Organizing paperwork with Staples’ Better Binders

The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past month, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

When I travel (for work or pleasure) or have special projects, I almost always organize the corresponding paperwork in a three-ring binder. I like to have all of my necessary information in one storage system so I can grab it and go. I also usually have a scanned backup of the same data in Evernote or on Dropbox, but I see these digital copies as being useful only if something happens to my original binder. Usually I need physical copies of the papers I’m keeping, especially with projects, when the papers may be something I’m giving to clients or need to file with a legal entity.

Earlier this year, I was introduced to Staples’ new Better Binder system, and I’ve been using them ever since. I’ve taken them to a conference, on vacation, and am currently using one to store all the paperwork for our second adoption. When finished using the binder for one purpose, I’ve removed the FileRings and dropped them into my filing cabinet. They could also be useful for keeping yearly family or tax information or anything project where you’ll be actively using the paperwork for a period of time and then need to archive it when you’re finished with it.

In short, it is a three-ring binder whose FileRings spine pops out and allows you to file the contents of the binder directly into your filing cabinet. The binders themselves are reusable and additional removable FileRings are available for purchase. (They are currently in the $4 range for the replacement FileRings.)

Removing the FileRings is incredibly simple, especially after you see it done. Pull on the plastic pieces at the top and bottom of the FileRings spine to pop it out. You then push in the top and bottom plastic pieces to hang the FileRings in your filing cabinet. Inserting the FileRings is also simple — set them in place and then push in the top and bottom of the FileRings spine to secure them into the binder.

They also have available Better Dividers, which I really like. The tabs can be inserted on the top or the side of the divider, making them extremely versatile. There are times when having the tab at the top of my binder is helpful, especially when I only have a need for two or three divided sections.

The binder comes with a blank spine label you can tear off and easily slide into place, so you don’t have to cut up a sheet of paper to make one from scratch. The front panel of the binder also allows you to slip in a cover sheet of your own design.

Better Binders come in the traditional size (11” x 11-3/4”) for 8-12″ x 11″ sheets of paper. They’re available in 1″ (275 sheets of paper) for roughly $8, 1-1/2″ (400 sheets) for $9, 2″ (540 sheets) for $11, and 3″ (600 sheets) widths for $14. The binder comes with one removable FileRings spine, but additional FileRings must be purchased separately. Current colors are white, red, black, pink, orange, yellow, green, teal, blue, purple, dark teal, fuchsia, plum, olive, and multi-color combinations of some of these colors. I use the different binder colors to make it even more obvious which binder I need to take with me, in addition to the labeling I use on the binder.

Creating a personalized filing system

There’s not a single right way to set up a filing system; the right system is one that works for you, where the time you spend filing pays off in ease of finding your documents when you need them.

Let’s assume you’ve already decided which papers you need to keep. The following are additional questions to consider:

  1. Does someone else need to share your files? If so, be sure to answer these questions with whomever else will be filing things away or retrieving things from your filing system.
  2. How much do you want to scan? If you’re comfortable with digital files, you may want to scan many of your papers and then discard or shred the originals (the ones that are legal to shred). Sometimes, you may want both a scanned copy (for backup and easy access) and a paper one.
  3. For papers you’re keeping, do you prefer binders or file folders — or some combination thereof?
  4. For action papers, are you comfortable using a tickler file? Action papers are those that need attention versus reference papers (such as your insurance papers) and archives/historic papers (such as your tax returns from 3 years ago). A tickler file creates a space for papers associated with actions, based on when you’re planning to take that action. There’s a section for each day of the current month and a section for each of the next 12 months. If you don’t want to use a tickler file, you could create files labeled by type of action needed (pay, call, enter into address book, etc.), or by urgency.
  5. How many files do you really need? Don’t be afraid to create a file for a single piece of paper, if it really doesn’t fit with anything else. But don’t go overboard with subdivision either, if it doesn’t help with retrieving your papers.
  6. Do you really hate to file? Could you get by with the “one box” approach from the Simple Productivity Blog? Here’s how that works: “Grab a small, empty box. … Throughout the year, toss in the things you need to hang on to for financial and tax reasons: paid bills, tax documents, bills. At the end of the year, go through it and shred what you can. Then stick it on a shelf with an appropriate label and start a new one.”
  7. Are you more of a “piler” than a “filer”? If so, you can still organize your piles to make things easier to find, for you and others; consider the Pendaflex PileSmart products. You could also use a series of baskets or bins on a shelf to hold your various piles.
  8. Where do you want to keep your files? Action files need to be close at hand to where you work. Many people prefer to keep them in some sort of step file, desktop file box or wall-mounted file — but some people prefer to keep them in a file drawer. Reference files need to be convenient to get to, but not as close by as action files. And historic files can go anywhere you have secure storage space; you don’t need easy access to them on a regular basis.
  9. Do none of those filing options sound quite right? Get creative. Keep important papers on a wall, using a series of clipboards. Use a collection of transparent bags hanging on racks. Go wild!

If you decide to use file folders:

  • Are you OK with basic manila file folders and green hanging folders? Or, do you want something snazzier? You’ve got lots of choices, from a rainbow of solid colors to a huge range of patterns.
  • Do you want file folders inside of hanging folders or just hanging folders, or just file folders? If you’re going with file folders inside hanging folders, you may want what’s called “interior folders,” which won’t obscure the labels on the hanging folders. You may also want box bottom hanging folders to hold a large number of file folders.
  • Do you want folders made from recycled materials? If this matters to you, look for folders with a high percentage of recycled and post-consumer material content.
  • Is color-coding useful to you, or just one more thing to worry about?
    You can always use colored folders just because you like them, without assigning any specific meaning to a color.
  • Do you want folders with the normal 1/3 cut tab (left, center, right) or with straight-cut tabs? Straight-cut tabs, which go the whole length of the file folder, give you room for longer labels. In either case, if your file folders will get a lot of use, look for ones with reinforced tabs.
  • Do you want to use a label maker, or just hand-write your labels? Labels made with a label maker are very easy to read — especially helpful for those of us with older eyes — and have a nice polished look. But plenty of people are happy with hand-written labels, too. In either case, I suggest avoiding dark-colored plastic tabs on hanging files, because these make the labels hard to read.
  • Do you want to use straight-line filing, or staggered? For my own files, I use straight-line filing with all the tabs in a single position; I like not worrying about messing up my staggered tabs (left, center, right) when I add a new file. (I use a new tab position to indicate a new grouping of files.) But others find staggered files easier to use.
  • Do you want to group related files, and, if so, how? Some prefer a simple A-Z filing system, while others prefer to have groupings: financial papers, family member papers, etc. Do you want to put all your insurance papers together? Do you want to put all your car-related papers together? Where does the auto insurance go?

Got your answers? Now you’re ready to create your filing system. As you work with your files, you may change your answers to some questions; that’s normal. Keep adjusting your system, so it keeps working for you.

Essential organizing tools: The Staples 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder

The following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. For the past month, I’ve been aggressively testing this product and the review is based on my first-hand experiences. We agreed to work with Staples because they sell so many different products in their stores, and our arrangement with them allows us to review products we use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Again, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

As a parent of a toddler with an intrinsic desire to push every button he encounters, we’ve been living the past few years with our shredder unplugged from the wall. Each day when the mail arrived, I had to take the safety plug out of the outlet, plug in the shredder, turn on the shredder, shred any mail with sensitive data on it, turn off the shredder, unplug it, and put the safety plug back into the outlet. I gladly did this because I care more about my son’s safety than the inconvenience of plugging in and then unplugging a shredder, but I kept thinking there has to be an easier way.

I also knew I couldn’t be the only person in this situation and someone had to have found a better solution.

Turns out, shredder manufacturers had thought about folks like me with toddlers and about people with pets as curious as three year olds. For safety-conscious people, they have created shredders that require keys to unlock the shredder’s functionality. In this specific case, I’ve been using the Staples’ 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a Lockout Key. I can keep it plugged in all the time, but it can’t be operated until the Lockout Key is inserted into a lock on the top of the unit. (Removing the Lockout Key actually disconnects the power to the unit.) It’s simple to use and a significant improvement over the unplugging method.

And, if you’re someone (like a grandparent) who doesn’t regularly have young children or pets in your home, there is a discrete switch on the inside of the unit that can override the key functionality for as long as you desire.

Specifically addressing the 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder, it has some additional nice features:

  • It automatically turns off if it overheats (something I’ve never had occur, but the manual says it is possible after four minutes of continuous run time)
  • If it turns off because of overheating it has a specific indicator light to let you know that is the reason it shut down (so you don’t think the shredder is broken), and that light goes out when the unit cools down and is ready to go again
  • It cross-cut shreds, which makes the shred more secure than just a strip shredder
  • It eats credit cards and other thin plastics
  • It eats staples, so you don’t have to remove them before depositing papers into the shredder
  • Another safety feature is it doesn’t operate if the top of the unit isn’t seated securely on the base
  • It will eat 10 pieces of paper at a time, which means you often don’t have to open envelopes if you know they’re junk and don’t contain any metal
  • The bin that catches the paper shreds pulls out from the front (like a drawer) and you don’t have to take the shredding unit off the top to empty your shreds (this is a nice improvement over our old shredder, too)
  • There is a little clear panel on the front of the bin so you can see if you need to empty out the paper shreds from the bin
  • As for loudness, it’s not the quietest shredder I’ve ever heard but it is far from the loudest — the manual claims it has about a 70 decibel noise level

Interested in knowing which papers you have that you should shred before purging? I suggest shredding anything with any personal information on it. If an identity thief could use the information to verify himself or herself as you, shred the paper. In my area, paper shreds can be recycled, so I shred unabashedly. If your recycling program doesn’t take shredded paper, you can compost the shreds (just make sure you don’t have any plastic or staples in your bin).

If you have specific questions about what papers to shred and purge, you might find this infographic I developed to be helpful, “Shred, Scan, or Store?

Marking up your to-do lists for increased productivity

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.

It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.

I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.

For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.

Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:

Sorting by context

Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)

Time and Energy Available

Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.

Word Notebooks

A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.

Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.

  • Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
  • Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
  • Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
  • Draw an “X” over items that are complete

It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.

The Dash/Plus System

My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.

Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.

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.