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.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

2010

  • Embark on new adventures: Erin’s second set of 2010 resolutions
    The theme for my second-quarter resolutions is “Embark on new adventures.” Now that I have the much needed energy I was craving, I’m excited about putting it to use. The following are the resolutions I’ve set for April, May, and June.
  • In praise of the reversible belt
    While they’re not quite as cool as Transformers, I think you’ll agree that reversible belts are much cooler than Gobots.
  • File your taxes already!
    Since tax time is a little less than a month away, I wanted to nudge everyone to get their papers filed if you haven’t already done so. Especially if the government owes you money, it’s good to get this chore marked off your to-do list earlier than later.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Hide your St. Patrick’s Day hangover
    If you’re planning on heading into work tomorrow with a wicked hangover, let me recommend the following methods for keeping a low-key profile in the office

2009

Ask Unclutterer: To check or not check email first thing at work?

Reader James submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’ve read productivity books and articles that claim checking email first thing at work is a bad idea. I have been burned by not checking it because my boss and clients sent me important messages overnight and I didn’t get them until two hours later. What is your take on checking email? Is my overall productivity worth the times I’ve been burned?

I can see the reasoning behind not checking your email right when you get to work — you run the risk of getting caught up in work that might not be extremely important to your job responsibilities at a time when you’re likely at your most focused and productive. It would be better if you could use your best brain power on your most demanding and core work.

That being said, I check my email first thing when I get into work. I don’t really address it, though, I simply scan all the “from” and “subject” lines to search for work-altering messages. If I don’t see any indicators that someone sent me an email that will change my most demanding and core work, I immediately close my mail program and wait until I need a break from my demanding work around 10:00 a.m.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it didn’t affect my immediate work day, I mark the message as “unread” so it can hang out until I process email in a couple hours.

If I click on a message, read it, and discover it does affect my immediate work, I’ll process the email the same way I do when I’m really handling email. This means I’ll file it as Archived, add related next actions to my to-do list, and/or schedule any related information on my calendar. If I need to reply to the email, I do it at this time. After giving proper attention to the email, I’ll scan the rest of the inbox to see if there is anything else I must check. If I’m done with my quick search, I’ll quit the program and wait to address the other issues at 10:00 a.m.

I chose my times for checking email based on when I do my mindful and mindless work over the course of the day — scan at 8:00 a.m., full check at 10:00 a.m., full check after lunch around 1:00 p.m., a scan around 3:00 p.m., and then a final end-of-workday check at 5:00 p.m. I do not have my new message indicator light on my email program activated, and I actually completely close out of the program when not in use. If your job allows you to behave in this manner, I strongly recommend it. It significantly helps my productivity to not be tempted to check email constantly.

Thank you, James, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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.

Looking back on five years at Unclutterer.com

March 2012 marks my fifth year working for Unclutterer.com. My first post didn’t appear on the site until April 6, 2007, “Solving the Imelda Marcos Problem,” but I actually started a few weeks before that doing work on other areas of the site. Honestly, I’m shocked it has been five years. It is amazing how quickly time flies when you have a job you love. I am truly blessed to have the opportunity to write for such an amazing site and such a terrific group of readers.

I already knew a fair amount about uncluttering and organizing before I started working here, but over the past five years I’ve learned so much more from our readership and researching the topic. The following are a handful of things I have learned about the world of simple living and writing about this topic every week day for five years that I thought you might enjoy:

  • Paper is the gateway issue. More new readers come to the site seeking advice on how to process paper than any other topic. I would have thought in the digital age that paper wouldn’t be such a priority, but it is. Search after search after search drive people here who are looking to get rid of the stacks of paper in their homes and office. But, while paper is the gateway issue, our “Creating a Weekly Meal Plan” post gets more hits than any other single page on our site.
  • Relationship advice. The most common question asked of me in emails is along the lines of “How do I live with someone who is cluttered?” The second most common question concerns dealing with clutter kept by elderly family members — fears that the family member will die and leave the mess or worries about how to help the family member downsize to a retirement home. When people are frustrated with their family members, they turn to email.
  • Fear, conflicting priorities, and lack of good time management and decision-making skills are significantly more likely to be the causes of clutter than laziness or lack of motivation. As a former clutterer, I knew a lack of organizing skills was to blame in my case. However, I wasn’t exactly sure why so many others fought clutter, too. Writing for the site has taught me physical disabilities, attention disorder, sentimental personalities, a desire not to be forgotten, structural prohibitions, death of a loved one, shopping addictions, and dozens more reasons also cause clutter.
  • We keep a list of topics to avoid because of the awful comments people leave on the site in response to posts containing them. We have written about these topics a few times after they made the “do not discuss” list, but we always do it when we know we’ll be at our desks all day to monitor the comments. In case you’re curious, this list includes Sandra Lee and her show Semi-Homemade Cooking, Pottery Barn, baby formula, and Saran Wrap. The list is longer than these four items, these are just the four that baffle me the most and I never knew they were hot-button issues before writing for the site.
  • A good number of readers buy unitaskers after we feature them. Numerous manufacturers, after we featured their products as unitaskers, have reached out to us to say thank you for spiking their sales with links from our site. I’ve even received emails from manufacturers asking if we might feature their items as unitaskers. We’ve never featured a product a manufacturer wanted us to, but I admire the risk they take for reaching out to me. This all speaks to the adage that all news is good news. I don’t have any issues with people buying the unitaskers (as I’ve said before, I have a few of them), but I just find it interesting that our unitasker posts increase product sales. I never would have expected this when we started the feature. After learning this information, we stopped reviewing products that we don’t recommend because we would rather nothing be said about them instead of drawing attention to bad products.
  • A few people have asked me over the years about the systems I use to write. Every post I’ve ever written has been constructed in TextEdit, I hand code or use preset snippets I’ve logged into TextExpander for all the links and formatting, and then I import the whole thing all at once into our content management system (WordPress). All images are edited in PhotoShop and I use a MacBook Pro. In addition to the MacBook screen, I also have a second Dell flat-screen monitor that looms over the left edge of my laptop. I type about 105 words a minute. I get ideas for posts from our staff, professional organizers I talk to at industry functions, and questions or suggestions from readers. Very, very few ideas come from press releases that constantly bombard my email account (maybe four or five a year).
  • Routines are the answer for chores you hate to do. I’m someone who hated routines five years ago — I thought they killed creativity and stifled my life enjoyment. What I have grown to learn from reader suggestions over the past five years is that putting daily chores into a set routine actually provides me with more time to focus on the things I love to do and I enjoy the fun stuff more because I don’t have any responsibilities weighing on me. Routines are amazing and save me incredible amounts of time. I hope they work for you, too.
  • Life is short, even if you live to be 102, and clutter shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the adventure. If something isn’t distracting you or causing you worry or frustration or making life unnecessarily complicated, it’s probably not clutter or disorganized. There isn’t a single standard for what is uncluttered and what isn’t. Only you know what is in the way of you achieving the life of your dreams.

Unitasker Wednesday: The Spaghetti Fork

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

It’s usually extremely obvious to me what the inventor of a unitasker was attempting to achieve with his or her product. Even though I don’t have a need for their thing-a-ma-bobs, I at least get what they’re trying to do. This week’s unitasker doesn’t fit into that mold. Introducing the Spaghetti Fork:

I don’t get the internal scalloped edges. How do they help spaghetti noodles wind onto the fork any better than on a regular fork? If the scalloped edges are so much better, why aren’t they on the outside of the prongs, too? Do they still require using a spoon or the side of the bowl? If this special fork does work better, does it work so much better than a regular fork to justify the expense and storage space? Why, WHY do I need a scalloped edged fork?!

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

  • Super storage closets
    A well-organized storage closet can be a beneficial attribute in any home or office. You can easily find what you need, when you need it, and have an exact space to return an object when you’re finished.

2010

  • Ask Unclutterer: Putting away laundry
    Your advice on doing the laundry is fantastic. I’ve employed several tips with great success. In particular, I’m a fan of clothing items that need little care (e.g. no ironing, dry cleaning, etc.). However, I’m unable to find usable suggestions on HOW TO PUT THE LAUNDRY AWAY.

Recent updates and notifications from the Unclutterer staff

A few items of note about things at Unclutterer:

  1. Unclutterer is now on Pinterest. You can find our pinned items at http://pinterest.com/unclutterer/. If you’re not a member, you don’t have to join to see the images and inspiration we find from around the web. We usually add a few pictures a day that run the full gamut of uncluttering and organizing styles.
  2. If you go to our homepage to read our content, you may have noticed a permanent advertisement for The Six O’Clock Scramble on our page. We are such fans of the service and how it helps to reduce stress in the kitchen that we have decided to become an affiliate of the service. Don’t feel obligated to subscribe to the Six O’Clock Scramble grocery list and recipe emails, but if you want to subscribe, we would love for you to click on the link from our site. Doing so helps us to pay our bills and keep Unclutterer available to you for free. Plus, as I’ve written before, we really do find the service to be wonderful, and working with their company has been a delight.
  3. Speaking of our homepage, you also may have noticed that there is no longer a link to our posts on Real Simple Magazine’s website RealSimple.com. After four years of writing for this publication, I decided it was time for me to step away from being a regular contributor. I still might publish with them occasionally, but I’m no longer under contract to work exclusively with them. As a result, stay tuned for Unclutterer advice in other publications — but always, of course, here on Unclutterer.com.
  4. This last item isn’t about uncluttering and organizing, but is about Unclutterer’s continued charity support of relief efforts in Haiti. We are committed to helping the people of Haiti get clean water, medical treatment, and other services they so desperately need. We would love it if you could join us in supporting those in need through Partners in Health (or a similar organization of your choosing), or simply learning about the dire conditions most Haitians have been experiencing since the devastating earthquake in 2010: “An Urgent Message from Dr. Paul Farmer.”

If I have forgotten any updates, I will add them to the comments.

Safety: The most important uncluttering and organizing standard

Safety is a far cry from being the most interesting subject in the uncluttering and organizing realm. However, it is at the heart of every uncluttering and organizing project (or, at least it should be). Even if it isn’t named outright, safety concerns are the first and most important issue to consider when taking on your next project.

Clutter, in many forms, can be a safety hazard. Massive amounts of paper can be fuel for a house or office fire. Undetected black mold behind stacks of clutter in a basement or garage can poison the air your family breathes. Clutter that blocks a door or covers a floor can inhibit safe exit during an emergency, and stacked items can fall on people during natural disasters.

Getting rid of items is usually thought of as a safe step, but isn’t always the case. Hazardous items disposed of improperly can injure waste management workers or harm the environment by accidentally poisoning water supplies or wild animals.

Storage can be a safety hazard, too. If materials you’re keeping are stored improperly, you could be putting yourself and your family at risk. Cleaning supplies can accidentally be mixed and create poisonous gasses or if they’re easily accessed could be lethal to a toddler. There is also the risk of injury if heavy items are stored too high and someone falls or pulls a muscle accessing those items. Putting things in cardboard boxes can be bad because critters and insects can get into the boxes, and so can black mold and mildew if the boxes get wet.

To improve the safety in your home or office, start by identifying all the existing hazards. Are you using a fireproof safe to store your papers? Are you overloading the electrical outlets? Is clutter or arrangement of furniture blocking safe exit from a space? Is there black mold or mildew or anything rotting?

Immediately address all safety concerns and be sure to do so in a way that doesn’t create more hazards. Research ways to safely dispose of any questionable materials.

When uncluttering and organizing, be sure to keep safety as your most important priority. Store items in containers that are safe for what you are storing and pest/critter/mold/mildew resistant. Have all pathways clear of clutter. Arrange items so you aren’t at risk of being injured when accessing or returning items to storage. Do whatever you need to do to keep your home and office safe for you and others.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2011

2010

2009

2008

Ask Unclutterer: Routines on a constantly varying schedule

Reader Cat submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have read your book and your blog (including the recent post about establishing routines), I feel that your advice for scheduling routines is most applicable to individuals with regular office jobs, or more generally individuals who have a more control over their work schedules. I was wondering if you had any creative ideas for implementing routines on a more erratic schedule?

Nurses and doctors working in hospitals, firefighters, police officers, and food service industry employees are just a few of many professionals who don’t work traditional hours or schedules. In addition to the stress caused by varied sleep schedules and the demands of the job, it can be more difficult to get work done around the house than it can for people on more traditional schedules. (This isn’t always the case, but it certainly can be.)

Using a prioritized list of actions broken into times of day and days of the week is one way you can master regular chores when you work on a constantly varying schedule.

Start by making a list of all the routine activities that need to be done over the course of a week. Then, next to each item you’ve listed, note if the task has to be done during a specific time or can only be completed on specific days of the week (for example, your local grocery store may only be open certain hours or if you live with people on a traditional schedule you probably shouldn’t vacuum the floor at 3:00 in the morning). Next, prioritize the tasks by what has to get done (like feeding the pets), what should get done (laundry), and what is nice to get done but the house won’t fall apart if you don’t get to it every week (dusting). After this, write down approximately how long you need to dedicate to each task.

Once you have all of this information listed, create a new list (or a chart) where things are grouped by time of day and days of the week. Almost all of your tasks will appear multiple times on your list since there is no guarantee you’ll be home at the same time each week. For example, doing the dishes might be listed in every time slot since there usually isn’t a problem with doing them at any time of the day or week. After you’ve made your list (or chart), laminate it and get a dry erase marker.

Then, if you are home and awake on a Monday morning, you can look at your list and immediately see what tasks you can do on a Monday morning. Based on how much time and energy you have, you can select the chores to do from that section. Just remember to always do the highest priority tasks first. When the chore is finished, cross it off the list with your dry erase marker. If the chore is only a once-a-week task, also cross it off the list wherever it appears in other places on your list. If the next time you’re home isn’t until Wednesday evening, go back to your list and take care of the items listed as possible tasks in the Wednesday evening column and then cross them off your list. At the start of the next week, erase all your dry erase marker writing and begin working through your list again.

I also recommend you have a coming home routine in place that you work through every time you come home. This should include sorting mail, putting away anything you brought with you (hang up coat, put keys in key holder, etc.), getting things set in a way so it will be easy to leave your house when you need to go, and whatever else you need to do every single time you walk in the house. This repetitive behavior will help you keep on track, too.

Thank you, Cat, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments sections for even more ideas from our readers for how they have successfully mastered home routines on an uncertain schedule — or have witnessed someone else doing them. Good luck to you, I know a varied schedule can be difficult.

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.

Organizing solutions for renters

A common disadvantage of renting is most landlords prohibit structural changes to their properties. As a result, organizing can be trickier in a rental property than in a home you own. Creativity is a must when seeking out these uncommon solutions. The following ideas and products might be of use to renters looking to reconfigure storage options, and hopefully they also get your creativity flowing.

  • Use existing hardware to support alternatives. Hang a closet doubler (pictured) from a rod to extend hanging area in the vertical space. Shelf inserts create shallower shelves in cabinets with deep shelves. Over-the-door storage pockets, baskets, and specialty items (like an iron and ironing board holder) can be helpful.
  • Apply removable items. I am a huge fan of utilitarian and decorative removable hooks. I’ve recently been introduced to the Um! brand of removable hooks, and have the “clown nose” one (pictured) in my kitchen holding dish towels. They’re great for getting so many things up and off the floor. If your place doesn’t have curtain rods or blinds, use frosted window clings to gain privacy in bedrooms and bathrooms without having to drill a single hole into a wall. Magnetic towel bars are great in the kitchen on a dishwasher or refrigerator.
  • Repurpose small areas of the house. A bookshelf placed in a closet creates simple shelving instead of hanging space. A room divider with photo frames or shelving (pictured) can hide water heaters or other exposed areas of your apartment you don’t want others to see.
  • Think like MacGyver. Okay, so you may not need to create a gas-powered car out of a roll of duct tape and some fishing lures, but the point is to look at old things in new ways. For example, spring-tension curtain rods (they come in many sizes: 18-23 in., 41-76 in., up to 90 in.) can fit vertically or horizontally on shelves and in drawers to create dividers.

What organizing hacks have you implemented in a rental space? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments.

Unitasker Wednesday: Karate Lettuce Chopper

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

This is one of the more amusing unitaskers we’ve featured, and I’d like to thank reader Rosanna for sending it to us. I can’t stop smiling when I see this week’s selection, and my guess is you’ll have a similar positive response when you cast your gaze upon the Gama-Go Karate Lettuce Chopper, too:

Whack!

Growing up, my mom had a lettuce knife in her utensil drawer that I can’t ever remember using on lettuce. I remember chasing my brother around the house with it, but I’m not really sure that was its intended purpose when she bought it. I took to Google to learn why someone might want a lettuce knife, because I sincerely had no idea why lettuce might need knifing or, in this case, Karate chopping (I just use my hands when breaking up lettuce, I didn’t know this wasn’t normal). Turns out, promoters of using a plastic knife on lettuce say it keeps lettuce from browning if you plan to store the lettuce for more than a week in its chopped form. Interesting …

So, I turned to Cook’s Illustrated (my go-to source for all things cooking related) to find out the answers to the questions I didn’t have until just a few seconds ago: “Does a serrated plastic knife prevent lettuce from browning? Is it worth $11, or is it a scam?”

Cook’s Illustrated responded, don’t buy one:

The plastic lettuce knife might stave off browning slightly longer than metal knives, but it’s not worth the money or the extra drawer space. To prolong the life of lettuce by a day or two, stick to tearing by hand. Tearing allows leaves to break along their natural fault lines, rupturing fewer cells and reducing premature browning.

Although the Gama-Go Karate Lettuce Chopper is incredibly entertaining, I’ll keep using the hands at the ends of my arms to cut up lettuce in our house and save the ridiculous amount of drawer space this device would occupy for something more useful. It does make me smile, though …