Sunday, August 31, 2008

Create a Mail Processing System

Tip of the Week, August 24, 2008

In last week's Tip
, we looked at a quick and easy way to cut mail clutter every day. Getting rid of unwanted and unneeded stuff that comes in the mail, though, is only part of the process of taking control. You also need a dependable system for stashing the mail you want or need to keep, as well as the habit of regularly tackling and processing the stuff that lands there.

Here's how to create a simple but effective mail system.

Step #1: Establish a collection spot
Getting your mail in the front door--or even onto a desk or the kitchen counter--doesn't automatically ensure that it'll get dealt with on time (or at all). If you've ever experienced the stress of losing a bill, an invitation, or another piece of mail you needed, you know the importance of keeping tabs on where these things go.

As with any organizing system, an effective mail management system has two main parts; the first is a reliable container in which to gather the mail that comes in each day (once it's shorn of unwanted junk mail, catalogs, and so on--see last week's Tip for more).

One of my favorite mail collection containers is a wall-mounted letter holder, ideally one with two or more compartments, or a few one-compartment holders hung together (see some examples here). I like wall-mounted models (which can also be attached to the fridge, to the side of a desk or bookcase, and so on) because they don't take up space on a desk or counter and because they make it easy to see what's inside. If possible, try to steer clear of horizontal letter/file holders; with these, mail tends to get buried quickly, and it's all too easy to forget what's at the bottom of a stack as soon as you put something on top of it.

Divide your letter holders into categories based on what kind of mail you receive and/or who's responsible for it. For example, you might have compartments for Bills, Events, Correspondence, and Things to Read, or compartments for each family member. Label each compartment with the category you choose.

Step #2: Fill and empty your collection spot
Once your mail collection spot is set up, work on getting in the habit of using it. When mail comes in each day, sort out what you don't need, and then sort what remains into the appropriate holder--bills into the Bills holder, for example. (You may want to have a recycling bin near your mail collection system so you can easily pitch the stuff you don't need as you sort.) If others in your household share responsibility for bringing in the mail, teach them to use the system, too.

Once a week--or more often, if you receive significant quantities of mail--set aside time to go through and act on the mail that has accumulated in your collection spot. Pay the bills, read the reading material (or move it to wherever you do your reading), list upcoming events on your calendar, respond to invitations. This is a super important step in the process; if you don't get in the habit of acting on the mail you've collected and clearing out your collection spot, it will quickly overflow and won't be of much use to you.

As with any habit, it may take a while for filling and emptying your mail collection spot to become second nature. Stick with it, though. You might want to try pegging this habit to something you already do at a set time during the week, such as reading the Sunday paper or making a grocery list. Building on existing habits can make developing new ones easier.

With an effective mail collection spot and the habit of using it regularly in place, you'll find that the arrival of the letter carrier each day inspires far less stress. Who knows--you may even start to enjoy the sight of a stack of mail in your mailbox again.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Quick Way to Decrease Mail Clutter

Tip of the Week, August 17, 2008

Remember when mail seemed fun? A letter carrier at the door might've meant a postcard from a friend, a special birthday card, a package, or a new magazine to read. Those were the days! Today, if you're like most of us, what hits your mailbox inspires groans or frustrated sighs far more often than it inspires squeals of glee.

Mail tends to be one of the biggest organizing headaches my clients complain of. And no wonder: like it or not, more mail arrives almost every day, and staying on top of it takes time and effort. While I don't have a magic solution for making mail disappear (with no negative consequences), I do have a way of reducing the amount of mail you're left with by the end of the week. Read on for details.

The wheat and the chaff
Here's what you need for this exercise: a stack of mail. A recycling bin. A shredder (or a designated shredding pile). A few paper clips. Perhaps a letter opener, if, like me, you're prone to paper cuts. And about 60 seconds.

Here's your mission: to recycle or shred everything from your stack of mail that you clearly don't need. You don't have to act on the mail (by paying bills, for example, or responding to correspondence). You don't have to read magazines or newsletters. All you have to do is get rid of the obviously tossable.

Here's how it works: start with whatever's on top of the stack. If it's an envelope, open it. Do a quick scan, pull out anything you clearly don't need, recycle/shred it, and set aside whatever you want or need to keep. For example, if you open a bill, pull out any inserts and recycle them. If the bill is one you pay online, recycle the return envelope as well. Return the bill to its envelope, or recycle that envelope, too, and use a paper clip to hold the bill together. Put the bill in a pile and move on to the next piece of mail.

Remember, your main objective isn't to take care of everything you need to do with your mail right away; it's to get rid of the obviously tossable. What fits in that category?
  • Bill and bank account statement inserts (such as news from your utility company)
  • External envelopes for bills (unless you use them to hold bills waiting to be paid)
  • Circulars for stores you don't shop at
  • Donation requests from organizations you're not interested in supporting
  • Unwanted credit card, mortgage refinance, and other financial offers (be sure to shred these)
  • Magazines, catalogs, and newsletters you have no intention of reading
Weeding out this stuff takes very little time, and can reduce your volume of mail significantly. (Some of my clients can get rid of 50% or more when we do this exercise.)

Yes, yes. I know.
So, OK: I know that by the time the mail arrives, or by the time you arrive home to the stack of mail that's shown up, you've already had a full day. There may be a pet or two, a child or two, or some combination thereof, clamoring for your attention. You might have meal prep on the brain. Perhaps you're trying to shake off a stressful workday. I know there are plenty of reasons why it's not necessarily a snap to go through the day's mail right away.

If you're truly swamped the moment you walk in the door, don't worry about doing the mail thing immediately. Focus instead on doing whatever you need to do to keep yourself and your family sane. But do make a concerted effort to take the minute--and I do literally mean 60 seconds--to do a quick mail sort before you hit the hay. It's like taking a multivitamin each day: sure, it's something else to add to your To Do list, but it takes so little time, and the payoff is so well worth it. By the end of the week, you'll have a much more manageable pile of mail to deal with, and actually working through it will be easier.

Wondering how that might be so? Stay tuned for next week's Tip, when I'll give you some suggestions on staying on top of the mail you do actually need to deal with.

Monday, August 18, 2008

An Attic Organizing Odyssey

Tip of the Week, August 10, 2008

When was the last time you went into your attic? (If you don't have an attic, substitute another out-of-the-way spot in your home--perhaps a guest bedroom, a finished basement, or a back hall closet.) For most of us, attics and other hidden spots often seem to be clutter magnets, accumulating years' worth of stuff we rarely use. These spaces also tend to cause stress, guilt, and frustration: what to do with all of that stuff? What's really lurking there, anyway? Wouldn't it be great to put the space to better use?

Recently, Liz Seymour, Deputy Editor of the Washington Post's Home section, embarked on an 11-week project to clear out and organize the attic in her Washington, DC, home, with the help of local Professional Organizer Caitlin Shear. Seymour detailed the project in a series of articles for the paper; these articles are also available on the Washington Post website.
Whether or not you're facing your own attic organizing project--or even have an attic--the series is well worth a read.

For one thing, the articles are full of advice from PO Shear, who explains why things tend to land in the attic in the first place and offers a simple, straightforward option for getting started on a large project like this. Another highlight: Seymour's observations and insights. As she goes through the process of reconnecting with, and then sorting through, all of the stuff in her attic, she comes to understand why she'd been keeping it (even though she wasn't using it) and, on the flip side, why she's ready to let it go.

Also helpful are the targeted tips for the different types of things that tend to make their way to the attic, from books to holiday decorations to archived papers. Each week, Seymour and Shear tackle a different category of stuff, and the article for that week offers suggestions on how to decide what to keep, where to donate unwanted and unused items, and how to organize what remains.

Seymour's experience in her attic shows that organizing a space--especially one that's been largely ignored for a while and has gathered clutter--takes time and effort, and is best done with help. But it also proves that putting in that time and effort is well worth it. I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that good things happen when she organizes.

Read the article series here
. (You'll need to register in order to access them, but the registration process is fast, easy, and free.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Developing Organizing Habits

Tip of the Week, July 20 and 27 and August 3, 2008

So you've developed a decluttering mindset and have familiarized yourself with the components of an effective organizing system. Now comes the long-term challenge: developing simple but critical habits to ensure that you not only get organized, but also stay that way. Habits are an important part of the organizing process; here's why, along with a few tips on basic but effective habits that can help maintain the order you create in your spaces and your life.

Why habits matter
Let's say you've decided to take control over your mail and files by creating a paper management system in your home or office. You know and have gone through the drill: weeding out unwanted and unneeded papers, dividing those that remain into categories, and setting up file folders in a convenient spot. Your desktop is finally clear, and you can get your hands on the papers you need in a matter of seconds.

But then the days wear on, new mail arrives, new memos show up on your desk, and the chaos threatens to return. Why? Because simply having an organizing system and the intention to use it isn't enough; you also need to channel those intentions into habits that will actually keep the system functional and up-to-date. It's the same with getting in shape: owning exercise equipment and intending to use it won't help you shed pounds. You actually need to get into the groove of picking up those barbells and breaking a sweat.

How to develop habits
You've probably heard that developing a habit takes repeated practice over several weeks (some experts say 21 sequential days, to be exact). To me, this means that the habits you challenge yourself to develop should be something of a stretch but not so difficult that they'll be nearly impossible to stick with for more than a few days.

In addition, it's important to start fairly small--one or two habit changes at a time--rather than attempting to go whole hog. In the paper management example above, this might mean you work first on getting in the habit of sorting through your mail each day and recycling or shredding the junk. Once that habit is in place, perhaps you'd also work on opening the mail you want or need to keep and sorting it out based on what you need to do with it (bills to pay, invitations to respond to, etc.). When that becomes an established habit, you might then challenge yourself to take 5-10 minutes to clear off your desktop at the end of each day.

Building these habits slowly and steadily will allow you more time to integrate them into your life and will make it much more likely that you'll stick with them over the long term.

Sample organizing habits
The habits you'll need to develop to keep your organizing systems running smoothly will depend on what those systems are; maintaining a paper management system, for example, requires different practices than maintaining a closet organizing system.

That said, there are a few essential habits you can apply throughout your home or office. Here's a sampling:
  • Get in the habit of putting things back in their designated homes as soon as you're done with them.
  • Practice one in/one out: each time something new comes in, whether it's the latest issue of a magazine, a new item of clothing, or a new toy for your child, an equal something should go out.
  • Teach yourself to ask, "Do I really need this?" before you bring anything into your home or office.
  • Develop a "do it now" habit: if an organizing-related task (deleting e-mail from your Inbox, tossing unwanted mail in the recycling bin, clearing out past-their-prime leftovers from the fridge) will take you a few minutes or less, do it right away, rather than putting it off.
  • Schedule time each week to clear off your desk, tabletops, and any other surfaces that might accumulate clutter.
Making organizing habits part of your life takes a bit of time and effort, but the payoff is great: you'll keep your organizing systems running smoothly and effectively, and, ultimately, will wind up with more time for the things you actually want to be doing.