Uncluttering my file cabinets

I’m not as anti-paper as Alex is, but reading his “paperless as possible” post inspired me to re-evaluate what’s in my two file cabinets. I was also inspired by a friend who is doing a major uncluttering — she found a box full of papers (bank statements, utility bills, etc.) from 1999. I didn’t think I had anything that obviously worthless (beyond a few expired coupons), but I sure came close.

See all those lovely lavender-colored folders? Those were all my old client files. Some of those were from clients I haven’t seen since 2005. They were all nicely organized, but they were useless.

Most of those files contained just three things: a printout of the contact information from my digital address book, a map and driving instructions, and a signed client agreement. (I could tell how old each file was by seeing which mapping program I’d used: MapQuest, Google Maps, or Apple Maps.)

There was really no need to keep anything except the client agreements — everything else was easily reprinted if I ever needed it. So I started going through the files, pulling out the client agreements and scanning them, and then shredding everything.

See my recycling bin, with paper bags full of shredded paper? And many more bags got added after I took that photo.

I found plenty of other papers that were taking up unnecessary file cabinet space, too. Some were the kind of things so many people have: coupons for services I’ll never use, old restaurant menus, etc. As I’ve noted before, I expect to find (and discard) papers like these when I do a periodic file cabinet cleanup.

But I also found another large group of unnecessary papers. Over 10 years ago I created a bunch of “idea books” with photos showing organized kitchens, entryways, garages, closets, etc. Now everyone (who uses a computer) can find plenty of aspirational examples of organized spaces on Pinterest and elsewhere. And if I wanted to suggest a product to a client, I’d just email a link. I don’t think I ever once used those idea books, and it was way past time to let them go. Since I kept them in hanging files in a file cabinet, getting rid of them freed up a lot of space.

Now I just need to decide what to do with my newly empty Itoya Profolios. They’re very nice products, but I’m not sure I have any use for them.

I’ll also need to decide what to do with the empty file cabinet space. I can’t easily get rid of either file cabinet — there are still too many files that I do want to keep. Also, the cabinets fit nicely into their spaces, so I don’t feel any need to have them disappear. Instead, I’ll probably use the empty space to store a few things that could use better homes than the ones they have now.

This effort was a great reminder of how easy it is to become accustomed to keeping certain things — papers and more — without thinking about why we’re keeping them and if they’ve outlived their purposes.

Living as paperless as possible

In my post about conference handouts, a reader asked me how I manage to live/work without a filing cabinet.

The easy answer is that I’ve organized both my work and personal life in a way that I don’t need to keep papers.

At home, everything I need to hold onto fits into about half a dresser drawer:

  • The deed, mortgage, our wills, and insurance papers (kept in a small fireproof safe)
  • One year of utility bills

And that’s it. Seriously. We don’t have children, so no need for filing report cards, badges, artwork and such. The Spanish medical system is centralized and efficiently run, so I don’t need to keep any of my own medical records. Apart from this writing gig, I don’t run my own business so don’t need to hold onto any receipts or the like. And since I’m rather anti-paper, I recycle almost everything that comes into the house. Finally, taxes are all done online and are accessible throughout the year, meaning I have no need to keep previous years’ tax forms.

At work, my role as Academic Director is about as paperless as a job can be. All my written communication with staff is done through email or WhatsApp. Student reports are stored in Google Drive spreadsheets and sent to parents monthly. The paper reports the teachers fill out are kept in one of three inbox trays (one per trimester), and in June they are all shredded.

And as I have no part in the administrative/financial side of the business, I don’t have any legal requirements to hold onto anything.

When I still lived in Canada, however, and ran my professional organizing business, I had to hold onto more paper, but I still didn’t have a filing cabinet, or even a drawer. Instead, every year, I bought myself a plastic multi-pocketed folder with an elastic closure. On the tabs for each pocket, I put the expense/income category and every day of the week, I would take five minutes to update my accounting program with anything new and store the piece of paper in its corresponding category.

The folder lived on top of my desk, beside the computer, easily accessible, portable and tidy. When the tax-year finished, the folder would go in an airtight plastic bin in the basement, and I would buy myself a new multi-pocketed folder.

I had such a simple filing system because I am a horribly disorganized person. I studied library science and records management but almost never worked in the field because I could never decide on just one set of stable categories. When asked, “where should I file this?” my brain would come up with at least 10 different options depending on the context of the potential future search.

Through many years of trial and error, I discovered the best way to be organized is to have as little as possible, and in more recent years, have as little legal responsibility as possible.

Now it’s time to turn the question to all of you: at home and at work, what papers do you honestly and truly NEED to keep and what are you keeping out of habit?

And once you’ve figured that out, check out Jacki’s article about organizing documents at home or the Office Organization archive for tips at work.

Conference handouts: do you ever refer to them?

If you have ever been to a conference, I’m sure you’ve received more than your fair share of handouts and other paper, from the organizing body, speakers and vendors. Plus you’ll also have whatever notes you take.

Conferences sometimes can feel like the New Year, a perfect time for resolutions, vows and promises to ourselves about what we’ll get right to work on when we’re back at our desks. But like most New Year resolutions, our good intentions get buried in the day-to-day details and mini-crises that make up a normal workday.

Years ago, in my most minimalist stage, I refused any and all handouts, relying on my memory. I had the theory that if a presentation didn’t cause a strong enough impression that it stuck in my brain, it wasn’t of much importance or priority to me.

The there are those who go to the other extreme, not just collecting everything they can, but also organizing and archiving it so that they can access the information at any point in the future. My mother was the latter type and although she didn’t refer back to every piece of information from every conference, she quite often pulled out some useful tidbit or other when working on a new project.

I just got back from a conference in Barcelona where I learned a lot about things that we are either in the process of implementing or could introduce at work. And since I’m no longer so minimalist, I took copious notes and after getting home, I downloaded the handouts/presentations of each of the sessions I attended. I was also given marketing material about products and processes the vendors offered. Between paper and electronic documents, I probably have a full day’s reading.

Assuming I actually look at it all, which I won’t.

I will hold onto my own notes and the presentation notes until I finish the projects we are working on that prompted me going to the conference. And the marketing materials will go straight into the recycling bin as will materials about the conference itself.

That’s me though. I don’t have a filing cabinet, or even a single drawer. I hate collecting paper. (Okay yes, I am still a minimalist at heart.) If you are someone who does like to hold onto information, however, here are some things to think about when it comes to deciding what to keep:

  1. Determine what part of your job the handout relates to. Make a note of it on the handout and store it with your other files on the same topic.
  2. If it’s not connected to anything you currently do, is it something you want to try in the future? If so, create a “future plans” document on your computer and add the basic ideas to it. Toss out what you picked up from the conference,, because when you finally get around to the idea, it’s highly likely you’ll need to research the topic again to find out the latest advances.
  3. Are you ever involved in running events? I am, so parts of my notes include my impression of the conference itself: what they did well and what wasn’t quite so good. I put these notes in with my event planning files (which in my case are all electronic — I really do hate paper).
  4. Record the vendor details in your preferred contact management system, along with a note about why you might be interested in working with them, and get rid of the marketing materials. Vendors are always happy to provide you with new information at any time (which these days can almost always be found online).

What do you do with conference handouts? Have I missed anything? Share your tricks and tips in the comments.

Reader question: Scanning old airmail letters

Reader Sam wrote in to ask:

“I have been sorting things and found a suitcase full of old airmail letters from my parents. I want to scan and save them as they go back to the 1950s. What is the best way to scan, organize, and sometimes translate them into English? Any advice is welcome as I want to start the project soon. Is it best to scan all of them first or organise them one-by-one?”

Thank you for this great question Sam. How exciting to find your parents’ airmail letters! It is a wonderful portion of your family history that deserves to be preserved. Paper, especially airmail paper, ages quickly and can become brittle so you are wise to embark on this conservation project.

I would suggest that you first organize the letters and then scan them. This way you will know exactly what you have before beginning the scanning process. Because airmail paper is delicate, you should handle it with cotton gloves to prevent oil or dirt from your fingers damaging the letters.

It is probably easiest to sort the letters by date. Don’t be too fastidious on your first sort through. You can do a first run by separating the letters by year and then second sort by separating each year by month.

Store the letters in acid-free boxes, preferably unfolded. Be very careful in unfolding the letters and straightening the creases. You do not want to damage the paper. Do not use tape or glue to fix torn letters. If you are worried about a letter falling apart, place it in an acid-free sheet protector. By storing the letters in the acid-free boxes, you are keeping them protected while waiting to be scanned.

Scanning can be a rather long process and there are a few things to think about before you start.

Use a flatbed scanner. Scanners with auto-feed could very easily rip or tear your letters beyond repair.

You want the electronic version of the letter to retain the quality of the original document yet be of a reasonable file size. You may need to scan one letter at several different quality levels (colour or greyscale; 200, 400, 600 dpi; JPG, TIFF or PDF) to determine what the right balance is.

Once you’ve found the correct settings, scan one letter and note the file size. Multiply the file size by the number of letters you have and add about 20%. This will be the amount of space the files take on your hard drive. Should you need to, purchase an external hard drive on which to store your files.

Once you have determined the scanning parameters, decide on a file name format. Personally, I prefer a combination of date and name. For example, 19580214_Mom2Dad.pdf would be a letter sent on February 14th, 1958 from your mother to your father. By using the format YYYYMMDD_name, all of the files will stay in chronological order on your hard drive.

Now you can begin your scanning process. Remember to handle the letters carefully and wear the cotton gloves. Once scanned, you can return the letter to its acid-free storage box. You can leave an index card between two letters as a bookmark in case you don’t get finished scanning the entire box in one sitting. Do not use paperclips or staples as they can warp or rip the paper.

When you’ve completed scanning, send the electronic files for translation and keep your original documents preserved. You can name the electronic translation as YYYYMMDD_name_translated

If you’d like to keep a paper copy of the translation with the original letter, use an archival pen to write the translation on archival paper. Home printers do not have archival quality ink and the ink may do damage to your airmail letters if they are stored together.

If you’re having difficulty deciding how to scan your letters, take a few to your local archive or a nearby college/university’s archives department. They should be able to provide recommendations. Some community archives will, for a fee, take on a private conservation project. If the archives cannot help you, they may be able to recommend a private company who would be able to convert your paper documents to electronic ones. If you choose to take this path, we recommend that you organize and properly store your letters first.

All the best of luck with your family heritage project Sam!

Receipts: What to keep and what to toss

When I help people organize their paperwork, we usually come across stacks of receipts. Which ones are worth keeping? The following guidance applies to the U.S., but similar guidelines may apply elsewhere, too.

Receipts for small cash purchases

If you bought a coffee at Starbucks, there’s no need to hold onto that receipt. You don’t even need to shred the receipt since it contains no personally identifying information that could cause problems if someone else saw it.

Receipts for credit/debit card purchases

You may want to keep those until you get your credit card bill/bank statement and can confirm the charges on the bill/statement match up to your receipts.

Receipts for high-value items

These receipts can be useful for insurance purposes if you are unfortunate enough to have a theft, a fire, or other loss. Because paper records would get lost in a fire along with the items on the receipt, it’s good to keep these receipts electronically (with an offsite backup), in a safe deposit box, or in a fireproof safe in your home.

Receipts for items you might want to return

If you’re not sure you want to keep something or if it’s an item under warranty, keeping the receipt until the end of the allowed return time or the end of the warranty period might be useful.

Receipts for tax purposes

If you itemize your deductions, you’ll want to keep receipts for any expenses you can deduct. And if you’re self-employed, there are many receipts that may be important. Check with your tax preparer (or review the information on the IRS website) to identify exactly which expenses are deductible and how long they should be kept. The Cohan rule may help you out if you lack receipts, allowing expenses to be estimated, but life will be much easier if you do have the receipts.

If you own your home, keep the receipts for all home improvements. When you sell your home, the cost of those improvements will reduce your taxable gain. I have friends who are selling their house this year and didn’t keep good records for their many improvements, and now they need to scramble to pull the information together. That’s no fun.

Miscellaneous tips regarding receipts

Cash register receipts printed on thermal paper fade over time. If you have some of those, scan them or make a photocopy as soon as possible, while the receipt is still legible. You may be able to scan such receipts and darken them after they’ve faded, but creating and saving legible copies right away will save you that bother.

If a tax-related receipt doesn’t identify exactly what was purchased, writing that information on the receipt at the time of purchase will save you frustration in the future, as I have found from sad experience.

Some stores offer the option of emailed receipts rather than printed receipts. If you deal well with electronic records, this can reduce the paper clutter. My grocery store offers emailed receipts, and I definitely prefer them to paper.

Hold the mail

On our post Becoming a more organized traveler, Maria, one of our readers, wrote us to say that she always has her postal mail delivery suspended when she goes on vacation. This is a great idea because if mail piles up in your mailbox advertising that you’re not home, it makes you a target for theft and identity fraud.

Even when you’re at home, the “hold mail” option from your postal service can also help keep you organized during short-term events when mail would overflow your home mail centre. These events include:

Stay-cations. On a stay-cation you spend your days zooming around to attractions, restaurants, and treating your house like a hotel. Rather than have important mail get lost in all of the shuffle, have the post office hold it for you until guests have departed and you have returned to your regular mail processing routine.

Special Occasions. Weddings, anniversary parties, and family reunions take time and effort to plan, attend, and especially host. Consider having mail delivery suspended from a few days before, until a few days after the event. When the event is over, you’ll have time to sort through your mail properly and you won’t accidentally send your payment for the electric bill enclosed in a thank-you card.

Home Renovations. The house is being torn apart and work crews are everywhere. Mail can be easily lost (or stolen) in the tumult. Suspending mail delivery during this time may save you from losing important bills and payments. You can always pop-in to the post office and pick up your mail weekly if the renovations are over an extended period.

Some people who travel regularly choose to rent a post office box and have all of their personal mail delivered there. They pick it up every week or so and process it all at the same time. Even if you don’t travel, this option might work for you depending on the quantity of mail you receive and the ease of visiting your post office box.

Have you ever used a “hold-mail” service other than when going away on vacation? We’d love to hear how it worked for you.

More advice for buying a filing cabinet

Dave recently provided some great tips for buying a filing cabinet. The following are a few additional suggestions from my own experiences.

Unclutter first

With any organizing project, buying the containers (in this case, the filing cabinets) is one of the last steps. If you don’t remove the paper clutter first, you may wind up buying more storage than you need.

So much information we used to keep in files can now be found online. And if you’re comfortable with digital files, many papers that you receive which have valuable information can be scanned, reducing what needs to be kept and filed.

But once you’ve decided what to keep, be sure to buy filing cabinets that can store all your papers without overcrowding the drawers. It’s nice to keep each drawer no more than 80 percent full so it’s easy to add and remove files.

Consider what size papers you need to keep

Many people just need files for letter-sized paper, but you may have documents you want to keep in paper form that are larger (such as real estate documents in the U.S., which are often on legal size paper). Some filing cabinets can accommodate multiple paper sizes.

Choose to use hanging files — or not

Most filing cabinets come with rails for hanging files (or have high drawer sides designed to accommodate hanging file folders without the use of rails), so that’s what most people use. However, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame used to recommend a different approach:

I recommend you totally do away with the hanging-file hardware and use just plain folders standing up by themselves in the file drawer, held up by the movable metal plate in the back. Hanging folders are much less efficient because of the effort it takes to make a new file ad hoc.

This advice seems to have been removed from the latest edition of Allen’s book, but it might still appeal to you. If you want to go this route, you’ll want a filing cabinet that has those movable metal plates, often called follower blocks.

Make sure the cabinet drawers have full-extension slides

Some filing cabinets have drawers that don’t pull all the way out, making it hard to reach the files in the back. Be sure to look for cabinets with full-extension drawer slides (rather than something like three-quarter extension) so you can easily reach everything without scraping your knuckles.

Don’t create a tipping hazard

If you’re at all concerned about the cabinet falling over — because you have small children or you live in earthquake territory, for example — get the materials needed to anchor the cabinet to the wall.

Be sure a filing cabinet is the right tool for you


Just because so many people use filing cabinets doesn’t mean you need to do the same. There are other options, such as file carts, which may suit your organizing style better. Or you may prefer to keep at least some papers in binders rather than in file folders.

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.