RIM: Part seven, records maintenance

We’ve worked for a few weeks now on building a functional and practical records management system. However, it won’t stay that way for long if we neglect routine maintenance. For those comparing our records and information management system to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, we’re now working on our equalization step.

Daily or weekly maintenance

I prefer to spend 5 minutes at the end of every day (usually right after supper) and do the following:

  • Clear receipts from my wallet and file them in the inbox for reconciliation with bank statement.
  • Check other locations in the house (e.g., mailbox, spouse’s purse/wallet) for receipts and documents and place them in the inbox.
  • Move receipts from my email inbox to the receipts folder on my hard drive and file the email.
  • Move any files from my downloads folder and desktop and place them in the appropriate electronic filing cabinet folders.

We have a busy household so it is more effective if I perform these tasks daily. Some people may find it easier to perform these tasks on a weekly basis. In my experience, leaving these tasks for longer than a week may result in lost receipts and generally makes maintenance tasks more time-consuming than necessary.

Monthly maintenance

Your inbox should be completely cleared monthly. It doesn’t matter what day in the month you choose to do your maintenance. If all your bills are paid by the 13th of the month, then you could choose that day. You could also choose the last Sunday of the month — whatever works best for your schedule. Monthly maintenance should usually take no more than 30 minutes as you can rely on your retention schedule to indicate where records should be filed and how long they should be kept.

  • Reconcile your bank statement and dispose of any receipts (paper and electronic) no longer required.
  • Scan paper receipts for high-value items or items that you’re keeping long-term, especially those printed on thermal paper as they are subject to fading over time. Move scanned receipts and any similar electronic receipts to your Guarantees and Instructions folder for long-term storage.
  • Check your retention schedule and dispose of any records (paper and electronic) you no longer need or any that you can move to your inactive folders.
  • Check your electronic file names and ensure you’re adhering to the file naming system you set out (typos are possible!)

Annual maintenance

Annual maintenance can be done at any time during the year. January 1st is a popular time because it is the beginning of the new year but may not work for some people because of the holiday season. March/April might be a good time for annual maintenance as it is around the same time as you would file your income taxes and you are probably working through your files anyway.

Whatever time of year you choose, I suggest scheduling about four to six hours for annual maintenance. You could do it all at once or spread the work over several days. Here are some things that should be done during your annual maintenance.

  • Evaluate your system. Is there is anything you’d like to adjust? Would you prefer to have all your insurance documents in one file, or would you prefer to have them split so auto insurance is filed with your other automobile documents, and house insurance is filed with other house documents? The annual maintenance period is the best time to make those changes.
  • Review your retention schedule. Using your citations, ensure there have been no changes to retention times for your records. If there have been changes, update your retention schedule and save it with a new file name rather than over-writing the old file. This way, you’ll be able to look back and see the previous rules you had for document retention. (This could be important if you are ever audited.) Remember to update the location of documents if you’ve made changes.
  • Check each company or agency you deal with (bank, credit card, electric, phone, etc.) and ensure copies of all statements, bills, receipts and slips have been downloaded or received. Make arrangements to get copies if you don’t have them.
  • Review email folders and ensure all receipts are transferred to the appropriate folders on your hard drive.
  • Transfer all receipts you can claim on your income taxes (tuition receipts, charitable donations, etc.) to the current year’s Income Tax Note any items that you may be missing and follow up with the agency to make sure you get the documents you need to file your taxes.
  • Move receipts from important purchases (e.g., high value items and those still under warranty), from the current year’s receipts folder to the Guarantees and Instructions Scan receipts if you haven’t already done so during your monthly maintenance. Retain these receipts as this shows proof of ownership should you require repairs to the items or if they are lost due to fire or theft.
  • Review items in your Guarantees and Instructions folder and dispose of any receipts and instruction booklets for items you no longer own.

Once your annual maintenance is complete, move your inactive paper records to storage to clear a space for your new, incoming active records. On your computer, create a new “filing cabinet” folder with all of the same sub-folders for your new, incoming electronic records.

With your annual maintenance complete, you’ll be ready to start a new year of records management with ease.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our series on records and information management. Feel free to participate in our Information Management Forum and share your challenges and successes.

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RIM: Part six, building a filing system

We’ve spent the past few weeks determining which records we have and how long we need to keep them. We’ve eliminated records we don’t need and scanned those we want to convert to electronic format. Now we’re ready to file what is left.

Unclutterer Jeri wrote a great article about creating a personalized filing system. She asks some great questions about where you want to keep your files, as well as what types and colours of file folders you prefer.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about active and inactive records. I suggest you keep your active files close to where you need to process your paperwork. For example, you might get charitable donation receipts you can claim on your income taxes throughout the year. Your “current year” income tax file should be handy so you can place the receipts in the folder easily. Once you’ve filed your income tax, you still need to keep the receipts but you no longer need to process them so you can place the entire folder in another location — perhaps in a filing box in your attic.

Filing paper records

Your filing system should be easy to use. Jeri wrote some great advice for making filing easier. Unclutterer Dave has put together a list of criteria for buying a filing cabinet and Jeri provides even more advice and includes alternatives to the traditional filing cabinet.

For those of you that may not have space for a typical filing cabinet, Erin answered a reader’s question about filing cabinets that can double as end-tables or ottomans. A seagrass filing box is also an alternative for people who may be willing to sacrifice some sturdiness for appearance. For those of you who need something rugged and transportable, I suggest these plastic filing boxes. They are expensive but we’ve had ours for over 15 years. They’re water and insect resistant and they’ve endured six military moves (two of which have been overseas) and they still look and function as good as new.

Filing electronic records

I always suggest that people create a folder structure on their computer similar to their paper filing cabinet. Such as the one shown below.

The default listing of folders is alphabetical order. If this doesn’t work for you, adjust the names of the folders. For example, you could use the names Finance-Banking and Finance-Investment to list these two similar categories together. Some people might choose to create another folder called Finance and put both Banking and Investment as sub-folders. This is an adequate alternative however, too many sub-folders may make it difficult to find files or result in the same file being stored in multiple places. It’s best to keep the folder structure as simple as possible.

Vital Records

You may wish to store your vital records and other hard to replace documents in a fireproof and waterproof box in your home to protect them in case of disaster. Although heavy, this box would be easy enough to transport if you had to quickly evacuate your home. Some people prefer to keep their vital records in a safety deposit box at a bank or other financial institution. This is a good alternative as well.

Having an electronic copy of your hard to replace documents is a good idea. If your documents are ever lost, stolen, or damaged, you’ll have a copy of the original information (registration numbers, certificate numbers, etc.) and authorities can better assist you. From time to time you may be required to submit a copy of your passport or other ID to confirm your identity to authorities. Having an electronic copy will save you from digging out the original — especially important if you have to drive all the way to your bank.

NOTE: The electronic copies of vital records need to be kept secure as they are as valuable as the originals to identity thieves. Use encrypted cloud storage and password protect files and folders to keep these copies safe.

For those of you who are comparing our records management program to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, we have just completed our “containerizing” step. Congratulations! You now have an organized and functional records management system. Next week is our final installment, how to maintain our system so it runs smoothly.

 

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RIM: Part five, scanning paper records

Now that we’ve eliminated all of the records we no longer need, it’s time to organize the records we are keeping. Many people have a desire to go paperless and convert their paper records to electronic records. This is commonly called “imaging.” Here are some things to consider.

Is it worth imaging?

If you’re going to be shredding the paper within the next year, it may not be worth your time to scan it. The tax returns you are required to keep (but never actually look at again) may be able to sit quietly in a box until they are ready to be shredded. Focus on getting year’s documents imaged first, then work backwards in time if required.

Many user manuals for appliances and electronics are probably already in digital format. Don’t waste your time scanning them. Search for them online and download them. You can scan the receipt of purchase and keep that with the digital copy of your user manual.

Is imaging permissible?

Some governments and agencies will not accept imaged paper documents as “official records.” Most vital records and some other important documents (e.g., birth certificates, marriage licences, will, and investment certificates) are issued on paper and must remain on paper. Confirm with the agency or your legal/financial advisors if imaged documents meet the requirements of official records. The Government of Canada and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service have published guidelines on document imaging.

NOTE: You are welcome to use these imaging guidelines to store electronic copies of vital records and important documents but please do not destroy the originals!

File format

Files scanned for document preservation are typically stored as Tagged Image File Format (.tif) or Portable Document File (.pdf), both of which are lossless. Lossless means that every single bit of data that was originally in the file remains after the file is compressed and uncompressed. This is generally the technique of choice for text or spreadsheet files, where losing words or financial data could pose a problem. Lossy file formats (e.g., jpg) throw away the smallest pixels every time the file is re-saved. If you re-save too many times, the image would eventually disappear.

Scanning resolution

It is important to scan your documents at the proper resolution so that they are legible when viewed on the screen and when printed. The acronyms PPI and DPI are often used interchangeably however they are different. PPI means pixels per inch and measures resolution on the screen whereas DPI means dots per inch and measures resolution on print. The higher the DPI when an image is scanned, the higher quality it will be both on screen and in print.

Generally, office documents are usually scanned at 200-300 DPI. A higher resolution may be required if there is fine, small text or unclear penmanship (e.g., faint handwritten signature). Scanning in black & white produces smaller files and may be adequate for most plain text documents or line diagrams. Colour or greyscale scanning captures more detail but creates larger files.

You should scan a few sample documents and then print them out (what you see on the screen is not necessarily what you get when you print) to ensure that the re-produced image is identical to the original. Remember, your electronic records should be able to support you in the event of an audit or during any legal proceedings. This may mean scanning blank pages. For example, if your document has four pages, but there is only important data on three of those four pages, you must scan all four pages or your imaged document will be incomplete.

Your sample documents will also give you an idea of the size of files being produced and how much storage space you’ll need on your computer and in your backup locations.

Searchable scanned documents

If you need to be able to search for text within your imaged documents, you’ll need to perform OCR (optical character recognition) during the scanning process. OCR software is often included with scanner software and converts tiff/pdf files to machine-readable text. The success of the OCR process is dependent upon the quality of the scanned image. It works best with type-written text documents. It probably won’t work well with handwritten documents. Performing OCR during the scanning process may slow down the scanning speed but being able to search with your documents may be more important.

Naming your files

Decide on a naming convention — a system used to name your scanned files. As some computer systems have problems with the use of spaces in file names, use an underscore or dash instead (file_name.pdf). It is helpful to use dates in the YYYY-MM-DD format as files will be listed chronologically in the folder. An example would be 2017-04_electric_bill.pdf. You only need to use the DAY if you have more than one document per month (e.g., 1944-12-04_Grandpa_war_letter.pdf and 1944-12-21_Grandpa_war_letter.pdf). Whatever you decide, keep your system consistent.

Backing up your documents

Paperless expert Brooks Duncan, recommends the 3,2,1 rule. You’ll need to have at least three copies of your data, your original PDFs (most likely stored on your home computer) and two backups. You’ll need to keep these backups on two different media (for example, CDs and an external hard drive) and store one backup off-site in a safe location such as a safety deposit box. Take the time to plan your digital storage options before you start imaging.

Scanners

There are many different types of scanners that can do the job. Which type and brand you buy should be based on the type and amount of scanning you need to do, whether or not you need searchable documents and of course, your budget. Here are the basic types of scanners, the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and an example of each type.

Mobile scanner

  • Advantages: These are ideal for people on the go needing to scan receipts, papers, and business cards. Most models will create searchable PDFs. Some models have duplex scanning that allow both sides of a page to be scanned at once. They are USB powered so there is no need to use an electrical outlet.
  • Disadvantage: They scan rather slowly compared to desktop scanners and only scan one page at a time. They may not be suitable for delicate papers and won’t scan things like books. Some models won’t scan photos.
  • Example: Epson WorkForce DS-30 Portable Document & Image Scanner

Document scanner

  • Advantage: These allow for fast, double sided scanning and you can feed many documents different sizes at once. They can create searchable pdfs. They are rather small and can be easily moved and do not take up much desk space.
  • Disadvantage: They may not be suitable for delicate papers and won’t scan things like books.
  • Example: Fujitsu iX500 ScanSnap Document Scanner

Flatbed scanner with document feeder

  • Advantage: The document feeder allows lots of documents of different sizes to be scanned quickly. Some models may do double-sided scanning. They can create searchable pdfs. Having a flatbed allows for scanning of books, oversized and delicate papers.
  • Disadvantage: Because they are rather large, they are not easy to move around and take up quite a bit of desk space. The scanning speeds are usually slower than plain document scanners.
  • Example: HP OfficeJet Pro 8720 Wireless All-in-One Scanner Printer

In our household, we have two scanners. For business trips and when we move house (we’re a military family so we move frequently), the mobile scanner has been extremely useful. It takes up very little space in our baggage and allows us to scan receipts and documents in our hotel room. It’s great to have an instant electronic copy in case the original receipt is lost or damaged. We also have a flatbed scanner with document feeder we use at home. Being able to scan delicate photos and documents as well as the odd page of a book on the flatbed has been very helpful and using the document feeder allows piles of paper to be scanned quickly.

Eliminating the paper records

Once you are sure you have adequately imaged all your documents, return to your original retention schedule and note which paper records you have imaged and on which date. Indicate that the imaged documents are now your only record. Prepare to destroy the paper records.

Our next RIM post will be on how and where to store all of your papers and your digital documents. In the meantime, happy imaging!

 

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RIM: Part four, disposition of paper and electronic records

We’ve done a lot of work so far looking at recordkeeping principles, preparing an inventory of our files, and building a retention schedule. Now comes the fun part — eliminating all of the records no longer needed. Here are the steps you can follow to prepare for disposition.

  1. On your retention schedule, take a yellow highlighter and highlight everything that can be shredded (paper) or deleted (electronic).
  2. Designate an area in your home to put paper files to be deleted. For electronic documents, create a folder on your hard drive or use an external hard drive to store documents to be deleted. Do not use your computer trash/recycle bin just yet. It’s easier to compile everything to be deleted in one place and then decide how best to get rid of it.
  3. This step is tedious but necessary. We need to go through each folder, page by page and we need to look “inside” each electronic document. For those of you who are comparing records management to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, this step is akin to looking through your pockets before donating clothing.
    • For paper files, you know that you’re eliminating all paper electric bills from 2007-2009 so you do not have to read each page, merely confirm that the piece of paper is an electric bill from 2007-2009. However, you never know if an important document such as a birth certificate is accidentally stuck between some of the papers. Using a rubber fingertip cover, will speed along the process of going through pages. Place the pages to be shredded in designated disposal area.
    • For electronic records, you do not necessarily need to open each file. You can look through most of them using the preview pane on your PC or Quick Look on your Mac. Once you’ve confirmed that the file should be deleted, move it to the designated “to be deleted” folder.

Destroying Paper Records

Examine the amount of paper you need to dispose of. Home-use shredders are a great option if you are able to do a bit at a time or you don’t have much to shred. However, most home shredders take only 5-10 pages at a time and only run continuously for about five minutes before they overheat so if you have boxes and boxes of paper to be destroyed, consider using a document destruction company such as Iron Mountain or Shred-It. These companies have drop-off points in many cities and you may be able to schedule a pick-up at your location. Whatever document destruction company you choose, ensure they meet NAID (National Association for Information Destruction) standards.

Destroying Electronic Records

If the electronic records you wish to dispose of are on your main hard drive, simply deleting them is fine. Eventually, that portion of your hard drive will be over-written with other data. If you chose to place those electronic records in a partition or on a separate hard drive, you need to securely delete the files so they cannot be retrieved again. To do this, here are some tips for Windows users and here are some tips for Mac users. If you’re not comfortable managing this yourself, some document destruction companies offer a secure hard drive destruction service.

One last step

Take the highlighted retention schedule you prepared in Step 1. For each record series highlighted, write the either “DELETED” or “SHREDDED” and the date beside the name. This serves as a reminder of what documents you destroyed and when you destroyed them. If you’re using a paper retention schedule, keep this document with the other records you wish to keep. If you’re using an electronic version, add a column to your spreadsheet with the destruction date. Save it in a non-editable format (e.g., pdf) with the other records you wish to keep.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully purged all of the records you no longer need! Next week, we’ll take a look at organizing the records that you need to keep.

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RIM: Part three, retention schedule

One of the most difficult things for many people is figuring out how long to keep their records. Some people either keep everything “just in case” resulting in a houseful of papers and hard drives full of files. Some people destroy everything “to keep things simple” and then realize they’ve shredded an irreplaceable document or permanently deleted an important file.

A retention schedule will solve many of these problems. It is simply a table that states how long records need to be kept. The retention schedule is our decision-making guide on what to purge and when. If we continue our comparison with the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, this is the preparation for “P = Purging.”

Different records need to be kept for different periods of time. How long records are kept depends on:

  • what the records are (store receipts vs. birth certificates);
  • why the records are needed (returning an unneeded item vs. proving you exist);
  • your personal situation (personal purchase vs. claiming for a business);
  • where you live (different countries have different laws, rules, and regulations).

For some documents, we can provide some basic guidelines. Jeri wrote great articles on what receipts to keep and what to toss, and what documents are worth saving. Vital records and documents that are hard to replace should be kept forever (e.g., birth certificates, citizenship certificates) or until superseded (e.g., wills, insurance policies).

Because this is the world-wide web and our readers are very diverse, it is almost impossible for us to provide retention periods for specific documents. Here are a few suggestions as to where you can do research on determining retention periods for various types of records.

  • Your country’s taxation centre. The IRS in the United States, the CRA in Canada, and HMRC in the U.K. all provide information about document retention for individuals (your own personal documents) and small businesses.
  • Bookkeepers, accountants, lawyers, notaries, investment advisors, and bankers. Some of these professionals provide retention guidelines on their websites. Just be sure that they are located in the same legal jurisdiction as you are. You may wish to book an appointment with an expert to discuss your specific situation.
  • Medical professionals. Ask your doctor, nurse, or social worker how long you should keep health records. This is especially important if you’re claiming health and/or disability benefits.
  • Your employer. Many employers will provide guidelines on how long to keep your employment related records such as receipts from a business trip, medical records due to work-related injuries, performance reviews, etc.

If you manage a small business:

  • Business development groups, either government or non-profit, usually have resources that are available on document retention for your country/state/province etc.
  • Your industry association may have retention guidelines specific to your type of business. For example, someone who installs fireplaces may need to retain different records from someone who operates a cleaning service.
  • Other resources may include the Departments of Labour, Occupational Safety and Health, and Workers Compensation division. Even if you do not own or manage a business, these agencies may provide useful information on how long to keep certain files in your own employment records.

Determining how long to keep your records may take some time but don’t get discouraged. Keeping only the essential information will save space — both physical and virtual — and it will save you time should you decide to convert your paper records to electronic format. There’s no point in scanning documents you could destroy.

Once completed, your retention schedule will look something like the table below.

In the business world, the “Citation” column is the reference to the legal or policy requirement to retain the document. For your personal records, you can add where you found the record retention information (e.g., website, name of insurance agent, banker, etc.) By doing this now, it will make it easy later on when you need to refer back and see if there are any updates. (HINT: We’re preparing for the “E = Equalize” step in the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing!)

Remember, if two different citations state different retention periods, you need to keep the records for the longer period. Let’s take a look at an example from my own records. When we live in Canada and buy fuel for our car we keep the fuel receipt until we reconcile it with the bank statement then throw the receipt away. However, while we were living in England, due to our visa status, we were eligible for tax exemptions on fuel. We had to keep all of our fuel receipts and submit them every quarter for reimbursement of taxes. Because this was a government reimbursement, we are required to keep those fuel receipts for the same duration as we would keep our income taxes.

Coming up next, disposition and assigning storage location.

 

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RIM: Part two, record types and records inventory

In Records and Information Management, part one, we discussed GARP, Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles®. Today we’ll cover a few definitions and then prepare to organize records by doing a records inventory.

What is a record?

A record has recorded information, regardless of format, that is created or received by our household to conduct its daily activities. Examples of records include:

  • Bank statement (paper) delivered by mail
  • Utility bill (electronic) downloaded from the utility company’s website
  • Email receipt from the items you purchased online
  • Photo of a check from your friend who bought your old dining room suite

Three types of records: Active, Inactive, and Vital.

Active records are those needed to do your day-to-day activities. They include the water bill that you have to pay next week, receipts for items purchased that need to be reconciled with your bank account.

Inactive records are those that you need to keep for a specific period of time but will not likely refer to often, if at all. This can include your previous years’ income tax return, your will, and instruction manuals for items you purchased and still own.

Vital records are issued by government agencies to prove you exist. These include birth certificates, social security numbers, and passports. They can also include legal documents such as a deed to a house, adoption certificates or any other documents that might be difficult to replace.

Aren’t inactive records the same thing as archives?

Actually, no. Many people get archives and inactive records confused. Inactive records are destroyed as soon as they are no longer needed. Archives are a curated collection of inactive records that are kept forever. Not all inactive records are kept forever, just significant records — mementos of an important time or event. For example, the stub of your very first pay statement should have been shredded after you had filed your income taxes for that year. However, there is a justifiable reason to keep only the first one — as a memento of your first job. (Note: In business and industry, archives are built with many series of records that show the evolution of the business over time. Most households don’t need to keep an archive this detailed.)

Records Inventory

Before organizing, it is important to do an inventory to determine which types of records you have and where they are located. If we compare this to the S.P.A.C.E. model of organizing, the inventory is the “S” for sorting. However, rather than move boxes and physically sort through paper and computer files two or three times each, the inventory creates a short-cut so that you will save time when it comes to the next step, “P” for purge.

During the inventory, it is not necessary to list every document in every file. List groups of records and their date ranges. Remember to look in all of the places where you may have stored records. Also, there may be records stored on various computers, external hard drives, and cloud storage spaces so ensure you verify those as well.

As you progress through the inventory process, you will notice common characteristics about the records that you have. Some items like electric bills, water bills, heating bills, you can group into a common category such as Utilities.

Create a spreadsheet to keep track of the information as shown in the example below. It is helpful to add columns that tell how often the document is created, and how often the document is accessed.

You shouldn’t do a detailed re-arranging of files at this point but feel free to pile storage boxes and filing cabinets into one room. For example, if the attic is creepy and difficult to access, you could move those boxes into your home office. If you move the boxes remember to note the new “current location” on your inventory sheet.

Next up, we’ll look at how to know which records to keep and which to purge.

 

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RIM: Part one, Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles

Back in 2007, Erin wrote a series of posts on reducing paper clutter. In the past 10 years, there have been many changes. In some cases, the rules and regulations regarding the access and storage of paper and digital documents have changed. Technology itself has changed, and since more and more information is coming to us in electronic format, many of us are now overwhelmed by paper and digital clutter.

So, let’s look at this subject from the “managing information” point of view.

In the business world, organizing paper and electronic documents is commonly referred to as records and information management (RIM). Businesses have (or should have) systems set up to create, store, archive, and dispose their documents according to rules and regulations pertaining to their specific industries. Our homes are not businesses but there are several similarities. We have records related to income and expenses (receipts, pay statements). We have documents that prove we exist (birth certificates, social security cards) and that we have done things (school report cards, employment reviews).

We can adapt RIM theory to our households. ARMA International has developed Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles® (GARP). Let’s see how these principles can be applied to our personal and household recordkeeping.

Accountability: Someone in your household needs to be responsible for managing paper and electronic documents and information. If information management is to be a shared duty, ensure all of those who participate in the process know which tasks need to be done and how they should be done.

Integrity: Your paper and electronic documents need to be authentic and reliable. Ensure you have the original documents where required. If you transfer your paper documents to electronic format (or vice versa), ensure it is done properly. We will cover how to do this in an upcoming post.

Protection: Your records need to be safe. Paper documents, especially vital records and legal documents, should be kept in a locked safe or filing cabinet. Electronic records should be backed-up in at least two different places and password protected.

Compliance: You need to adhere to all laws and regulations pertaining to your information. If you have a home business, you might be required to keep different information from someone who does not. Those with unique financial or medical situations may be required to comply with other rules and directives. We’ll cover more about this in an upcoming post.

Availability: This is a key point for most people. You need to be able to access records easily and in a timely manner. Knowing which documents are paper and which are electronic, as well as where, and how they are stored is essential. We’ll review paper and electronic filing systems.

Retention: It is important to keep records for the required period. For example, the United States Internal Revenue Service requires that you keep your income tax records for three years after filing (and up to 7 years in certain circumstances). The Canada Revenue Agency requires six years. If you have receipts that were submitted for income taxes for both countries, you must keep records for the longer of the two. We’ll discuss a retention schedule that will help you develop an organized filing system.

Disposition: Most records need to be destroyed at the end of their lifecycle either by physical destruction such as shredding paper or destroying CDs, or by securely erasing/reformatting computer drives. Eliminating unneeded records saves space in your filing cabinet, saves time because you don’t have to manage so much stuff, and reduces your risk of identity theft because unneeded information is destroyed. However, you may wish to keep some records for your archives (e.g. stub from your first pay check, ownership papers from your first car, etc.)

Transparency: Finally, it is important that your system understandable to certain other people. Of course, if you’re sharing these duties with a spouse/partner, you both need to understand the system. You also need to be able to explain it to an auditor (should the tax man ever visit) and the executor of your estate should be able to easily understand how you process your documents as well.

We’ll dive deeper into all of these topics over the next few weeks. By the time we’re through, you’ll have an excellent, easy-to-manage filing system.

 

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House Hunting Trip, part 1

Being a military family, we have been through several relocations (12 so far) in our 27 years. Prior to each move, we are allotted between 5 and 7 days to find a new home — our “house hunting trip”. If you’re moving soon, here are a few tips that can help make your house hunting trip a little less stressful.

Define your needs and wants

We always make two lists when we are searching for a home — one list with the absolute minimum we will accept and another one with some features that we would really appreciate. For example, our bicycles are an essential mode of transportation for us so we need secure outdoor storage. We need at least a large garden shed or a one-car garage. We would really appreciate a two-car garage.

Other questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do you want an older home with character and potentially higher maintenance costs or a newer home with modern design and lower maintenance costs?
  • Do you need to be close to a specific school for your children?
  • Do you need to be on a direct public transit route to work/school?
  • Do you want to be close to fitness centres, cycling/hiking trails, dog parks, grocery stores?

Remember to speak to your financial advisor to determine what kind of mortgage payment you can manage and factor that in to your needs and wants list.

Research homes and neighbourhoods

Real estate websites have detailed listings of homes that are available but check Google Maps and Street View to get an idea of what the neighbourhoods are like.

Contact a real estate agent as soon as you know you’ll be moving into the area. They know the area very well and they know the market. Provide your list of needs and wants as well as your budget and a timeline of when you plan on moving into the new home. Your agent can put together a list of potential properties based on the requirements you provide.

Research other information such as tax rates, schools, and crime statistics. You might also want to verify costs for services such as electricity, water, heating fuel, internet accessibility and other municipal services such as public transit and garbage/recycling collection.

Following the Twitter accounts for public transit, city services, local traffic, and local police will also give you some good information about the city as will listening to live-streaming of local news radio stations.

If you’re lucky enough to know people who live in your new city, reach out to them for advice. They might be able to connect you to Facebook or LinkedIn pages and groups that can provide information about your new area.

Consider renting

Your house-hunting trip may only be a week long and you may have a limited selection of homes to choose from. Rather than invest money in a house you may not be happy with, consider renting. While you are residing in a rental property, you will have the opportunity to get to know your new city, its neighbourhoods, traffic patterns, and amenities. You’ll have to move again (out of your rental and into your own home) but that hassle might be worth it if you can take the time to find your dream home in your preferred neighbourhood.

Indicate to your real estate agent that you are open to renting if you don’t see what you want to buy. Do a bit of research into the landlord-tenant regulations and standard leases in your new area to ensure you are comfortable with the terms of a rent or lease agreement (for example, how much notice must you give before you move out, are there penalties for moving out early, etc.).

Prepare before you go

Most realtors will be able to send you a list of potential homes before you arrive. Go through the list and eliminate any homes that do not meet your minimum requirements. Have your realtor make viewing appointments for any homes you do want to visit.

Ask if your realtor will be chauffeuring you around or whether you will be driving the realtor around. If it is the latter, take a few moments to enter the addresses of the homes you’ll be visiting into your car’s navigation system — if you’ll be using your own car. If you’ll be using a rental car you can use your own GPS or app on your phone.

Check your cell phone plan to ensure you will have phone/text/data coverage in your new area. Your phone company might offer a data roaming add-on for a discounted rate. This is especially important if you are using your phone as a navigation system.

Purchase a paper map of your new city. They have the advantage of allow you to view a much larger area and it is easy to see in one glance the location of all important landmarks and features (e.g., shopping centres, parks, etc.) near each home.

Book a hotel nearest to the neighbourhood where you’re looking for homes. There’s nothing worse to waste your time than being stuck in downtown traffic when you’re trying to get out to the suburbs on the far side of town. It’s also nice to be able to return to your hotel for a bit of a break and to freshen up between showings.

Finding a new home and moving can be stress inducing but when you are prepared ahead of time, you will find it much easier to make a home-buying decision.

Learning from failure: a Bullet Journal experiment update

After starting my Bullet Journal experiment, I wrote down my worries concerning maintaining the experiment. One worry was boredom, one was letting things slide because success would lead to overconfidence, and the third concern was getting distracted. Specifically I said:

Good habits aren’t easy to form, but so simple to break. Think about a gym-commitment. How many times do you start some exercise program only to stop because for two days in a row, you are too busy to go to the gym? This happens to me all the time at work. My best intentions get trashed because I arrive and have to solve any number of mini (or not so mini) crises.

I promised myself that I would spend at least five minutes a day updating my various Bullet Journals, but in November, things fell apart. I managed to keep up some semblance of lists until mid-November, but after the 20th, I added one entry on the 30th and nothing since then. In my home-related journal, the abandonment happened well before that. And other than medical appointments, I haven’t added anything to my agenda in a long time.

Since things aren’t working, I need to step back and examine what went wrong and I need to go back to my root reasons for creating the Bullet Journal in the first place. Those are simple:

  • to create a record of everything I do at work so that I can plan better each year (as almost everything is repeated annually),
  • to make sure I don’t forget any task or activity due to being busy or distracted, and
  • to learn to blend work-Alex with home-Alex to create better balance.

Okay, so if those are the three objectives, what went wrong?

I got distracted by technology. Remember how I moved from iPad Pro? It allowed me to create an infinite number of journals. Bad idea! I’m a minimalist and need everything in one place.

Each day more than half of my workday was taken up with covering the tasks of an employee on sick leave. When I had time to do my own work, I ran around putting out all the mini fires that were popping up because I wasn’t keeping a watchful eye on the whole bonfire.

By separating out work and home journal, I complete negated the third objective and went back to my comfort zone which is to put my focus and energies into work.

Does that mean the Bullet Journal experiment has been a failure? Only if I let it.

The good thing about calling the project an experiment is that failure is built into the name. Most discoveries are made through systematic trial and error and each failure is considered progress towards the desired result rather than proof that the project isn’t worth pursuing.

J.K. Rowling gave a speech years ago about the power of failure (included in this great list of her successes). Failure is part of the learning process. If we let failure stop us from moving forward then the failure and any related suffering has served us for nothing. Of course, the result may be  abandoning the project. It’s madness and soul-destroying to continue something when it’s obvious that the originally desired result is not possible.

But that is not my case.

With the holiday season upon us, now more than ever, I need to refocus and go back to my original plan — one journal with all my information together. I will stay with the digital version instead of going all the way back to my physical journal (although they are so nice to touch and feel) because the digital version allows me to move pages around and insert images and with ease.

How have you used failure to refocus your projects and find new and better ways to create progress?

Celebrating success: a Bullet Journal experiment update

It’s not the prettiest Journal, but it works.

The first two weeks of September are always the busiest in my day job and usually I get to launch day exhausted, facing a hundred little crises, and with a knot in my stomach because I have not had time to complete some really important tasks.

This year, however, everything has gone as smooth as silk and I have to attribute the success to my use of my Bullet Journal. Of course, every year, I make to-do lists, but always in a haphazard manner on a variety of different pieces of paper and/or computer files and emails.

I also managed to be productive in my personal life as well. Remember how I made the decision to be purposeful about my choices in life? Well, that has extended into this crazy period of the year, and despite ten and twelve hour days at work, I’ve been in better and more meaningful touch with my husband and friends than I’ve been in years.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why the Bullet Journal has produced different results, but I do have a few ideas.

  • Part of it is because I knew I was using it as an experiment here on Unclutterer, so I never let a day pass without updating the Journal.
  • By giving work and personal life tasks and thoughts equal priority, one never took over the other. And success in one area motivated me and encouraged success in the other.
  • I hate rigid rules and the rebellious teenager in me always wants to break them, so having been told right from the start that “rules” for Bullet Journaling are meant to be broken, my inner-teen never needed to rebel.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. Now that I write everything down, if it’s not in the Journal, it doesn’t happen. For example, in preparing to go down to our apartment in La Rioja last Friday, I reminded myself to take the house keys off their hook and leave them out where I could see them, but I didn’t write it down. Did I forget my set of keys? You bet I did!

The index is useless for me. I know I am never going to go back to review things. My lists and thoughts are “in the moment” things. Once completed, I move on. In my next Journal, the index will disappear.

The Future Planning portion makes no sense to me. I prefer to have a section with the whole year divided into months so that the planning can go there (one side of the page with the days of the month and the other with notes).

I also have added a section. This Monday, I created a weekly calendar that went before this week’s lists. It helped me organize my time in such a way that I didn’t forget a single appointment and I managed to squeeze in free-time and relaxation before the week’s craziness took over.

Bullet Journals: an experiment in productivity

As I head into my vacations, I’m getting myself organized for the new year and for me, that starts in September. I would like to find ways to avoid both the organized disorganization and crisis-inspired chaos that always kills my best intentions to stay on top of my daily tasks and move my various pet projects forward.

Recently, a reader asked about bullet journals, so I investigated the Bullet Journal website created by the digital product designer Ryder Carroll. After poking around, I decided that I’m going to give this system a try. It’s going to be a challenge for me because there seems to be lots of parts to it and various stages. However, I’m going to go in with a good attitude.

First off, I will set myself up on the system before I go away on holiday so that I know exactly what I need to do the day I get back in order to hit the ground running.

My first task is to choose myself a notebook. At work, we have spiral-bound notebooks that have been branded with the company’s image, but I don’t think I will use one of those. The Bullet Journal website also sells their own book, but it’s a bit too expensive for me. Instead, I think I will go for my favorite writing notebook, the Moleskine Journal. It’s a good size, opens flat on the desktop well, and is about the same size as my iPad so can go into the iPad’s slipcover for easy transport.

While it might take me a while to get used to the various ways bullet points are expressed through rapid logging (there seem to be so many!), I rather like the idea of putting an ever-growing index at the beginning of the journal. Always in the past, I’ve made to-do lists and then once I’ve crossed off or migrated the task, I’ve forgotten about it, making it a challenge to remember the repetitive tasks that I do every year, every month, or even every week. By having an index that I can refer to at a glance, I’ll be able to remind myself of what sorts of things I need to be thinking about.

(On a side note, it has suddenly occurred to me that I should probably include personal topics in this journal as I’m notorious for forgetting things and thus leave organizing family events to the last minute, or not at all.)

I also like the next section of a monthly calendar with events to record (before and after) as well as a page for tasks in the month. This section will be extremely useful next July when I am organizing the 2018-2019 year. It does, however, take up a lot of space in the notebook, making me wonder if perhaps I’ve chosen a book with not enough pages.

Then again, when reading about the daily task lists, I won’t be using a full page each day. So as to not waste paper, each day’s list is created the night before, meaning I won’t need over three hundred pages to cover the whole year.

The notebook is now set up and ready to use. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I fear that it’s going to take some dedication to stick to the system, but in having organized the notebook, I can already see how it is going to help me. And most surprisingly, I believe it’s going to be more helpful in my personal life than at work.

I’ll let you all know how it goes. Have any of you had a good or bad experience using the Bullet Journal system?

The least glamorous part of organizing

A significant uncluttering and organizing project can be exhilarating. You can see huge progress, and things that bothered you for a long time can find solutions.

But then there’s the ongoing maintenance: putting the toys back in place, dealing with the mail, etc. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this part of the organizing process, but it’s critical. Sadly, there is no magical organizing fairy who can complete the maintenance work with a wave of her wand. Given that, the following are some suggestions for tackling maintenance activities.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

Getting behind on maintenance happens to everyone I know at times, including myself and other fellow organizers.

Minimize the amount of maintenance required

If dealing with mail is overwhelming, you might invest some time in getting off mailing lists so there won’t be as much incoming mail. You can also look into going paperless for bank statements, bills, etc.

Reconsider who is doing the maintenance work

If you share your household with a spouse, domestic partner, children, or roommates, look at how the maintenance work is divided and see if there might be a better way to split up that work.

And if your budget accommodates it, consider paying someone to do certain tasks that are time-consuming or especially annoying.

Make the maintenance easier

Sometimes little adjustments, such as adding (or repositioning) a wastebasket, recycling bin, or laundry hamper can make a big difference. Using hooks instead of hangers can make it easier for some people to put away their coats, bathrobes, and such.

If your closets and other storage spaces are already quite full, minimizing new purchases (or instituting a one-in, one-out rule) will make it easier to ensure everything has an appropriate storage space, so it’s easy to put things away.

Determine what schedule works best for you

Do you do best with a short amount of maintenance work daily, or a larger chunk of time once/week — or some other schedule? Experiment and find a routine that feels comfortable for you.

Create holding places for items in between maintenance sessions

An inbox for mail, receipts, and other scraps of paper will keep them from being misplaced until you go through them to toss/recycle, shred, scan, or file. Maybe you’ll want a bin for things left laying around the living room (or other spaces) until your next scheduled time for putting all those things away.

Plan for ongoing uncluttering, too

Even if you’ve done a complete uncluttering exercise, it’s worth revisiting your possessions periodically. Children outgrow clothes and toys. Adults find their interests change. And almost everyone makes a few purchases that don’t work out, resulting in items that should be returned, donated, etc.

Look for ways to make maintenance time more pleasant

Having good tools (a shredder that doesn’t jam, nice clothes hangers, etc.) will make the work less annoying. A pleasant workspace for handling the paperwork can make a big difference, too. Some people enjoy listening to music as they do the work. Others give themselves mini-rewards after the work gets done.