New products to help you stay organized at home

Last week, I joined several hundred professional organizers in New Orleans for the Annual Conference and Organizing Exposition hosted by the National Association of Professional Organizers. In addition to the educational programming, one of the things I always look forward to is visiting the conference vendors who tend to debut their “latest and the greatest” organizing products — items that are new to their line or not yet on the market. In today’s post, I’m sharing the ones that caught my attention and that I think can help you stay organized at home. (Note: this is NOT a sponsored post and I haven’t received any payment from any of the manufacturers.)

Paper Management

I have to say that I was very impressed with the Staples Better® Binder with Removable FileRings™. Why would you want to remove the FileRings™? So that you can put the contents in archival storage when they are no longer needed on a daily basis. If you prefer filing physical papers (instead of digitizing them), this can be a great option for keeping important project documents or for storing business or household papers.

The spine of the file ring has a designated space for a label as well as extended ends that fit on the rails of most standard file drawers or boxes. Once you file the contents, you can replace the removable ring and reuse the binder. This means you’ll need less space since you’ll only purchase (and store) the FileRings™ (instead of storing several bulky binders). This one-inch binder holds up to 275 sheets of paper.

If you prefer to digitally store information and documents that you need for your home, you may be interested in HomeZada.com. It is technically not a product, but I found it so helpful that I had to include it. HomeZada is a web-based app that lets you manage your home’s product manuals, maintenance costs, and home improvement projects. For example, if you’re remodeling a room in your home, you can use HomeZada to track your budget, needed supplies, and specific purchases. HomeZada also provides you with a library of specific home maintenance tasks (you’ll get automatic reminders) and you can use it for multiple homes (rental property, vacation home). By keeping all your important documents and tasks in one location, you’ll always know where to go to find what you need and save a bit of time.

Another helpful feature is the ability to inventory the items in your home as well as the value of your belongings. In the event of an emergency (like a burglary, fire, natural disaster), having this information at your fingertips will be invaluable, especially when requested by your insurance company. Simply enter your address and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in your home, the app will assign typical spaces (family room, living room, office, etc.) and items to each room. You can revise the spaces and items to better match your home’s layout and then upload and tag photos of your things along with the approximate date of purchase.

Storage Solutions

When you think of Bankers Box®, you probably think about storing paper files, but the newest Bankers Box® is meant for storing clothing or other household items. The boxes are stackable and have a viewing window so you can easily see what’s inside. When the boxes are not in use, they can be folded and stored flat. And, unlike their office counterparts, these boxes have a more stylish design and come in three sizes (small, medium, and large). There’s also an underbed and ornament storage box.

Rubbermaid is known for great storage products (my personal favorite are the Easy Find Lids food storage set) and their new All Access™ storage containers are also stackable and have a clear viewing panel that acts as drop down door. That way, when the containers are stacked, you don’t have to remove the one on top to get to items in the bottom container. The All Access™ boxes can be used as a nightstand or side table and can store a number things like toys, craft supplies, laundry items, books, and more.

The Staples ARC notebook system

Several weeks ago, we were contacted by Staples about running a series of sponsored posts on their office products. Because Staples sells so many different products in their stores, we agreed, provided the arrangement would allow us to be free to review products we already use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Since both David and I purchased, have been using, and have even been recommending the Staples’ Arc Notebook system, we thought we would start there. So, the following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. These sponsored posts will be infrequent, and they will help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.


I’m a notebook junkie. I can’t resist buying them. Even as the guy with an iPhone and an iPad, I still love writing on paper. There’s a pocket-sized notebook in my pocket at all times and I keep a larger notebook on my desk. For years I’ve used Moleskines, but in February I purchased an Arc Notebook from Staples and I’m in love. It’s highly customizable, folds neatly in half, lays flat when open, looks great, and suits my needs wonderfully.

The Arc is similar to the Circa notebook system by Levenger, but much less expensive. (A basic leather Circa notebook for 5.5″ x 8.5″ paper is $80, and the same size basic leather Arc is $15.) It consists of various styles of paper (lined notebook, calendar, to-do, project manager, and more), pocket and divider inserts, and covers in poly, fabric, and leather that are bound together by a series of discs. The notebook also is available in two sizes — one for 8.5″ x 11″ paper and one for 5.5″ x 8.5″. An optional hole puncher lets you add your own papers to the system. In short, you can create a custom notebook with exactly the information and pages you want in exactly the amount and even order that you want. The line also includes adhesive notes, sheet protectors, page flags, business card holders, a built-in pen holder, and other accessories.

The pages are cut so that you can slide them on and off of the disks easily, yet they remain securely intact while in place. There are so many options available, that each setup will be unique. With that in mind, here’s how I’ve set up my Arc.

Setup

The very first item in my Arc is the adhesive flags. I resisted using these for a long time, as I disliked the way they protruded from the edge of whatever they happened to be stuck to. However, I’ve grown to love them. Today I use them for quick reference to something that doesn’t warrant a whole tab divided separator.

Next is a flowchart that describes the basic of the Getting Things Done system I download from DIY Planner. It’s a super, at-a-glance reference that reminds me of the GTD process.

After that, I’ve got five pages I’ve printed from my calendar, Monday through Friday. I print one day at a time, so I can remove each as that day passes.

Several copies of David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner come next. This document has been one of my favorite tools for years. I use it to list the priority tasks I’ll complete in a given day, record how long each task takes, record what I’m doing from hour to hour and capture ideas, tasks and more that need processing at the end of the day. It’s invaluable. You can print the Emergent Task Planner from David’s site, or order a pre-printed pad from Amazon.

Next is a plastic tabbed divider. I’ve added a label marked “Notes” with my labeler. The divider precedes about 60 notebook-style pages. These are the heavy pages that came with my basic Arc and I use them for scribbling all manner of information.

Those are followed by another tabbed divider labeled “Projects” and half a dozen Task Project Trackers, again from David Seah. I use these to identify an open project, all the steps that are required before I can mark that project as “Done,” time how long each step takes and finally scribble related notes. I also could have purchased the project manager pages from Staples, which are similar, just not what I have been accustom to using.

And, that’s it. The hole puncher is an added expense ($40) but worth it if you want the benefits of creating your own custom setup.

Ask Unclutterer: Products for processing paper

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I still stand by the information in our extremely popular 2007 series “Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter” and the three other articles in the paper-begone series. Basically, he wanted to know if I would write the series the same way now that I did then.

Would the fundamental premise of the articles be the same today as it was then? Yes. Would a few specific details change? Definitely.

The most obvious thing I would change is the equipment used to scan and shred the papers we don’t need to retain in physical form. I still love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, but the technology referenced in the article is now about six years old. The ScanSnap line has come a long way since then. Also, I’ve come to adore shredders on wheels because they can be moved around a room to wherever you need them.

The latest model in the ScanSnap desktop line is the iX500 and it’s an impressive machine. I’ve been test driving one the past two weeks (thank you, ScanSnap!) and it’s amazing — it doesn’t require a desktop computer to launch, it will scan straight to a mobile device or an online storage location over Wifi (so I can save straight to Dropbox), it’s noticeably faster than the S1500M model we own, and I’ve been able to customize it to send scans automatically to whatever program I want, so items like photographs now import straight into iPhoto. I won’t upgrade permanently from the S1500M we already have, but if we didn’t have a scanner I would save up for this one. If you’re in the market for one, the list price is $495. They’re expensive, but they’re really nice. (Full iX500 product details.)

As far as shredders go, I’d recommend the Fellowes PowerShred 79Ci now. The thing is a monster at chewing up stuff you want to shred. And, as I referenced earlier, it’s on wheels, which makes it convenient to use and store. It’s also expensive, but the thing will last you a decade or more if you treat it well. Our PowerShred PS-77Cs is still rocking after seven years of service, and we use it daily. Unlike less expensive shredders, the PowerShred line is built to last.

The list of things to shred and not to shred is still accurate, though a lot of people greatly dislike my advice to destroy old passports. I probably should have written more clearly about waiting to shred the old passport until after you get a new one. Submitting your old one does speed up the renewal process. However, once you get the old one back, if you don’t need it for any legal reason, it’s safe to shred (just be sure to pop out the RFID chip first). My last passport, though used many times, didn’t even have a single stamp in it because so many countries have stopped stamping and my old visa had to be relinquished when I left the country that required me to have the visa. If you want to keep old passports, especially if they have stamps in them, do it but please keep it in a safe or safe-deposit box so it doesn’t end up in the hands of identity thieves.

I still use DevonThink to organize my digital documents and FreedomFiler for my paper files (though, I’ve added a ridiculous number of my own files to the FreedomFiler system in the past six years that resemble what I discuss in my book). Those two products have suited me well all this time.

Even with all of these products and systems, paper continues to be something we have to deal with daily in our home. We’ve unsubscribed from as much junk mail as possible, yet we still get some from businesses and services we use. The shredder, trash can, and recycling bin by our main entrance are essential in dealing with the junk immediately and not letting it come deep inside the house. But, the stuff we let in voluntarily — the bank statements, the receipts, the pay stubs, the contracts — still feels overwhelming at times. We’ve gone so far as to unsubscribe from all print magazines and now subscribe to these publications digitally over Zinio. The only way we’ve been able to keep from being overwhelmed by paper is to clear our desks each day as part of our end-of-day work routines. All papers filed, junk shred, receipts reconciled, documents scanned, etc. It only takes five or ten minutes, but it’s still a chore. I’m looking forward to the day when I only have to spend five or ten minutes a week (or less) dealing with paper clutter.

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. 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.

Seven more things you can do right now to reduce paper clutter

Is paper causing you stress? Are you noticing piles at every turn? Paper clutter can be a thorn in your side, but there are things you can do straight away — yes, right now — to banish the paper monster (or at least put it in its proper place). Along with previous tips we’ve shared, here are six more things you can do immediately to keep paper clutter to a minimum.

Make sense of your greeting card collection

Greeting cards (and other types of stationery) are a great way to keep in touch with the people we care about and to celebrate special moments with them. But, what happens when you buy a card for someone and then can’t find it? Oftentimes, these cards co-mingle with documents in paper piles, making them difficult to find. Instead, store blank cards separately from your other paperwork in a specific spot, folder, or something like a card organizer.

Immediate steps:

  • Use a greeting card organizer to categorize/store blank (not sent) cards.
  • Only keep cards you’ve received that have high sentimental value in an archival box or card book. If the cards aren’t particularly special, snap a picture and recycle them.

Shred credit card offers

Unwanted credit card offers can fill your mailbox and increase your mail processing time. If you receive a large number offers, this can be very frustrating. Unless you plan to apply for the credit card, remove the offers from among the mail you need to read/act on and shred them immediately (or put them in your shred bin to destroy later). Be sure keep them out of your recycling bin to reduce your risk of identity theft.

Immediate actions:

  • Sign up for OptOutPrescreen to stop receiving preapproved credit card offers in the mail.
  • To cancel all mailings from members of the Direct Marketing Association, remove yourself from their mailing lists through DMAchoice.org. (Note: Both of these steps, however, will not stop mailings from financial services companies you use.)

Hold on to your children’s frame-worthy artwork

Children’s artwork can be difficult to trash or recycle. The artwork provides wonderful memories and, if your child is particularly creative, you may have a large collection of their work. When that volume outgrows your display areas (like the front of your fridge), you could find them scattered about your home. Consider creating a display wall or mount two or three frames that will hold the most prized pieces (and rotate in newer work). You can also turn the artwork into interesting things like placemats, postage stamps (Zazzle.com or PictureItPostage.com), photo books, or a stuffed toy. Not sure which ones to keep/display? Choose the artwork that is most meaningful to you, or if your child is old enough, allow him to pick the ones he loves.

Immediate steps:

  • Select a display area for your child’s masterpieces.
  • Keep all artwork that you still need to decide on in one location.
  • Take pictures of the artwork you like but don’t want to keep/display and give the originals to a grandparent or friend.

Cut back on your coupons

Couponing is very popular these days and can be very helpful when used for items that you use frequently. Like other paper that you get on a regular basis, they can get out of hand and get lost in the paper mess. Cull your coupon collection by removing those that have expired and keep only the ones for products/services you use often.

Immediate steps:

  • Keep coupons in a coupon holder, plastic envelope, or binder.
  • Sign up for digital coupons that can be scanned from your smart phone (or that are attached to your store loyalty card).

Be selective about the magazines you’ll keep

Why are magazines so difficult to purge? Perhaps it’s because their covers promise fascinating stories and lifehacks that can streamline the busiest of households? It’s no wonder they end up in almost every room in your home, infiltrate your bags, make their way to your car, and even find a long-term spot in your office. Somehow, they seem to compel us to keep them well beyond their usefulness. Do your best to get rid of them before the new one arrives in 30 days. Instead, use the table of contents or the cover stories to decide which pages you’ll keep and scan for future use. And, remember that you’re likely to find the same content online as many publishers create e-versions of their articles.

Immediate steps:

  • Donate magazines to doctor’s offices, senior or community centers, art teachers, or your local library if the magazine is extremely popular or very rare/expensive.
  • Cancel your subscriptions and only purchase the issues you need or save the online version.
  • Create specific (paper or electronic) folders for each page you keep (“patio project,” “decorating ideas,” “healthy eating,” etc.).

Recycle old shopping lists, task lists, and other handwritten notes

Do you like jotting down notes or your to do’s on slips of paper? Writing task lists can help you organize, prioritize, and focus on your to-do items. They can also get mixed in with other types of papers and disappear rather quickly. This means you’ll probably spend too much time looking for that phone number you wrote down, the paper with the things you needed to pick up at the grocery store, or the sticky note with the name of that app you wanted to download. Keep your notes and lists in a spot where you’ll remember where you put them and can easily access them, and, once you’re finished with them, recycle or shred them if they contain sensitive information.

Immediate actions:

  • Write task and grocery lists in a notebook instead of on scraps of paper.
  • Take a picture of your note or list and upload it to Evernote.
  • If your notebook is not accessible, use your smart phone to record a voice memo instead.

Let go of conference materials and brochures

If you attend conferences, you will invariably get reading materials from the conference organizers, from the sessions you attend, and from the vendors you meet. And, if you’re like many people, though you may be interested in reviewing everything once you get home, you probably forget about it. To avoid conference paper pile ups, schedule an hour on your daily calendar the day you return home or the next day to go through all your conference materials.

Immediate actions:

  • Bookmark the sites of vendors you’re interested in researching further.
  • Recycle flyers and other unwanted conference brochures.
  • Scan pages you want to keep from the program book or session notes (or simply keep the CD, if one is offered).

Miscellaneous papers can wreak havoc with your filing system

Managing paper is often a reason I’m called in to help clients. They are usually frustrated by growing paper piles and, almost always, there is a Miscellaneous (MISC) file among the piles. The MISC file is like a junk drawer for a diverse set of papers they’re not sure how to process.

When files are labeled MISC, it’s difficult to figure out (and find) what is inside because the label is broad and encompasses several categories. This will ultimately slow you down when you need to retrieve information, and on days when things are hectic and particularly fast-paced, you can quickly get frustrated. So, why are MISC files created so often? Perhaps because it’s easier to put everything in one general file than making more complex decisions. Figuring out what to do takes time and some decision making, like what to keep and what to recycle/shred, what categories to use, and making room for new items.

To banish that catch-all file and make deciding what to do a little easier, follow these steps. Of course, not every system will work for everyone, but this three-step process will at least get you thinking about creating one that will work for you.

  1. Ask yourself a few questions. Before you decide where to put a specific piece of paper, decide if you actually need that piece of paper. Can you access it in some other way (internet, a digital scanned copy)? How long has it been since you last referred to that document? Does the responsibility of storing it still lie with you or does it now belong to someone else or another department?
  2. Determine the next action needed. Once you’ve decided which papers you need to keep, these papers will need a permanent living space (just like everything else in your home or office). Think about the next action that needs to be taken so that you can determine the paper’s category. Do you need to make a follow up call to a client? Pay a bill? Edit a manuscript? Then, you could have folders with the following labels:
    • Current bills
    • To call or Today’s tasks (or add client call to your to-do list instead)
    • Editing or the title of the manuscript

    The names you use will be particular to you and the typical documents you need to keep. Also, consider looking at your existing categories to see if you can find the right match for your papers (then you wouldn’t have to make a new folder or come up with a new category at all).

  3. Use easy-to-remember categories. Putting things in categories actually helps us to remember those items better. This means you’ll be more efficient at finding the files you want when they are grouped by a specific topic that makes sense to you. For instance, you might have a Utilities category in which you put the current telephone, gas, electric, and water bills. Or, a “Blogging” folder for articles that inspire your future posts.

You can really simplify the filing process by removing your MISC folder from your paper filing system. You’ll find that there really isn’t a need for a general file once you have determined the correct category for your papers. And, keep in mind, the less you print, the less you have to file and retrieve. When possible, use online bookmarking tools (like Delicious and Instapaper) and/or tag your documents and save them to your hard drive and/or cloud server so you can find them easily.

Don’t swat a fly with a Buick

Several years ago, I purchased David Allen’s landmark productivity book Getting Things Done. Allen describes an elaborate and effective method of, well, getting things done. One ingredient is the “ubiquitous capture tool,” which you can think of as a mobile inbox. It’s something that’s always with you, ready to capture anything you need to remember (David uses “capture” as a fancy way of saying, “write it down.”).

When I finished reading the book for the first time, I was inspired and eager to start. I bought some equipment, like a plastic in-tray for my desk, some 3×5 index cards, a label maker and a pricey Palm Treo (I realize I just dated myself). The Treo would be my ubiquitous capture tool. It was sleek, powerful and portable. I imagined myself using it to complete important and productive tasks. I’d whip it out at meetings with an air of gainful nonchalance. “This thing? Oh it’s just my electronic capture tool. Watch as I use it to get many things accomplished.”

Two months later, I recognized what was really happening: I was making lists. I was using a two-hundred dollar PDA to write lists. In other words, I was swatting a fly with a Buick. I sold it on eBay, put a stack of index cards in my pocket, and haven’t looked back.

Today, I use a pocket-sized notebook and a Fisher Space Pen (they write in any condition or orientation). That experience prompted me to examine other areas of my life in which I was prone to overkill. Computers are one of those areas. As a nerd, I’m often tempted by the latest and greatest piece of technology. Yet, I keep an 8-year-old iMac around because it’s great for writing. (The keyboard attached to it is 20 years old.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fun toys, especially when it comes to productivity. If you like the tools you have, you’ll be more likely to use them. So use what you like. At the same time, be aware of any instances of overkill.

So, are you swatting any flies with Buicks?

Six things you can do right now to reduce paper clutter

A good amount of the paper that comes into your home and office can end up becoming a pile of clutter, if you’re not careful. One of the reasons this can happen is because there are several steps needed to process paper: sorting (reading and understanding), categorizing, deciding (what to keep/not keep), naming, and filing. Depending on how much paper you’re trying to organize, the process could be tedious.

Instead of waiting to go through your paper clutter all at once, consider doing smaller paper management tasks on a regular basis. The following are six steps you can take to stop paper clutter in its tracks immediately:

Let go of junk mail

Some mail reaches our doorstep (or desk) camouflaged as important reading material. Junk mail might look like catalogs, magazines, coupons, or anything that you think you might get to later, but usually don’t. Other papers, however, start out as important (“while you were out” messages) but then their priority drops, and they’re still treated as high level documents. Remove the junk mail immediately when you notice it so you don’t have to deal with it when it’s time to focus on the documents you actually need.

Immediate steps:

  • Sign up for Catalog Choice to remove yourself from mailing lists
  • Shred credit card offers and documents with sensitive information
  • Try even more steps to being removed from direct mailing lists

Be ruthless with receipts

Receipts can infiltrate even the smallest spaces and can be very elusive when they’re needed (like when you actually need to return an unwanted purchase). Which ones should you keep? Hold on to business and personal receipts you need to retain for tax purposes, for large purchases, and for items that are still under warranty. What about the all the others, including the one from the supermarket? It’s safe to recycle them after you reconcile them against your monthly bank statement (assuming you paid with a debit or credit card, small cash receipts can be disposed of immediately).

Immediate steps:

  • Purge receipts for small items after reconciling them against your bank statement
  • Sort through the receipts from your pockets, wallet, or purse
  • Start using an envelope or zip-top bag to stash your receipts in while you wait for your bank statement

Curtail your printing

Do you really need to print that article or report? The less you print, the less you’ll have to sort through when you need to find something important. Instead, consider saving documents to Dropbox, Doxo, or another cloud storage service for easy access no matter where you are (as long as you have an internet connection). You can also print them to PDF.

Immediate steps:

Organize your important documents

You might keep papers out and about so you can see them because, if you don’t, you may forget them. If you’re predominantly a visual processor, you could end up with many papers strewn about your space in no particular order. Or, perhaps you just haven’t made it around to filing your papers. A desktop filing system can help you quickly file needed papers, making them easy to find when you need them.

Immediate steps:

  • Post only the few papers you have to see to your bulletin or magnetic board
  • Put away five files that already have folders ready to receive them

Reduce your book collection

Even in today’s online-dependent world, many people still read books to get information or as a way to relax. Some of us get so enthusiastic about reading that we attempt to read multiple books at once, which means our desks, bags, or coffee tables might be covered with them. You might also accumulate more than you have room for and you may start finding them in several places throughout your home and office. Try to keep your books only in rooms with bookshelves or storage space for when you need to set the book down. Or, if you typically read on on the metro, subway, or bus, put the one you’re reading in the bag you use every day.

Immediate steps:

  • Give away copies of duplicate books
  • Trade books with someone else or participate in a book exchange

Decide what to do with business cards

Business cards help us remember contact information. Sometimes, we get them when we go to networking or social events or from a vendor or service professional. More often than not, they end up bound with rubberbands in desk drawers or in wallets, pockets, in between paper piles, or even as bookmarks in books we’re reading. If you haven’t called the people on those cards in six months to a year, it’s likely that you probably never will. Also, thanks to the Google search engine, it’s easier than ever to locate a business or professional contact even without a business card.

Immediate steps:

  • Give unwanted business cards to someone who might find them useful (or put them in the recycle bin)
  • Select a handful of business cards to scan or manually enter contact information in your phone (or contact management software)

Ask Unclutterer: Implementing GTD paperlessly

Reader Rachel submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I know you are huge fan of David Allen and after years of “almost” using his GTD system I finally bought the book [Getting Things Done] and am working my way through it. As I prepare for my two day “gather, process and route,” I find myself with some clutter related questions. First some background points:

1. My husband is in the army, so i like to keep everything as modular and portable as possible, 2. I am currently prepping for a move, so I am currently in down-size mode, and 3. I love using my computer.

Okay, now for my questions: David talks a lot about the proper supplies and having a general reference file. I’m kind of resistant to the idea of investing in paper file folders and filing cabinets when there is so much technology and digital recording available that doesn’t take up near the amount of space. What have you found to be the best capture system for your files? Digital or old school?

I would like to start by saying that you’re right in pointing out that I have enormous respect for David Allen. He is able to communicate his ideas about information organizing and productivity better than anyone else writing on these subjects today. This art of communication is a true talent and it is rare. Most importantly it is extremely helpful for those of us looking for guidance and sanity as we work and live. If anyone reading this hasn’t read his books, I strongly recommend them.

That being said (i.e. I’ll stop being an exhuberent fangirl for a moment), I don’t use the GTD system exactly as he prescribes. It’s not that I think his system is flawed or bad or wrong; it just doesn’t completely work for me and my preferences. And, at least in my personal experience, I’ve found that this is the case for most GTD enthusiasts. We gobble up all we can from his advice and then put our spin on it so it will be something we benefit from and use over the longterm.

If you’re like me, a good amount of the information you collect likely comes to you already in digital form or can easily be scanned and/or digitized (images, emails, PDFs, calendar appointments, etc.). To take these out of a digital form during the processing and organizing phases would be a waste of time and resources, and Allen doesn’t advocate you print these out, either. The most important thing to do is to capture this information in a way so you can reliably process, review, and do all the things you need to do to get things done.

I use a couple plugins for my Mac-based email program Mail that are created by the company InDev: Act-On (which let lets you apply rules to incoming messages) and MailTags (which color codes emails with tags). These are nice for adapting GTD processing and organizing actions, as well as helping to creation action items. Even if you didn’t use the GTD system, these are great plug-ins for email management. I incorporate these plugins to work with my personal email filing system, which I’ve outlined in detail in Unclutter Your Life in One Week. In short, I use Archive, Project Folders, and Read Me folders. The Archive folder is where all messages go after I schedule the work on my calendar or in my project management system. The Project Folders are where I stash project-related information until I can move the email to the Archive folder (e.g. where I put Ask Unclutterer emails until I review them and decide which one I will select for the week’s column). And the Read Me folder is for long emails or emails containing links to articles, typically sent from friends or family, that don’t require immediate attention and that I can read in full the next time I’m standing in a line or waiting on hold. Once I read the Read Me emails, they are moved to the Archive folder.

People who use Outlook as their email client might benefit from a GTD-themed add-in from NetCentrics. And, if you’re a Gmail user, I’ve heard good things about using the ActiveInbox plug-in. (A good ActiveInbox tutorial can be found in the article “ActiveInbox Turns Your Gmail Labels Into an Effective GTD System” on Lifehacker.)

As far as my personal to-do list (action items) and calendar, I do keep these in paper form. I like the physical actions of writing and greatly enjoy crossing things off lists. For the past six months, I’ve been using an Arc customizable notebook from Staples for the list and calendar. I’ve tried to do it all digitally, but I always seem to come back to the paper items for these two things. Comfort is a powerful creature. For work, I keep everything in Basecamp so everyone on staff and our clients can see important dates, to-do items, as well as communicate with each other. It’s ridiculously simple to use, which oddly is why some people don’t like to use it. There are hundreds of digital to-do list and calendar programs on the market and a few are probably already installed on your computer — just find one you love and will use and review.

In regards to other digital paperwork (the general reference stuff), I have set up my Evernote account to mirror the GTD workflow. Everything digital is dumped into it and it syncs with all my handheld devices and can be accessed anywhere in the world there is an internet connection. I also back it up to my desktop and back my laptop up to an external hard drive and again to Backblaze (I’m a wee bit maniacal about backing up my data). I save all my documents locally in a document management program (DevonThink), which I’ve discussed recently in “What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles.” If Evernote and DevonThink aren’t your style, check out OmniFocus for Mac and I know many of our readers use OneNote who have the MicroSoft Office Suite (be sure to check out the free, downloadable templates from MicroSoft to save yourself time).

Thank you, Rachel, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help you in your pursuit to get things done and adopting Allen’s GTD system for your digital needs. Also be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers. I know we have numerous GTD enthusiasts who read the site and are active in our comments section.

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. 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.

Ask Unclutterer: What tools should I use to digitize my paper piles?

Reader Rose submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Before I ask my question I have to tell you I am seriously not computer savvy. I don’t understand the lingo. My question is: Since technology changes so quickly and your article ["Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter"] was written 5 years ago, would you still recommend the same scanner, software etc. to be able to accomplish my purpose? Is it possible to use the scanner on my All-in-One printer? Does the software allow you to create categories to put the articles in? Please if you have a recommendation for the simplest to use of these items that would be so gratefully appreciated!

You’re asking a number of questions and all of them are fantastic! I’ll address them in my response, but be sure to check out the comments for even more answers from our readers.

Your first question is if I still recommend the same scanner and software for tackling a paper pile (or two or ten). The short answer is yes, I strongly recommend Fujitsu ScanSnaps, their scanning and optical character recognition (OCR) software, and DevonTHINK document organizing software. The long answer to that question is more nuanced.

In the long answer, I’ll tell you that you need to find equipment and software that works best for you. If you already own an all-in-one scanner, you likely have no need to go out and buy a new scanner. However, you may want to acquire software that provides OCR processing if the software with your scanner doesn’t have this capability. Or, if you’re comfortable with storing documents online, I suggest opening an Evernote account. After you scan a document, you can upload your files to Evernote, which can read words found on documents and in images and even some handwriting (and it lets you organize your papers, too, in a way that works best for you). And, if you want a great tutorial about Evernote, check out Brett Kelly’s terrific Evernote Essentials downloadable guide. There are numerous options available to you, not just the ScanSnap-DevonTHINK one I provided in the earlier article.

Since you don’t mention what all-in-one scanner you have, I don’t know if it has document organizing software as part of its package. Most don’t, but some do have these features. You can also just nicely organize the documents on your computer in folders like you do all the other work you save on your computer. I recommend saving all files as PDFs, because if this file type ever goes out of style, you can bet there will be conversion programs that will allow you to turn PDFs into whatever becomes the new standard. To save a file as a PDF, follow the instructions in “Printing to PDF.”

Next, you asked what is the simplest way to turn your physical paper pile into digital files — and the truth of the matter is the easiest way to do it is to have someone else do it for you. Simply do a search online to find local document scanning service providers. I also recommend checking out reviews on Angie’s List to be sure the company you’re going to have scan your papers is reputable and secure. Most companies will shred your documents after they scan them. There will still be some work for you before you hand off your papers and after you receive the digital files, but having someone other than yourself do the scanning is the easiest method. (Sort your papers before you give them to the scanning company so you are only paying for important documents to be scanned and then you’ll have to organize all the digital files once they have been scanned.)

My only additional notes are to be sure to back up all of your scanned documents saved on your computer to an online site like DropBox or the previously mentioned Evernote. The last thing you want to have happen is to lose all of the documents you so diligently digitized when the hard drive on your computer crashes (which it will). And, lastly, if you are doing the scanning yourself, don’t forget to shred all of your paperwork after you digitize it.

Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck digitizing your paper collection and kudos to you for taking on this worthwhile task. Since you were able to fill out a contact form on Unclutterer to send me this question, I already know you’re more computer savvy than you give yourself credit for being.

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. 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.

The dirty truth about messy offices

For good or bad, people make assumptions about you based on the appearance of your office. If they see a framed picture on your desk of you standing on a beach with two children, they instantly assume you like going to the beach on vacation, you have two kids, and you enjoy being reminded of this vacation while you’re at work. If you have a law school diploma and a state bar association certificate framed and hanging on your office walls, people seeing these items assume you’re a lawyer, who graduated from a specific school, who is legal to practice law in your state.

The previously mentioned examples of the family photo and the diploma both resulted in positive assumptions about you and these items were likely placed in the office to elicit the exact responses they received. The bad side of assumptions based solely on appearances is that people can also come to negative conclusions about you. For example, a consistently messy desk (not one that is disrupted for a few hours each day as you plow through a project, but one that is disorganized, dirty, and cluttered over a prolonged period of time) can hurt you professionally because it gives the impression to your coworkers you’re not a good employee, even if your work product proves otherwise.

On April 13, Businessweek published the article “Clean Your Messy Desk, Lest Ye Be Judged.” The article, as you probably assume based on its title, explains the downsides of having a perpetually messy office. From the article:

… according to a survey of U.S. workers by hiring firm Adecco, 57 percent of people have judged a co-worker based on the state of his or her workspace. A clean desk sends the message that you’re organized and accomplished, while a disheveled one implies that the rest of your life is in a similar state.

Katherine Trezise, the president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (you may know ICD by its former name, the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) comments on the survey’s findings in the Businessweek article:

Trezise says that a little mess is OK, but that “the problem comes in when it affects other people. Can you do your job? Maintain relationships with colleagues?” If the answer is no, you might need to rethink your habits.

To keep your coworkers from making negative, and probably inaccurate, judgments about your job performance, spend five to ten minutes each day cleaning and straightening your workspace before heading home. Return dirty dishes to the break room, wipe up any spills, process the papers in your inbox, throw away trash, put away current projects to their active file boxes, and set your desk so it is ready for you to work from it immediately when you arrive to your office the next morning. Not only will these simple steps send a positive message to your coworkers, but they will also help you to be more productive. For larger projects, such as waist-high stacks of papers and towers of boxes cluttering up your office, schedule 30 minutes each day to chip away at these piles. Your coworkers will notice your efforts and start to reassess their negative assumptions.

For the rare few of you who work for bosses who believe a messy desk is proof of your competency, I recommend keeping a fake stack of papers on your desk for the purpose of looking disorganized. To create your fake mess: assemble five inches of papers from the office recycling bin and wrap a large rubber band around the stack. The bundling will make the stack of papers simple to pull out of a drawer when you need it to influence your boss, and it will also make sure you don’t get any important papers mixed in with the decoy stack. Think of the stack of papers similar to a potted plant (which, oddly enough, researchers have discovered gives the impression to your coworkers that you’re a team player, so put a single plant in your office if you don’t already have one).

Like most of you, I don’t love that assumptions about job performance are influenced by the appearance of one’s office, but feelings about assumptions aren’t important. If you want a promotion and/or raise, if you want your coworkers and boss to have positive opinions about your work, and you want to give the accurate impression that you value your job and place of employment, then keeping your office organized and clean can’t hurt you in your pursuit of these goals. My opinion is that in this economy you do what you can to keep a job you love, so it’s a good idea to spend the five or ten minutes each day helping yourself in a positive way.

New paper sorting and filing products

Four days last week, I attended the National Association of Professional Organizers’ 24th annual conference in Baltimore. It was nice to see so many terrific leaders in the industry and catch up on the latest trends and research relating to uncluttering and organizing.

One of my favorite parts of the conference is the exposition hall, which is filled with manufacturers, retailers, and service providers who work closely with the professional organizing industry. Many of these providers use the conference to introduce new items that aren’t yet on the market, as well as to solicit suggestions for how professional organizers think products can be improved.

Today, and then a couple days next week, I want to feature some of these new and yet-to-be released products so you can see the latest trends in organizing. A couple of the items are in the “new-to-me” category, but most of them will also be new to you. To be clear, I’m not getting any sort of payment or kick-backs for writing about these products. These are simply the items I found interesting and helpful for common organizing problems.

I’ve grouped the items into themes, and today I want to feature the new paper sorting and filing products –

Pendaflex has a few new products that caught my attention. The first is their PileSmart View Folders. If you’re someone who insists on piling papers instead of using a filing cabinet, these are folders for important papers that include tabs so you can easily see what you’re searching for in your stack:

Another Pendaflex product I like is their Divide It Up File Folders. These are great for sub-dividing paperwork for small projects:

The final Pendaflex product I thought could be useful are their new Ready-Tab Hanging File Folders. Instead of hunting for plastic tabs to insert into the folder or having those tabs accidentally pop off, the tabs are part of the folder and pull out of the folder itself:

The Smead Company is now making Lockit Pocket Folders that have a tab at the top of the folder to keep papers from sliding out during transport. These are great for important papers you can’t afford to have slip out of their folders:

Next up is Smead’s Vertical Divided File, which is so new you can’t even order them yet. They are vertical folders with interior pockets and tabbed dividers. These would be great for organizing a trip, similar to the Pendaflex Divide It Up Folder, but for folks who prefer vertical folders:

Also related to the topic of paper management was word from the people at Fujitsu that we should expect to see updates coming to the ScanSnap 1300 series of scanners at some point during the summer. They were tight-lipped as to what those updates are, so I imagine they’re going to be good ones.

Managing active files and papers

I’ve been having an email exchange this morning with a woman who is looking to keep her desk organized while she works, which is especially difficult because she has a significant amount of physical paperwork she has to manage. She works in human resources and paperwork is unavoidable in her position. Accountants, billing managers, and anyone who works with hand-signed contracts likely have similar paper management concerns.

The paperwork she processes can be organized into groups, although most of those groups are regularly changing. For example, she’s constantly receiving resumes, but the jobs she is collecting resumes for change as openings for positions do. Having erasable file labels or a label maker will help folder identification change as the file needs change.

Having quick and easy access to those files is also important. I like working with tiered or separated desktop file organizers. My favorite is an expanding metal file organizer that adjusts to meet your size needs:

I also like non-adjustable tiered racks and tiered boxes. If a workspace is next to an empty wall, a wall-mounted pocket rack can do the same thing and not take up desk space:

Individual papers that don’t belong in groups, can always be suspended from clipboards, paperclips suspended from a piece of twine tacked to the wall or a bulletin board, or a restaurant ticket order holder:

As part of this paperwork management, it’s also important to shred, recycle, or file into an archived filing system papers and files as they are no longer being circulated. Be sure to schedule 10 minutes twice a week to review all the active papers and files to make sure you’re keeping inactive items out of your active system.

Do you have a constant flow of active papers and files crossing your desk over the course of a day? What products have you discovered to help you manage your work and keep papers and files from overwhelming your workspace? Share your suggestions in the comments.