Ask Unclutterer: How do you stay motivated when sorting papers?

Reader John recently asked the following question in the comment section of the post “Why is organizing and uncluttering paper so difficult?“:

The draining emotional impact of sorting through and properly organizing boxes and file cabinets of paper can at times be overwhelming. Could you address in more detail strategies for maintaining or improving personal motivation to get the ongoing task completed?

John, many people have this concern, so I’m very glad you asked the question. The following are strategies that might work to motivate you to keep organizing your papers.

Work in reasonably small blocks of time

Organizer Janine Adams wrote on her Peace of Mind Organizing Blog about a women who got through 12 years of accumulated papers by working on them for 15 to 30 minutes a day. It’s often easier to tackle a dreaded task if you know you only have to do it for a short period of time.

But, if you want to work for a longer stretch of time, that’s fine, too — just be sure to take breaks. You want to avoid decision fatigue. If you find yourself thinking, “I just don’t care any more,” you might start making poor decisions as a result.

Create a pleasant work environment

If you’re a person who gets energized from music, try playing some as you sort through those papers. Also, make sure you’re working in an area with sufficient lighting and a comfortable room temperature.

Have good tools

I know someone who prefers to keep certain papers in a three-ring binder. However, her three-hole paper punch didn’t work well; she always had to struggle with it. She has decided to invest in a higher quality hole punch that will be easier to use.

It definitely helps if all your frequently used tools work well. Those tools might include a label maker, a stapler, a staple puller, a letter opener, a shredder, and a scanner. If you are someone who is inspired by beautiful or cute objects, consider investing in those, too.

Put some things off

If you’re going through a big stack of papers and find a few you just can’t deal with right now, set them aside. Know that this is both normal and perfectly okay. Don’t let the few papers that are hardest to deal with derail your efforts. And, when you come back to those papers somewhat later, you may find them less challenging.

Keep the goal in mind

You’re likely going through papers for some good reason: so you can find things when you need them, so your space supports you in your work and family life, etc. Keep your goal in mind, and celebrate the small victories along the way, such as a critical paper found, or a chair that’s now usable because it no longer has papers stacked on it.

Enlist some help

A trusted friend might be able to help by doing a first-pass sort: financial, medical, etc. Or the friend could simply sit with you as you go through the papers, perhaps acting as a sounding board or just as an accountability partner.

And you can always hire a professional organizer to help. The National Association of Professional Organizers has a website that can help you find someone in your area.

Thank you, John, for asking such a good question.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field or put your inquiry in the comments to a post. If you send an email, please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Filing: what’s worth saving?

One of the questions I ask when tempted to save and file some paper (or save information electronically) is: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

Some items obviously need to be saved for tax and legal reasons (talk to an accountant, tax lawyer, and/or estate lawyer in your state to know exactly what the law requires you retain). But, what about the other bits of information we tend to save?

I started thinking about the items I have indeed pulled out and looked at again, and what prompted me to look at those items. I asked the following questions, which have led me to keep specific types of additional documents:

Large purchase receipts: When did I buy my refrigerator?

My refrigerator was making strange noises, and I was wondering whether I was going to need to replace it. A starting point in the repair vs. replace question is how old was the refrigerator. To answer this, I looked up the receipt, which I had scanned. Keeping receipts for large purchases can help with returns and warranties — and if the receipt is for a large appliance that will remain in the house when you move, you can pass it on to the next home owner.

Computer instructions: What apps do I need to update before I update my operating system?

When I went to update my MacBook to the Mavericks OS, I looked to my computer bookmarks to find the site that had an extensive list answering just this question. I’ve since shared this list with two other people who had the same question.

Additionally, sometimes when I’m using an application that I use infrequently, I may forget how to do certain actions. I’ve filed away how-to information that was a bit difficult to find, so I have it handy when I need to do the same thing again.

Local resources: What can I do with this old fur coat I inherited?

I get questions like this from my organizing clients, and I have bookmarks in my online browser with resources, ready to share. You may wish to keep a similar reference file with business cards, notes you’ve jotted down from friends’ recommendations, etc.

Travel resources: What did I want to see in a city I’m going to visit?

For places I’m hoping to visit someday, I keep bookmarks and scanned articles about them in a digital folder; other people may choose to keep such information in Evernote or in paper. While it’s easy to search for major tourist sites in any city, and nothing replaces an up-to-date guidebook, I also like the articles that point me to oddities I might not find otherwise or point me to things worth noticing at those major tourist sites. Visiting places like this have often been a highlight of a trip.

Looking at these questions, I can see what has been useful is practical information that I can’t necessarily find through a quick online search. Realizing this is the information I reference, it will help me make better decisions in the future about what to keep and what to toss. Now it’s time to ask yourself: Under what circumstances will I ever pull this out and look at it again?

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.

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.

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.

The Noguchi filing system

I’ve said this before, and so has fellow Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown: I’m always willing to try a new system if it might turn out to be better than the one I’m using. I was reminded of this earlier when reminiscing about my old job and the Noguchi filing system. It was devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, and for about a year I used it extensively.

The Premise

Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a residential school. There was a lot to manage, from help desk requests to purchasing, maintenance, networking issues, and other administrative tasks. I typically had several projects ongoing at once, large and small. Nearly all of them had support files that needed to be referenced or updated regularly. This is where the Noguchi system was brilliant, as it moves frequently-used files together while creating an archive of seldom used files.

The Setup

Image: Dave Gray, Communicationnation.blogspot.com

Instead of a filing cabinet or set of drawers, you’ll need an open shelf and several 9″ x 12″ (or larger) envelopes. Using scissors, cut the flap off the top of the envelope, as shown above. You cut the top off to make it super easy to get at the envelope’s contents. Next, write the date and title along the side of the envelope. Again, see the image at above for a reference. Make one envelope per project and place the envelopes next to each other on the shelf, with the date and title side facing outward.

In Practice

Don’t attempt to organize, classify, or otherwise sort the envelopes. It will be tempting to do so, but the beauty here is that the system takes care of organizing for you. As you take a folder off the shelf to use it, return it to the far left. Over time, three things happen:

  1. The folders you use most often appear on the left hand side. Because you access them regularly, you always know where they are. With time, the project you work on most often will be in the leftmost envelope. Then the next project in the second left position, and then the next, all the way down the line.
  2. Files you use less frequently will migrate to the middle and right. You know how hard it can be to find a paper or file you seldom use? With the Noguchi system it’s easy because you know it’s not on the left.
  3. The files you never access make it to the far right. These “holy files,” as the system calls them, can be removed from the shelf and safely archived away or purged, thereby preventing the shelf from getting cluttered with countless envelopes.

You can color code your envelopes if you want. This is most useful when archiving, as you can quickly find what you need in that pile, or sort them by color once they’re off the shelf. Finally, since you needn’t spend time organizing the envelopes on the shelf, you save a lot of time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. It can take a couple of weeks to set it up (moving everything into an envelope) and kick in (as you move files right and left and on and off the shelf), but it’s a nice system for managing multiple projects once you get it established.

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.

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.

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.

Organizing your employment history

Sometimes you may leave your current job by choice and sometimes you don’t have an option but in today’s fast-paced economy it is best to be prepared for a job search at any time. When you’re applying for a new job, you need accurate records of where and when you worked because almost all employers perform background checks. If you have had many jobs over the years, it may be difficult to remember exact dates of employments.

The following tips explore what type of information you need to collect and how to organize it for quick reference:

Information you should collect

Company contact information: Obtain the postal address, phone number, and website of all your previous places of employment if they still exist. Additionally, if these people are still employed at the company, have your direct supervisor’s name, company email address, and telephone extension, his/her supervisor’s contact information, and this same information for a key member of the Human Resources department. If they’re not still at the company, note this in your records and try your best to obtain a private email address for your former supervisors. Future employers usually wish to verify your previous employment with the company as well as discuss your performance with a supervisor, irrespective of where that person is currently employed.

Employment record: Most large companies keep employment records that include employee training, qualifications, and performance reviews. Review this information on an annual basis to ensure that it is up-to-date and obtain a copy prior to leaving the company.

Smaller companies may not keep detailed employment records so you may have to create your own. It should include the job titles you had at the company, dates you held those positions, and the rates of your pay. It should also list any training courses you took to improve your job performance.

Compensation: In addition to your pay rate/salary, note if you earned any bonuses or commissions. This gives you a benchmark to negotiate your salary at your next place of employment. List any benefits you received such as health and dental plans, maternity benefits, holidays, family, and compassionate leave.

NOTE: You can request a statement of your employment history from your government’s employment or taxation department (Social Security in the United States). This statement will provide you with details about your places of employment, dates, and earnings. You can also find this information on your old tax returns. However, these documents do not provide job descriptions or details about supplementary training during the periods of employment.

Job descriptions: If a detailed job description is not available from the company’s Human Resources department, create your own. List all the tasks for which you were responsible, to whom you reported, and who reported to you.

NOTE: If you used acronyms in at your company, always write out the words in full. You might not remember what those letters mean a few years from now. This is especially important with proprietary software programs used within a company. No one knows what “SADC-DB” means but future employers would understand “Systematic Approach to Document Control database.”

Challenges and achievements: Using the job description, write down a few problems that you encountered during your time on the job and how you solved this problems. Make note of your achievements and awards, too. It is easier to recollect this sort of thing when you are in your current job rather than when you are updating your résumé for the next job. You can use it as leverage when discussing your salary at your next performance review or at your next job interview.

Likes and dislikes: Write down what you liked and did not like about the tasks you performed. This information should never be put on a job application or résumé, but it can definitely help you decide the types of roles in which you excel and it will save you the trouble of applying for jobs you probably wouldn’t enjoy. It may be helpful to write this information in a style that would be a suitable answer for interviewers who are going to want to know what you liked and did not like about a previous job.

Contracts: If you signed a contract for employment or a confidentiality agreement, keep a copy for your records. Ask your employer how long they recommend you keep these documents and be clear, especially with any non-compete clauses, how long they apply to you. If you work with proprietary, copyrighted, or patented material, you may be obliged to maintain confidentiality for many years after you’ve ceased working for that company. You also may be prohibited from working for a competitor for a number of years.

Certificates: If you took any specialized training (WHIMS, First Aid, computer skills) in order to do your job, make sure you keep the certificates. They are the proof of having successfully completed the training.

Reference Letters: If you’re preparing to leave a job, it will be much easier for your supervisor to provide you with a letter of reference now when he/she is familiar with your work. The letter should state things like your relationship to the letter writer and a couple examples of how you contributed to the team and helped solve problems. It can also outline your positive character traits such as being punctual, hard working, and ability to adjust to the corporate culture. Obtain several original signed copies if possible.

Organizing your employment information

A simple form (the document is in Word and works on both Mac and PC) can be used to capture the details (company, contact information, job description, likes and dislikes) of each job. You can fill out the form and save it on your computer or print a paper copy.

It is helpful to organize your employment history on your computer as many documents are now only in electronic format. It may be worthwhile to scan the original certificates and letters of reference in case the originals are lost or damaged.

Ideally, the folders on your computer and your paper files should have the same names so it is easy to cross-reference and find the information you need. For example:

Keep original copies of certificates and reference letters in file folders or binders. You may be required to provide proof of training at a job interview, so storing documents in acid-free sheet protectors will keep them in good condition.

Career transition experts indicate that résumés and cover letters should be customized for each job application for best results. By having your employment history organized and easily accessible it will eliminate some of the stress in applying for a new job or promotion.

Finally, special thanks goes to TORI Award winning career transition expert Audrey Prenzel for her guidance on this topic.

Shredding: What to shred, and how to shred it

If you’ve been clearing out your file cabinet as part of your New Year’s resolutions, you’ve probably come across some papers that need shredding.

When it comes to shredding, people have two major questions:

Question 1: Which papers need to be shredded?

The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has a sensible list of shredding guidelines, noting the types of information you definitely want to shred if you decide to purge them from your filing cabinet. It also lists of other types of information you may want to shred — as well as a list of specific types of papers to consider shredding. The general guidelines are:

Destroy all sensitive information, including junk mail and paperwork, that includes:

  • Account numbers
  • Birth dates
  • Passwords and PINs
  • Signatures
  • Social Security numbers

To protect your privacy, you should also consider shredding items that include:

  • Names
  • Addresses
  • Phone numbers
  • E-mail addresses

Question 2: What kind of shredder should I get and what if I don’t want to buy a shredder?

When it comes to products and services for shredding, you’ve got a number of choices, so pick whichever approach works best for you.

Shredding scissors. Shredding scissors aren’t great, since they produce a strip cut rather than a cross cut, which means it would be easier for someone to reassemble your papers. If you do use these, you may want to put some of the shredded paper in one trash bag, and some in another. I’ve also been known to put shredded stuff in with the used kitty litter I’m taking to the trash, to reduce the chance anyone would go through the garbage to get it.

Shredders. You’ll find a lot of choices here, and numerous recommendations. I’ve had my Fellowes 79Ci for years now, and it has never once jammed or given me any other problem, I’m a fan. And Erin recommended this shredder, too. More recently, Erin also recommended the Staples 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a lockout key. And the Swingline Stack-and-Shred products are interesting, since you don’t need to feed papers into them as you would with most shredders.

Shredding services. When it comes to services that will shred papers for you, you’ve also got a number of options. Some office supply stores are now providing shredding services in some or all of their locations: Office Depot, Staples, The UPS Store, etc. There are also dedicated shredding companies; you either drop off your papers or a shredding truck comes to you. A Google search should help you find one in your area.

Several years ago, organizer Margaret Lukens sent an email cautioning about some of these shredding services, and she has given me permission to share that caution with you:

Some companies tout their trucks that come around and do it on-site and let you watch. Sounds good, and I’ve used them myself on jobs in the past, but I’ve heard of whole checks making it through those shredders, and San Francisco hospital medical records showing up WHOLE in bales of paper purchased by California farmers as animal bedding. This typically happens because the teeth in the shredder get broken (someone accidentally puts their marble paper weight in the shred bin or whatever) and it costs the company too much to take that truck out of service. You see the paper go into the shredder, but you don’t see it come out — and that’s what counts!

Margaret goes on to recommend using an NAID-certified shredding company — NAID being the National Association for Information Destruction. Office Depot, Staples and the UPS Store all partner with Iron Mountain for pick-up, and Iron Mountain is indeed “NAID certified for document destruction at each Iron Mountain location in the United States.” However, Office Depot also offers in-store shredding for smaller jobs, which would not be under the control of Iron Mountain.

The non-shredding alternative: stampers. Stampers are designed to obliterate your confidential information so the papers don’t need to be shredded. If you’re considering this approach, I recommend organizer Julie Bestry’s comprehensive look at the pros and cons of using these products.

Related question: Which papers should I keep and which papers should I purge?

Erin’s infographic on What to shred, scan, or store? can help you answer this question. Also, check with a local accountant and lawyer to be sure you’re keeping the appropriate papers for where you live — some states have different requirements than the IRS when it comes to retaining original documents.