Sunday, February 28, 2010

Organizing Memorabilia: Part 1

Tip of the Week, February 21, 2010

I'm honored to be included in the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine in an article on preventing memorabilia from becoming clutter. To expand on the ideas offered in that article, the next two Tips of the Week will focus on how to go about sorting through, weeding out, and storing or displaying the meaningful items from your past. This week, we'll start with ideas on how to decide what's really worth keeping and what you're ready to part with.

The challenge
Ah, memorabilia: those photos, cards, letters, mementos, and knickknacks that remind us of the people, places, and times in our lives we love best. Memorabilia can be a wonderful thing, but it can also grow to be overwhelming, and can sometimes seem nearly impossible to store in any remotely orderly way.

Fear not: there are ways of weeding out the mementos you truly want to keep and creating storage systems that will keep them safe, accessible, and contained.

Start slow and be kind
When it comes to sorting and weeding items with sentimental value, many traditional organizing tactics go out the window: asking "When was the last time I used this?" might be an effective way of deciding whether to keep a certain kitchen utensil, but it's not very useful when you're faced with a stack of old letters. Memorabilia often brings with it a raft of hidden emotions, and sorting through it can require the emotional equivalent of kid gloves.

Before you start sorting, try to prepare yourself for the feelings that might come up as you go through the mementos you've gathered. Consider enlisting an understanding friend or family member to lend a hand, or just to be with you as you sort. Don't try to go through all of your memorabilia at once; break down your sorting sessions into reasonable chunks and give yourself time to decompress as needed between sessions. Finally, be kind to yourself as you sort and weed. If you're feeling overwhelmed, stop; making rash decisions when you're confronted with too many emotions can cause much more harm than good.

Make "Why might I keep this?" your mantra
When you're ready to sort, get yourself in the habit of asking "Why might I keep this?" for each item you come across. This will help ease the decision making process, and may even give you some ideas as to what to do with the things you decide to hold onto.

There can be any number of answers to "Why might I keep this?" For example, you might keep a birthday card from a friend because it was handmade and features a poem written just for you. You might keep an old tea set from a grandmother because you love using it with special guests, and because it makes you feel connected to the gran who gave it to you. You might keep a photo of your father as a child because in it, he bears a striking resemblance to your own children, and you'd like to frame it next to their photos.

Of course, you won't always have a positive--or any--answer to this question. If you find yourself holding onto things only because you feel you should, because they allow you to live in the past rather than the present, or out of spite for another family member, it may be time to let them go. Memorabilia that simply takes up space--or, worse, reminds you of bad memories or brings up negative feelings--probably doesn't deserve a place in your life.

Set some limits
With memorabilia, as with many other things, the more you keep, the less likely it is that everything in your collection will be meaningful, and the harder it'll be to find space for the pieces that are truly important to you. Setting some limits for how much of each kind of memento you'll keep can help make both sorting and storage easier.

Kids' artwork is a great example. If you were to keep every piece of art your children created--from the daily fingerpainting exercises to the elaborate collages--you'd quickly become overwhelmed. Moreover, trying to find the pieces you really loved would be much more difficult if it meant digging through dozens and dozens of works. If, on the other hand, you chose to keep for the long term a certain amount of artwork per child (perhaps a handful of favorites per year), you'd be sure to hold onto what was most meaningful.

Setting limits doesn't mean you need to be Spartan in what you keep, or that you must force yourself to get rid of memorabilia that truly has value to you. Rather, it means focusing more on the quality of what you keep and less on the quantity.

Next steps
Sorting through your memorabilia, setting aside the things that hold meaning and positive memories for you, and letting go of the rest is an important and challenging first step. Once you've done that, the next step is to decide how and where to store or display your mementos. Be sure to check out next week's tip, when we'll look at ways to keep your memories organized, safe, and easy to enjoy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

3 Ways to Minimize Distractions

Tip of the Week, February 14, 2010

Every day, we're faced with dozens of potential distractions, from phone calls to e-mails to interruptions from others. These distractions can make it difficult (if not sometimes nearly impossible) to get things done. The good news is that distractions don't have to take over your day; with a few solid strategies, you can keep control over your time and increase your efficiency. Here are three of my favorite ways to minimize distractions.

#1: Limit audio and visual notices
The tools and technology that are part of our everyday lives are designed to keep us on high alert. Phones ring to signal incoming calls; e-mail programs ding and display miniature icons of envelopes to let us know about messages we've received; PDAs and smartphones jingle to remind us about tasks we're meant to do.

While these notices can be helpful in some situations, in many cases they do little more than distract us from what we really need or want to focus on. Limiting these alerts will allow you to keep your attention on a specific task until you're ready to move on. For starters, try turning off your e-mail program's audio and visual notices. Your program will still collect new messages as they come in, but it won't constantly alert you of them, drawing your focus away from what you're doing each time an e-mail arrives.

You might also try turning off the ringer on your phone (whether a land line or a cell phone) during times when you need to concentrate on specific tasks. Another option is to route calls directly to voicemail so you can work uninterrupted until you're ready to field or return calls.

#2: Take yourself away from distractions
It happens to all of us: when we're faced with a task that's particularly important--and perhaps a bit daunting or slightly overwhelming--it suddenly becomes critical that we turn our attention to things that really don't merit our time or effort at that particular point. Have an important report to write for work? Surely it's time to clear out your pen cup and create new labels for your file folders. Need to tackle some tax prep work at home? It's been ages since you dusted under the bed in the guest room, and there's no time like the present to remedy that.

The fact is that when we're faced with tasks that require a lot of us, it's human nature to look for smaller, more manageable tasks we're sure we can handle and that will bring a sense of accomplishment. At times like these, then, it can be helpful to physically remove yourself from tasks that might distract you from what really needs to be done. If possible, leave your home or workspace when you need to dedicate yourself to something critical, or if you just want focused, uninterrupted work time. At home, head to a library or a cafe; at work, try a conference room or a vacant office. You'll benefit both from the change of scenery and from being away from the other, less important tasks calling to you.

#3: Make definite plans for following up on other tasks
One of the greatest causes of distractions is the intrusion of other tasks into what we'd prefer to be time dedicated to one particular To Do. While making your bed, you might realize that you forgot to transfer the laundry to the dryer. In the midst of writing an important e-mail at work, you might have a steady stream of colleagues knocking on your door asking for your help or input. In both cases, the tendency is to stop working on the task at hand and turn your attention to the task that's interrupting, often because you fear that if you don't attend to the interrupting task now, it won't get done.

Of course, chances are that this chain of action will leave you with a half-made bed and half-completed laundry, or with your important e-mail incomplete and unsent and your attention split between multiple colleagues and their requests.

The key to overcoming this roadblock is to make definite plans for following up on interrupting tasks after you finish the task currently at hand. For example, while doing work around the house, keep a piece of scrap paper with you and use it to list tasks you think of or remember as you work. When you finish one task completely, refer to your list and move on to the next item on it. If you need uninterrupted time at work, close your office door (or put a chair in front of the entrance to your cubicle) and post a note indicating that you're working on something important and asking anyone who needs you to return at a specific time or submit a request to you by e-mail. And then, of course, do your best to be available when you say you will, and to reply to e-mail messages promptly.

Distractions might be inevitable, but they don't need to drive your day into chaos. Use these three tactics to limit the impact distractions have on your life, and to stay in control of your daily schedule and To Do list.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Organizing Your Electronic Files

Tip of the Week, February 7, 2010

In last week's Tip, we looked at ways of getting your paper files in shape for the year ahead. This week, we turn our attention to electronic (or computer-based) files, which may not take up space in a drawer or on a desktop but which can also cause headaches when they get disorganized and out of control. Whether you have only a few documents stored on your computer or enough to fill a virtual file cabinet, a few simple steps will help you bring more order and organization to them. Here's how to get started.

Step 1: Set Up a Central Storage Spot
One of the most common causes of digital headaches is having electronic files scattered in several places on your computer--the equivalent of storing paper files in multiple spots in your home or office. The extreme flip side of this is stashing every last document on your computer desktop, which--you guessed it--can cause just as much clutter and stress as keeping all of your paper files on top of your office desk.

Before you start moving electronic files around, take a moment to choose a central spot in which to store them. I recommend using either the default documents folder on your computer (called My Documents on PCs and Documents on Macs) or creating a folder on your computer desktop to collect things in.

Step 2: Collect, Collect, Collect
Once you've designated a central storage spot, start collecting documents from wherever else they might be on your computer: on your desktop, in a Downloads folder, in other miscellaneous folders, and so on. If you already have detailed, categorized subfolders set up within your main collection folder, any documents within them can stay put for the time being. Focus instead on gathering those bits and pieces of info that are floating loose elsewhere, just as you'd gather all of your papers together from wherever they might be hiding if you were working with paper files.

Step 3: Sort and Weed
Now for the fun (?) part: taking a close look at the documents you've gathered and deciding what to do with them. Be as ruthless as you can when it comes to weeding out (i.e., deleting) stuff you no longer need: even though it doesn't take up physical space, this stuff can still clutter your hard drive and make it more difficult to access the files and info you actually need and want.

In order to identify what's in a document--and whether you need it--you may have to open it, so consider tackling the sorting and weeding process in chunks if you don't have the time to do it all at once. If you're using a Mac running OS X, choose the "cover flow" view in your Finder window for a miniature preview of each document; you may still need to open certain files to take a closer look, but you'll be able to get a good general sense at a glance of what's what.

Step 4: Rename and Categorize
When you've decided what documents to keep, give them names that make sense to you and make it easy to identify what they are. (To rename a document, right-click/CMD-click on the name and choose Rename from the pop-up menu that appears, then type the new title you want to give it.)

If you have multiples of similar documents (say, a series of status reports for a series of months), aim to give them standardized names: Status Report_May 09, Status Report_June 09, and so on, rather than Status_5-09, Status Report-June 2009, etc. Consistent naming will make it easier to find related documents and will prevent you from having to come up with a new nomenclature each time you title a new document.

As you're renaming documents, also think about categorizing and grouping them--again, just as you would with paper files. Now's a great time to create subfolders within your main collection folder to sort your documents into smaller, more detailed groupings. How many subfolders you have, what they're called, and whether they have additional subfolders within them will depend on how many documents you have, how they relate to each other, and where you'd think to look if you were searching for them again.

Step 5: Update and Maintain
As with a paper filing system, your electronic system will expand and change over time. As you sort through and add documents, you may find that the categories you initially created no longer work, or that you need to add subcategories. Perhaps you'll want to tweak the naming conventions you use, or maybe you'll decide to sort and store documents in a totally different way--by year rather than by project, say.

As with any organizing system, making such changes will go a long way toward ensuring that your electronic filing system is effective, efficient, and useful for you--and that you'll be more likely to maintain it over time. Remember, your systm doesn't need to be perfect and exact from Day 1, nor does it need to (or should it!) remain static once you create it.

Let your electronic filing system grow and change as you use it more and become more familiar with it. Keeping it up-to-date and customized in ways that are meaningful to you will let you get and stay in control of your digital info.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Get Your Paper Files in Shape for 2010

Tip of the Week, January 31, 2010

Did you know that February is Archive Your Files Month? Getting last year's records in order--and setting up an effective filing system for the year ahead--may not put you in the mood to celebrate, but it can deliver a hefty dose of calmness and control in the months ahead. Here's how to go about getting your files cleaned out, shaped up, and ready to serve you in 2010.

(Have you made the shift to keeping your files stored on a computer rather than in paper form? If so, tune in for next week's Tip, which will cover getting your electronic files in order.)

Step 1: Archive the Recent Past
By now, you've likely received most (if not all) of the bills and statements from 2009 you're going to get, so it's a good time to move last year's files out to make room for their 2010 counterparts. Any files you need for tax or legal purposes can be transferred to a banker's box, file bin, or other portable storage container where they'll be corralled and collected but out of the way. The stuff you don't need and don't want can make its way to the shredder or recycling bin.

(Curious what files to keep and how long to keep them? Check out BankRate's overview of what to hold onto and why, and also ask your CPA or lawyer for guidelines, as your requirements can vary depending on things like whether you run a business or own a home.)

This annual clean-out applies to financial records (which renew themselves each year) and also to personal files like kids' report cards from school, reference material you've collected over the course of the year, and correspondence. Choose what of this stuff is truly worth keeping, and, of that, how much of it can be archived and how much really deserves to stay in your main filing system.

Step 2: Bid Adieu to the Distant Past
As you move 2009's records to an out-of-the-way-but-still-accessible spot, take a look through anything you've kept from 2008 and before. Purge anything that can safely go based on the guidelines you've created (which means you can probably say sayonara to things like phone and utility bills from past years, unless they have an impact on your taxes), and then consolidate these older files as much as possible. Move these archives out of your home office and into a spot where you can retrieve them if needed but won't need to see them on a regular basis, such as a shelf in a closet.

Step 3: Create New and Replacement Files
Next up, create new file folders for the bills and statements you receive on a regular basis, such as bank statements and credit card bills. (If you moved out last year's records without removing file folders, you can skip this step.) This is also a good opportunity to modify, combine, or delete categories, and to add new categories as needed. Taking the time to get file folders set up, categorized, and labeled now will make filing easier (if still not exactly thrilling) throughout the rest of the year.

Step 4: Get in a Filing Habit
With your old stuff cleared out and new files ready to go, all that remains is to keep on top of putting stuff away once you're done with it. Easier said than done, I know, especially if you'd rather have teeth pulled than have to file papers. As with any chore, though, tackling this in small doses can make it much more bearable, and can require much less time. Try adding an extra minute or two for filing to the time you devote to paying bills or balancing your checkbook--with a workable system in place, you won't need much more time than that to get stuff into your filing system when it's set up to function smoothly.

Whether or not you officially celebrate Archive Your Files Month, take some time over the coming weeks to get your files in shape. For the rest of the year, you'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Test Drive: TripIt

Tip of the Week, January 24, 2010

[2010 marks the 6th anniversary of The Organized Life. To celebrate, I'll be introducing new services and enhancements throughout the year, starting with new offerings to help small business owners and other professionals take control of their time, information, space, and stuff.

As part of this expansion, I'm happy to introduce Citron, a blog that offers a fresh take on business organizing and productivity.

To give you a taste of what Citron is like, I'm featuring a recent post below. If you like what you read, use the Sign me up! link on the blog to receive new posts by e-mail.

Of course, this Tip of the Week will continue to offer organizing ideas, projects, tools, and recommendations you can use at work and at home, so be sure to keep reading.

Here's to an organized life, both personally and professionally!]

I'm generally not one for booking travel as a package deal, which means that a trip that involves more than one reservation (flight, rental car, hotel) also involves more than one confirmation. For a trip to LA next weekend, for example, I have an e-mail from Virgin America with flight info, one from Expedia with car info, and one from Kimpton with hotel info--not to mention various bits and pieces of articles with suggestions on where to eat and drink, sights to see, and things to do in town. Beyond a certain point, trying to keep track of all this stuff gets a bit insane.

Enter TripIt (, a web-based service that lets you forward bits and pieces of your trip itinerary and then spins them all into one coherent whole. I gave it a whirl, and so far am pretty impressed. Here's how it works:
  • You sign up (name and e-mail, essentially), adding any e-mail addresses from which you might want to forward reservation info.
  • Create a trip by giving your voyage a name, specifying where you're going, and adding dates.
  • Once you've confirmed your address(es), forward any messages containing travel info to
  • TripIt will magically roll all of this info into one master trip overview divided into days.
Testing, Testing
I sent TripIt my flight, car, and hotel info. From this, it created an itinerary, listed chronologically from the moment I depart from SFO to the moment I get on the plane at LAX to return home. Pretty smart.

Even smarter? It added driving directions from the car rental pick-up spot to the airport, a Google map of the neighborhood in which we'll be staying, and an overall map of the city. Next to my flights are links for online check-in, flight status updates, and ticket price checking via Yapta.

Also handy is the ability to add links to online articles and guides (I attached a few pieces with bar and restaurant recommendations), meeting and event details, restaurant info, additional maps or directions, notes, or reservation info for other modes of transportation (ferry, anyone?).

You can choose to share the details of your itinerary with others via e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook; I demurred when it came to posting my whereabouts on social media sites, but for those who want stalkers--or, fine, want to be able to share with colleagues or friends--this could be a useful feature. An easier (and perhaps safer) way is to get those you travel with to sign up with TripIt and join your network so they can see where you're headed.

What It Costs
The basic TripIt functionality is free, and there are also free iPhone and Android apps. If you're willing to pony up some cash, you can subscribe as a Pro member and get things like automatic flight status alerts by phone and the ability to track all of your frequent flier/frequent stay accounts in one place. For now, I'm impressed enough with the free functionality--and, ahem, cheap enough--to be satisfied with the no-cost version of the service.

Check it out if: you travel regularly and get tired of dealing with the multiple, scattered chunks of info that go into planning a trip

Most useful features: the pre-emptive maps (especially if, like me, you've ever gotten terrible driving directions from someone at a car rental place), the ability to add notes and articles, and the customizable printed itinerary that's the end result of your tooling around

Skip this: please think long and hard before posting the details of where, when, and how you'll be traveling to social networking sites, mmmkay?