Sunday, January 28, 2007

Get Your E-mail under Control

Tip of the Week, January 21, 2007

It's a common refrain: many technological tools and advancements that were supposed to make our lives easier sometimes seem to have just the opposite effect. E-mail is one of the main culprits here: how many times have you felt overwhelmed by the contents of your Inbox or wanted to scream when faced with the prospect of sorting all the e-mail you've received?

The good news is that it's entirely possible to put e-mail to use for you in a way that will allow it to be the convenient tool it's meant to be, rather than the stress-inducer it can easily become. Follow the steps below to get your e-mail under control.

Step 1: Delete, delete, delete
In many ways, e-mail is just like the papers, stuff, and tasks we're faced with every day: it needs regular rounds of sorting and purging. However, because it doesn't take up any physical space, it's easy to let e-mail accumulate until your Inbox starts to swell and you're unable to find the messages you actually need.

To rein in your e-mail, you first need to ruthlessly delete the messages that are no longer timely, relevant, necessary, or interesting to you. This includes out-of-date newsletters, announcements about events that have passed, short messages that don't have any real substance, and messages with information you can easily find elsewhere. When deciding what to keep and what to delete, remember that e-mail, like papers you might keep on file, must be somehow useful to your life now to merit space in your Inbox; anything that isn't should go.

Step 2: Change the way you think of your Inbox
Once you've gotten rid of unwanted and unneeded messages, it's time to reconsider the way you view your e-mail Inbox. For many of us, the Inbox is where messages hang out until we finally take the time to do something with them. This is the electronic equivalent of keeping unsorted papers stacked on your desk as reminders to yourself to take action, and it can quickly lead to chaos. When there are 150 messages lurking in your Inbox, it's hard to find what you need and to remember what you're supposed to do with all of them.

I encourage you to think of your Inbox less as a place for any and all messages to loiter and more as a place where you store only messages related to your current To Dos. This can make it easier to find messages when you need them and can help you process your task list more efficiently. Aim to spend at least a few minutes a day--preferably at the end of the day--going through your Inbox and deleting or moving messages that aren't tied to items on your To Do list. (Of course, this assumes that you keep some sort of To Do list to track your tasks; if you don't, now's the time to start!)

Step 3: Set up folders
With e-mail as with paper, there will always be some messages you want or need to keep but that don't belong in your Inbox. For these, folders are the way to go.

Every e-mail program I've encountered, whether web-based (like Yahoo, Gmail, or Hotmail) or computer-based (like Outlook or Eudora) allows you to create storage folders for mail. Think of these folders as electronic file folders: they're places to categorize and store messages you want to keep.

How many folders you create, how you label them, and what you store in each will depend largely on the type of e-mail messages you receive and which you need to hold onto. Generally speaking, I recommend following a similar naming system to whatever you might have set up for your paper files; if, for example, you have a paper file called "Family Correspondence" with keepsake letters and cards from family members, you might also create a "Family Correspondence" folder in your e-mail program for important or meaningful messages. Using similar names makes it easier to remember where to find messages when you want to refer to them, and where to store them when you're ready to move them from your Inbox.

Step 4: Do an e-mail audit
Finally, take some time to look closely at the types of messages you receive and to do some hard thinking about which ones are worth your time to read. If you subscribe to numerous newsletters, discussion groups, or online advertising messages, it can be far too easy to feel like you're falling behind on e-mail all the time, or that you're spending way too much time trying to read all of the messages you receive each day.

As with purging, try to be as ruthless as possible when you do this audit. If you like the idea of subscribing to multiple newsletters on various topics of interest but never seem to get around to reading them, unsubscribe and try using the web to find info on those topics if and when you need it. If friends and family members regularly forward you jokes, announcements, chain messages, or other mail that you don't enjoy or don't have time to read, let those people know that you're putting your e-mail on a diet and ask for their cooperation. If you find yourself exchanging dozens of messages with colleagues each day, consider setting up a short meeting to discuss issues in person rather than by e-mail.

Overall, aim to make sure that the messages arriving in your Inbox are useful, relevant, enjoyable, and important. Those that aren't at least one of those things should probably go.

Put these four steps to use and stick to them; in time, you should find that you're more in control of your e-mail, that you waste less time reading, responding to, and processing unwanted or extraneous messages, and that e-mail becomes the useful tool it was meant to be.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Creating a Financial Organizing System

Tip of the Week, January 14, 2007

Though tax season is still officially a few months away, the turn of the year inspires many of us to get a clearer picture of our finances, take control of spending, or simply to feel more organized when it comes to the money-related papers and files we need to keep. Whether you're looking for a complete financial organizing system overhaul or just want to make a few tweaks to the system you already have, these ideas can help.

Choose your tools
When organizing finances, as with organizing in general, one of the biggest mistakes people often make is choosing tools that are too complex, too simple, too hard to use, or simply inadequate for the job at hand. If you've ever installed and tried to use an elaborate piece of financial software, only to give up on it after a few weeks, you know how frustrating the wrong tools can be.

Every financial organizing system needs a few basic tools: some way to track whatever it is you want to track (money coming in, money going out, investments, and so on) and some way to store the information you need to keep on hand. The actual tools you use will depend largely on your financial goals, your habits, and your comfort level with technology. If you want to keep a detailed budget, track your spending, take care of banking and bill paying online, and follow your investments, software like Quicken or Microsoft Money might be useful. If, on the other hand, you just need a place to drop the receipts you collect over the course of each week and somewhere to stash the statements you get from banks and other financial institutions, a simple accordion file and 3-ring binder could easily do the trick.

Sort and purge
Another challenge of creating and maintaining useful financial organizing systems is knowing which papers and files to keep and which to toss. Though there's no master list of records retention guidelines that will work for everyone, this list on Bankrate.com provides a good general starting point. Review these recommendations with your attorney, CPA, or other financial professional to make sure they make sense for your particular needs.

Once you've established some guidelines for what financial papers to keep and how long to keep them, sort through the papers you have. Get rid of any you no longer need (I always recommend shredding all financial papers), set aside any you need to hold onto for long-term storage (such as past tax returns and supporting documentation), and create piles of those that are currently relevant.

I like to store things like tax returns in a sturdy file box separate from my current files; it leaves me with more room to work with and makes it easier to find what I need without having to wade through papers from past years. Make sure to label your archived paperwork clearly so you can tell at a glance what's there.

Put the system to work
Once you've purged the papers, files, and receipts you no longer need and have stored your archived information securely, you're ready to get your system up and running. Now's the time to put the tools you chose earlier in place: you might set up file folders or 3-ring binders to hold statements and other paperwork, label and start filling an accordion file for receipts and cancelled checks, and get started with financial software if you've chosen to use it.

As you set up your system, remember that there's no one right way to do it. The files you create, the labels you make, and the categories you establish should all make sense to you (and to anyone else who will be using the system with you); if they don't, you'll soon find yourself back at square one.

When your system's in place, use it! Set aside time each week (or once every other week) to file paperwork you've received, enter data into your software, track your spending, and complete any other tasks related to your financial organizing goals. Once every few months, take a look at your records retention guidelines and weed out any papers you no longer need to keep. Doing this on a regular basis will keep your system up-to-date and running smoothly.

Financial organizing can be one of the most daunting organizational tasks to face, but with a bit of planning, some appropriate tools, and dedication to using the system you create, you should find that it's easier than ever to keep tabs on your money. That's an absolutely worthwhile investment.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Making Organizing Resolutions that Stick

Tip of the Week, January 7, 2007

January is Get Organized Month--and, of course, the start of a whole new year--so it's a great time for making or renewing a commitment to get organized. But as with so many other New Year's resolutions, vowing to be better organized can sometimes seem overwhelming and impossible to achieve. This year, set aside any guilt, sense of obligation, and fear of failure and make organizing resolutions that will stick. Here's how.

Focus on the why first
What's motivating you to get organized? It could be frustration at wasting time each day looking for the things you need, or at losing money by having to pay late fees for bills you don't take care of on time. Perhaps you want your kids or grandkids to have a healthier relationship with things and want to set a good example for them. Maybe you're just ready to make a positive change that will make you feel calmer and more in control. Whatever your reasons for resolving to get organized, be sure to keep them in mind now and in the weeks and months to come. You might even post them on your fridge, above your desk, or wherever you’re likely to see them each day as a reminder to yourself.

Make your resolution realistic
Elaborate resolutions might seem motivational at first, but they can be extremely hard to stick with and can lead to disappointment and failure. This year, set yourself up to succeed by choosing a resolution that’s realistic and achievable. For example, rather than vowing to overhaul the organization of your entire house, choose one room or area--the front hall closet, say, or the kitchen. Then break that goal down into chunks, such as getting rid of things you don't need, arranging the stuff that stays put so that it's easy to find what you need, and doing some simple maintenance tasks every few weeks to keep up the progress you’ve made. If you successfully achieve your resolution and are inspired to make others, great! If you don't, don't beat yourself up; simply remind yourself of your original goals and recommit to your vow.

Aim for a lasting difference, not a quick change
Finally, remember that while quick changes--whether losing 30 pounds in a month, quitting anything cold turkey, or trying to purge many years' worth of clutter in a few weeks--can be much less likely to stick than slow, steady progress that leads to lasting differences. You may not be able to enjoy instant gratification with slower changes, but you will be able to enjoy the knowledge that the effort you put in will really pay off in the end.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, organized new year!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Four Gifts to Give Yourself in 2007

Tip of the Week, Late December 2006

If you're like many of us, this month means exchanging gifts with friends, family, and colleagues. We've already looked at ways of making sharing presents with others a relatively clutter-free experience. This time around, I want to suggest four gifts you can give yourself in 2007. The best part? They cost nothing and don't require any storage.

#1: An appreciation of quality over quantity
Yes, you've heard me say this many times before; I keep repeating it because it's so true. When it comes to many things in life--stuff, experiences, relationships, tasks--there's something to be said for opting for better rather than more. This doesn't mean you need to shell out for the most expensive things you can find, drop the casual relationships you have with people who might not be in your everyday life, or focus solely on those tasks that are absolutely critical. It just means that it's worth developing an awareness and an appreciation of when higher quality will serve you better than larger quantity.

#2: A willingness to give yourself more importance than your stuff
If you devote more time, money, effort, attention, and care to the things in your life than you do to yourself, it's time to change the balance. Take back the living room that's been occupied for the past few years by things you were sure you'd use someday. Donate the knicknacks lining your shelves that take an hour to dust each week, and use that time to do something nice for yourself. Take a look around: if the things in your home or office aren't supporting your life as you're living it now, let them go and allow yourself to simply enjoy the space and the possibility.

#3: A truce with perfectionism
Forget about the old maxim "If something's worth doing, it's worth doing right." Sure, there are tasks that deserve your utmost attention and care, such as caring for a sick family member or putting the finishing touches on a major project at work. But so many other tasks we're faced with each day deserve honest attempts to do them well but certainly not perfection. Vacuuming the floor, folding laundry, filing papers, doing the dishes, tidying up your office at the end of the day: by all means, do them, but give yourself permission not to have to do them perfectly.

#4: One new good habit
In organizing as in so many other aspects of life, good systems and good equipment are nothing without good habits; even the most comprehensive, logical, and well-stocked filing system will fail, for example, if you don't use it on a very regular basis. So in 2007, rather than focusing so much on the end goal of a new year's resolution, focus instead on one good habit you can develop to help get you there. Want to make better use of your commute time? At the end of each day, make sure your bag is packed with a book on tape, a language cd, a magazine, or supplies for letter writing. Want a more organized office? Get in the habit of starting or ending each day with five to ten minutes of planning and de-cluttering time.

Whatever habit you choose, the most important thing you can do is give yourself the gift of making every effort to stick with it. With enough repetition, it will soon become something almost effortless. And while that type of gift may not be as exciting up front as something you unwrap, chances are it'll be far more valuable in the long run.

Happy holidays to you and yours, and best wishes for a joyful, healthy, organized new year!