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.

(more…)

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • Managing active files and papers
    Even in the digital age, many people can work with active files and papers. Here are some suggestions for dealing with this mass of paperwork.
  • Spring is here and cleaning is in the air
    Around 1:15 this morning, those of us in the northern hemisphere officially started spring. The local weathermen explained to me as I sipped my coffee that because this is a leap year, spring showed up on the calendar a day early. If spring sprung up on you and took you by surprise, the following 10 tasks are what I consider to be the most valuable spring cleaning activities. These are the Firsts, the things to get to before the other activities.

2010

2009

Accidents in Uncluttering

A few years ago, Unclutterer’s editor-in-chief Erin Doland described her regret at accidentally disposing of vital documents when uncluttering. While we would all like to have instant clutter-free lives, it is important to take your time to properly sort items before you dispose or donate them. When uncluttering and organizing, think of the process as more like a marathon than a sprint. The following are a few tips to help you avoid accidents when you’re uncluttering.

Take your time and examine every item before disposing it. Often money is forgotten in old purses and coat pockets or between the pages of a Bible. Sometimes expensive jewellery can be mixed in with costume jewellery. Occasionally, a toddler will have a hidden cache of useful items between the sofa cushions or tossed valuables in with Lego bricks. People with dementia or mental health issues may hide money, expensive items, or important documents in places that may not seem logical, such as inside mattresses. Last month, a thrift shop in Nova Scotia turned over to police thousands of dollars in cash that they found in donated curtains.

When organizing paperwork, you do not need to read every scrap of paper, but it is important to scan documents to determine their significance. Tax accountants and lawyers can provide important information regarding which documents are important to keep for legal and tax purposes. Obtaining advice from these professionals is especially important if you are helping someone unclutter whose personal business you’re not familiar with, such as aging family members.

Consult with family members and friends about sentimental items, documents, and photographs. You might feel that an object has very little value, but it may hold powerful memories for another family member. If your family and friends live far away, it might be difficult for them to stop by the house to view items. Consider setting up a website or a Facebook group to share photos and descriptions of items you wish to pass along to family and friends.

When uncluttering, clearly separate the garbage from the donations. Use only black or dark green bags for trash and transparent bags or cardboard boxes for donations. If different bags or boxes are going to different charities, clearly label them on both sides of the bag or box. Astronaut Chris Hadfield had intended that a box of memorabilia from his time in space be donated to a science centre but last week his flight suit was found for sale at a Toronto thrift shop due to a mix up with donation boxes during a move.

Get an expert opinion before you dispose or donate items with which you are not familiar. You may be able to determine the approximate value of items by looking online at sites like eBay or specialized sites for specific collectibles. You may not find a comic book that will pay your mortgage but you may be able to earn a few extra dollars. If you don’t even know what the items are, check out our tips on how to deal with UFOs (unidentified found objects) before you dispose of them.

Have you ever found an expensive item stashed in a strange place while uncluttering? Have you accidentally donated or disposed of something you wish you hadn’t? Help fellow unclutterers by sharing your stories in the comments section.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2014

  • Even professional organizers need to unclutter
    People sometimes assume that professional organizers are 100 percent organized and uncluttered, at all times. But every organizer I know has a few problem areas that pop up occasionally. Organizers face the same challenges that everyone faces: unexpected events disrupt our plans, we fall out of our routines, etc. And, sometimes it helps all of us, organizers included, to take another look around our homes to see what no longer serves us.

2013

2010

  • A lesson on mental clutter from the book Zen Shorts
    Frustrations caused by occasional messes are usually not worth carrying around with you and cluttering up your mind, energy, and emotions.
  • Maybe you can take it with you…
    Why leave behind beautiful solid-wood furniture for your heirs to fight over when you can be buried in it?
  • Project Basement: Day 3
    Except for a couple hours this morning pulling out the washer and dryer, sweeping the floor where they had been, and doing a general cleanup in the laundry area of the basement, I’ve been sorting, scanning, and recycling a couple hundred pounds of paperwork.

One definition of project clutter

According to the 2007 article “Measuring Visual Clutter,” in the medical Journal of Vision, “clutter is the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task.”

This definition implies that clutter depends on a task being performed and is strongly tied to messes made while working on a project. Having too many items for a task will impede performance because the user has to sift through inessential items to obtain useful ones. Conversely, too few items may reduce productivity because the user has to go elsewhere for the items and the task takes more time than necessary.

Project clutter may also be dependent on a person’s level of skill at a particular task. Novices at a particular task may prefer to have only those objects necessary to perform the task from start to completion. Whereas experts at the same task may have items from several projects on their desks at the same time because they are familiar with the processes for each project.

Within families and offices, because project clutter depends upon the task and the users’ expertise, one person’s way of working and their tools may seem like clutter to someone else in the family or office and cause tension. Finding the answers to “How much stuff needs to be out to complete a project and for how long?” can go a long way in resolving these disputes.

Solving project clutter disputes

Begin by planning the project and defining the break points. If you have a large project to be completed that may disrupt normal household or office operations, divide the project into a series of tasks with logical points for taking breaks. For example, if you were making a quilt, cutting fabric into the correct shapes would be one task. If you were re-organizing an office filing system, categorizing the accounting files might be considered one task.

When examining your tasks, estimate the amount of time needed to complete the task and how long it will take you to return the workspace to its original state. For example, when I am preparing our quarterly submission for sales tax reimbursement, it is easier for me to remove the files from the filing cabinet in my husband’s office and stack them on the laundry room counter for the period of time I am working. The counter has lots of room for me to work and my office is beside the laundry room.

I love doing my quarterly tax claim on the spacious laundry room counter and it takes me several hours to complete the paperwork and return all the items to their regular storage area. I schedule this task on an evening when there is very little laundry to be washed or early on a Sunday morning before the counter is used for school homework projects.

It takes a bit of planning when using shared space but it will reduce clutter and improve everyone’s productivity. Talking about these issues with your family members or coworkers before you begin working will give everyone proper expectations and reduce tensions. Finally, working through this process with a child will help him/her to better understand time management, productivity, as well as putting away items when you’re finished using them.

5 more of my favourite organizing tools

Last Monday, I wrote about my “Five favorite organizing tools” that have been essential in the various homes in which we have lived. My list of favorites doesn’t stop there. The following are five more of my favourites.

Heavy-duty plastic shelving. Shelves are great because they allow you to use vertical space without piling items on top of each other. These shelves can be assembled and disassembled in minutes. Each shelf holds over 55kg (125lbs) of stuff and because they are made of plastic, they do not rust or mildew and they are not susceptible to water damage. They are ideal for garden sheds, garages, and basements.

Vacuum storage totes. These totes are useful for storing off-season clothing. We have several that store extra curtains that don’t fit the house in which we currently live, but may fit the next house we move to (as a military family, we move around so much they’re worthwhile to keep). Besides keeping textiles clean and dust-free, the totes stack nicely in closets and storage areas, whereas bags do not stack well.

Plastic filing boxes. Filing cabinets are handy for frequently accessed paperwork but for long term storage, filing boxes are great. They are plastic so they keep papers dry and dust free. They are easy to lift and stack. And each person in our family has one for souvenirs such as report cards, certificates, letters of reference, performance reviews, etc. One of their disadvantages, however, is they are not lockable. When moving houses, I tape them shut and sign and date the tape.

Collapsible fabric boxes. These boxes come in many pretty colours that will coordinate with any room. In various different houses we’ve use these boxes in entryways to store hats and mittens. In clothing closets they’ve held purses, sweaters, and other clothes. We’ve also used them to store hand towels and face cloths in linen closets as well as table clothes and napkins in the dining room. The thing I like about these boxes as opposed to baskets is that if you don’t need them they fold flat to save space.

Cordless power tools. In my opinion cordless power tools are the best things since sliced bread. There is no more hunting around for electrical outlets or searching for and tripping over extension cords. Many brands such as Ryobi, DeWalt and Makita sell cordless tool kits that come with extra batteries and a handy carrying case so you have everything you need in one nice, easy-to-store kit. Cordless tools work internationally as well. When we moved from Canada to the UK, all we needed to do was to buy a battery charging station that worked on the UK power grid and all of our power tools were ready to go.

Five favourite organizing tools

In the past 20 years, I’ve lived in eight different homes. Over this time period, I’ve come to realize there are some essential tools I have used in every home to get organized. The following are five of my favourites.

Expandable half-shelves. Many homes in which we have lived did not have adjustable shelving in the kitchen cupboards. Expandable half-shelves have allowed us to store more dishes in the cupboards and be able to access them easily. We also have used expandable half-shelves in bathroom cupboards to organize toiletries and cleaning supplies. I’ve even used a half-shelf behind my computer to save space by storing the external hard drive above the power bar.

Drawer organizers. We have dozens of drawer organizers and we use them everywhere. Most of the houses in which we live have odd-sized kitchen drawers that do not fit a standard cutlery tray. We use drawer organizers to keep our cutlery in order. We also use drawer organizers in bathroom and nightstand drawers. Drawer organizers help keep our office supplies in order and we also use them in our large toolbox so we can find what we need easily.

Plastic shoeboxes. I use these boxes to organize my shoes in my closet. I really like these boxes. They are transparent so I can immediately see the contents. They have tight fitting lids and they stack easily. They are useful for storing and organizing so many things beyond shoes, too. I’ve grouped all my sewing and craft supplies into these boxes so I can easily find them. We use one for our first-aid kit, one for holding our medications, and another for dental care supplies. Our electronics and gaming gear are also stored in these shoeboxes.

Plastic drawer cart. We’ve lived in houses that have not had any storage space in the bathroom. These carts have been extremely useful to store hairbrushes, cosmetics, shaving supplies, and extra rolls of toilet paper. Because they are plastic, they are not susceptible to water damage like wood or metal storage units. We have used these carts in other areas of the house to organize toys, art supplies, and office supplies. They also function well in entryways to keep mittens, toques, and scarves in order.

Rubbermaid 14 gallon (55L) Roughneck Tote. There are several reasons I really like this particular bin. I find it easy to carry safely even when it is quite heavy. The handles are well designed allowing for a good solid grip, my arms are a comfortable distance apart, and I can keep the tote close to my waist. We store off-season clothing, sports equipment, toys, paperwork, and holiday decorations in these totes. Another reason I like these totes is they are made from plastic that doesn’t get brittle and crack or break in cold temperatures. This is essential for storing items in cold Canadian attics, garages, and non-climate controlled storage units.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2010

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Inflatable meal
    In this holiday season, we wanted to invite all of you to join us for a (virtual) meal. Come on in, grab a seat, sit down, and let’s enjoy a meal together.

2009

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

At first glance, I felt that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing was like many of the other organizing books that I have read. The author describes the KonMari method of organizing, which is pretty similar to the S.P.A.C.E. method described in the 1998 book Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern:

  • Sort: Gather all items from one category together (e.g. clothes)
  • Purge: Discard items no longer needed.
  • Assign: Designate a storage place for all items
  • Containerize: Find suitable containers to hold the items
  • Equalize: Consistently return items to their assigned homes every day.

However, Kondo’s approach to the process is more graceful and she describes a deep respect for all items. During the purge process she tells readers not to focus on what to purge, but instead she tells them to focus on what they want to keep. “In this manner you will take the time to cherish the things that you love.”

Kondo believes in making the decision easier on yourself by asking the question, “Does this spark joy?” She instructs her clients to take each item in their hands and note their body’s reaction. She asks, “Are you happy when you hold a piece of clothing that is not comfortable or does not fit? Are you happy to hold a book that does not touch your heart?” If the answer is no, the item should be discarded.

Kondo recommends that clients declutter in the following order:

  • Clothing
  • Books
  • Papers
  • Miscellaneous
  • Mementos (including photos)

In her experience she has found that most people can make decisions easily about clothing (Does it fit?) which will strengthen their decision-making skills for the following, sometimes more difficult, categories. By the time the client is ready to sort through mementos, he/she will have a stronger understanding of the tidying process and be much less stressed when making decisions.

I found Kondo’s suggestions for discarding items helpful. She says to think of the lesson that the object taught you while you owned it. For example, the sweater you bought that was on sale but wasn’t quite your colour, taught you what was not your style. The sweater has served its purpose. It should be thanked for its service and be sent on its way to serve a purpose for someone else. If the item is to be disposed, it should be done in a way that honours the item.

Organizing paperwork is difficult for many people so the KonMari method classifies papers into three categories: papers currently in use, papers that need to be kept for a limited period, and those that need to be kept indefinitely. She states that papers that do not fall into one of these categories can be disposed. Sentimental items that happen to be made of paper (e.g. wedding invitations, love letters) should be classified as mementos and organized within that category.

Kondo provides recommendations as to which documents should be discarded. I would caution all readers to examine their personal situations and, if necessary, discuss with their legal and financial advisors prior to making decisions because laws and regulations between jurisdictions can vary greatly.

While the general methodology of the KonMari method of “tidying” is very much the same as many North American books about organizing, I found the Japanese way of framing our relationships with our possessions quite interesting. If you have had trouble parting with items you know you should really discard, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing may provide a new perspective that will help get you started.

Options for organizing papers

Reader Vicki recently made the following comment on the post “Keeping things simple“:

I really appreciate reading about options and choices when it comes to organizing. I tend to feel a little suspicious when I read that a specific way of organizing or a specific organizing tool is necessary.

Vicki, I understand your concern. While there are some general principles that apply to most organizing situations (such as keeping similar items together), there are also many specific products and techniques for addressing almost any organizing challenge. The trick is to find the solutions that work best for you.

The following are some of the choices you have when it comes to organizing papers. While this isn’t a complete list — that would take more space than I have here — it should give you an idea of just how many options you have.

Organizing reference papers

If you’re going to keep a large number of reference papers, you’ll need to decide how to file them. The most common choices are binders and file folders. You might want to use binders for certain types of papers and file folders for the rest.

Your decision might be driven by the kind of space you have available: file cabinet space or bookshelf space. Or your choice might be based on the type of papers you have and how you use them. I’ve found binders work well when I have a large number of papers I want to quickly grab and take with me to a meeting or event. They also work well for information you want to share with others, such as a babysitter. Ease of use is a big factor, too. Which tool would make you most likely to keep up with your filing?

If you’re using binders, do you want to put papers into sheet protectors or would you rather hole-punch them? Alternatively, would you prefer a tool such as the Itoya Profolio, which has built-in sleeves for papers, but doesn’t have a way to move the pages around? It’s lighter weight and less bulky without the ring mechanism, but it’s also less flexible.

If you’re using folders, you may prefer to use a ready-made filing system, such as FreedomFiler. Or you may prefer to create your own files.

If you’re creating your own files, you have some choices to make. Do you want to use standard file folders, hanging file folders, or hanging folders combined with interior folders? The plastic tabs on hanging file folders annoy some people, but there are options such as Smead’s hanging files with built-in tabs. Again, you can use a combination of techniques. For example, I usually go with just a hanging file, but my client files are standard file folders kept inside box-bottom hanging files.

Another folder decision is whether or not to use color-coding. Having certain types of files in certain colors can provide a useful visual cue (and help you find a misplaced file), but this approach also means you need to ensure you never run out of the colors you are using. It’s a bit of complexity that will help some people and hinder others.

In some cases, you may not need either file folders or binders for your papers. You could use the approach suggested by LJ Earnest, where you put all financial and tax-related papers for a year in a single box, with no folders.

Organizing action files

Action files are those related to things you’re going to do in the near future. Papers filed here could include bills to pay, election materials to read through and a ballot to complete, birthday cards to mail, dry cleaning receipts for things you need to pick up, the scribbled notes about a call you need to return, etc.

If it helps you to have these files out in front of you, rather than buried in a file cabinet drawer, the most common tools are an incline file sorter (also called a step file) and a desktop file box. The desktop file is more transportable, if that’s a concern, but files aren’t quite as visible.

Another tool you may want to use is a tickler file: 43 folders (or sections in an expanding desk file) where you file papers by the date (in the current month) or month (for upcoming months) when you want to deal with them.

There are certainly other choices, too. For example, you might want a series of clipboards mounted on the wall, mailing envelopes on the back of a door, labeled baskets on a shelf, or hang-up bags on a desktop or wall-mounted rack.