The annual uncluttering of the file cabinet

At least once a year I do a clean-up of my file cabinets, and I just finished my latest round. Every time I do this, I’m amazed at the stuff I have kept that I really don’t need.

For your amusement (and inspiration), the following is what I got rid of this time:

Travel information

I tossed a lot of papers in this category, including:

  • Train schedules from 10 years ago
  • Clippings about recommended hotels and restaurants — from the 1990s
  • Brochures I picked up while visiting an area that I’ll probably never return to — and the brochures weren’t even that enticing

Inspirational and sentimental stuff

I worked for Hewlett-Packard Company for many years; the founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, are still two of the people I admire most. I had a lot of information about them, and I narrowed it down to the few things that were especially meaningful to me. I scanned many of those, and got rid of the paper.

Advice from Miss Manners

I really enjoy the Miss Manners columns, and I’d clipped a number of them. The ones I still found useful — maybe a quarter of the one I had saved — got scanned, and all the clippings were recycled.

Medical information

I’m talking here about general information, not my personal health information. Even though I’d discarded much of this before because medical information changes so quickly and so much is available online, I still found a few papers I had kept for no good reason. I really don’t need the newsletter from a local hospital, from 2004, talking about mini-incision hip replacement!

Song lyrics

Why in the world did I keep printouts of song lyrics? I’m not even talking about the nice inserts from old LPs, just computer printouts.

Writing tips

I had kept tips on good writing, which included things I’ve long ago absorbed. So, out went the April 1995 article on using quotes in articles.

Old information about the San Francisco Bay Area

There is a lot being written lately about high-tech companies and their employees ruining San Francisco (or not, depending on your perspective) and about these employees driving up housing prices in the area. These were good for a laugh, before they hit the recycling bin:

  • Three articles about dot-com companies and their employees ruining San Francisco — from 1999
  • An article showing examples of Silicon Valley houses available at the then-current median price, also from 1999

Miscellaneous oddities

Here are some of the other papers I found, and discarded:

  • A clipping from 2003 about how house sizes increased from 1900 to 2000
  • Printouts of documents I have on my computer — things that I probably printed some time ago for easier reading, but that I certainly don’t need in paper form any more
  • The manual for Norton AntiVirus 9.0, from 2004
  • A clothing catalog from Spring 2010, with something I was considering purchasing but never did

In summary, I’m getting rid of everything in my filing cabinet that is out of date, no longer interesting or useful, or readily replaced with online information.

What have you cleared out of your file cabinet lately? Please share your discoveries in the comments.

Hobonichi Techo is my new favorite notebook

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — Han Solo

Han Solo accidentally gave great productivity advice when he made the statement above in the film Star Wars. Google “productivity” and you’ll find a seemingly endless supply of methods, systems (the “hokey religions”), tools, and gadgets (the “ancient weapons”) seemingly required to help you. Han understood that while those things have their place, they can’t compare to a tool that is reliable, tried, and true. In my case, my blaster is a Hobonichi Techo notebook.

I love working with paper and I’ve used plenty of notebooks over the years. Currently I’m in love with the Hobonichi Techo. This pocket-sized book is so pleasant that I find myself making excuses to write in it. It’s my planner, scratch work area, journal, and scrapbook. It even has an interesting history.

It’s a popular notebook/planner from Japan. The company, Hobonichi, began selling an English-language version in 2012. Each year, Hobonichi asks its customers for ideas and feedback that influences the next year’s production model, which is pretty neat.

It’s available in several sizes. I use A6, which is slightly larger than my hand. This is a good choice for me, as it’s large enough to write in comfortably, yet small enough to fit into the back pocket of my jeans.

The Techo is divided into several sections. First is a yearly overview, followed by eight pages of monthly overview (two months per page). Next you’ll find several pages that look like a typical wall calendar, two pages for each month. What follows is the heart of the Techo.

The notebook has one page per day of the year. Each contains the date, day, moon phase, and an anecdote. Of course, there’s plenty of room to write on color-coded grid paper (one color per month). Also, there are five slots for to-do actions at the top of each page. I’ve been using these pages to outline articles, record to-dos, capture incoming stuff like “schedule that appointment” and jot down fun stuff the kids have done. This book has become a real companion.

In the back there are several completely blank pages, followed by sections to recored special dates to remember; restaurants, movies, music or stores that you love or want to visit/see; measurement conversion charts, and other random information.

I love devices that can handle more than one task and the Techo does so gracefully. I’m not as artistic as these folks, but I’m getting a lot done and that is good enough for me.

Are you a paper planner person, too? If so, what is your favorite and why? Finally, just to be transparent, I wasn’t paid or provided with any product in exchange for this review. It is genuinely what I use and spend my own money to buy.

The paperwork puzzle

Every Christmas, we receive a few jigsaw puzzles — it’s a family holiday pastime to watch movies and put the puzzles together. Interestingly enough, as I spend time going through the documents I need to prepare for our family’s 2013 income tax return, I realize that the steps involved in organizing paperwork are similar to the steps in assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Define the goal

When you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle you’ve always got the box that shows what the puzzle should look like once it is together. For most organizing projects, you won’t get a picture of the final product; you’ll have to invent it yourself. Imagine what you want the final result to look like. How do you want it to function when you’re done? Don’t worry about all of the details at this point. A rough outline is just fine. You could simply state, “I want to be able to find the documents that I need, when I need them. I want them to be stored in the filing cabinet for easy access and any documents that I don’t need regularly but need to keep for tax reasons, will be stored in the attic. Everything else will be shredded.”

Sometimes you don’t have the entire picture. Imagine only receiving one or two puzzle pieces a day. You would have to collect a few months’ worth of pieces to get an idea of what the finished project should look like. This is exactly why I have a big pile of paperwork to be sorted and filed!

In our situation, living in a foreign country as visiting military, we are required to keep certain documents beyond what we would normally keep in our home country. I really didn’t know how these should be organized so my solution was to keep all of the documents in one large folder. Now that we’ve lived here for six months, we have a good idea what the “finished picture” looks like and we are able to sort the documents easily into appropriate categories.

Make a work space

If you have a large project or one that you need a few days to complete, consider setting up in a place that has minimal impact on your day-to-day living. We assemble our jigsaw puzzle on a table in our family room, which is also the place I’ve chosen to do my filing.

Consider sorting paperwork into labelled boxes. Rather than have open boxes, consider getting boxes with lids. They can then be stacked up against a wall and out of the way when you are not working. You can organize one box at a time at a later time.

Define the edges

When we’re working on our puzzle, usually we try to get the edge pieces first and then group similar pieces together onto paper plates such as “sky pieces” or “purple pieces.”

Decide on the “edges” of your project. Chose fewer groups with larger categories within each group. For example, if you’re working on financial paperwork, separate by decade, then by year, then within each year, then by month. You may even find that everything prior to a certain year can be immediately discarded and shredded.

Ignore OHIO

Do not take the “Only Handle It Once (OHIO) Rule” literally when sorting and organizing. I have never been able to take a puzzle piece out of the box, look at it once and put it into the puzzle in its exact place. Don’t expect to do it with paperwork either.

Every time you handle a document, it should be to move it forward in the system of processing so that it is in its appropriate place for the next step. Not only should you prioritize it immediately, you must identify when and where the next steps take place so that the item is not forgotten either accidentally or on purpose.

Zoom in – zoom out

When we’re working on our puzzle, occasionally one of us will zoom in on an easily identifiable object within the puzzle and work on that. On our recent puzzle, my daughter found all of the pieces for a large orange flower that was in the centre of the puzzle. It allowed us to work outwards from that point to complete the puzzle faster. However, while she was working on the flower, she kept it in perspective of the entire puzzle.

If you’re organizing and sorting paperwork, you may find you can easily complete a small portion of the project. You may be able to completely organize all of last year’s financial documents, for example. Congratulate yourself on a job well done but remember to zoom back out and look at the whole picture and remember what you want the final result to look like.

Create a Process

This step is where the similarities between puzzles and paperwork end. Once all of the pieces are put into the puzzle, the puzzle is completed and there is nothing left to be done but admire the finished project. Paperwork on the other hand, increases as soon as the postman arrives the next day.

Create a process to deal with all of your incoming mail. Know what to keep and what to shred. Check out some other posts on Unclutterer for tips and tricks on paper management.

Organizing your employment history

Sometimes you may leave your current job by choice and sometimes you don’t have an option but in today’s fast-paced economy it is best to be prepared for a job search at any time. When you’re applying for a new job, you need accurate records of where and when you worked because almost all employers perform background checks. If you have had many jobs over the years, it may be difficult to remember exact dates of employments.

The following tips explore what type of information you need to collect and how to organize it for quick reference:

Information you should collect

Company contact information: Obtain the postal address, phone number, and website of all your previous places of employment if they still exist. Additionally, if these people are still employed at the company, have your direct supervisor’s name, company email address, and telephone extension, his/her supervisor’s contact information, and this same information for a key member of the Human Resources department. If they’re not still at the company, note this in your records and try your best to obtain a private email address for your former supervisors. Future employers usually wish to verify your previous employment with the company as well as discuss your performance with a supervisor, irrespective of where that person is currently employed.

Employment record: Most large companies keep employment records that include employee training, qualifications, and performance reviews. Review this information on an annual basis to ensure that it is up-to-date and obtain a copy prior to leaving the company.

Smaller companies may not keep detailed employment records so you may have to create your own. It should include the job titles you had at the company, dates you held those positions, and the rates of your pay. It should also list any training courses you took to improve your job performance.

Compensation: In addition to your pay rate/salary, note if you earned any bonuses or commissions. This gives you a benchmark to negotiate your salary at your next place of employment. List any benefits you received such as health and dental plans, maternity benefits, holidays, family, and compassionate leave.

NOTE: You can request a statement of your employment history from your government’s employment or taxation department (Social Security in the United States). This statement will provide you with details about your places of employment, dates, and earnings. You can also find this information on your old tax returns. However, these documents do not provide job descriptions or details about supplementary training during the periods of employment.

Job descriptions: If a detailed job description is not available from the company’s Human Resources department, create your own. List all the tasks for which you were responsible, to whom you reported, and who reported to you.

NOTE: If you used acronyms in at your company, always write out the words in full. You might not remember what those letters mean a few years from now. This is especially important with proprietary software programs used within a company. No one knows what “SADC-DB” means but future employers would understand “Systematic Approach to Document Control database.”

Challenges and achievements: Using the job description, write down a few problems that you encountered during your time on the job and how you solved this problems. Make note of your achievements and awards, too. It is easier to recollect this sort of thing when you are in your current job rather than when you are updating your résumé for the next job. You can use it as leverage when discussing your salary at your next performance review or at your next job interview.

Likes and dislikes: Write down what you liked and did not like about the tasks you performed. This information should never be put on a job application or résumé, but it can definitely help you decide the types of roles in which you excel and it will save you the trouble of applying for jobs you probably wouldn’t enjoy. It may be helpful to write this information in a style that would be a suitable answer for interviewers who are going to want to know what you liked and did not like about a previous job.

Contracts: If you signed a contract for employment or a confidentiality agreement, keep a copy for your records. Ask your employer how long they recommend you keep these documents and be clear, especially with any non-compete clauses, how long they apply to you. If you work with proprietary, copyrighted, or patented material, you may be obliged to maintain confidentiality for many years after you’ve ceased working for that company. You also may be prohibited from working for a competitor for a number of years.

Certificates: If you took any specialized training (WHIMS, First Aid, computer skills) in order to do your job, make sure you keep the certificates. They are the proof of having successfully completed the training.

Reference Letters: If you’re preparing to leave a job, it will be much easier for your supervisor to provide you with a letter of reference now when he/she is familiar with your work. The letter should state things like your relationship to the letter writer and a couple examples of how you contributed to the team and helped solve problems. It can also outline your positive character traits such as being punctual, hard working, and ability to adjust to the corporate culture. Obtain several original signed copies if possible.

Organizing your employment information

A simple form (the document is in Word and works on both Mac and PC) can be used to capture the details (company, contact information, job description, likes and dislikes) of each job. You can fill out the form and save it on your computer or print a paper copy.

It is helpful to organize your employment history on your computer as many documents are now only in electronic format. It may be worthwhile to scan the original certificates and letters of reference in case the originals are lost or damaged.

Ideally, the folders on your computer and your paper files should have the same names so it is easy to cross-reference and find the information you need. For example:

Keep original copies of certificates and reference letters in file folders or binders. You may be required to provide proof of training at a job interview, so storing documents in acid-free sheet protectors will keep them in good condition.

Career transition experts indicate that résumés and cover letters should be customized for each job application for best results. By having your employment history organized and easily accessible it will eliminate some of the stress in applying for a new job or promotion.

Finally, special thanks goes to TORI Award winning career transition expert Audrey Prenzel for her guidance on this topic.

Shredding: What to shred, and how to shred it

If you’ve been clearing out your file cabinet as part of your New Year’s resolutions, you’ve probably come across some papers that need shredding.

When it comes to shredding, people have two major questions:

Question 1: Which papers need to be shredded?

The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has a sensible list of shredding guidelines, noting the types of information you definitely want to shred if you decide to purge them from your filing cabinet. It also lists of other types of information you may want to shred — as well as a list of specific types of papers to consider shredding. The general guidelines are:

Destroy all sensitive information, including junk mail and paperwork, that includes:

  • Account numbers
  • Birth dates
  • Passwords and PINs
  • Signatures
  • Social Security numbers

To protect your privacy, you should also consider shredding items that include:

  • Names
  • Addresses
  • Phone numbers
  • E-mail addresses

Question 2: What kind of shredder should I get and what if I don’t want to buy a shredder?

When it comes to products and services for shredding, you’ve got a number of choices, so pick whichever approach works best for you.

Shredding scissors. Shredding scissors aren’t great, since they produce a strip cut rather than a cross cut, which means it would be easier for someone to reassemble your papers. If you do use these, you may want to put some of the shredded paper in one trash bag, and some in another. I’ve also been known to put shredded stuff in with the used kitty litter I’m taking to the trash, to reduce the chance anyone would go through the garbage to get it.

Shredders. You’ll find a lot of choices here, and numerous recommendations. I’ve had my Fellowes 79Ci for years now, and it has never once jammed or given me any other problem, I’m a fan. And Erin recommended this shredder, too. More recently, Erin also recommended the Staples 10-Sheet Cross-Cut Shredder with a lockout key. And the Swingline Stack-and-Shred products are interesting, since you don’t need to feed papers into them as you would with most shredders.

Shredding services. When it comes to services that will shred papers for you, you’ve also got a number of options. Some office supply stores are now providing shredding services in some or all of their locations: Office Depot, Staples, The UPS Store, etc. There are also dedicated shredding companies; you either drop off your papers or a shredding truck comes to you. A Google search should help you find one in your area.

Several years ago, organizer Margaret Lukens sent an email cautioning about some of these shredding services, and she has given me permission to share that caution with you:

Some companies tout their trucks that come around and do it on-site and let you watch. Sounds good, and I’ve used them myself on jobs in the past, but I’ve heard of whole checks making it through those shredders, and San Francisco hospital medical records showing up WHOLE in bales of paper purchased by California farmers as animal bedding. This typically happens because the teeth in the shredder get broken (someone accidentally puts their marble paper weight in the shred bin or whatever) and it costs the company too much to take that truck out of service. You see the paper go into the shredder, but you don’t see it come out — and that’s what counts!

Margaret goes on to recommend using an NAID-certified shredding company — NAID being the National Association for Information Destruction. Office Depot, Staples and the UPS Store all partner with Iron Mountain for pick-up, and Iron Mountain is indeed “NAID certified for document destruction at each Iron Mountain location in the United States.” However, Office Depot also offers in-store shredding for smaller jobs, which would not be under the control of Iron Mountain.

The non-shredding alternative: stampers. Stampers are designed to obliterate your confidential information so the papers don’t need to be shredded. If you’re considering this approach, I recommend organizer Julie Bestry’s comprehensive look at the pros and cons of using these products.

Related question: Which papers should I keep and which papers should I purge?

Erin’s infographic on What to shred, scan, or store? can help you answer this question. Also, check with a local accountant and lawyer to be sure you’re keeping the appropriate papers for where you live — some states have different requirements than the IRS when it comes to retaining original documents.

Uncluttering holiday greeting cards

December is the greeting-card season and even though a number of people are moving toward e-cards (or at least e-newsletters, full of family updates) many of us still get a number of physical cards. After they’ve been read and displayed, what do you do with them? The following are suggestions for preventing holiday cards from cluttering up your space after the holidays:

  1. Toss them into the recycling bin. I do this immediately with some of the cards, particularly the ones that aren’t personal at all. I don’t need to keep a card from my dentist. And, after the holidays, even more go into my recycling bin.
  2. Scan them. I scan the newsletters from people I care about. Then, I recycle the physical copy.
  3. Organize them in a nice storage box or in an album. I do this with the cards I really want to save because they came from dear friends or family members and they have lovely personal notes written inside or they are photo cards where I definitely want to keep the photo. I limit the number of cards I can save to what fits into the box, because that’s all the space I want to give to this type of memorabilia.

    While the box I use isn’t acid-free and lignin-free, you might want to get one that is, especially if you’re expecting to keep the cards for a long time or perhaps pass some of them down to your children or other family members. University Products even has a special greeting card storage box. You can also find greeting card albums with polypropylene sleeves — polypropylene being one of the plastics that won’t damage your cards.

  4. Put them away with the holiday decorations. I save a few cards mostly because I love the covers, and I pull them out each year to grace my refrigerator door or another surface.
  5. Donate them. After a time of being overloaded and not taking cards any more, St. Jude’s Ranch is once again accepting used cards for its recycled card program — although it can’t take any from Hallmark, Disney, or American Greeting. The program takes all sorts of cards, not just holiday cards; birthday and thank you cards are especially needed.
  6. Put the covers of selected cards on the inside of cabinet doors. I do this with non-holiday cards; it’s an idea I stole from one of my best friends when I saw her doing this. Now, whenever I open a cabinet door in my kitchen, I’m greeted by something that makes me smile.
  7. Use them for craft projects. The web is full of ideas for this, from Martha Stewart to Pinterest boards. You can make bookmarks, gift tags, ornaments, an advent calendar, and much more. If you don’t do crafts yourself, there may be schools, senior centers, or other community organizations that would like to have these for their own craft projects. (But they may appreciate the donation more next November and December, rather than in January. Please call ahead.)

As you’re receiving holiday cards, give thought to what you’ll do with them come January so you don’t wind up with greeting card clutter.

A clipboard as my work-from-home supervisor

As a telecommuter, I don’t have the benefit of a boss keeping tabs on me and making sure I do what I need to do. You might think that freedom sounds nice, and it is, but it also means I must be the worker and the supervisor. Ultimately, it’s up to me to sit down and do what needs to be done. My best trick in that regard happens at night. I think of what must be completed the following day and write it down. That way, I’m ready to go when I hit my desk the next morning. Recently, I’ve added a clipboard and some special forms to the mix.

Each night, I list the tasks I must complete the following morning on an Emergent Task Planner (EPT). Persnickety? Yes. But it works. I’ve also taken to keeping my EPT on a clipboard. Behind the EPT are several other forms that let me track what’s going on throughout the day and the week. An inexpensive clipboard keeps everything tidy and portable. Here’s what I’ve got clipped together on my desk every day.

Top sheet — the Emergent Task Planner

On the left hand side, I list what will happen from hour to hour, in 15-minute increments. On the upper right, I list the tasks that must be completed before the day’s end. There’s no particular order to this list. The only important thing is that each item be completed. There’s a notes section on the lower right that I tweak a bit. Specifically, I divide it in half. On top I list what I consider “minor” tasks. These could be completed by day’s end, but the world won’t end of they’re delayed. Below that is the “running commentary.”

The running commentary contains anything: thoughts on the day, ideas, accomplishments, what I did during scheduled breaks (“strawberry patch looks great”), etc. Anything can go there. I created the running commentary section to give my wandering mind an outlet and to give myself an empirical list of the day’s accomplishments. It sure feels good to review the major and minor achievements from the day.

Center sheet — Resource Tracker

This two-parter is fantastic. It lists the major deliverables that will represent progress on a major task, as well as the smaller steps that lead to each deliverable’s completion. I staple both forms together (one lays over the top 1/4 of the other in a clever way) as well as any support files (for instance, I’m using the Fast Book Outliner to prep my next book project). Now, I can flip to each major project and see what needs to be done, my estimate for completion time (as well as actual time spent working), tasks to complete, as well as outstanding (and completed) milestones. Fantastic in a hugely nerdy, paper-centric way.

Last page — Concrete Goals Tracker

Here’s an important one. The Concrete Goals Tracker lets me “score” the tasks I’ve completed on a scale that reflects my working toward goals. For example, “signing a new sponsor” is worth 10 points, “published an article” is worth five points, “new social development” is worth two and “maintaining a relationship” is worth one. At the end of each day, I score anything that meets these criteria, and tally the grand total at the week’s end. If I score higher than I did during the previous week, I know it’s going well. It sounds a bit silly, but the CGT also provides empirical, measurable evidence of progress toward life-sustaining goals.

In this way, my clipboard functions as the manager. It’s pretty handy. Try this: write down the three tasks that must get done by the end of work tomorrow before you go to bed tonight. After 7 days, let me know how it goes.

Seven simple, useful gadgets for your home office

I’ve been working from home since 2009. The temptation to tweak or add to the gadgets in my office is enormous. I love gadgets to begin with, but give me a personal office to fill — one that’s in my home — and I can get carried away.

Recently I’ve made an effort to identify what I really need instead of what I think would be cool. The following is a list of gadgets that serve a utilitarian purpose beyond, “Oh man that’s so neat.” Each one actually makes my home office a more pleasant and productive place to be.

  1. The RadTech OmniStand. After a few months of using a laptop all day every day, I noticed that my shoulders and neck were quite sore at the end of the day. The laptop stand lets me get the computer’s screen up off the desk and just about at eye level. After a couple of weeks, the pain was gone. Sure, I had to buy an external keyboard and a mouse, but I’d rather do that then contract a repetitive stress injury.
  2. The Glif for iPhone. I love this little piece of rubber because it can be many things. It’s an iPhone stand with notch on the bottom that will fit into a standard tripod mount. It’s great for shooting photos and video, for talking on FaceTime, for being an alarm clock or a mobile photo frame. I use it to reference quick information while I’m at my desk. I can’t recommend them enough.
  3. Jawbone Jambox bluetooth speaker. Here’s another stellar device that takes up little space and works very well. Since it’s a bluetooth device, it connects to your smartphone wirelessly. It sounds great and looks good, too. I use it all the time.
  4. A Dropbox account. I don’t know why computers don’t just come with Dropbox installed. It makes online backup and sharing so very easy. Plus, it’s supported by almost any platform you can think of: The Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
  5. An Inbox. Don’t scoff. At first I resisted buying one of these, as it seems like such a cubicle thing to own. But it’s so much better than a stack of papers, notes, and who-knows-what cluttering up my desk. Take your pick from Amazon or your local office supply store to find one you like.
  6. A decent filing system. Again, visit your favorite office supply store or look online. Many people have intricate filing systems. I do simple manila folders, labeled A-Z. Nothing fancy.
  7. A backup system. Your office machine is probably backed up by your company’s IT department. At home, you’re on your own. There are several options to choose from, like CrashPlan and Carbonite. Even if you don’t work at home, you likely have work-related information on your home computer (not to mention other irreplaceable files). Back it up!

I have more items in my office, of course, and you likely need other items depending on if you work at home and what kind of work you do. But these are the universal things — beyond my laptop and smartphone — I can’t work without. Pare down to what you need and avoid cluttered items like this that get in the way of the work you need to do.

Managing the mail: charity solicitations

Do you get tons of charity solicitations — along with more mailing labels than you’ll ever use in your lifetime? Surprisingly, it is possible to be generous without having an overwhelmed mailbox filled with letters from charities asking for money.

Decide which charities you’re going to support

I know animal lovers who are flooded with solicitations from groups working to help dogs, cats, horses, and more. Some of the organizations are probably more effective than others. Doing some research and deciding which ones to support are worthwhile steps. Charity Navigator and GuideStar are two places you can look for information.

Create a list of the charities you’ve selected

Many organizations have similar names, so you’ll want to be sure you’re giving to the ones you intended to give to. It’s also good to list the names of those groups whose solicitations you’ve decided to decline — so if you get more mail from that group, you can quickly confirm it’s one you’ve already investigated. And, having a list of all charities sending you mail will come in handy as you go to remove yourself from their mailing lists.

Decide if you want to get mail from charities

You probably won’t want to get mail from charities you’ve decided not to support, but you may not want mail from those you are supporting, either.

Personally, I don’t want mail from any of them. I give to my charities at about the same time every year, and I do it online. I can read about all the good work they do online, too. But other people I know are more paper-focused, and do indeed want mail from the groups they are supporting.

If you do want mailings, how often would you prefer to receive them? It might be possible to get less mail without eliminating it entirely.

Begin the mail opt-out process

You can choose to:

  1. Use the DMAchoice mail preference service. The Direct Marketing Association will inform national businesses and charities that you prefer to be removed from their mailing lists. However, as the DMA notes:

    You will continue to receive mail from those organizations with which you already do business. Please note that not all organizations use DMAchoice; therefore, you may continue to receive some mailings, including from local organizations and political organizations.

  2. Sign up for a junk mail elimination service. Here’s what 41pounds.org says: “Our service stops most common junk mail such as credit card offers, coupon mailers, sweepstakes entries, magazine offers, and insurance promotions, as well as any catalogs and charities you specify.”

    Another service that says it can do the same is stopthejunkmail.com, and you could also consider Paper Karma, a free app. I haven’t used any of these myself, so I can’t personally vouch for their effectiveness.

  3. Contact the charities directly. Charities often rent lists to use for their mailings (more on that in a minute) but if you’ve given to a group in the past, you’re probably on its own list, and can ask to be removed. You might also ask if it’s possible to get a limited number of mailings.

    Charities don’t usually include a phone number in the solicitations they send to you, but it’s often easy to find a phone number online. I just called two charities I’ve donated to in the past and asked to be removed from their lists; it was surprisingly easy.

    I did find myself explaining that while I loved the work these charities did, I just didn’t need the mail. In one case I spoke to the founder of the organization, and she was very understanding. She said she’s working to reduce her incoming mail, too!

Ask charities not to sell or rent your name.

Charities sometimes provide the names and addresses of their smaller donors to other related organizations; it’s another fundraising mechanism. If you don’t want to get mail from even more charities, ask for your donor information be kept private.

Some groups do this automatically. For example, one of my local public radio stations says on its online donation form: “KALW will never sell or loan your personal information to any other organization. We respect your right to privacy.”

Others provide an opt-out option. Another one of my local public radio stations, KQED, has this option on its online form: “Do not exchange my name with other non-profits.”

Charity Navigator provides information about each organization’s privacy policy. If a charity doesn’t have a policy that gives you a way to keep your information from being shared, you may want to re-evaluate if this is a group you want to support.

Creating a personalized filing system

There’s not a single right way to set up a filing system; the right system is one that works for you, where the time you spend filing pays off in ease of finding your documents when you need them.

Let’s assume you’ve already decided which papers you need to keep. The following are additional questions to consider:

  1. Does someone else need to share your files? If so, be sure to answer these questions with whomever else will be filing things away or retrieving things from your filing system.
  2. How much do you want to scan? If you’re comfortable with digital files, you may want to scan many of your papers and then discard or shred the originals (the ones that are legal to shred). Sometimes, you may want both a scanned copy (for backup and easy access) and a paper one.
  3. For papers you’re keeping, do you prefer binders or file folders — or some combination thereof?
  4. For action papers, are you comfortable using a tickler file? Action papers are those that need attention versus reference papers (such as your insurance papers) and archives/historic papers (such as your tax returns from 3 years ago). A tickler file creates a space for papers associated with actions, based on when you’re planning to take that action. There’s a section for each day of the current month and a section for each of the next 12 months. If you don’t want to use a tickler file, you could create files labeled by type of action needed (pay, call, enter into address book, etc.), or by urgency.
  5. How many files do you really need? Don’t be afraid to create a file for a single piece of paper, if it really doesn’t fit with anything else. But don’t go overboard with subdivision either, if it doesn’t help with retrieving your papers.
  6. Do you really hate to file? Could you get by with the “one box” approach from the Simple Productivity Blog? Here’s how that works: “Grab a small, empty box. … Throughout the year, toss in the things you need to hang on to for financial and tax reasons: paid bills, tax documents, bills. At the end of the year, go through it and shred what you can. Then stick it on a shelf with an appropriate label and start a new one.”
  7. Are you more of a “piler” than a “filer”? If so, you can still organize your piles to make things easier to find, for you and others; consider the Pendaflex PileSmart products. You could also use a series of baskets or bins on a shelf to hold your various piles.
  8. Where do you want to keep your files? Action files need to be close at hand to where you work. Many people prefer to keep them in some sort of step file, desktop file box or wall-mounted file — but some people prefer to keep them in a file drawer. Reference files need to be convenient to get to, but not as close by as action files. And historic files can go anywhere you have secure storage space; you don’t need easy access to them on a regular basis.
  9. Do none of those filing options sound quite right? Get creative. Keep important papers on a wall, using a series of clipboards. Use a collection of transparent bags hanging on racks. Go wild!

If you decide to use file folders:

  • Are you OK with basic manila file folders and green hanging folders? Or, do you want something snazzier? You’ve got lots of choices, from a rainbow of solid colors to a huge range of patterns.
  • Do you want file folders inside of hanging folders or just hanging folders, or just file folders? If you’re going with file folders inside hanging folders, you may want what’s called “interior folders,” which won’t obscure the labels on the hanging folders. You may also want box bottom hanging folders to hold a large number of file folders.
  • Do you want folders made from recycled materials? If this matters to you, look for folders with a high percentage of recycled and post-consumer material content.
  • Is color-coding useful to you, or just one more thing to worry about?
    You can always use colored folders just because you like them, without assigning any specific meaning to a color.
  • Do you want folders with the normal 1/3 cut tab (left, center, right) or with straight-cut tabs? Straight-cut tabs, which go the whole length of the file folder, give you room for longer labels. In either case, if your file folders will get a lot of use, look for ones with reinforced tabs.
  • Do you want to use a label maker, or just hand-write your labels? Labels made with a label maker are very easy to read — especially helpful for those of us with older eyes — and have a nice polished look. But plenty of people are happy with hand-written labels, too. In either case, I suggest avoiding dark-colored plastic tabs on hanging files, because these make the labels hard to read.
  • Do you want to use straight-line filing, or staggered? For my own files, I use straight-line filing with all the tabs in a single position; I like not worrying about messing up my staggered tabs (left, center, right) when I add a new file. (I use a new tab position to indicate a new grouping of files.) But others find staggered files easier to use.
  • Do you want to group related files, and, if so, how? Some prefer a simple A-Z filing system, while others prefer to have groupings: financial papers, family member papers, etc. Do you want to put all your insurance papers together? Do you want to put all your car-related papers together? Where does the auto insurance go?

Got your answers? Now you’re ready to create your filing system. As you work with your files, you may change your answers to some questions; that’s normal. Keep adjusting your system, so it keeps working for you.

Marking up your to-do lists for increased productivity

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.

It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.

I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.

For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.

Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:

Sorting by context

Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)

Time and Energy Available

Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.

Word Notebooks

A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.

Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.

  • Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
  • Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
  • Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
  • Draw an “X” over items that are complete

It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.

The Dash/Plus System

My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.

Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: Products for processing paper

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I still stand by the information in our extremely popular 2007 series “Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter” and the three other articles in the paper-begone series. Basically, he wanted to know if I would write the series the same way now that I did then.

Would the fundamental premise of the articles be the same today as it was then? Yes. Would a few specific details change? Definitely.

The most obvious thing I would change is the equipment used to scan and shred the papers we don’t need to retain in physical form. I still love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, but the technology referenced in the article is now about six years old. The ScanSnap line has come a long way since then. Also, I’ve come to adore shredders on wheels because they can be moved around a room to wherever you need them.

The latest model in the ScanSnap desktop line is the iX500 and it’s an impressive machine. I’ve been test driving one the past two weeks (thank you, ScanSnap!) and it’s amazing — it doesn’t require a desktop computer to launch, it will scan straight to a mobile device or an online storage location over Wifi (so I can save straight to Dropbox), it’s noticeably faster than the S1500M model we own, and I’ve been able to customize it to send scans automatically to whatever program I want, so items like photographs now import straight into iPhoto. I won’t upgrade permanently from the S1500M we already have, but if we didn’t have a scanner I would save up for this one. If you’re in the market for one, the list price is $495. They’re expensive, but they’re really nice. (Full iX500 product details.)

As far as shredders go, I’d recommend the Fellowes PowerShred 79Ci now. The thing is a monster at chewing up stuff you want to shred. And, as I referenced earlier, it’s on wheels, which makes it convenient to use and store. It’s also expensive, but the thing will last you a decade or more if you treat it well. Our PowerShred PS-77Cs is still rocking after seven years of service, and we use it daily. Unlike less expensive shredders, the PowerShred line is built to last.

The list of things to shred and not to shred is still accurate, though a lot of people greatly dislike my advice to destroy old passports. I probably should have written more clearly about waiting to shred the old passport until after you get a new one. Submitting your old one does speed up the renewal process. However, once you get the old one back, if you don’t need it for any legal reason, it’s safe to shred (just be sure to pop out the RFID chip first). My last passport, though used many times, didn’t even have a single stamp in it because so many countries have stopped stamping and my old visa had to be relinquished when I left the country that required me to have the visa. If you want to keep old passports, especially if they have stamps in them, do it but please keep it in a safe or safe-deposit box so it doesn’t end up in the hands of identity thieves.

I still use DevonThink to organize my digital documents and FreedomFiler for my paper files (though, I’ve added a ridiculous number of my own files to the FreedomFiler system in the past six years that resemble what I discuss in my book). Those two products have suited me well all this time.

Even with all of these products and systems, paper continues to be something we have to deal with daily in our home. We’ve unsubscribed from as much junk mail as possible, yet we still get some from businesses and services we use. The shredder, trash can, and recycling bin by our main entrance are essential in dealing with the junk immediately and not letting it come deep inside the house. But, the stuff we let in voluntarily — the bank statements, the receipts, the pay stubs, the contracts — still feels overwhelming at times. We’ve gone so far as to unsubscribe from all print magazines and now subscribe to these publications digitally over Zinio. The only way we’ve been able to keep from being overwhelmed by paper is to clear our desks each day as part of our end-of-day work routines. All papers filed, junk shred, receipts reconciled, documents scanned, etc. It only takes five or ten minutes, but it’s still a chore. I’m looking forward to the day when I only have to spend five or ten minutes a week (or less) dealing with paper clutter.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, 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 of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.