TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter – June 2008

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Sad Clutter WomanHow to Declutter Your Life
Are you drowning in clutter? Spending too much time searching for stuff? Feeling like you're losing control over your work environment? You're not alone. Most folks wish they could get better organized... but the task seems too daunting. They wonder where they'll find the time to make sense of it all, and doubt they'll be able to come up with an organizational system they can live with. Maybe I can help. The system I'll show you here may not be perfect, but it works very well for me and is easily adaptable to your own personal situation. I'll concentrate mainly on office issues. You're pretty much on your own when it comes to organizing your clothes closet, garage, attic, etc. – although I'll point you in the right direction.

Email as the Center of Your Organizational Universe. For several decades now, people have been talking about the "paperless office." (It was the topic of last month's Urbach Letter). We're not there yet, but there's positive movement. Email and the web are the main reasons things are getting better. In the past, the main roadblock to getting rid of paper was the fact that everything started out on paper – and had to be laboriously scanned and archived first. Nowadays nearly everything is on the web. Why keep files of vendor catalogs, for example, when the latest info is available instantly on line?

The shift from faxes and letters to email as the preferred form of business communication is probably the most important driver to the paperless office. When info originates electronically, why convert it to paper (i.e. print it) and then file away paper copies? So much better to get organized in Outlook (or another email program of choice). I'm surprised that most people overlook the organizational capabilities of their mail programs. They have one giant inbox clogged with thousands of messages... or at the other extreme, delete everything right after reading it. So much better to set up virtual file cabinets and drag messages into the appropriate folder when each one arrives. Key to this is the concept of hierarchical folders. Something like this (click to enlarge): Outlook Folders

It is worth a bit of your time to develop a smart tree structure tailored to your personal work environment. Remember, it's easy to change folder names later, but the key is to start sorting messages as soon as they arrive. It's too hard (and overwhelming) to go back later and sort after the message is cold. Another big time-saver is to use "filters" or "rules" to autosort incoming messages based on content or sender name. Here's how to do it in Outlook and Outlook Express. If you're a road warrior, you can do similar organizational things on your smartphone. However, storage is limited, so you're probably better off having your PC or Mac as your main email repository, even if you access messages on the road. Unfortunately, many smartphones still can't handle attached files well, and these are often as important to archive as the message itself.

Label Everything. There's a Chinese proverb: "The palest ink is better than the strongest memory." It's way too easy to forget what's in a box or folder unless it's well marked. I label *everything* with a Brother P-Touch label maker. Some people are fine with hand-written labels on things, but us anal-retentive types prefer the sharp look and readability of Brother labels. The only slight downside is the cost of the label stock. It runs about half a dollar a foot. Still… if having everything nicely labeled and findable reduces my stress and makes me more efficient, I consider it money well spent.

Know Where to Find It. I discovered something quite profound when I was an engineering student thirty years ago. As a mechanical engineer, you study how the physical world works, and there are literally tens of thousands of equations that describe the physics of the natural and manmade world. Halfway toward my undergraduate degree, I already owned over a hundred thick engineering textbooks, each densely populated with complex equations.  Sure, I memorized each chapter's equations for exams, but education "fills a leaky bucket." (Over time, knowledge slowly leaks out…) However, knowing WHERE to find something is often just as good as knowing the thing. As long as I understood the concepts, and could quickly look up a reference, I'd be able to work productively. Same with my current work life. I've stopped worrying about having everything close at hand, and instead structured my work environment so that I can quickly find the obscure stuff I occasionally need to do my job well. That means having a system.

Info Finding System. Here's the core of my system. It's an information hierarchy:

Visible – Fingertip – Steps Away – Archived

Things I'm working on at the moment remain visible to me. Whether it's a stack of work papers, a brochure, a shortcut icon on my computer screen, or whatever, I find value in having current projects "tangibilized." The next click down the hierarchy are the items that are out of sight but reachable without leaving my office chair (desk drawers, hanging files, etc.) After I've finished a project, anything related to it is consolidated and moved to the "steps away" storage area. In my case, (non-scannable) paper goes in a large file cabinet and dimensional objects go into labeled boxes that, for now, remain in my immediate work area. Every so often, I groom through the steps away storage and decide whether to retain the materials in archived storage or dispose of them. This is often a hard decision.

TRAF. If you're been exposed to any organizing conventional wisdom, I'm sure you've been taught the acronym: T.R.A.F. It stands for Toss, Refer, Act, or File. As you come across work items, you must decide upon one of four actions: Toss it out, Refer it to somebody else (my favorite), Act on it immediately, or File it away for future reference. Some people swear by this system, but for me, it's a goal rather than an absolute. I just encounter too many in-between items… and you probably do too.

Paper or Electronic? Last month, I went on and on about how you're better off scanning most new documents that come your way, and then organizing the resulting electronic files. You may find some of the things in this article appear contradictory. That's because this is an update to an article from way back in February of 2003. At that time, I hadn't yet gotten serious about paper reduction, and presented an elaborate way of storing documents. I decided to keep that original information intact in this update, for those readers who wish to remain paper-bound. And besides, there will always be certain actual documents that you'll want to keep around even if scanned files are accepted as "original."

What to Keep. I've marked the items you can probably scan and toss/shred with an (S) in the table below. The others should be scanned and archived too, but you should keep the originals. (This is NOT a legal or tax opinion -- consult your advisor for more definitive advice)

How Long Should You Hang on to Stuff?

Documents to Keep for a Limited Time

  • Vehicle titles and registrations: as long as you own the car or truck
  • Check registers and bank statements: 7 years (S)
  • Loan papers: 7 years after the loan is fully paid off (S)
  • Mortgage payments: 7 years after property is sold (S)
  • Pay stubs: until W2 is confirmed at year end (S)
  • Property deeds: as long as you own the property
  • Records to support tax returns 7 years (S)
  • Tax returns: 7 years (S)

OK to Toss Immediately

  • Credit card statements – unless they record deductible business expenses
  • Expired insurance policies – unless there is an outstanding claim
  • Utility bills – unless needed for tax deductions
  • Warranties, manuals, and receipts for items you no longer own

Documents to Keep Forever

  • Corporate documents related to ownership
  • Adoption papers
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Court orders such as divorce decrees
  • Health records
  • Marriage certificates
  • Military discharge papers

File Hierarchy: Because TRAF doesn't work that well for me, I tend to do more paper filing than perhaps I should. At least I have a good system for it. I've got a file hierarchy, and it looks like this:

Cabinet # – Drawer # – File Section – Folder

File Cabinet Photo

Each free-standing cabinet gets a number and has a broad category. In the example, cabinet seven is for my corporate records. Each drawer also gets a number and a specific sub-category. Here, drawer number four holds tax records. Every drawer is divided into sections, as you see here, different kinds of tax records, separated by "Pentaflex hanging folder tabs." Finally, each section is populated by labeled manila folders within the hanging folders – in this case, one for each tax year.

Banker's BoxesDeep Storage. There is no sense in putting something in an unlabeled box. You might as well throw it out. If you have a reason to keep something in storage, if it's important enough to retain, then you've got to expend some additional effort to make it findable in some way. Here's how I do it. First the boxes… just any old box won't do. What you want are BANKERS BOX® storage boxes or the equivalent. I like these from Staples at only a dollar apiece: Cheap Boxes.The key is uniformity and "label-ability." If you're setting up a good storage system, you don't do it with cast off liquor boxes. These letter/legal sized boxes are great for storing non-paper file objects as well. For the occasional oversize item, you can get a few double-length legal boxes too. The main drawback to banker's boxes is they're opaque. Therefore, they need good labels.

Loc 'n Press EnvelopeGood Labels. My banker's box storage system uses Loc 'n Press Envelopes. These are like clear Ziploc baggies with an adhesive back. You just peel off the back and stick 'em on the end of your banker's boxes. I recommend the Model #S-130, which are 6" by 9". Then your box label simply becomes a letter size piece of paper folded in half and inserted in the Loc ‘n Press.You can hand-write the labels with a magic marker if you so desire, but the next step up in anal-retentiveness is to format them with your word processor and laser or inkjet print them out. The ultimate level of anal-ness is to have a Microsoft Access (or equivalent) database listing all of your stored items, which will auto-magically print 100% accurate labels and enable you to actually find the thing you're looking for. (Yes, I do this.) The nice thing about using the Loc ‘n Press envelopes is the ability to easily change labels as your box contents change.

Plastic Storage BoxesEven Better: Clear Plastic. I'm a visual person. I like seeing things even more than reading descriptions. Therefore, I'm a big fan of clear plastic "Rubbermaid"storage boxes. Unfortunately, they're not cheap, although the knockoffs for sale at Target stores are well made and about half the price. These clear plastic boxes should still be labeled, to provide for both right and left brain identification of stored contents. I recommend buying many different sizes, from shoe box (great for pens and other office supplies) to the larger ones suitable for bulky stuff like bubble wrap.

Clean Desk Versus Messy Desk Philosophy. A lot of people I know subscribe to the messy desk philosophy at work. Whether they like it that way or not, they're afraid a clean desk telegraphs the wrong message to their boss. Namely, "I don't have enough work to keep me busy." To this, I say, "Start looking for a new job." If you don't already have a great reputation around the office for getting stuff done quickly, accurately and efficiently, hiding behind a pile of papers won't help you. Your days are numbered...

Final Words. You've just seen *some* elements of my personal organizational system, but I don't expect you to adopt every strategy. Please take whatever bits and pieces you feel might be appropriate to your own situation, and use them as you see fit. Happy decluttering!

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(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
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