Which Papers Do You Need to Keep?

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Retention schedules come in many flavors. I’ve rounded up a few here. These lists are all for home record keeping, which are harder to find online than business retention schedules.File cabinet

Caveat: always consult your accountant, tax preparer or lawyer if you’re in doubt. This is one area where it’s actually better to keep something than toss it if you’re unsure.

Here’s a simple one from an accounting website. Here’s one from North Dakota State University that has good tips on why to keep records and how to do it. Extension.org offers a fairly long one complete with the reason to keep each document.

Quick Tip: Whenever you open a folder to file something, take a moment to glance through it and see if there’s anything you can get rid of. If you’re filing in reverse chronological order (newest items in the front; I recommend this method), look in the back of the folder first for potential shredder fodder.

Repurposed file cabinet courtesy of ARTS’ photostream.

Organizing Business Cards: Scan 'em

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Lots of folks want to go paperless but they feel frustrated because the scanners they already have don't make good enough scans. I've recommended the Fujitsu ScanSnap in the past as a good all-around scanner, but apparently it doesn't do that well with business cards.

It's annoying to have to buy a tool that only does one thing, but for business card scanning, the CardScan is the one to have. Networking maven Valerie Gonyea uses it for her oceans of cards and praises its accuracy. So, if business cards are piling up around you, give it a try.

Don't Just *Open* Your Mail

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Does this happen to you? You get home from work and you’re looking forward to relaxing, having a nice dinner, maybe going out. But you really want to get that mail out of the way so it doesn’t pile up on the kitchen counter. So you stand there and open everything. You dutifully toss the junk mail into the recycling along with any other mail you know you’re not interested in.

But there are a few things that are important; a few bills, a flyer about an event you might want to go to, an insurance company question, etc. So you stack those pieces, feeling good that it’s a much smaller stack than it was, and dump it on your desk. For later. Maybe tomorrow night. Or Saturday. Now you can enjoy your evening!

Come Saturday, or a week from Saturday, you’re faced with a pile of mail on your desk that you should do something about. You’ll need to sort through it again and figure out what’s needed in each case. Then you have to do it! After 15 minutes, you’re sick of the mail and you go off to do your Saturday errands.

So there are a few problems here:

  • Not sorting the mail completely right away
  • Not allowing for enough time to really handle the mail

There are numerous ways to sort your mail: a container with vertical slots and stacking trays are two time honored tools. Julie Bonner has a very detailed description of setting up a mail center with a file crate and folders on her Declutter It! blog.

After you get rid of junk mail, sort the rest by what kind of action you need to take. Bills are one category, reading material is another, purchases or opportunities you want to consider is another, items that require a response from you is another, etc. The categories you choose will depend on what kind of mail you get.

There will be items you need to shred too. I recommend having your shredder in the spot where you sort mail and shredding as you go. Most shredders accommodate only a few sheets at a time, so if you let it pile up you’ll be standing there patiently (or not) feeding it for a loooong time.

Once the mail is sorted into logical categories, you can go off and enjoy your evening, knowing that when you do sit down to deal with the mail, you’ll know exactly what to do. In the next post, I’ll talk about that part. So get your station set up and then come back and read!

Shredding Scissors

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Shredding-Scissors-SC112- I saw these at a store today and did a double take. I've never heard of shredding scissors but I think they're a great idea. Many of my clients stockpile their shredding until it gets to be a huge pile that they then don't have time to shred. Even when I get them to station the shredder right where they sort mail and paper, they still don't use it all the time. In fact, a lot of them would just as soon tear up paper than feed it through the shredder.

I'm going to start recommending these shears. I can see one really helpful application for them and that's to shred just the personal information on a piece of paper, or the address label on a magazine. Credit card applications, for example, don't need to be completely shredded. You just need to get rid of the identifying information by using the scissors to snip up that little section.

These shears do straight cut only, so they aren't as good for entire sheet shredding as cross-cut shredders because theoretically the strips can be reassembled. However, if you're trying to make some paper fringe to decorate your tiki hut or sushi plate, that feature comes in handy!

Circa Notebook, you gorgeous thing!

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Now that I've got a bee in my bonnet about returning to a paper-based organizing system, I'm finding wonderful paper goods all over the place. Most of them I've never even heard of before (I did already know about the Moleskine cult, though). One stylish and eye-catching number is the Circa notebook from Levenger

The appeal to this system is that it's customizable, rearrangeable on the fly, very flexible and pretty nice eye candy too. I've ouched my fingers in three ring binders too often to put up with them anymore, and I never get good results trying to jam a torn-out sheet of spiral binder paper back into the binder.Notebook

The way the paper stays in is very clever and cool looking and tricky to describe. It was hard to see on the company website, but a post on Lifehacker has lots of close up pictures that really show how it works. Their high paper quality, among other things, makes them quite popular elsewhere on the Internet and many users have multiple books for different tasks.

I love the ease of reordering sheets in this binder. And adding complete new sections wherever you want! I wish I could see one in person but they seem to be available only through Levenger, which has no brick and mortar stores in my area. Still, paper is beckoning me…

Well loved notebook from waffler's photostream.

Warm and cozy piles

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What’s in that pile? Paper, sure, but also bits of your psyche.

Identities that you aspire to. Ones that you want to let go of. Ones that keep following you anyway. There are bits that make you feel guilty or scared or intimidated or just tired. Also; wishes, dreams, hopes and big plans for the future. Powerful paper.

I know I give a lot of advice about piles that doesn’t address this issue at all. So, let me rectify that. When clients ask me how long it will take to organize their office, I say that it depends a lot on how fast they make decisions. Making decisions about paper is the most time consuming simply because a 1/2 inch pile can harbor 40 different decisions to be made.

Decision making is time consuming because of all that stuff in the first paragraph. There’s a layer of pile junk that can be skimmed right off, but the rest needs more attention, more thought, more compassion and sometimes more forgiveness.

I got some inspiration for dealing with my own piles reading Havi’s post about Depiling. If I think of my piles as being warm, cozy nooks for the paper to nap in till I’m ready for it, I feel much more kindhearted toward them, and toward myself.

Yes, You Need an In Box

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What’s the quickest way to clear off your desk? Stuff everything into your in box. That’s where it should have gone first anyway.

Don’t fool yourself that having everything out where you can see it is helping you get things done faster. Stop setting things down on the counter, or the edge of the desk, or on top of the printer until you can get to them. Use one spot, your in box, to collect everything and then go through it every day, or more often if need be.

The beloved Wikipedia has an entry on David Allen that succinctly describes how to use an in box. I don’t think it’s verboten to put things back into the in box, however, if you aren’t ready to decide on them. Such a rule is likely to encourage you to make a separate pile and that would mess up the system. The point is that everything you need to do something about is in that box until you do something about it.

Here are some more in box benefits:

  • You know where things are. If there’s an important piece of paper you haven’t dealt with yet, it’s in there.
  • You desk will be free of clutter. If you routinely have non-paper items in transit on your desk, get a big enough in box to hold them (computer peripherals, books, stray socks, whatever)
  • You’ll be able to find things that often get hidden under the piles, such as your planner, address book and calculator.

Try it for a few weeks. You can start out with a cardboard paper box. Practice putting everything that’s on the desk and in your hands when you come in the door into the in box. When you sit at the desk, go through the box as described in the Allen article. Even if you don’t do this religiously, you’ll still gain the three benefits mentioned above.

Your in box need not be cheesy black plastic. The Container Store has a nice looking wooden box. This rattan basket is from Ikea. An in box need not come from an office supply store, but it needs to come from somewhere, so go get one!

Declutter Your Reading List

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Cover design2 It's book chapter Wednesday. Here you go! Like it? You can buy the ebook here.

Simple Way #9

Reading List

Reading material constitutes a lot of the paper that people struggle with. If you get two daily newspapers, a few weekly magazines and 5-6 monthly publications, your reading pile gets high very quickly. Clipping articles for later is a good strategy, but it’s also time consuming and recommended only for important information you can’t get elsewhere or will use immediately.

Keep your paper stacks under control by making sure you allow time to read all that you subscribe to and when you can’t, that you get rid of back issues to make room for the new ones. This requires being honest about how much time you can and will devote to reading. Newspapers and news magazines should be the first to go because they become obsolete so quickly.

Right now:
If you still have yesterday’s newspaper or last week’s magazines, put them in the recycling now.


Snail Mail 101

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Ah, the plague of the daily mail. Kind of like death and taxes, it’s inevitable. Here’s what’s in your mailbox: stuff to

  • delegate
  • read
  • act on
  • file
  • trash

Let’s call it DRAFT for short.

This is mail that you can fob off on someone else. If you’re married, you may decide one partner is responsible for paying the bills, so they go in that person’s in box (don’t have an inbox? Get one). Similarly, one of you may be responsible for social engagements and medical appointments.

If you have a business partner but not an office manager, divide up responsibilities. This really helps things not fall through the cracks. Especially things involving money.

Everyone needs an in box.

As above, each partner needs an inbox. When the question of “where did you put that ________?” the answer is always “In your in box.” Not “on your chair.” Not “somewhere on your desk.”

Reading material includes magazines, newspapers, annual reports, tip sheets from the garden center and professional association bulletins. Keep it near where you read. Don’t read? Then stop subscribing to things.

If you don’t know where your “to reads” are, you can’t read them. Pick a spot, like a basket near your bed or a shelf in your living room, to stash it.

Don’t pick too many spots. You want to know where things are and you also need a reality check about how much there is to read. When it’s all in one place, you can clearly see that it’s not humanly possible to read all that stuff.

The rule is that when the basket or shelf is full, you have to get rid of the older publications. Grab a handful from the bottom of the stack and recycle them. Just do it. I know they have fascinating and important information in them, but you don’t have time to read them and keep up with what came in today.

Information is only useful when you can get at it.

An article buried in a months-old magazine is not accessible to you and therefore irrelevant. Just having all that information is not the same as being able to use it. If you can’t use it, it’s just like not having it at all.

Act On
This category includes bills, medical forms to file, an insurance or telephone plan to compare with what you have now, information about a product you intend to buy and a list of activities put on by a group you belong to. Put in your in box anything that requires you to take some action, whether it’s filling out a form, making a call or adding activities to your calendar.

Avoid decisions you don’t really need to make.

Do you really need to get a better phone plan, or would it just be a nice idea to know what’s out there? If it’s the second one, when are you going to take the time to compare plans?

Be careful about filing too much. Most people’s file cabinets are neglected paper graveyards. Paper goes in and promptly gets forgotten about and never looked at again.

Things you are keeping that you don’t need to:

  • receipts that are not for tax purposes or under-warranty purchases
  • ATM slips
  • old catalogs
  • paid bills*
  • manuals and documentation for stuff you no longer own; electric toothbrush, car, medical insurance plan

Keep files you refer to near your desk. Get a tray to store file-ables until you’re ready to file them. Files you need to maintain for legal reasons (tax returns, legal documents) are archives and should be kept in a less accessible spot, like the attic or the top shelf in the closet.

A lot of your mail shouldn’t even come into the house. Your first pass at mail sorting is to weed out the junk mail and recycle or shred it. No brainer recycling: product and service solicitations you’re not interested in, announcements for things you don’t care about, invitations from groups you aren’t joining.

To cut down on unwanted mail, register with the Direct Marketing Association (you can stop junk email here too). Get off catalog lists here.

Whether you shred or not is up to you. Some people don’t want to toss out magazines with their address labels on them. The rule of thumb is to shred anything with personal information such as account numbers, medical and employment info, ATM slips and travel itineraries. Also shred credit card applications.

Shred every day.

It’s boring and tedious and if you let it pile up, you’ll put it off forever (unless you have a six year old; they love to make a racket with the shredder). Also, if you only shred a few things a day, you won’t jam or overheat the thing.

Start Today
Don’t worry about last week’s mail. It’s getting older by the second and, unless it’s a bill, it doesn’t need your immediate attention. Develop your new mail system with today’s mail and you’ll keep on top of things.

Quick Start

  1. Get an inbox
  2. Designate a reading stash spot
  3. Have a tray for to-be-filed documents
  4. Sort your mail over the recycling bin
  5. Shred as you go
  6. Sign up for electronic bills and statements
  7. Get off junk mail lists

*I heartily recommend receiving and paying bills online. You can download PDF copies and keep them on your computer. Pay them through the biller’s website or your bank’s website; both services are generally free. Go even further and sign up for automatic monthly payments for your bills. Then you don’t have to deal with the bill at all.