How to organize business cards

Do you have a stash of business cards hanging around somewhere? Jon Carroll (a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle) has one, and he wrote:

I have a top drawer in my desk. It’s where I put important things. Alas, a lot of things have seemed important over the last 30 years. So the drawer is jammed full — you have to pat it down just to close it. …

I recently made an [sic] pathetic attempt to, uh, curate the drawer. I got no further than the large pile of business cards I had thrown in there over the years. A lot of them were entirely mysterious, people I had no memory of ever meeting. (I bet you have a similar stash of business cards somewhere; it might be amusing to try to cull them sometime).

Jon also found cards that were meaningful or delightful in one way or another, beyond those from people he does know. For example, there was the card from “Le Bar a Huitres, a restaurant in Paris I have no memory of entering. But I love the maps on the back, with appropriate landmarks and useful data, including Metro stops.”

If you have a collection like Jon’s, what do you do with it? If you just enjoy pulling them out and looking at them — as memorabilia, a source of cool design ideas, etc. — then saving them in a drawer or a box, in no particular order, may be just fine.

But if you actually want to make use of the information on the cards, you’ll want a more systematic approach to dealing with them. The first step would be uncluttering. Get rid of cards from people you don’t recognize, and vow that in the future you’ll make a note on such cards when you get them, to jog your memory. You can also discard cards from businesses that have closed or that you no longer choose to patronize, and cards from stores and restaurants in cities you’ll never visit again. If any of these qualify as memorabilia, you might want to hold onto them but keep them separate from those that have useful information.

Now, what do you do with the cards you’re keeping? If you’re someone who deals best with physical cards rather than digital information, you might keep them in a business card book or file. I’m pleased with the business card file sold by The Container Store.

Another tip: If you have phone numbers just jotted down on pieces of paper, you can tape those papers onto blank business cards (or rewrite the information on the blanks) and file them with the other cards.

The other option is to store the information electronically, and there are many ways to do that. I don’t deal with many cards at a time, so I just enter the information manually into my computer contact list, which syncs with my smartphone. Once I’ve done that, I recycle the physical card.

If you’d prefer to scan the cards, there are many ways to do that. You could use a scanner such as one in the Fujitsu ScanSnap family. Or you could use a business card scanning app on your smartphone; there are many to choose from. Evernote has its own free Scannable app, which may be ideal for Evernote fans. Currently, it’s only available for iPhones and iPads.

One nice thing about digital storage is that you can search and retrieve information in many ways. For example, when I enter cards for doctors, I’ll note their specialties and the names of the people who recommended them, so it’s always easy to search and find the doctors if I forget their names. I also create groups of contacts, which is another way to make them easier to find. If you’re using a paper filing system, consider whether filing by name or by category would make it easiest to find the right card when you want it.

Organize goals with the SELF Journal

There are numerous tools on the market to help you organize your goals, and I’ve recently began to use one that might also interest you: The SELF Journal. This little notebook is something I backed on Kickstarter back in 2015. After receiving my journal in December, I used it to successfully plan and implement a new season of my podcast. The experience was so positive, I’ve decided to share it with you.

Are you setting goals effectively?

The problem with goal setting is that many people do it in a way that doesn’t help them to achieve their goals. Many set unrealistic goals (run a marathon next weekend without any training), underestimate completion time, or fail to review progress.

Another big hiccup is not having a plan. Let’s say you set a goal of organizing the garage, top to bottom. Simply saying, “I’m going to organize the garage this weekend,” isn’t enough and probably won’t work. The SELF Journal, aside from being well-made and attractive, features a built-in system for moving toward a goal effectively, day by day.

The SELF Journal method

When my journal arrived last December, I was ready to dive in. I had a project that needed a lot of time and attention, and the journal seemed like a perfect fit for helping me to achieve it. In a nutshell, the book uses these methods:

  1. You create a 13-week roadmap. Many poorly-crafted goals lack a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The SELF Journal helps you to create this timeline and write it down.
  2. A procrastination-busting calendar. You’re encouraged to fill every working time slot with a relevant activity. No, “just checking Twitter real quick” does not count.
  3. Prioritized planning. You’re meant to plan tomorrow’s tasks today, so you’re clear on what’s to be done in the morning.

There are two more aspects that I really like in the journal. The first is tracking and reflection. The journal provides space for you do reflect on your wins for the day and what you’ve learned. The wins emphasize the last aspect of the system — bookending your day with positive psychology — while the opportunity to record lessons learned informs future work.

The book’s morning routine emphasizes the preparation and work, while the evening routine highlights reflection.

I’ve been quite happy with it and I suspect others will also find it beneficial. Its current price is $31.99.

Keeping your organizing resolutions

It’s only January 7, and already I’ve seen people commenting that they’ve broken their New Year’s resolutions. This reminded me of some good advice I heard in a recent podcast regarding making any major change, whether it’s done as part of a resolution or not. CGP Grey said:

I think with anything like health … any kind of long-term change that you want to make I find it very helpful to think about it not in terms of “Oh, I’m doing this thing and I’m going to make a change and then if I fail then that’s bad.”

I think it’s best to focus on it in terms of “getting back on the wagon” is actually the skill that you need to develop. That you should expect that many times, especially when you start something new, you are going to fall off the wagon and the thing that matters is the getting back on. It’s not the falling off.

He went on to say how important it is for people to learn what their own “failure conditions” are: “the kinds of things that cause them to fall off the wagon.”

The following are some common failure conditions for getting organized — things that might derail your efforts:

Perfectionism

Your uncluttering process may result in a large number of things you’re happy to give away. In such situations, some people then try to find the perfect new home for everything — the best charity, the out-of-state friend, etc. This might make sense for some very special items, but for most of them it usually makes more sense to find a convenient place to donate it all: Goodwill, a local charity-run thrift store, etc.

Another example: While it’s important to have tools that you enjoy using and that fit your personality, you can spend forever investigating every to-do app to find the perfect one, rather than just picking one that meets your needs (after a focused investigation) and then getting on with doing things.

Lack of a viable maintenance schedule

Being organized is an ongoing process. Things get used and need to get put away. New things (such as mail) come into your space and need to be properly handled. Not everything needs to be dealt with immediately, but if you go too long without doing this maintenance work, things can get out of control.

Unrealistic time estimates

Getting organized may take longer than you expected. Can you organize your garage (or similar space) on one weekend day? It will depend on many things: how much is stored there, what kind of things are stored there (since papers and sentimental items will be more time-consuming to deal with), how quickly you make decisions, etc.

If you are going to be going through a lot of papers, you may want to time yourself going through one representative stack of a measured size. This will give you a data point for estimating how long the rest will take.

Also, be realistic about how much time it takes to sell things using eBay, craigslist, a garage sale, etc. For valuable things it can be time well spent, but for items of lower value it may make more sense to just donate them. If you find your “to sell” pile sits around month after month, it’s probably time to reconsider the sell-vs.-donate decision.

Life events

Illness (yours or a family member’s) and vacation will temporarily disrupt almost anyone’s efforts to get and stay organized. This is a time to be gentle with yourself. Focus on the most important things first (paying bills, etc.) and get to the rest when you can.

Uncluttering your reading material

Do you have a huge backlog of things you want to read sometime? Does that sometime never seem to come? The following are some steps you might take to unclutter that reading backlog — and keep it from building up again. I’m going to ignore books for now and focus on some of the more ephemeral materials: newsletters and magazines.

Consider general guidelines for the reading materials you keep

You’ve probably heard the famous words of William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I look for the equivalent in my nonfiction reading matter: useful information or engaging writing on a topic of interest. Useful information, to me, is something new that I can definitely see myself using in the near future, usually in my work — not something that might be useful, someday, in some unspecified way.

Manage your online newsletter subscriptions

It’s easy to wind up oversubscribed to online newsletters because it just takes a click to subscribe and so many of them are free. But they can just as easily overwhelm your email and create a huge reading backlog. And I should know, since I recently noticed some newsletters I had sitting around from October of last year. (They are gone now.)

Because of that backlog, I’ve been re-evaluating the newsletters I get. There’s one I subscribed to a couple months ago, knowing I wasn’t sure about it but wanting to give it a try. I just unsubscribed from that one because the content simply wasn’t compelling enough to give it my time. I also dropped a long-term subscription because my interests have changed, and another one because the author’s style no longer appeals to me.

One of my newsletters is purely a current news update so I make sure to delete it daily, even if I don’t get around to reading it the day it arrived. There’s always more news, and the stories in yesterday’s news digest may well have been updated by today. So I get rid of that newsletter the same way I would recycle a day-old newspaper.

My remaining four newsletters (two daily, two weekly) are either useful in my work or just really fun to read, so I feel fine about keeping those subscriptions and letting the newsletters accumulate in my email for a little while — a week or two, perhaps — if my schedule is too crowded for me to read them right away.

Manage your magazine (and paper newsletter) subscriptions

Again, it’s easy to wind up with subscriptions you don’t really need or want. For example, I know people who have bought magazine subscriptions in order to support a fundraising effort, even though they didn’t really care about the magazines. (In such cases, it might be wise to ask if you can just donate to the cause directly, rather than through buying the subscription.)

It’s also easy to wind up with a subscription that expires many years out, because those renewal notices sometimes keep coming, and you may forget you’ve already renewed. If you have subscriptions to magazines you no longer care about, you may want to cancel them now (and perhaps get a refund) rather than just waiting for the subscription to expire.

Other magazines that can cause trouble are those that come every week, especially if they are not light reading. The New Yorker may be a fine magazine, but it’s very easy to develop a large pile of unread New Yorkers. Be honest with yourself about how many magazines you can reasonably keep up with, and you’ll enjoy your subscriptions more.

Personally, I’ve realized I’m not good at making time to read magazines, so before this week I was down to two subscriptions: one I chose and one that comes along with from my auto club membership. As I went to write this post, I realized that I don’t really want the auto club magazine, so I just called and got that one cancelled.

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.

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?

Managing the endless towers of paper

Reader Teri wrote in and asked Unclutterer:

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

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

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

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

What is it?

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

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

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

Processing after identification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciling paper and digital productivity and organizing tools

I’m a confirmed gadget nut, and therefore many of my preferred tools for productivity and organization are electronic, including hardware and software. Yet, I still keep and use a paper notebook almost every day because I love my paper calendar and notebooks. This can be hard to reconcile. I am continually asking myself questions, such as: Why am I writing things down twice? And, um, where did I do that recent brainstorming session, on my notebook or computer?

Keeping on top of my projects is important, so I’ve begun to formally address the incongruence between my paper and digital tools.

The system I’ve discovered to solve my dilemma was inspired by a recent episode of The Fizzle Show. The Fizzle Show is the podcast of the website Fizzle.co, which offers insight and advice for those working on building a business. Episode 99 featured insights from Mike Vardy and Shawn Blanc, two self-starters whom I admire. It was in listening to their conversation that I came upon a system.

Shawn and Mike discussed the practice of keeping a “productivity journal.” They use it to formally write down progress the’ve made on goals, both little and small. It’s a nice bit of motivation, reinforcement, and history. At the end of a week, month, or year, they can look back at what they accomplished and what was left incomplete. Right away, I wanted to adopt the practice. But how?

I love writing in a notebook. It’s just fun, and I do it every day. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to find entries via electronic search. I’m a big fan of Evernote, which acts as my digital “cold storage.” Fortunately, there’s an easy way to marry the two that doesn’t take a lot of time or require me to write and type the same information.

Enter the Evernote Moleskine. It’s a Moleskine notebook that comes with some Evernote branding and, more importantly, an Evernote Premium subscription. Finally, the Evernote Mobile apps are tuned to recognize a page from the notebook and snap a crystal-clear, searchable image. Now, when I complete my entry in the notebook, I snap a photo of it with the Evernote app, give it an appropriate name and tags, and I’m good. The program recognizes my handwriting and makes it searchable. I had the pleasure of writing in a notebook and I’ve got a searchable, indexed copy in a digital app that I trust and is nearly ubiquitous.

I’ve tried to abandon my notebooks, but I just love them and feel motivated to work when I sit down with a nice, fresh page and a pen. This system of reconciling paper and electronic isn’t perfect — it would be easier to pick just one — but, honestly, it’s working fine and the time it takes to photograph and name an entry digitally is minimal. If you’re like me, straddling the analog and digital worlds, this solution might also work for you.

What important documents to keep and how to organize them

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

Keep: Vital documents

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

Keep: Legal documents

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

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

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

Keep: Financial documents

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

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

Keep: Licences and Insurance

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

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

Keep: Health records

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

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

Keep: Education and employment records

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

Keep: Religious documents

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

One last word

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

Options for organizing papers

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

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

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

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

Organizing reference papers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing action files

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

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

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

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

Keeping things simple

Sometimes we get bogged down when uncluttering or organizing because we make things too complicated. The following are some examples of ways to avoid complexity and get things done.

Shredding

C. G. P. Grey said in one of his podcasts that he shreds all papers he’s decided not to keep. This saves him sorting through papers and deciding which ones need to be shredded and which ones don’t. We know people hit “decision fatigue,” so there’s definitely some logic to avoiding unnecessary decision-making and saving one’s mental energy for where it’s really needed.

Using simple tools, when that’s all you need

I used to be intrigued by all the fancy apps for creating and managing to-do lists, and those apps certainly make sense for some people. But at some point, I realized that for me a simple text file was sufficient, and going back to that basic tool made my life easier. Sometimes extra features are a distraction, not a benefit.

Label makers provide another example of a tool that might be overly complicated for you. I happen to like using one, but two of my fellow professional organizers recently explained why they don’t use label makers. If handwritten labels meet your needs, go for it! They’re certainly simpler to create.

Sorting papers and naming files

Many files are easy to sort and name. Most people don’t struggle with how to file financial or medical information, for example.

But for random papers that fall outside the standard categories, things aren’t as obvious, and it’s easy to get hung up on how to file those papers. I’ve found it simplifies my filing to have one file named “Fingertips” for all that unrelated information I use the most often — the things I want to have at my fingertips. In The Organized Mind, author Daniel J. Levitin mentioned someone who found it useful to create the filing equivalent of a junk drawer. He called that file “Stuff I don’t know where to file.” And Judith Kolberg wrote in Conquering Chronic Disorganization about someone who created files named “Why can’t I find this when I need it?” and “Things clients bug me for.”

Once we create these simple but less conventional types of files, many filing dilemmas disappear.

Giving things away

It can be easy to get caught up in trying to find the perfect new homes for things we’re getting rid of, and sometimes (especially for sentimental things) that can be worth the time and effort. But other times the easiest answer is the best.

I have a large serving platter that was a gift; it’s something I don’t need or particularly like, so I know I want to get rid of it. (I also know it isn’t valuable enough to be worth my time to sell it.) I enjoy giving things away on freecycle, since I’m part of a great freecycle community, but I didn’t have any luck when I tried to freecycle the platter months ago. I was about to try again, but then I realized it would be simpler to just take it to the nonprofit thrift store that’s five minutes from my home. It’s going there tomorrow.

Organize your notebooks for quick reference

Back in 2013, I wrote the article “Marking up your to do lists for increased productivity” about formal methods of marking up your notes and lists to make them more usable and easier to reference. I was reminded of it recently when I came across a Fast Company article, which introduced yet another trick for organizing a notebook that I like quite a bit.

I carry a little notebook in my pocket all the time. Even though I’m a a professional techie, I still feel that the best way to jot something down I need to remember is with a pen and a piece of paper.

Any problems I encounter with this system come from retrieving the information that I’ve written down. The rapid nature of quickly jotting something down often means poor organization of the captured information. To help solve this issue, this is where Rachel Gillett’s advice in the Fast Company article applies.

Cribbing from Adam Akhtar, Rachel suggests writing a sort of index in the back of your notebook while taking notes or jotting ideas down. This index is comprised of themes or topics that come up while you’re writing things down. In her example, she wrote down the following topics:

  1. Writing
  2. Editing
  3. Social media
  4. CMS
  5. Analytics
  6. New Staff

She recommends leaving one line between each index topic. Then, when she writes something down that corresponds to one of these topics, she makes a mark on the edge of the page that corresponds to the line on which that word is written. The image at the top of this post illustrates this idea pretty clearly. Then, when she wants to find notes on writing, she can turn to the back page and quickly see the pages with relevant content. Flipping to them is quick and easy.

I think this system is a brilliant solution. It’s easy to see how this will work outside of business, too. Topics like “kids,” “school,” “work,” or whatever applies to your life would be perfect.

Again, check my older article for some additional ideas for adding a bit of organization to your notebooks. Jotting something down is easy. Finding it when you need it later doesn’t have to be a problem.