The paperwork puzzle

Every Christmas, we receive a few jigsaw puzzles — it’s a family holiday pastime to watch movies and put the puzzles together. Interestingly enough, as I spend time going through the documents I need to prepare for our family’s 2013 income tax return, I realize that the steps involved in organizing paperwork are similar to the steps in assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Define the goal

When you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle you’ve always got the box that shows what the puzzle should look like once it is together. For most organizing projects, you won’t get a picture of the final product; you’ll have to invent it yourself. Imagine what you want the final result to look like. How do you want it to function when you’re done? Don’t worry about all of the details at this point. A rough outline is just fine. You could simply state, “I want to be able to find the documents that I need, when I need them. I want them to be stored in the filing cabinet for easy access and any documents that I don’t need regularly but need to keep for tax reasons, will be stored in the attic. Everything else will be shredded.”

Sometimes you don’t have the entire picture. Imagine only receiving one or two puzzle pieces a day. You would have to collect a few months’ worth of pieces to get an idea of what the finished project should look like. This is exactly why I have a big pile of paperwork to be sorted and filed!

In our situation, living in a foreign country as visiting military, we are required to keep certain documents beyond what we would normally keep in our home country. I really didn’t know how these should be organized so my solution was to keep all of the documents in one large folder. Now that we’ve lived here for six months, we have a good idea what the “finished picture” looks like and we are able to sort the documents easily into appropriate categories.

Make a work space

If you have a large project or one that you need a few days to complete, consider setting up in a place that has minimal impact on your day-to-day living. We assemble our jigsaw puzzle on a table in our family room, which is also the place I’ve chosen to do my filing.

Consider sorting paperwork into labelled boxes. Rather than have open boxes, consider getting boxes with lids. They can then be stacked up against a wall and out of the way when you are not working. You can organize one box at a time at a later time.

Define the edges

When we’re working on our puzzle, usually we try to get the edge pieces first and then group similar pieces together onto paper plates such as “sky pieces” or “purple pieces.”

Decide on the “edges” of your project. Chose fewer groups with larger categories within each group. For example, if you’re working on financial paperwork, separate by decade, then by year, then within each year, then by month. You may even find that everything prior to a certain year can be immediately discarded and shredded.

Ignore OHIO

Do not take the “Only Handle It Once (OHIO) Rule” literally when sorting and organizing. I have never been able to take a puzzle piece out of the box, look at it once and put it into the puzzle in its exact place. Don’t expect to do it with paperwork either.

Every time you handle a document, it should be to move it forward in the system of processing so that it is in its appropriate place for the next step. Not only should you prioritize it immediately, you must identify when and where the next steps take place so that the item is not forgotten either accidentally or on purpose.

Zoom in – zoom out

When we’re working on our puzzle, occasionally one of us will zoom in on an easily identifiable object within the puzzle and work on that. On our recent puzzle, my daughter found all of the pieces for a large orange flower that was in the centre of the puzzle. It allowed us to work outwards from that point to complete the puzzle faster. However, while she was working on the flower, she kept it in perspective of the entire puzzle.

If you’re organizing and sorting paperwork, you may find you can easily complete a small portion of the project. You may be able to completely organize all of last year’s financial documents, for example. Congratulate yourself on a job well done but remember to zoom back out and look at the whole picture and remember what you want the final result to look like.

Create a Process

This step is where the similarities between puzzles and paperwork end. Once all of the pieces are put into the puzzle, the puzzle is completed and there is nothing left to be done but admire the finished project. Paperwork on the other hand, increases as soon as the postman arrives the next day.

Create a process to deal with all of your incoming mail. Know what to keep and what to shred. Check out some other posts on Unclutterer for tips and tricks on paper management.

Organizing medical billings and paperwork

Professional organizer Julie Bestry speaks from personal experience on how to organize medical billings and paperwork to avoid bankruptcy in her article “Don’t Let Hospital Billing Errors Bleed You Dry“:

Harvard University research indicates that approximately 62% of U.S. personal bankruptcies are caused by unaffordable medical bills. Given that, it’s vital to keep track of medical billing, particularly hospital billing, to make sure you are being charged a fair and accurate amount. In fact, some medical billing experts believe that up to 80% of all hospital and medical bills contain at least one error, underlining the importance of vigilance in scrutinizing your medical billing paperwork.

She discusses how to detect errors in your bills and also has a wonderful guide to how to organize this paperwork:

These five posts are a fantastic resource. Again, this is a time when I hope that you won’t ever have to use this information.

Managing collegiate paperwork

Reader Cody wrote to us a few weeks ago asking if we had any back-to-school advice for college students. Matt started our response to this question by addressing ways to organize a dorm room. Now, I’m going to discuss managing the constant flow of paperwork associated with college life.

My first piece of advice is to get your hands on Captio’s CollegeCase or a similar product. I wish I would have had something like this back in my undergraduate days. In times of emergencies, being this organized would have really helped. If you’re ever burglarized, in a car wreck, curious as to which cafeterias your meal plan includes, you can find all of these answers in one well-designed notebook.

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Organizing with an ADHD mind

Today we welcome guest post author Ryan McRae, who is the founder of the website TheADHDnerd (a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive). If you’re interested in learning more, he has a free book for download, Conquering Your Calendar and Getting More Done.

I’ve had ADHD all of my life and I never had the natural ability to organize; I distinctly remember my third grade teacher dumping my desk out when I couldn’t find something. I remember misplacing my wallet constantly and having clutter surrounding me most of my days.

The amount of time I have wasted letting my ADHD run my organizational life could have earned me a Ph.D.

No more. The following are the strategies I use to get my ADHD to cooperate with my need to have my life in order.

Pick your battles

If you are looking to clean your house, your ADHD mind will quickly attempt to deter you from this enormous project. You have to break it down into manageable pieces and if your ADHD still pressures you to catch up on your Netflix queue, break it down into smaller bits and pieces.

Instead of “cleaning the bathroom” decide to simply tidy up the sink and throw out old, empty containers. Once you do that, you’ll find one more task to do and then do that. Set that strategy on “repeat” and you’ll find you cleaned the entire place without firing up “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Double duty

One task I absolutely detest doing is laundry. The entire spectrum of the task from loading the washer to putting away the folded t-shirts puts me into a fit.

So what I do is put on a movie I’ve seen before or a podcast and listen to it while I do this abhorrent task. If there is ever a Kickstarter project that eliminates this task, I’ll put a lot of money behind it.

If you can couple something you love with something you don’t quite enjoy, you’ll be much better off. As Mary Poppins said, “A little This American Life makes the laundry get put away…”

Develop routines

When I used to get home from work, I’d change out of my work clothes, flop down on the couch, and think about what dinner was going to be. Many times I didn’t get up from the couch. I noticed that the next day I couldn’t remember what I did with my keys and where my shoes were. My mornings didn’t start off great and left me no time for coffee. And who has two thumbs and loves coffee? This guy.

So I had to develop a routine that I would launch into as soon as I went home so I knew where my stuff was as well as leave me room for my beloved nectar, my best friend, coffee.

When I get home now, I simply do the following:

  • Grab the mail and go through it and only take in the house what I need to process. Throw out the rest.
  • Empty my pockets in the container by my front door immediately.
  • Change out of work shirt and evaluate if it can be worn again: hamper or hang it.
  • Wash hands
  • Fix Dinner

I do this every time. This way I know where everything goes and I don’t have to sweat getting my evening going. I’ve built a great morning routine and before-bed routine as well. This minimizes my stress and headaches searching and wondering what I’m doing next.

Maintenance day

I stole this idea from Chris Bailey in The Productivity Project. Having one day, a maintenance day, to do all of your low energy tasks is much wiser than alternating between something that takes a lot of time (cleaning out the garage) and then trying to do something simple (dusting the living room). Batch all of your simple tasks together.

He calls these “low-return” tasks. Instead of doing them throughout the week, depleting some willpower throughout the week, just knock them out all in one day.

For example:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Clean house and office
  • Do laundry
  • Water plants
  • Clear out the inboxes

Since my Thursday is my maintenance day, I will get up early, and attempt to get all these little tasks done before 1:00 p.m. It’s my own personal competition — this way they are cleared out for the week and I can set my mind on other larger projects.

Simplify

ADHD can trick me into being collectors of all kinds of things. My weakness is t-shirts. My t-shirt collection grows due to sales and convention swag every year. I can’t get enough t-shirts.

It becomes a storage issue quite quickly. So I have my own personal Hunger Games when it comes to my t-shirts. Once I can’t fit the folded shirts in the drawer, it’s elimination time.

I use my ADHD to quickly assess which t-shirts will remain and which will be donated to the local thrift store. I simply sort them and if they don’t grab my attention, they must go. If I try it on and it’s a bit of a stretch, it is soon eliminated.

Scan, store, or shred

Paperwork can grow like this overwhelming kudzu, filling the desk and creeping into every bare surface in the house. When it comes to paperwork, there are only three choices.

Paperwork I know that I need in a moment’s notice, I’ll scan using my smartphone. I save everything on Evernote and make sure it’s secure. Examples of what I scan are: travel itineraries, passport information, and my car insurance card.

When I need to store something larger, I have a file folder system — this is for manuals, workbooks, etc.

Otherwise, I shred it and don’t look back.

Sponsored Post: Spring organizing and everyday products from Staples

The following is a sponsored post from Staples. As regular readers know, we don’t often do sponsored posts (our most recent was in 2013). But we agreed to work with Staples again for three posts because they sell so many different organizing and productivity products in their stores and we like so many of the products they carry. Our arrangement with them allows us to review products we have extensively tested and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. And, these infrequent sponsored posts help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.

As spring (slowly, very slowly in the part of the country where I live) heats up temperatures outdoors, I’ve been thinking a lot about cleaning and organizing. It’s nice to get the windows open and air out my house and feel empowered by the renewal that comes with the warmer weather. As it always does, these things get me motivated to do some spring cleaning.

One thing I started doing last spring that I’ve felt has made a huge difference in my organizing efforts is to have two filing systems. It sounds like extra work, but it has proven to reduce my workload. In addition to the traditional filing cabinet that holds all of the paperwork I have to keep, I now have a smaller filing box next to my desk that is a temporary holding ground for papers.

Immediately when papers come into the house — bank statements, bills, paperwork from the kids’ school — I file it into the temporary filing box. Twice a year, when I’m doing fall and spring cleaning tasks, I go through the temporary filing box and decide what needs to go to the traditional filing cabinet and what can be purged. Also, having the box keeps papers off my desk, but in a very easily accessible location. It also serves as a working file drawer for papers that will never go into the traditional filing cabinet but that I need for projects I’m working on at that time. If you’re desk doesn’t have a drawer in it like mine doesn’t, I recommend a simple Staples File Box. It has a lid for keeping out pets, most water, and dust and a lip around the upper edge for hanging file folders. It’s inexpensive and I like that best of all.

Along the same lines of there being a temporary filing box, I also have started keeping a temporary holding box that I clean out twice a year (again during spring and fall cleaning). This holding box is where I drop things I’m pretty sure I want to unclutter permanently from my home but that I’m not 100 percent certain I’m ready to let go. Having a temporary location for this stuff makes me more willing to part with it after I have evidence that I didn’t touch something for six whole months. (Because, if I do need something, I take it out of the box and return it to its regular storage location after use.) I rarely access anything in the box and it pretty much goes straight to a charity when I’m doing my spring or fall cleaning.

If you think a temporary holding box for items you wish to unclutter could work for you, the Staples 40 Quart Plastic Containers are great for this. They’re clear (so you can easily see inside to find what you need) and they have a locking lid, which keeps out critters and most water. It’s definitely better than a cardboard box, which I do not recommend using. And, obviously, these same bins are great for longer term storage of anything you want to protect seasonally — winter blankets, coats and hats, gloves and scarves, etc.

I’m a brand loyalist when it comes to everyday objects, like writing pens and markers. I find something that works well for me, and I stick to it. I exert the mental energy and money to determine what I like, and then I typically only revisit those decisions if something changes about the product (discontinued, formula change, significant reduction in quality, etc.).

Recently, however, I noticed that my preferences were changing and some of the products I’d been loyal to for years weren’t doing everything I wished they would. The product that caught my attention first — and ultimately set the stage for this post — was my love affair with the Pilot G2 pen only existed in certain circumstances. The Staples brand equivalent to the G2 is the OptiFlow Fine Point Rollerball Pen and it has a cap. The writing is very smooth, it dries on a sheet of paper quickly (which for left-handed folks means virtually no mess from hand drag), and the pens last as long as the G2s. A dozen of the Staples OptiFlow pens are $10.79, which is a little less expensive than the Pilots, too. So, now I’m loyal to the OptiFlow when I’m on the go.

While thinking about store-brand pens, I decided to see how the Staples brand stood up to the other writing implements I carry with me in my laptop bag. The Staples Hype! Chisel Tip Highlighters came out ahead of the Sharpie brand of highlighter I usually buy. Again, I like that the Staples brand have a cap. But what I really like is that they don’t bleed through paper with typical use, even thin paperback book paper, so what is highlighted on one side of the paper doesn’t interfere with what is highlighted on the backside. It also didn’t smear handwriting, which the Sharpies don’t do but other brands definitely do, which is annoying. They’re solid highlighters and they’re $5.49 for a six pack, which is less than what I usually pay.

Finally, I checked out the Staples DuraMark Black Chisel Tip Permanent Marker and they were as great as the ones I usually buy. They did bleed through a sheet of paper, but all mid-range priced permanent markers do. The stroke was consistent and the marker is an overall good quality. I have yet to throw one away, which also speaks to its longevity. And, at $8.49 per dozen, they’re less expensive than the brand I usually buy.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2009

How getting organized can make you more efficient

Getting organized isn’t something you do for its own sake — it’s something you do to make the rest of your life easier and more pleasant. If you can quickly and easily put your hands on the things you need, tasks get done easier (and often better) and life is less stressful.

If you regularly use a group of items together, organizing principles suggest that you will usually want to store them together, too. For example, I keep stationery, stamps, and return address labels together. And the lubricating sheets I use for my shredder are stored right next to the shredder. This makes me more efficient when I need to send a letter, and it helps ensure I really do lubricate the shredder periodically.

I recently read a great example of how this principle can work in the critical setting of a hospital intensive care unit. As Emily Anthes wrote in Nature, Dr. Peter Pronovost saw the problem with more haphazard storage when he was creating a checklist his hospital could use for a specific procedure:

Logistics are crucial. When Pronovost was first developing his checklist at Johns Hopkins, he noticed that ICU doctors had to go to eight different places to collect all the supplies they needed to perform a sterile central-line insertion. As part of the Keystone programme, hospitals assembled carts that contained all the necessary supplies.

I’ve seen people try to cope with using the wrong tool (the wrong size screwdriver, for example) because they couldn’t find the right one, even though they knew they owned it. I have also known people who had an incredible stash of books and tools — who still asked to borrow mine sometimes because they couldn’t find theirs amid all the clutter. When a home or office is uncluttered and organized, you can be like Jessamyn West, who wrote on Twitter, “The one time in three years I need a Torx driver and I realize I 1) have one 2) can find it. Happy with this day so far.”

The same concept applies to paperwork. If you can readily find all your tax-related documents, in either paper or electronic format, tax time becomes a bit less stressful. If there’s a place for all permission slips your children bring home from school, there won’t be last-minute scrambles to find them on the days of the events.

I recently had a minor organizing slip-up that caused me to waste a bit of time and use less than optimal tools. My packing list included “gifts for people I’m visiting” but neglected to include wrapping materials for those gifts. (I don’t wrap them ahead of time because airport security will sometimes unwrap them if they have any concern about what’s in the package.) That led me to scramble to find wrapping paper and tape in a neighborhood with a very limited selection. (I think I found the store’s only roll of wrapping paper that didn’t have a Christmas theme.) I’m sure my hosts didn’t really care that I used some funky decorative tape instead of normal tape, and I didn’t waste too much time and money buying these items, but I’ve now updated my packing list.

Getting organized doesn’t happen overnight

I’m currently dealing with an annoying problem in my left leg — some muscles are way too tight and make certain motions painful. I ignored the problem for too long, and it only got worse. But now I’m in physical therapy and doing exercises at home every day, and I can feel things gradually getting better. This is very encouraging, and I have faith that if I continue to do those home exercises, I’ll get back to being just fine in a while.

And this is very similar to how things go with many organizing efforts: They require continual work over a period of weeks or months.

Some of the common situations that lead to disorganization include:

  • A change in the household: a move to a new home, a new roommate, a newly combined family, a new baby, etc.
  • Medical issues (your own or those of a family member or close friend)
  • A new job or a crunch time at an existing job

In such situations, when you begin to get organized again, please realize that the problem areas built up over time and it will take some time to fix them. Try not to get discouraged by what’s still undone, but rather take pleasure in your progress — in each small step.

Doing my home exercises only takes about 20 minutes per day, but those 20 minutes are making a huge difference. If you can spend even 5-10 minutes each day on uncluttering and organizing, it will add up, too.

The following are three basic approaches you might take to starting a slow-but-steady uncluttering or organizing effort:

1. Focus on one space at a time

You might pick a room, and then tackle smaller projects within that room, as Dave has written about before. Maybe you can go through one box, or half of a box, or the first inch of a box on one day. Or maybe you can organize one drawer in a desk or in the kitchen.

2. Focus on one type of item at a time

For example, you could decide to deal with all the magazines or all the socks as one mini-project. You may want to start with categories that are easy for you and gradually move on to harder ones. Paperwork takes a long time for the volume of space cleared, so if you want a quick visual win you may not want to begin there — unless you have some buried papers that need attention right away.

3. Focus on one process at a time

Maybe you want to work on how you handle incoming mail, or how you get everyone out of the house in the morning, or how you keep track of your to-do items. This will often involve trying something new and then tweaking that new approach as you see what works well and what doesn’t.

Whatever approach you choose, the thrill of seeing ongoing progress can help keep you motivated to do more. As Harold Taylor of Harold Taylor Time Consultants wrote, “You cannot get organized in a day; but you can get more organized daily.”

Organizing for pet owners

As someone with two cats, I know that having pets is a joy, but it’s also a responsibility. Part of that responsibility involves organizing with them in mind. The following list shows what that can involve.

Unclutter their stuff

Do you have some pet food that your pets refused to eat? You may be able to return it to the store where you bought it — my local pet store lets me return opened bags of kibble. If not, you can give it away to other pet owners.

You’ll also want to pass along any toys your pets never liked and dispose of any that were so well loved that they’re now in tatters. Other items to unclutter include pet beds they never used and clothes that didn’t work out.

Unclutter things that could be dangerous to them

There are a number of things you’ll want to remove from your pet’s environment because they are dangerous. Just as with children, you’ll want to protect pets from medicines and household toxins, including many cleaning supplies and insecticides. Make sure these aren’t anything your pets can get into.

Also, consider your plants: cut flowers, indoor plants, and yard plants if your pets go outside. A significant number of these are poisonous to cats and dogs. Some human foods are also hazardous to pets, so make sure you store the chocolate, grapes, raisins, and other toxic foods where they can’t get to them.

I know someone who recently spent a lot of money on pet surgery when her cat swallowed some kind of string. So make sure your cats aren’t playing with string unless you’re around to make sure they aren’t eating it. And keep their environment clear of floss, ribbon, rubber bands, etc. The Preventive Vet website provides more information on the problems these items cause and what to do to avoid those problems.

Organize everything you’re keeping

You’ll want to have defined places to keep any food, treats, toys, clothes, leashes, medications, cleaning supplies, etc. As with any other category of stuff, it’s usually best to keep like items together and to store them as close as feasible to where they’ll be used.

Keep good medical records

Jacki wrote about maintaining pet health records and why it’s so important. I handle most of this by scanning all the paperwork from my vet — including any lab work, where I always ask for copies. I keep the scanned documents in Dropbox, while others might prefer Evernote or another such tool. Of course, paper records can work fine, too.

Include them in your disaster plans

Consider what you’d need if you had to shelter in place for a week or so, as well as what you’d need if you had to evacuate.

When I look at what I need to stock in case of emergency, I include cat food and litter. I also ensure that when I decide how much water to store I consider my cats’ needs as well as my own. I also have a carrier for each cat (even though I normally only use one at a time) because I’d need these if we needed to evacuate.

Write up care instructions

When I go on a business trip or on vacation, I have someone come into my home to care for my cats rather than boarding them. If you do something similar, write up any instructions your pet care provider would need. Such instructions can also be useful in case of an emergency, when someone needs to care for your pets unexpectedly. Save these instructions so you don’t have to recreate them any time they might be necessary, and remember to update them as circumstances change.

Managing the endless towers of paper

Reader Teri wrote in and asked Unclutterer:

[I’m having trouble with] paper. It is constantly coming in from school, work, mail, receipts, etc. etc. etc. Despite scanning, recycling and shredding it keeps piling up. And trying to figure out what really needs to be kept in paper form is confusing.

This is a common struggle, Teri, and one that many people battle. There are a few steps you can take, and the first one is the biggest: accept the paper.

I, too, struggle with this. Sometimes I dread even opening the kids’ backpacks because I know I’ll find permission slips, reminders, calendars, school menus, and graded homework in there. And that’s just school stuff, never mind the mail, flyers, and everything else. There’s a tendency to want to be free-and-clear of all that paper. But it’s not going to happen and that’s okay.

That’s step one. Accept that the influx of paper will not stop, and that it’s okay to have it in your house. Giving yourself permission to have paper around will alleviate a lot of stress. Once that’s done, it’s time to keep the influx somewhat organized with three simple questions.

What is it?

A new piece of paper arrives. The first question you must ask yourself is, “What is this?” There are three possible answers:

  1. This is something that requires action. A permission slip that must be signed/returned to school, a bill that must be paid, committee minutes that must be reviewed.
  2. This is something that does not require action but contains information that may be useful in the future. The summer concert schedule at a local venue. A repair manual. A rulebook for a game. There’s nothing to do, but these papers do have potentially valuable information that’s worth keeping.
  3. It’s garbage. If a paper is neither number one or number two, it’s likely trash and can go in the shredder or directly into the recycling bin.

Take a minute to process all incoming paper this way. Once you’ve made the determination, it’s time to act accordingly.

Processing after identification

If a piece of paper is one that requires action, decide what the action is. Maybe you need to sign it and put it into Jr.’s backpack or write a check and stuff it into an envelope. If the action will take less than two minutes, do it right then and there. No exceptions. Then it’s done and you can move on to another task and not have that piece of paper taking up space in your mind.

If you can’t process it in less than two minutes, put it in its designated spot (more on that in a minute).

If a piece of paper does not require an action but does hold potentially useful information, it is reference material. Here you have two options. If you need to keep the paper itself for legal reasons or because you’ll be in a load of financial woe if you don’t, file it or store it in a safe. (Check out Jacki’s post “What important documents to keep and how to organize them” for insights on filing.)

If on the other hand you don’t need the paper itself, transfer the data to a digital format (scan it with a scanner or take a digital picture of it and save it to a searchable program like Evernote) and shred or recycle the paper. Toss it in the recycling bin with extreme prejudice! For example, we’ll get reminders of dentist appointments in the form of those little postcards. Write the date on the calendar and toss that card! It’s only clutter at this point. Reference material either goes into your filing cabinet, or, once it’s information is recorded, the original paper is recycled. Speaking of throwing things away…

Anything that satisfies question three above is trash and should go into your paper recycling. See ya, sayonara, adios, thank you for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.

Now, there are a few other things to note. First, you won’t always have time to sit down with a pot of tea to sort your papers while happy birds serenade you. For this reason, designate a permissible “inbox” for a holding space until you can. This physical inbox is a specific spot — table, in/out tray, shelf, drawer — that you’ve identified as the landing spot for all of this stuff that either needs to be acted upon or filed. That’s where the paper lives until you take the time to process it or decide what each piece is according to the questions above. Which brings me to my next point.

If you’re married or living with a partner/other adult, have separate inboxes. For years, my wife and I piled all our stuff on the so-called “telephone table,” and it was a nightmare. We process stuff differently and we store things differently and forcing those systems to cohabitate on the one table was a very bad idea. Today, she has the telephone table and I use an in/out tray from Staples on my desk. We can each work the way we want and yes, we now have two stacks of incoming paper but that’s still a huge improvement of scattered papers all throughout the house.

Now for the most important part about having a physical inbox … you MUST schedule a time for processing the papers. On your calendar, block off five minutes at the end of every workday or five minutes before dinner each night or 10 minutes twice a week to handle the papers. Don’t wait until the pile is out of control. Don’t wait until it’s tipping over and sliding all over your desk. Do a little bit of processing on a regular schedule and you’ll never have a huge pile to overwhelm you.

If you have a huge pile already, tack on five to 10 extra minutes each day to work through the backlog. Eventually, you’ll be caught up with your current and old paperwork. It won’t happen over night, but you’ll get through it.

What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

6 approaches to creating an effective to-do list

Most of us use some sort of to-do list, whether it be a paper one or a digital one. While it’s easy to get fixated on the tool — a notebook and a cool pen, your favorite app, etc. — there are also basic strategies to consider. Just how do you construct and organize your to-do list, using any tool?

The following are some strategies people have used effectively; I’d suggest mixing and matching to find something that works for you. Please note that each strategy has much more to offer than the brief summary I’m providing here; you can read more about any of them, if you’re interested.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology

Fully explaining the GTD methodology takes a whole book; I’m only going to touch on a few key ideas related to to-do lists.

Separate tasks vs. projects. If your list includes a bunch of simple single-step items (call Person A about Subject B, stop at hardware store and buy the items on my list) and a complex multi-step one (remodel the bathroom), can you guess which one will never get done? The answer is to identify the first physical step you’d take on that remodel project, and add it to the task list.

Keep a someday/maybe list for ideas you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on — and that you certainly aren’t going to act on right now.

Subdivide tasks by context. Are there tasks that can only be done under certain circumstances, when you have certain tools available? If so, group those together. For example, I’ve grouped things that can be done at home or in town vs. things that can only be done when I’m going further afield.

Don’t assign priorities, because these are fluid. Review your lists at least weekly, but then decide in real time which items are the highest priority. Add any firm dates — deadlines or appointments — to your calendar, but don’t add your other to-do items.

Capture everything you need to do — or think you may want to do — on your lists; empty your mind.

Steven Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix

Covey explains the urgent/important matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For each task, decide if it’s urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. Try to spend most of your time working on things that are important but not urgent: relationship building, long-term planning, etc.

Various people’s short-list approaches

People who advocate for short lists are not saying you don’t have your long list — just that you don’t focus on that long list every day. Jeff Davidson has a list that’s 12-14 pages, but those are mostly medium-range or long-range activities. The first page is his short-term items, and that’s what he focuses on every day.

Leo Babauta recommends a “Tiny To-do List: one with only three important tasks for today, and perhaps a few smaller and unimportant tasks that you can group together (emails, calls, paperwork, routine stuff).”

Other people recommend short to-do lists that include:

  • The six most important things to do today
  • A 3 + 2 rule: three big things, and two small ones
  • A 1-3-5 rule: One big thing, three medium things, five small things
  • Julie Morgenstern’s “add it up” approach

    In Time Management From the Inside Out, Julie recommends putting a time estimate on each task, so you know when you’re over-committing for your day, your week, etc. You can then decide which tasks to delay, delegate, diminish (scale back), or simply delete from your to-do list entirely.

    Robyn Scott’s melodramatic to-do list

    Robyn organizes her to-do list by emotion. This may or may not appeal to you, but the idea of personalizing your list, including the way you group your items, is a good one.

    Daniel Markovitz’s “living in your calendar” approach

    Daniel says that to-do lists don’t work, and he recommends the exact opposite of David Allen: estimate how long each task will take, and transfer your to-dos off your list and put them in your calendar.