How to buy a filing cabinet

blue filing cabinetLast week I brought a filing cabinet to the dump. I was very happy to see it go.

I bought that cabinet on a whim. It was cheap, small and seemed perfect for what I needed. Less than a year later, it had one drawer that wouldn’t close and four others that had become junk drawers. I hated it, ignored it and used its top to stack papers. It had to go and, more importantly, it taught me how to properly buy a filing cabinet.

Today, I know what makes a perfect filing cabinet for me. Here’s what I found.

First and foremost, it must fit all of the documents I wish to file and fit into the allotted space in my home office. My work space is a small, second-floor room in a house with dormers, so there’s not a lot of wall space available. Therefore, a traditional vertical cabinet is for me. Perhaps a horizontal cabinet will work best in your space. This really is a crucial first step, so make this decision your starting point.

When I say “it must fit,” I mean both physically and within my workflow. Vertical and horizontal cabinets are used differently. A vertical cabinet is most traditional and features two to five drawers. Contents run front to back and face the user. There’s a lot of internal space, but files aren’t easy to get at. A vertical cabinet is a good choice for archival or reference files you don’t look at often.

A horizontal cabinet takes up more wall space and offers more interior space than vertical models. The benefit is their contents are much easier to access, so if you’ve got to get at files several times per day, a horizontal cabinet is a great choice.

Finally, I make sure my cabinet is within “swivel distance” of my desk. Human beings tend to follow the path of least resistance, so I make it as easy as possible to put something in my filing cabinet: just swivel my chair.

Next, a cabinet must be durable. That is to say, I don’t want to be stuck with that one drawer that won’t open unless you yank on it (or shut unless you slam it), the wonky wheel or busted handle. Much of this depends on what the cabinet is made of. The most common materials are metal and wood.

A metal cabinet can stand up to years of use and still look good. They are also easy to maintain and come in colors other than the plain beige you’re probably envisioning right now. They’re also easy to paint, so feel free to make it your own. When shopping for a metal cabinet, make sure it has a protective coating to prevent rust and double-walled steel sides for durability. No, metal filing cabinets are not flashy, but they do their job well.

Wooden cabinets look great and come in a huge variety of styles. They’re less durable than their steel counterparts, but if you’re in a low-volume office or a home setting, you’ll have it for years before it shows signs of wear. For a high-volume setting, where you’re in and out of drawers all day, go with a metal model.

If your chosen filing cabinet sits directly on the floor, consider placing it on a wheeled caddy. This can be very helpful when you need to move the cabinet to clean behind it or rescue your favorite pen.

Safety is another consideration. First, I want to keep my documents safe. If you’ll be filing important documents, like a birth certificate or social security card, consider a fire proof cabinet or one that locks (or both). I like to keep these things off-site in a safe deposit box, but if you must store them at home, make sure they’re safe.

I also want to be sure that anyone who uses the cabinet is safe. Look for interlocking drawers that will prevent tipping when multiple drawers are open at once. Additionally, cabinets with ball-bearing suspension systems will open reliably for years, so no wonky drawers that you yank open in frustration, risking injury.

Style, structure and safety are very important when looking for a filing cabinet, but easily overlooked. Like any tool you introduce to your workflow, a filing cabinet should be taken seriously. Happy shopping and let us know what you end up with.

Get organized at a new job

Transitioning to a new job can be stressful. There’s a new culture to adapt to, a new schedule, new routines, and the desire to demonstrate that you are, in fact, the right person for the job. If you’re returning to the working world after an absence, the stresses are even greater. To keep your anxiety in check, let organizing help you.

New information

Whenever you start a new job, you receive a lot of information all at once. Numerous papers (maybe even binders) from the human resources department (retirement, vacation time, policies and procedures, etc.) and work-specific protocols (how to reserve a meeting room, where to take breaks) all hit you at once.

If you’re working in an office setting, I recommend buying two binders ahead of time or acquire two hanging file folders. Label one binder or hanging file folder Policies and the other Benefits. Then, get dividers for the binder or manilla folders for subdivisions. Sort the papers you receive into the two categories major categories right away. Next, divide those two piles into reference materials and things that require action. The reference material can be safely stored in the appropriate binder, while the actionable forms (retirement, wellness policy, etc.) should be scheduled on your calendar for when to be completed and returned (you’ll likely want to make copies of these documents, too, to keep in your binder/file).

Next, recognize that you probably don’t need to know all of that new information right now. Give yourself permission to read a little bit a day instead of all at once (feel free to schedule this reading time on your calendar, too).

Buy a small, portable notebook

The last time I started a new job in an office setting, it was the first time I had worked outside of my home in many years. I had a lot of questions and a lot to learn. To keep track of it all, I carried around a small notebook. When I learned a new protocol that wasn’t covered in the official documentation, I jotted it down. Even simple things like where to park in the parking lot when it was snowing, how to fill out a help ticket with the IT department, etc. Eventually I had a portable database of answers to assist me in navigating this new experience.

The benefits of my notebook extended beyond portability. For example, it cut down on the number of questions I had to ask. That’s always embarrassing as the new guy. Also, it let me record ideas that I wanted to share in a weekly meeting with my supervisor.

Personal effects

The amount and type of personal stuff you can bring to work — reference books, photos, earphones, bobbleheads — depends on many factors, like the type of work you do, the setting, and the company’s policies. Another factor to consider here is the culture. Do your new co-workers decorate their workspaces? Are you in an office or out in the field? Take a week or so to get a feel for how that stuff is handled before considering what to do with your desk.

Quick tips

Lastly, there are a few quick tips that you will probably want to adopt, no matter what your new gig entails:

  1. Find a veteran at the company who can answer questions and help you navigate the daily grind who isn’t your boss or supervisor — a buddy to explain all the little stuff. Keep it casual and try not to overwhelm the person, too.
  2. Set expectations. Ask your supervisor for a weekly check-in meeting, at least for the first month.
  3. Be clear on the company’s dress code before your first day. A quick call to the human resources department will help you with this before you buy a new wardrobe or show up in a suit while everyone else is in jeans and t-shirts.
  4. Politely ask how people wish to be addressed. Does your boss wish to be called Bob or Mr. Barker? And, if you’re unsure as to how to pronounce a co-worker’s name, again politely ask for guidance and practice until you get it right. The last thing you want to do is be at a company for years and then learn you’ve said someone’s name wrong the entire time.

Good luck! Starting a new job is exciting and with a little organization you can get past the initial anxiety quickly.

The ease of a non-junky junk drawer

In the 45 years I’ve spend on this planet, I’ve been in many homes. From my humble childhood home in Pennsylvania to the elaborate dwellings of well-off friends, all homes seem to have one thing in common: a junk drawer.

I think a junk drawer is a good thing to have. It’s a place for oft-used items like pens and note paper, as well as those piddly little things that don’t fit anywhere else: bobby pins, rubber bands, scissors, a ruler. As a storage option, it’s fine, as all those items need a home. In execution, however, there’s often a problem.

The casual nature of a junk drawer fosters an overall lenient attitude. It is very easy to have a mess on your hands. Once it becomes difficult to find what you want, it’s time for an intervention.

First, pull out the drawer (if that’s possible) and move it to a large work surface like a table or counter. Next, remove everything from the drawer and lay it flat on the work surface. Then, while the drawer is empty, give it a good cleaning.

Next, turn your attention to uncluttering your drawer’s contents and answer a few questions about the objects:

  1. Is there somewhere else this should be? I mentioned bobby pins before, and perhaps they should be returned to the hair care supplies in your bathroom. Likewise, maybe the rubber bands and ruler would be easier to find if stored with office supplies in your home office.
  2. Do I need this? Any true examples of junk in your junk drawer should be treated as such. Throw them out.
  3. Does this still function? Pens with no ink, miniature pencils with no erasers, and so on need to go.
  4. Is this a duplicate? Do you need five Chip Clips in the drawer in addition to the four in use?

Once uncluttered, focus on organizing the drawer. Would an in-drawer organizer or small boxes (like those your checks came in) help you to keep objects in a specific place? (If you want to make recycled objects appear coordinated, you can always wrap boxes in washi tape or printed duct tape.)

Finally: Why did you wait so long to organize this space? I know that I often procrastinate on a project if, deep down, I don’t think I can successfully do it. But that’s not the case here. The junk drawer seems so low-priority, so informal, that I tend to ignore it until the day I realize I’ve got to pull it completely out to find anything.

To combat that tendency, I’ve put a six-month reminder on my calendar to get in there and have a good sort. It only takes fifteen minutes, costs nothing, and results in a storage area that’s easier to use — and that’s time well spent.

Organizational tips from top tech CEOs

Tim Cook (Apple CEO), Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder and CEO) are some of the biggest names in business. It’s likely that their products touch your life every day. With such a tremendous amount of responsibility, how do these titans stay organized and on top of everything they need to do?

Late last year, TIME magazine published a look at how high-profile tech CEOs stay organized. I love articles like this since a peek at such high-level organization and productivity is rare…and often surprisingly simple. The following are my favorite insights from the article.

Jack Dorsey gives each day a theme. Mondays are for management tasks, Tuesdays for focusing on products, and so on. I’ve set aside a day for administration type work, but never thought of giving each weekday a theme and, therefore, a focus.

Meanwhile, Marissa Mayer (president and CEO of Yahoo) looks to the impromptu moments that happen between meetings and scheduled get-togethers to spark meaningful ideas. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” she wrote to her employees in 2013.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg embraces the power of creating goals for himself. In 2010, for example, he set out to learn Mandarin Chinese. Just four years later, he stunned an audience at China’s Tsinghua University by conducting a 30-minute interview entirely in their native language.

Finally, Wendy Lea, CEO of Get Satisfaction, makes a point to empty her mind and spend time on reflection. “I take 15 minutes every morning for contemplation and to empty my mind. I take a bag full of thoughts I need cleared and each morning I pick one out, read it, and send it down the river near my house.”

I love this one as it seems we spend less and less time in quiet reflection, processing the day’s activities, lessons and challenges. It’s so easy to succumb to the temptation to fill every quiet moment with a smartphone or an app that there’s no time to let your mind work on what needs attention. I’m going to adopt this practice and intentionally make myself stop, reflect, and process each day.

Simple, powerful organizing advice

Last week, I came across a helpful article from 2007 on Zen Habits about 27 simple organizing habits. Twenty-seven is a lot of habits, but one of them (a three-parter) really struck me as being essential for an uncluttered life. If you’re looking for straightforward and easy advice to follow, consider adding Leo’s #21 as basic habits to your every day routines:

  1. Write things down
  2. Execute
  3. Tidy up along the way

Write things down

The act of writing things down helps you remember details. Think of the notes you took in college or the shopping list you can “see” in you head. Today more and more people are producing digital notes, but research suggests that’s not the best method as far as recall is concerned.

In 2014, the Association for Psychological Science conducted a study on note-taking and recall. A group of students were told to take notes on a lecture. Half of the subjects used a laptop while the others used pen and paper. While both groups memorized the same number of facts, the pen-and-paper group outperformed their counterparts in tests on the material. Why? It could be because writing is slower.

A recent study by Scientific American suggests that, in a note-taking scenario, we can’t possibly write everything down verbatim. Instead, we must listen closely and record key words or concepts that represent what’s being said in a meaningful way. Conversely, speedy typing lets us “drone out” and record everything, as if simply taking dictation.

Execute

Procrastination is a vile, seductive monster. While beneficial procrastination is possible, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Stop procrastinating and take time to do what must be done and simply do it. I start each day with my three MITs, or Most Important Tasks. When they’re complete, everything else I tackle that day is a bonus.

Tidy up along the way

I recently revealed here on Unclutterer that the tidy life doesn’t come easy for me. As such, I really dislike the idea of an entire Saturday spent cleaning. That’s why I’ve adopted the habit of tidying up along the way. It requires almost no additional effort and is immensely helpful.

Walking upstairs? Grab that book that goes on the upstairs bookshelf. Going outside? Put the recycling on the curb. All of these tiny tasks add almost no time to what you’re already doing, are super simple, and have a huge impact on the state of things in your home and office.

Big thanks to Leo at Zen Habits for inspiring this post. Three simple ideas — write it down, execute, and tidy up — can have a massive improvement on your surroundings and your day. If you make them a part of your routine, you’ll enjoy the results.

Organize your email inbox with SaneBox

For many, dealing with email can be a full-time job. New messages arrive before you’ve attended to the old. What’s worse is that messages can be lost, misdirected, or marked as spam and unintentionally end up in the trash, and finding the important emails among so many duds is a real time-waster. In my constant pursuit to get email under control, I’ve found a fantastic service that I’ve been using for months now that is helping me to effectively deal with my email woes, and it is called SaneBox.

To use SaneBox, simply create an account by entering the email address you wish to tame. Right away, SaneBox begins analyzing your email history, noticing the addresses you respond to, and those you don’t.

Right here I want to address the security questions that some of you probably have. When I started researching this software, my first question was, “Wait, they’re accessing my email?” Well, no. First, email never leaves your server. SaneBox does not take possession of your messages. Also, they only look at the email headers, which are composed of the sender, receipt, and subject. They look at the patterns in your email behavior (messages you’ve opened, responded to, etc.). In other words, they’re not reading or downloading your email. Phew.

Back to the service. When the setup process is finished, SaneBox creates a new folder in your email software for you called @SaneLater. The messages flagged as “unimportant” during that initial analysis are moved there. The rest, or the “important” messages, are left right in your main inbox as usual. The result: you only see the messages that mean the most when you glance at your inbox. This has saved me huge amounts of time.

Messages moved to @SaneLater aren’t deleted, so don’t worry. They’re simply in a new folder. While SaneBox is learning, it might place a message in @SaneLater that you consider important. In that case, simply move that message to your Inbox and future messages from that sender will stay in your Inbox. After a few days of training, I just let it go with my full trust. I’ve gone from around 40 messages per day to six or seven.

There are other options beyond the @SaneLater folder, all of which are optional. @SaneBlackhole ensures you never see future messages from a certain sender. @SaneReplies is my favorite folder. It stores messages I’ve sent that haven’t yet elicited a response. @SaneTomorrow and @SaneNextWeek let you defer messages that aren’t important today, but will be.

What’s nice is that SaneLater doesn’t care if you’re using Mac OS X, Windows, iOS or Android. It also sends you a digest (at a frequency you determine) of how messages have been sorted, in case you want to make any adjustments.

SaneBox offers a 14-day free trial. After that, there are several pricing tiers, available on a monthly, yearly or bi-yearly schedule.

Build a time buffer into your schedule

Under-scheduling your day — even by just 30 minutes — can be an effective method for keeping to your schedule all day.

I’ve been working from home, in one capacity or another, since 2009. Six years’ experience has allowed me to come up with many great organizational and productivity tricks, and one of the most effective strategies is essentially accounting for the unpredictable.

I’m a big fan of routine and scheduling. I know when I’m going to work on a given project or area of focus. Before I go to bed at night, I review what must be done the next day. That’s a great way to eliminate the dreaded “what should I work on first/now?” questions. By the time you sit at your desk, you should be ready to go.

But that’s not my favorite trick. I schedule nothing — not a single task — for the last hour of the day. This “time buffer” is handy in so many ways. A last-second appointment come up? No problem. Kids need to be picked up from school? Got it. Even if nothing comes up, you’ve now got to time to process email, work up your schedule for tomorrow, maybe even relax a bit and decompress for the day.

It’s easy to schedule every minute of the day, and even over-schedule. Try building in a time buffer each day for a week to see if it’s beneficial to your effectiveness and productivity. I suspect it will be.

Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Get your keys under control with Key Smart

Every now and then I come across a product that’s so cool and so in line with an uncluttered and organized lifestyle, I think, “I can’t wait to share this with the Unclutterer readers!” Today, that product is the Key Smart. Starting at $38.98), this device is a tidy, effective way to neatly store all of your keys. It’s made of aircraft aluminum, looks great, and easily swaps keys in and out.

I’ve managed to trim the number of keys I carry around to two, but a few years ago I looked like an old-time jailer with my house keys, shed key, various work keys, and keys for the car all in one obnoxious, noisy, and inefficient key ring. Finding what I needed meant a minute of standing and fiddling.

Now, I look at the Key Smart and wish I had had it back then. To attach a key, simply remove the two screws, place your key inside and then replace the screws and aluminum cover. When assembled, the Key Smart looks and operates much like a pocket knife (which I also love). Fold out the key you want, open your lock, and then fold it back into place. The whole unit slips into a pocket without becoming a jangle-y mess.

The manufacturers even sell add-on accessories, like a USB flash drive (by the way, if you have extra USB flash drives, consider ideas for what to do with them) and a quick-release clip if you like to keep your keys on your hip.

The importance of having tools you love

Think about the tools you use every day: to prepare your meals, to do your work, to clean your home, etc. Given how often you use these kinds of tools, it’s wise to look for ones that you enjoy using. This makes every day more pleasant, and it often saves money in the long term since you buy something once and don’t need to replace it.

What makes a tool enjoyable to use? Obviously, it must do its job very well. Good tools can make you more efficient and may also help you avoid procrastinating on a not-so-fun task. And sometimes one really good tool can replace a number of poorer quality tools, making your space less cluttered.

Another aspect of an enjoyable tool can be aesthetics. And sometimes there are also less tangible elements. For example, a product might bring back good memories.

You often don’t need to be extravagant to find such tools, either. The following are some examples I’ve come across recently:

Timer
I need a reminder to get up from my desk every 30 minutes and move a bit. I got the world’s simplest timer, and now I don’t forget. And it looks good sitting out on my desk, too.

Dish towels
Someone suggested flour sack dish towels to me some time ago, and I finally bought one. I really like it! I’m now planning to buy a few more, and pass my old towels along to someone else. Since my kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, I’m especially delighted to have towels that work so well for me, in a pattern that makes me smile.

Printer
Even though I try to go paperless as much as feasible, I still need a printer. I had an old HP printer that I could never make myself replace, even though it always annoyed me for purely emotional reasons. (I used to work for HP, and I feel sad about how the company has changed over the years.) When it broke a few weeks ago, I replaced it with an Epson, and now I wish I’d made the change earlier. I’m also delighted that the Epson is wireless, giving me one less cord needing to be controlled. I don’t know that I love this new printer, but I definitely like it a lot better than my previous one.

Smartphones and their apps
Sometimes the issue is not what to buy but how to configure the tool you’ve bought so it works well for you. I listened to a podcast where one speaker spent many hours arranging the icons on his iPhone based largely on functionality, but also based on creating a pleasing visual arrangement given the colors of the icons. The second part is not something I’d ever do, but I understand the aesthetic impulse. Getting the icon arrangement right was what he needed to do to make the smartphone a tool he loved.

If you have examples of tools you love, I would enjoy hearing about them in the comments.

The power in 15 minutes

Uncluttering is a lifelong endeavor. Perfection is not the goal, especially in a working home, and time is often a rare commodity in a busy home. Recently, I’ve been working to see how much I can get done in a small amount of time, and how good I can feel about the results. I’ve found that 15 minutes is a perfect amount of time to be productive and not feeling overwhelmed by the time commitment.

I started this experiment by cleaning the closet for half an hour without pause. I went about this logically, as I wanted measurable results. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and got to it.

It went well, but two things happened. First, my interest started to wane around the 20 minute mark. Other tasks — tidying the kitchen or the laundry room — took less than the 30 minutes I set aside, so I either ended early or started a second project that put me over my 30-minute limit.

Next, I dropped it down to 20-minute intervals with a smilier effect. Ultimately, I dropped down to 15 minutes, and it has been exactly what I needed.

I’ve stuck with this number for a few reasons. First, it’s quite easy to work for 15 minutes without getting distracted by something else. Second, I’ve been amazed at how many tasks only take about 15 minutes. I’ve been able to completely organize my desk reducing visual clutter, get laundry folded and put away, organize the kids’ stuff for the next day, and so on.

I also found that 15 minutes is perfect for doing one of my favorite things: a mind dump. I take a pen, a piece of paper, and the time to simply write down everything that’s on my mind — it is so liberating and productive. Even an overwhelming list of to-do items can seem manageable when you’ve got it written down. There’s a sense of being “on top of it” that comes with performing a mind dump, all in 15 minutes.

Find a timer and discover what length of time is good for your for completing most projects. You might find that 10 minutes works for you, or 20. The point is that when you say, “I’m going to work on this and only this for [x] minutes,” you’ll be surprised at what you can get done.

Organizing now to save time in the future

I recently heard a podcast where a former high school teacher was talking about how he prepared his lessons. He spent a lot of time preparing PowerPoint slides (with speaker notes) and practicing his delivery so he knew it worked well and fit the time he had. He said other teachers thought he was a bit odd for doing this much work, but his reply was that he’d much rather spend the time up front to save the time later. Once the lesson materials were created, he could pick up the same materials the next day or the next year and be ready to go.

As I listened to this, I thought about how so much organizing involves just this: doing some up-front work so things work smoothly in the future.

  • You create filing systems so you can find the papers (or computer files) you want when you need them.
  • You organize your books on bookshelves so you can find the book you want without too much trouble.
  • You organize your first aid supplies and create disaster preparation plans so you know you’re set for any future emergency.
  • You create to-do lists and checklists so you won’t forget critical things at some future time. For example, a packing list created once saves time on all future trips. It also prevents the trouble you’d have if you forgot your passport, some critical medications, the charger for your cell phone, etc.

Thinking about investing time now to save time in the future helps when trying to decide just how organized is “organized enough.” It makes sense for a teacher to invest extra time in lesson preparation when he knows he’ll be teaching the same lesson many times in the future.

Similarly, sometimes it’s worth spending more time on a filing system than other times. Some papers get accessed frequently, and others (such as insurance policies) are not needed that often — but when you do need them, the situation is critical. With those items it makes sense to spend time creating a well thought out filing system that lets you put your hands on the right papers almost immediately.

But other papers might be much less critical. For example, you may need to keep certain papers for legal reasons, but you don’t expect to ever have to access them — and if you do, the need won’t be all that time-sensitive. In that situation, you may want a much less detailed filing system, because it’s not worth the time to do anything elaborate. For example, a big collection of related papers (such as receipts for a given year) could just go into a Bankers Box. As long as the box was properly labeled, you could always find any papers you might need, in the off chance you do have to find any of them.

And consider your books — how organized do they need to be? My books are arranged by category (history, art, mysteries, science fiction, etc.). I’ll usually keep books by the same author together in a category, but I don’t do any further organizing within a category because I can find a book pretty quickly with just the system I have. If it gives you great pleasure to organize your books quite precisely, that’s fine — organize to your heart’s delight! But the rest of us can choose to be less structured.

As you’re creating each of your organizing systems, stop and think: Are you making a good trade-off between the time you’ll save in the future and the time you’re spending up front?