Use a ripening drawer for paper management

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paper management drawer

Does paper management seem overwhelming? All those decisions to make! Here’s a way to get some control before you’re ready to make the decisions.

I wrote about this concept several years ago. I discovered it in the excellent book ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau.

In the book and in my post, the ripening drawer is used for miscellaneous items that aren’t quite junk but that don’t have a place to go, such as battery covers that came off of something that may turn up again soon.

I recently heard a success story from Christine, who used her drawer for paper management. Into it goes paper she didn’t know what to do with. Here’s her story.

It took me a while to consolidate my office supplies to free up a space, but now I’ve got a drawer with a big R on the front. I find I still drop mail and other things on my desk, but I’ve gotten better about going through them periodically and either putting things in the ripening drawer or actually dealing with them (imagine that!).

Although it may take just a few minutes (or even seconds…) for me to decide what to do with an item, these piles have sometimes languished for weeks, even years. So having this drawer is helping me develop a new habit.

I’ve had a few “aha” moments, as I start searching my desk for that event invitation or that paper I need to follow up with and then remember that it’s probably ripening away. Often when I go through the drawer, I find stuff I can now easily throw away – simply due to the passage of time. And my work space is much less cluttered.

Christine is using the drawer as a tool to develop a new habit; dealing with paper management on a regular and timely basis. Having a tool to reinforce a habit is key; none of us is good at changing our behavior without help.

The drawer also works as a container. Instead of having papers floating all over the office, Christine now puts them in the drawer, and thinks to look in there when she can’t find something. She has a specific spot to put things even if they don’t have a permanent home.

The second powerful concept is how paper, and the information it holds, loses its importance with age. Events have passed and questions were answered, so the paper is now irrelevant. That makes it a no-brainer to throw it out.

Lastly, Christine isn’t distracted by so much visual clutter trying to grab her attention. Now she can focus on her work and feel relieved that the paper is under control.

Have you tried this idea? Let me know in the comments what you think!

Clutter is Tiring

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It’s exhausting, actually.

It’s hard on the eyes.

It hems you in.

Sometimes it feels like it’s just in the background, just there in case you need it. But then you remember how relieved and calm you felt last time you cleared out that clutter, as if a weight had been lifted.

Clutter niggles at you, subtly draining your energy.

Old magazines whisper “read me!” Piles of clothes coax “come sort me!” Your crafts bag says “come play with me!” This creates a low level of background chatter in your brain that’s more distracting than you realize.

One of my clients has a lot of clothing. More than will fit in her closets. The last time I saw her, the ironing board in the bedroom and the chair next to it were piled high with clothes. We’ve made progress, but it’s a big project.

It seemed to me that she was feeling worn down by constantly seeing the piles and waking up to them every morning. So, we moved them to her office. Now, that’s not a solution, it’s just an interim step in this long project.

Her mood lightened up right away.

She took a big breath and stretched her arms out. The room suddenly felt bigger and more restful to the eyes. I predict she’s sleeping better at night too.

If you have a lot of sorting to do, try to keep it contained or covered in between sessions. You’re not hiding the truth, you’re letting yourself focus on other parts of your life instead of being nagged all the time by this undone project.

Here are a couple of sorting techniques to try: triage and quick declutter.

Should I Save or Should It Go?

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People who are collectors love to tell me that things they've held onto for years and years have actually come in handy, so it was worthwhile to keep it. There's often a note of triumph in their voices when they come to the story's punchline, "and I had one!" They assume that I'm against keeping things and they want to head off any suggestions I might have for downsizing.

Sometimes, the story is that they decided to get rid of a bunch of stuff that hadn't been used in decades and "the very next day" they needed one of those things. They reluctantly decide it's a big mistake to get rid of anything at all, although they would like to have less clutter. What to do?

I heard a story like the latter one recently and it occurred to me that the storyteller was asking the wrong questions to determine what to keep and what not to keep. He asked himself if he'd used the item in question in the past few years and the answer was no. So, out it went.

But if he had asked, "what will I do if I need this next week and I don't have it?" he would've gotten more helpful answers. Could he borrow one, rent one or buy a new one? Could he farm out the item on long term loan to a friend with the proviso that he could borrow it back as needed? Could he make do somehow with items he did keep? And how would those options feel? If none were acceptable, keeping the item would be the best answer.

The idea is to look into the future ("what will I do?") and not the past ("I haven't used this in years") to make your decision. The future is where you're going to use it (or not).

[White elephant courtesy of Lenny Montana's photostream]

Procrastination Strategies

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“Talk of the Nation” did a show about procrastination recently featuring psychology professor Timothy Pychyl and philosophy professor John Perry. I read Perry’s funny article about structured procrastination several years ago and I still laugh every time I read it. Not only that, it’s a good strategy!

A very interesting point that Pychyl brought up is that there’s no evidence of the “arousal procrastinator,” that is, people who work best under pressure and let things wait until the last minute. Arousal types are characterized by extroversion, sensation-seeking and reducing/augmenting behavior (of desired emotional states).

Lots of people believe that they do their best working right up to the deadline but apparently, that’s just an illusion. It can also be learned behavior, if that’s the only way a person has ever approached deadlines.

Another fascinating finding has to do with procrastination and self-forgiveness. A study to discover whether people would procrastinate less the next time if they forgave themselves for the current instance found that, yes, it did work that way.

The unexpected result was that this was much more true for the women in the study. One theory is that “procrastination is related to self-worth or self-esteem for females but not males.” Who knew?

A third interesting point Pychyl made is that all delay is not procrastination. It’s only procrastination when you set an intention to do something by a particular time. So, there’s your loophole…

[photo by ShereenM]

Organizing Overwhelm Cure

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6523852953_592dddf0e1_nWhen you feel overwhelmed by an organizing project or task, it’s often because you’re looking at the entire forest and not each individual tree. You can’t see the trees for the forest, to bend a common phrase.

Looking at the big picture is worthwhile, but in order to get down to work and sort through things and organize, you need to focus on each individual tree. The forest will just distract you.

I went through tote bags and handbags with a client recently. She has lots, enough to more than cover her dining table. When we dumped them all out, she backed away from the table, feeling overcome by the sheer quantity. It seemed impossible to her that we could make any order out of it.

But soon we were putting the bags into categories. Slowly, some sense emerged from the pile. As long as she was able to concentrate on each bag, recognize it and identify it, she could be complete and move on to the next.

That last part is key. When you look at the entire forest, your mind darts back and forth and never settles anywhere. All these unmade decisions and unfinished plans! Putting attention on one thing, making a decision and moving on is the way to get through.

Conquering Perfectionism

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I wrote about perfectionism back in December, but it’s a topic that comes up a lot, with clients and in everyday conversation, so I’m addressing it again.

This time I’m going to quote from a great book about procrastination called It’s About Time by Dr. Linda Sapadin. Perfectionism is one of six ways that she identifies as procrastination styles. The others are dreaming, worrying, defying, crisis making and overdoing.

I won’t go into what makes a perfectionist procrastinate because you probably already know! Instead, I’ll paraphrase what Dr. Sapadin suggests to get over it.

  • Do some creative visualization. Perfectionists are often tense. Use the visualization to show yourself that everything is fine, including you.
  • Realize that the rest of the world can’t live up to your high standards. Then realize that you can’t either, because they’re impossibly high
  • "Strive for excellence rather than perfection." Focus on excellence and you’ll focus on results. Focus on perfection and you’ll get lost in all the tiny details before you can get to the results.
  • Stay with what’s realistic, not what’s ideal. There are many ways to achieve any result and your choice may be informed by time and resources available. If you’re realistic about that, you can still achieve excellence.
  • Don’t think in terms of "all or nothing." Life is not a pass/fail course. Give up rigid ways of thinking for more creative possibilities.

See if any of these techniques work for you. Try to resist trying each, in the order presented, even if you are a perfectionist!

Decluttering in Depth

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blenderOkay, so maybe it is time to declutter than closet. This basic technique works for desktops, drawers, cupboards and any other spots where you keep a lot of stuff together.

It’s not for attics or out of the way storage spots where you’re allowed to keep things that are rarely used and off-season clothes. This is for high traffic spots.

The idea is that you have to take all the stuff out of where it is now in order to properly sort it. When you try to sort things inside the closet you just end up pushing them around and peering into the dark area in the back and saying, “well, I guess all this stuff can just, uh, stay in here.” It kind of fits and you know it’s there and the closet is too small to get into and really do anything constructive anyway.

So, you have to pull all the stuff out. Note: this can be a messy, time consuming project. Don’t squeeze it in an hour before you have to leave the house. Plus, give yourself enough room to sort everything you take out. Making one big pile on the floor won’t help.

  • Put things with other like things as you go. Clothes go with clothes. Sporting goods, games, appliances, camera stuff, memorabilia, etc. You don’t have to be too exact, but you want to know how many blenders are in the closet, for example.
  • Look through each category pile individually. Get rid of multiples. Be honest about whether you’re going to fix the broken things (maybe you’ve already replaced them?). Think about donating that lovely coat you never, ever wear so someone else can enjoy it. Think also about donating that insanely ugly hat you received as a gift and never, ever wear so that, however inexplicably, someone else can enjoy it.
  • Take a hard line on what goes back in the closet. Each item must be:
  1. Useful in your life now, or
  2. Loved and desired, or
  3. Both of the above

You have to make a commitment to each thing when you put it back in the closet. You use it, you need it, you like it. Now you know what’s in the closet and, most likely, you can actually get in there and find something. Yay!

Organize with Photographs

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Camera A quick way to get some objectivity about your space is to take some pictures. Our brains are constantly filtering extraneous information out of the visual field. We see what we need to see (sometimes what we want to see). Otherwise, we’d be overwhelmed.

A photograph includes all the information without editing anything out. I mentioned this technique in a previous post about a client who literally did not recognize her living room from a photograph. Your reaction may not be so strong, but you will be able to see things that escape your notice in real life.

How to do it:
Say you want to organize your home office. Get your camera and take a series of photos, starting from the left and crossing the room. Print them and lay them out in a panorama. Does the room in the photos look more cluttered than you thought? Are the piles bigger? Are there more of them, now that you can see the whole room at once? Is there a box under the desk that you’ve been conveniently ignoring?

Remember, this is just information gathering. It’s not an opportunity to make yourself feel bad about the state of your office. You can use these photos to help you identify what to do next. Right now, choose one thing you can do today. Make sure this is a do-able task, not a project.

Tips on task selection:

  • Choose something that’s been there for awhile; that box under the desk, or a hunk of paper off the bottom of a pile. Usually it’s easier to make decisions about older items because they’re not relevant anymore.
  • If you were able to quickly identify something that you know what to do with, do that. Maybe it’s a stack of folders for a completed project that need to be filed away. Maybe it’s some magazines you’ve been meaning to give away but they haven’t made it out the door yet. It’s not cheating to start with the easy stuff.
  • Choose a task that will improve the aesthetics of the room and make it a more pleasant place to be. That could be decluttering the windowsill so your view is clear. It could be taking all the Post-It’s off your monitor and copying the notes onto your to do list, address book or wherever they make sense.

If that worked for you, post the photos on a bulletin board so you can refer to them again and select another task. Bonus task: when you get your office looking the way you want, take another series of photos and post them. You can use them as a guide/reminder of how things are supposed to look so you can maintain it.

Camera from BigTallGuy’s photostream

Tricks to Motivate You

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Magician I answered a question on Linked In today about whether it’s possible to become more disciplined. My answer wasn’t really about discipline though, because that word turns me off. It makes me think of following rules, being punished if I don’t, rigidity and fear. Ick.

So my answer was about motivation instead. And tricks. Fun ways to get yourself to do stuff.


If the end result of your work is something you really, really want, it’s not hard to get motivated. If you don’t want the result, why bother? Whatever project you’re putting off, trace it back and find out what the original motivation was and whether it’s still valid.


If it’s valid and you still don’t want to do it, pay someone else to do it! Or, try some of these tricks.
  • Work on your project for just two minutes. Use a timer. If you get inspired, keep going. If not, you got two minutes worth done, more than you had before.
  • Imagine the day is over and you’re looking back over what you got done. What will make you feel like you got something really worthwhile accomplished? Then, do that thing.
  • Make a “Not To Do” list. Put anything that you’re not getting around to and that can go undone without the planet exploding. Keep the list somewhere safe. This tells your brain that it can forget about those things and relieves you of that mental clutter.

What tricks do you use to get yourself going and stay on task?


Rabbit out of a Hat from laneesque’s photostream.

How to Organize Your Wallet

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It may be small, but your wallet can be chock full of clutter. You don't want to be one of those people who holds up the line trying to find her preferred shopper card, do you? Or the guy with the unsightly rectangular growth on his backside (because we know it's not all money)? Of course not. 

So, empty your wallet and let's see what's in there.Wallet

  • Coupons:  Are they still good?  Are they worthwhile?  If you're not in the habit of using coupons, they can be more trouble than they're worth.
  • Frequent buyer cards:  These can be like coupons.  Only use ones from stores you patronize regularly AND where the clerk asks you for it (otherwise you may forget to present it).
  • Membership cards:  Most establishments will allow you to give your phone number instead of presenting your card.  Much less wallet clutter.
  • Receipts:  Why are you keeping them?  To balance checkbook?  Tax purpose?  Possible return?  Assign a pocket in your wallet for receipts and regularly take them out.
  • Credit cards:  You really only need one, or two if you have a business.  You have to be very organized to take advantage of perks like frequent flyer miles on credit cards.  Make sure using these perks doesn't cause you to buy things you don't need.  And make sure you have time to manage and track your benefits.
  • Scraps of paper:  Dedicate some space in your date book for little notes and ideas.  Reminders should go on a dated page.  Phone numbers into the address book, even if they're only temporary. 
  • Currency:  Keep your bills in denomination order.  Not only is it easier to find the amount you need, but you will have a better idea of how much cash you have at any given time. 
  • Stamps:  Can be handy, but only if you remember they're there.  Otherwise, you'll find them by accident and discover they're 41 centers

See if you can pare down to what you really need and use. The short list:
Driver's license or CA ID card
Health insurance card
Car insurance card
Credit card
Bank or ATM card
BART or other transit ticket

The Costanza Wallet (George, from Seinfeld) wallet courtesy of shareski's Flickr stream