Reader suggestion: Staying organized with binder clips

Reader Christine, has a terrific little suggestion for staying on top of paperwork. A traditional tickler file didn’t work for her, so she found a system that did. After learning about her process, I asked if i could share her message to us in the form of a post. Thank you, Christine, for sharing your tip with us!

Like most people, I am constantly battling the paper monster. Though I am making strides in going digital, I had been struggling on how to organize the things I still receive as hard copies. Inevitably, there are things that need to be filed, paid, or acted upon in some way at some time that does not exactly coincide with the moment I first touch them. For me, letter sorters didn’t work — the papers would end up avalanching all over the place or would be sorted incorrectly. I had tried and failed to use a “to do” file folder; I personally benefit from visible reminders and would easily forget about them when I filed the papers.

After seeing small binder clips with “to do” and other similar words printed on them, I was inspired to create my own using regular large binder clips and a label maker. I printed labels on my label maker that read “To Do,” “To File,” and “To Pay,” placed them on the binder clips, and hung the clips on sleek aluminum pushpins on the inside of my coat closet door. The papers are out of sight when I want them to be, but serve as a visual reminder for all my “to dos” each time I open my closet door. The size of the clip also creates a limit to how long I can put off the inevitable.

This idea can be applied in various ways, of course. I can see it working on a bulletin board or wall in a home office, or inside of kitchen cabinets. (These colorful magnetic spring clips could be substituted on a chalk board or other magnetic surface.) You might want to have one by the front door for papers you must bring with you when you travel. This would also be a good way to organize kids’ homework or household information you need to frequently access (for that application, I could see laminated sheets on a ring, with the clips as identifiers). You could also use color-coding — either painting them yourself on regular black binder clips or by purchasing clips in various colors. No matter where, why, or how, it’s a cheap and easy idea that can help you be a little less paper-crazed.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

When previous uncluttering can come back to haunt you

Once upon a time, my husband and I were filling out forms for a background check and the forms required that we list all of our previous addresses. My husband can count the number of his residences on his fingers and recite all of them from memory. It took him about two minutes to complete his portion of the forms.

It took me about an hour to remember all of my previous places of residence, and then another two hours to track down the information. To count my addresses I need to use my fingers, toes, and maybe an elbow, knee, and ear. For example, during the decade of the 1990s, I had 10 different residences. In the year 2000, I had three residences. It was my first year living in D.C. and I moved three times in a single year. In my defense, though, my first apartment that year had snakes in the ceiling. SNAKES!

I have purged all of my pay stubs and tax documents from before 1998, so the years from 1991 to 1998 were the most difficult for me to obtain. And, of course, these were the years I was in college when every fall meant a new dorm room or apartment. I also imagine that if I did have these documents, that my parents’ address would be listed on them as my “permanent” address, anyway. I searched my home for old address books (to no avail), emailed former roommates (one address was found this way), and called my mom (she produced another one). I even discovered an address on a ski lift receipt I had pasted to a page in a scrapbook.

I eventually found the remainder of my previous addresses in a box of old love letters I had forgotten I had saved. My husband was laughing as I transcribed information off the fronts of the envelopes.

“You should write about this on Unclutterer,” my husband said when his laughter had subsided enough that he could speak. “Advise your readers to hold onto their old love letters so that they’ll have a record of where they used to live.”

“I think it would be easier to recommend that they keep a list of their previous addresses,” I countered.

“Yes,” he agreed, “but these letters are hysterical! This one guy talks for an entire page about how your souls are connected by invisible forces, like bungee cords.”

“Old letters from you are in that box,” I reminded him. “I could write about them on Unclutterer.”

“The list idea you mentioned sounds like a good idea to me,” he said.

“I thought you would like it.”

When purging papers from your home or office, let me recommend that you keep a list in a file in your filing cabinet or on your computer of all your previous addresses and addresses of your former places of employment. Even if you don’t have a need for them now, things could change and you might one day need the information.

Now I’m off to either scan and purge or find a more preservation-friendly storage option for my old love letters … well, after my husband and I get a few more laughs from them. Let us know in the comments if you have ever been too eager with uncluttering and what lessons you can share with our readers!

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

The big picture: Organizing work files

When I was in college, I served on the International Board of Officers for a community service organization. More than 10,000 kids across the world were members of the organization and 11 of us served on the Board the year I was a Trustee. Being on the Board was an incredible experience and it taught me a great deal about leadership, running a large organization, and time management. I was traveling nearly every weekend and I was constantly struggling to stay on top of my school work and other responsibilities.

A girl named Lisa was one of my fellow Trustees. She is one of the most naturally organized people I’ve ever met. If you say that you need something, she will reach into her purse and retrieve whatever it is you requested. You say that we should schedule a meeting, and her calendar is already open. Nothing is left to chance in Lisa’s world. And, since I was completely disorganized, she was definitely a positive influence on me.

At a meeting early in our year of working together, Lisa chided me for having a horrible filing system. I had four notebooks with pieces of paper shoved into them and referred to them as my “files.” After the meeting finished, she pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received:

“This organization was here before you were a member and will continue on after you graduate. If your files are messy, it’s fine for you now, but you’re not thinking of the people who are to serve after you.”

She was right. At some point, I would have to pass along my “files” to the next group of Trustees. I didn’t plan on being on the Board forever. When I inherited my files from the previous Board, they certainly didn’t look like they did when they were in my possession. I wasn’t inconveniencing myself, I was making things harder on the people who would serve after me.

I went home and immediately organized my files.

Since that day, I’ve always kept organized files for the exact reasons Lisa outlined for me years ago. Eventually, I’ll leave a job and someone else will have to come in to do the work. Or, if I need to take time off, a colleague might need to access the files without me there to point the way. Some files may have personal use, but, on the whole, work files are there to serve as a record for those who come into the job after you leave.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Reader Question: Scanning magazine clippings

Reader Ms. Ball sends in this question:

How does one handle weekly magazines that contain a hodgepodge of information? I have been reading such magazines since at least 2009 and there are a multitude of recipes and craft ideas in each issue that I would love to digitize so that I can reduce the actual paper and still have access to the information. Is there any current information on this subject? Woman’s World now seems to exist in somewhat of a digital format for e-readers and digital magazine services such as Zinio. However, this will only address issues from 2017 going forward, not past issues unless I pay to access issues I already own. Do you have any advice on scanners or easier ways to convert my paper magazine articles to digital format?

This is a good question Ms. Ball and I’m sure you are not the only reader who wants to digitize this type of information.

Before you start the digitizing process, the best thing to do is organize the clippings you have accumulated. If you haven’t already, take some time to sort them into file folders, envelopes, or zipper seal bags. You could clip them together with paperclips or clothes pins — whatever you already have around the house. Just do enough to keep the same types of articles together long enough to get them digitized. While you are sorting, take the time to toss out any articles that are no longer of interest to you.

If the articles are still in the magazines, you don’t need to spend time cutting them out because you can scan directly from the magazine. Perhaps put a sticky-note on the front cover to remind you what it was that you wanted to digitize (Page 9 – wedding dress pattern, Page 33 – cheese cake recipe).

Next, think about where you are going to store all of this digital information. You could create a virtual filing cabinet on your hard drive or cloud drive (Dropbox, iCloud, etc.) or create a series of virtual notebooks on a cloud service such as Evernote.

Now that you have your paper clippings organized and your digital storage space prepared, it is time to start scanning!

I suggest the low-cost, all-purpose, Canon CanoScan LiDE220 Photo and Document Scanner. Because it is a flat-bed scanner, the disadvantage is that it won’t allow you to load up a pile of documents and scan them rapidly. However, it has a unique “expansion top” that allows for easy scanning of thick books and magazines. It has an “auto-scan” mode that detects what you are scanning and automatically adjusts the settings. If you scan articles in PDF, it will also automatically do optical character recognition (OCR) creating searchable documents.

Thanks for your great question Ms. Ball. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for. All the best in digitizing your magazine articles.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

More kitchen tips

Here are a few kitchen tips from an article in The Telegraph in 2007:

  • Uncluttering tips: A time study revealed that most people use the same four pots and pans over and over again. Take an objective look at the other seldom used items. Consider eliminating them or storing them elsewhere.
  • Recipes: A three-ring binder with magnetic photo pages can be used to store recipes collected from family and friends, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. Avoid those that require ingredients you will never buy. If your family doesn’t find a recipe to be a hit, then toss it out. Discard unused recipes yearly. It takes only minutes to do this. Consider displaying special cookbooks on your bookshelf or coffee table as a conversation piece.
  • Paper and mail: It’s best to open mail right beside a recycling bin or trashcan. Don’t put it in a pile to “sort later.” This delay tactic only wastes time, as you’ll have to review the mail a second time. It takes seconds to pitch junk mail and unwanted advertisements now. If you can’t get your magazines read, do not renew your subscription, instead use the library, or pick up an occasional copy at the grocery store.

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

What’s a kitchen for?

Today’s kitchens are used for more than just preparing food. They are often playrooms, offices, mail centers, and TV rooms. When you mix up so many purposes for the same space (or even the same countertop), you’re not going to get good results. Something as simple as making a ham and cheese sandwich is impossible when your countertops are covered with bills and other papers. Instead of succumbing to this fate, set up different spaces for different tasks.

Ideally, your kitchen should only be for cooking, but realistically that’s not going to be the case–especially since kitchens tend to be the center of family activity. Designate some countertop space that’s off-limits to anything but cooking or eating, and make it a point to keep it clear when it’s not being used. That way, when you’re ready to use it again, it’s ready for you.

If you must bring mail and bill-paying paraphernalia into the kitchen, set up a space for just that activity and don’t let it spread out of that area. (A desktop organizer or mini-shelf is a perfect solution.) Even if you can’t dedicate surfaces to specific activities like bill-paying, storage in the kitchen can help. For example, when you finish eating at the kitchen table, you take away the dishes to wash and store in the cupboard. Why not do the same with everything else? If you pay bills, do homework, or play games at the kitchen table, make sure to clean up when you’re done. Keeping a drawer or cupboard for each activity will make it as easy and second-nature to put away your stuff.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

How to organize holiday gift bags

Holiday gift bags are more popular now then when I was young, and unlike wrapping paper, they’re reusable. This year we received quite a few of them and I’ve been thinking about good ways to store them. Here are a few ways to store holiday gift bags to keep them in good condition for reuse.

Magazine holders are my favorite method of organizing gift bags. You can get about two dozen bags into a single magazine holder, and the write-on label makes it easy to categorize and retrieve the one you want.

You can also use a large, handled gift bag and put the smaller gift bags inside. Once folded, sort them by size or occasion. The larger bag becomes a sort of mobile filing cabinet that you can pull out at the next gift-giving occasion. It’s easy to store, simply hang it on a hook in a closet.

An expandable accordion-style file folder is another great method, provided that your bags are relatively small. Don’t expect larger bags to fit without protruding from the top of the folder.

A hanging organizer might be useful. However if hung on a door, it may prevent it from opening all the way or bang against the door whenever it’s opened or closed. It would be great if hung on a rod in a closet though.

If the bags are not suitable for re-use, you can cut them into gift tags, use them for arts-and-crafts projects, donate them to an elementary school teacher, after-school club, or toss them into the recycling bin. In any case, have fun organizing — or saying goodbye — your holiday gift bags.

What to do with holiday cards? Recycle!

Two of our readers provided creative suggestions for how to recycle holiday cards in the comments section of our Holiday gifts: Out with the old in with the new post. Not wanting to have them lost in the shuffle, I wanted to pull them out to everyone’s attention.

From Jan:

I recycle my Christmas cards. They arrive in the mail, I read them, I cut the writing off the back, I turn them into a Christmas post card with a friend’s address, stamp and short message and repost immediately.

From Kate:

Once the holidays are over, I “massacre” [cards] into gift tags for next year using a pair of pinking shears.

For even more great ideas, check out the comments below and our other post on uncluttering holiday greeting cards.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Organizing gift wrapping supplies

Tubes of gift wrap are cumbersome and always find a way to cause a mess. If you don’t already have a designated storage system for your gift wrap, then you may want to consider putting one together or purchasing a pre-made system.

I use the Gift Wrap Organizer (pictured), which has served me well over the years. I hang it in my office closet and only pull it out when I use it. I purchased tape and scissors specifically to be stored with the gift wrap so that everything is in one spot when I need it.

I keep five tubes of wrapping paper in the storage sleeves: One roll of heavy, plain white (for wedding and anniversary gifts), two rolls of holiday paper (one with a snowman print and the other a solid gold), a conservative stripe (for father’s day and male birthdays), and a neutral with polka dots (for mother’s day, female birthdays, and baby showers). If I had children, I would probably have a sixth tube of printed, youthful paper. In the front pockets I have stored bows, ribbons, and clear scotch tape. The side pocket holds a pair of scissors. The top back pocket holds white, cream, pink, and blue tissue paper. Finally, the bottom back pocket holds 10 gift bags in varying sizes (most of these are recycled from gifts people gave to me).

I found other pre-made systems that would work well, too:

Keep gift wrap from causing a mess in your home with a self-made or purchased organization system specifically designed for this purpose.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in October 2007.

The case for keeping (some) documents

A few weeks ago, we wrote about retention schedules, a list of the documents you have and how long to keep them.

Recently, I was required to complete a background check/security screening for an upcoming contract job. Not only did I have to provide a list of addresses covering the previous five years, I had to provide proof that I actually lived there. Examples of proof could be a lease/rental agreement stating that I was an occupant, or a utility bill or bank statement with my name and address on it for each year I claimed I lived at that address.

Fortunately, I have records dating back five previous years as the Canada Revenue Agency requires that income tax documents (which state my name and address) be kept for six years. However, many people, including young adults, may not have these documents available.

If you’re a young person just starting out on your own, make sure you have a rental contract/lease or at least one bill with your own name on it coming to the address at which you live (not your parents’ home which would be considered a mailing address while you were away at school). Your college/university should be able to give you a copy of a contract if you’re living in a residence/dorm that states your room assignment. If you are sharing off-campus accommodations with a roommate make sure both of your names are on the lease/rental agreement, or that your name is on one of the utility bills.

You could create a file (paper and/or electronic) containing these documents along with a spreadsheet listing your previous addresses. Keep a copy of these documents for at least five years, or at least 10 years if you are considering employment in an industry requiring “TOP SECRET” security clearance.

Having all of these documents handy will make the job application process much faster and easier and you’ll look like a prepared professional when you’re able to submit all the required documentation almost immediately.

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.

Other posts in this series:

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.

 

Other posts in this series: