Sunday, January 30, 2005

Overcoming Organizing Obstacles (Part 1)

Tip of the Week, January 23, 2005

At some point in almost every organizing project, at least one obstacle lies in wait, seemingly ready to sabotage your progress and make you want to throw in the towel. It could be anything from a suddenly packed schedule to an unsupportive friend or family member to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Whatever form it takes, when the obstacle does pop up, it can sometimes seem ruinous.

But obstacles don't need to spell organizing disaster; here are a few ways of getting around the things that stand between you and organization.

Be realistic but determined
Most of us don't have hours each week to devote to organizing in the best of times, let alone when life gets especially demanding and schedules start filling up. Trying to cram large swaths of organizing time onto an already packed calendar tends to do little more than set you up for disappointment and frustration. So I recommend taking a much more realistic tack: set aside an hour or so one day a week to really devote yourself to organizing; on the remaining days, get in 10-15 minutes of maintenance (such as sorting through boxes you set aside or going through the mail that's come in during the week).

There will be weeks when you fall off the wagon and don't spend any time organizing at all. Piles might start to reappear, tabletops might start to disappear, and things may seem to be backsliding like mad. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you're human, and little by little, start dismantling the clutter again. I like to keep in mind words from the actress Mary Pickford: "What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down." Remember that you have the determination and the ability to pick yourself--and your piles--up again.

Life is not an HGTV show
Thanks to books, magazines, and several TV shows (such as Clean Sweep and Mission: Organization), getting organized has become much more popular in the past few years. The spotlight on organization is great--perhaps it's even what inspired you--but it can also cause some unrealistic expectations. For example, I don't know a single person who's had the luxury of having their home magically transformed--for free, at that!--by a crew of organizing experts, carpenters, and decorators, all over the course of a single weekend. In the real world, organizing takes time, effort, and the knowledge that the process isn't an easy one.

Even if you remind yourself that you can't wave a magic wand and suddenly see your home or office looking neat as a pin, that's exactly what some friends and family members might expect when you tell them you're getting organized. When they see the reality of the situation--the boxes, the piles, the slow but steady progress--they may not offer the most encouraging words.

If you can't keep unsupportive friends and family out of your in-progress zones until you've finished organizing, at least try not to let their criticism or unkind words derail you altogether. Keep reminding yourself why you chose to get organized in the first place, spend some time looking over and enjoying the progress you've made, and call or invite over someone you know will support your efforts and appreciate the work you've done.

Coming up
Next week we'll look at other ways of getting beyond organizing obstacles. And in February, I want to hear from you: what are your favorite organizing tips? What tricks, ideas, and inspiration sources have worked for you? What organizing advice would you pass along to others? E-mail me at info@organizedlife and let me know; I'll post the replies in the February 6 Tip of the Week.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Organizing Files and Paper

Tip of the Week, January 16, 2005

One of the most common questions I'm asked is "How long do I need to keep these files?", followed closely by "What do I need to shred before throwing it out?" Though the answers can vary, this week we'll take a look at some guidelines aimed at making filing and recordkeeping more efficient and less painful.

How long to keep records
Most of us keep records around because we want to be sure to have them on hand if the IRS decides we're audit material or because we're just not sure they can safely be discarded. This can mean backlogs of things like utility and phone bills, credit card statements, and canceled checks.

I always recommend checking with your tax preparer, accountant, and attorney before discarding any papers you think you might need; the professionals who know you and work directly with you can advise you on what to keep and what to throw away.

That said, you can find some general guidelines on recordkeeping both on the IRS Web site and at, a site that provides lots of objective information on a wide variety of financial topics. Both of these sites generally advise disposing of records like bills, credit card statements, and canceled checks within a year unless those records contain information needed on your tax return.

Keep in mind that many records--especially bills, bank statements, and credit card information--are now available online. Taking advantage of electronic statements can help further reduce the amount of paper you need to keep around. Online statement availability varies; check with your phone company, power company, bank, and credit card providers for specifics.

Finally, if there are records you want to keep long term that you're not legally required to have in paper form (check with your accountant or lawyer), consider scanning them onto a computer and saving them to a cd or portable storage device. You'll have the reassurance of knowing you can access the records if you need them without having to store the paper copies.

To shred or not to shred
Once you have a sense of what papers you can get rid of, you're faced with another decision: which of them do you need to shred or destroy, and which can you simply recycle?

Here again, it's worth consulting your accountant or attorney for guidelines specific to your situation. You should also use your best judgment: if you feel safer shredding anything with your name or address on it, even if guidelines recommend otherwise, go ahead and shred.

I advise shredding (or otherwise destroying) papers that show your social security number, your full credit card number and/or expiration date, your bank account number, sensitive medical or personal information, and other info that could present legal or financial problems if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Unused checks, pre-approved credit card applications, and checks you can write against a credit card account are also fodder for the shredder.

Generally, I don't shred phone bills, utility bills, personal correspondence, junk mail, address labels, and other files that don't contain sensitive information. Again, it's worthwhile to take the time to establish your own shredding guidelines based on the advice of your financial and legal advisors and on your own preferences.

Purging your files of unneeded records and creating guidelines for what you do and don't need to shred won't be instant cures for the headache of too much paper, but they can help you keep closer tabs on your files. By clearing out the papers you no longer need, you'll create more space for those you do, and might even make your filing system more efficient in the process.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Organizing E-mail

Tip of the Week, January 9, 2005

E-mail is supposed to help make our lives easier, but between spam and the dozens--if not hundreds--of other messages we receive each week, it can quickly become a headache of its own. Here are some tips to help you organize your e-mail and tame the electronic beast.

Limit the flow
It sounds obvious, but it can be easy to forget that one of the simplest ways of keeping e-mail under control is limiting how much you receive (and send!). Think twice before signing up for things like e-mail newsletters, daily alerts, and newsgroups in which posts are sent via e-mail rather than to a central online bulletin board; join only those groups or mailing lists that you're truly interested in. When you do sign up for e-mail newsletters and groups, give them a trial run; if they're not useful to you after a few weeks, unsubscribe. Any reputable sender (including me, if you're receiving this Tip by e-mail) will remove your name from their list without hassle.

Also try to keep tabs on how many messages you forward or mass-mail to friends, co-workers, and family. Think twice before sending that cute e-mail message about friendship or that "good luck" chain mail to everyone in your address book. If you want to bid your friends good luck or share a poem about what your friends mean to you, try writing them personal messages instead.

Sort and purge
Though e-mail doesn't pile up on desktops or in filing drawers the same way paper does, it can still become unruly. That's one of the reasons e-mail folders can be so useful: they allow you to sort your messages by categories so they're easier to save and find again when you need them.

When creating e-mail folders, consider using names and categories that are similar to those you use for offline files. For example, if your paper files include categories like "Family," "Friends," "Investing," and "Home," try creating e-mail folders with those same categories. This can make it easier to decide where to store messages, and can help standardize your online and offline files.

Though most online e-mail programs now offer quite a bit of storage space, and you have almost unlimited space if you save your mail directly to your computer, try not to save messages without thinking. As with paper files, before you save something, ask yourself three questions: Do I really need this (or is it really special to me)? Is there a legal reason I need to keep this? Is this message the only place I can find this information? if you can't answer "yes" to at least one of those questions, consider sending the message to the trash can.

Resist the print urge
While some e-mail messages are worth printing, others will only add to the paper clutter you need to sort through, and may end up causing more of a headache than they're worth. Unless you use a mail program that offers very little storage space and you often receive important messages, chances are you definitely don't need to print every message you receive.

Try creating your own guidelines for what gets printed and what doesn't. For example, you might decide to print only messages with lots of sentimental value, articles or newsletters with information you want to keep and refer back to, and things you'll only use offline, such as recipes. Everything else can remain paper-free.

If you do opt to print out more of your e-mail, aim to get it into folders, binders, or some other storage space once it's on paper so you can avoid stacks of messages on your desk.

Try taking some time this week to create e-mail folders, do some electronic sorting and purging, and coming up with some ground rules on printing. With a bit of thinking and a small investment of effort, you may indeed find that e-mail is the useful and efficient tool it was meant to be.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Out with the Old (Part 2)

Tip of the Week, December 26, 2004 and January 2, 2005

With Hanukkah and Christmas behind us, most of us will probably spend some time this week thinking about resolutions for 2005. If "Get organized" is on your list of goals for the new year, congratulations! Many people find that organizing their physical space, their schedules, and their files can have positive repercussions in other areas of their lives.

As with any resolution, though, this one takes some discipline and devotion to making changes. With that in mind, here are a few ideas that might help you stick to your organizing goal long after January 1 has come and gone.

Slow and steady
It's easy to start working on any resolution with lots of energy and the best of intentions. The turn of the year is an inspiring time, which often means we start out with lots of vim and vigor: hours at the gym, salads every day, entire contents of closets pulled out to be reorganized. But more often than not, we slide back into our old ways little by little as the weeks roll on.

This year, at least with your organizing resolution, try starting small. Rather than aiming to organize all of your closets, get your filing system in shape, and make your kitchen a model of efficiency, start slowly on one closet, one filing drawer, or the most active area of the kitchen. Once you've accomplished a level of organization you're happy with, take a few weeks to work on maintenance before moving on to the next phase of the project. You'll get the chance to enjoy the progress you've made so far while working on keeping good habits in place.

Be specific and realistic
"Get organized" can be a broad and somewhat overwhelming goal. By taking the time to break it down into specific and realistic parts, you'll make it more achievable, more meaningful, and perhaps even more enjoyable.

Try making a list of the areas of your home, office, or schedule you want to organize, and include the reasons you're listing them. For example, you might start with "Organize entryway to make morning routines easier and less stressful" or "Create a place for incoming mail to avoid paying bills late." This will help you get a clear sense of both your goals and their outcomes, and can help provide some inspiration as you work.

Don't be afraid to revise your organizing resolutions as the year progresses. You may find in April that you have less time to devote to organization than you thought you would in January. Rather than giving up on your resolutions altogether, make them flexible enough to accomodate changes in schedule, circumstance, and lifestyle.

Set yourself up for success
One of my colleagues recently shared with me her top resolution for 2005: "Make new mistakes." She explained that she knows she'll make at least a few mistakes in the coming year, as she does every year; she hopes these mistakes will be different from those in years past, and consequently will have different lessons.

This is such an unusual and inspirational resolution: it gives her space to be human and imperfect in a way many other resolutions don't. It also gives her the chance to let go of past stumbles and challenges rather than letting them resurface.

So when you set out to get organized in 2005, start fresh; try to focus less on the times you tried to organize in the past and more on what you can do to succeed with your organizing resolutions this year. And don't be afraid to make mistakes: sometimes they're more helpful than the successes.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, organized, and enjoyable New Year!