugano

Hawk Sugano (you’ll find him on Flickr as “hawkexpress”) has devised a system he calls Pile of Index Cards (PoIC). It’s a combination of a “brain dump” (emptying one’s mind of all important information by writing it down), long-term storage for reference, and David Allen’s GTD method. It’s all managed by a “dock” of 3×5 index cards, and the result is tidy and searchable. The following are instructions for how to set up and use the system.

What you’ll need

The list is a short one. Get some index cards, which you can find almost anywhere (or grab some fancy ones here), a favorite pen, and a storage box with customizable tabs. That is all you need to be ready to use the method.

How it works

Hawk describes four types of cards in his system:

  1. The Record Card. He describes it as “a diary, note, account, health, weather, cook, any kind of records about us belongs to this class.” I’d say this is the incoming “stuff” of the day: appointments, notes to follow up on, etc.
  2. The Discover Card. Hawk describes the Discover Card as “Things from my brain, mind, spirit, anything emerge from inside me, are classified into this class.” This is the result of a mind dump. Don’t worry about classifying when filling out a Discover Card. Just get whatever is on your mind out and onto paper.
  3. The GTD Card. Here he combines the title of a project and several actions that pertain to it (here’s a look at the template in English). This reminds me of the “Hipstper PDA Template” I used religiously about 10 years ago.
  4. The Cite Card captures other people’s ideas that warrant attention. He says, “Important here is distinguishing ‘your idea (Discovery Card)’ and ‘someone else’s idea (Cite Card).’ Source of the information must be included in the Cite Card. A book, for example, author, year, page(s) are recorded for later use.”

Each card is stored in a box, or “dock.” Note that Hawk makes a mark on the top of each card. It’s position indicates the type of card, so you can easily identify each one while it’s in the dock. Finally, he uses the tabs to keep the types of cards sorted.

Is PoIC for you?

I’ll admit that this method is a bit labor-intensive. For example, Hawk does not throw any cards away. Instead, he buys another dock. One person took steps to improve upon this by adding what he calls the “43 Tabs” system. Basically, older cards that are no longer pertinent are moved to the back of the dock, while those still in action are moved to the front.

Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.