Filing system technique

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Using a pre-made file system can be a great idea, but only if you buy into it completely. Systems in general, filing and other, often have lots of moving parts that need to mesh together so if you leave one out because you don’t really like it, the system will eventually break.

For example, if you color code your file folders, you have to continue to do it, and you have to continue to use the same colors. If you run out of yellow, you can’t just start using the orange ones. You know, the ones you have a ton of because you didn’t need that color initially.

The problem is that this will seem to make sense in the moment and you’ll be quite sure that you’re going to remember that yellow means yellow and now orange also means yellow.

But, my friend, life will intrude and sometime next year when you are looking for something in the yellow category you won’t find it because it’s in an orange folder and you only substituted orange folders for a few months until you broke down and bought some more yellow ones, so you completely forgot about that and occasionally you idly wonder what the heck is in those orange folders, but you haven’t had time to look. See? That’s a problem.

You’ve changed your system without giving any thought to what the consequences might be. You still expect it to work the way it came out of the box. That was the whole point. So you broke it without even realizing it.

In contrast, when you have a system custom made for you, each part can be tailored the way you want it. It takes more time to set up and refine but it’s more flexible and effective.

A good system will have some automation because it needs to be saving you time, but it needs to be administered manually too. That’s a good thing. Because you need to pay attention to how the parts are working together, you’ll catch things before they break and mess you up.

Forget about color coding. Use colored folders if they make you happy, but don’t assign them to categories. Instead, put your attention on the scheme of your filing system. Having financial stuff together, medical stuff together, that kind of thing.

Don’t make it too narrow and specific. Keep it a bit loose so you can pop medical documents into the medical folder and not have to hunt down a specific medical folder out of 20.

Getting things done, in a nutshell

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I came across a great, succinct description of David Allen’s Getting Things Done process on the ToDoist blog. Here it is:

  1. Capture – collect what has your attention. From little to big, personal to professional, record every single to-do, project or task that’s on your plate. Use a to-do list app like Todoist or even a simple pen and notebook, but get everything recorded as it pops into your head.

  2. Clarify – process what it means. Make the decision: are these items actionable? If not, remove it from your list. If it’s actionable, decide what action you need to take next. Delegate if you can. If it’s a big project, like Marketing Plan for 2014, break it down into a hierarchical order with subprojects and subtasks.

  3. Organize – put it where it belongs. Place actionable items in determined lists, like people to call, emails to send, or papers to write. Adding priorities to these tasks is ideal.

  4. Reflect – review frequently. “This is where the clarifying step pays off, because you should be able to pick something you have the time and the energy to do right away,” says Alan Henry of LifeHacker. Consistently revise your lists to decide what to do next. Schedule a weekly overview to see where you can streamline and update your lists.

  5. Engage – simply do. “Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence,” says David Allen.

I’m a big fan of the Getting Things Done system. All the steps are important. Capture and clarify have to go together. It’s great to have all your to do’s and ideas scribbled on Post-Its, but if you don’t figure out what to actually DO with each one, they’re useless.

After you figure that out, it’s usually clear where to put each item, the organizing step. When you haven’t taken time to clarify, your pile of captured ideas remains an undifferentiated and intimidating mess.

Reflect is a big step. It’s partly figuring out when you’ll do each task and also figuring out how each one fits in with your bigger picture. That is, all the other tasks, and all the other life stuff you have going on. You also consider what Allen calls context; what do you have time, energy, resources and the right environment for? For example, you can have a conversation while driving, but not compile your Post Its.

Finally, just do. Trust your system and know that the task you’ve chosen is the best thing to do right now.

This blog post also describes the Pomodoro method (using a mechanical timer for work periods and breaks) and the Seinfeld method (doing something each day on a particular project and not breaking that chain of actions). Check those out too!

I hate filing

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I always recommend that my clients be as ruthless as possible when filing paper. When are you going to look at that again? Why would you need it in the future? What terrible thing is going to happen if you get rid of it? When was the last time you even opened that drawer? 

Part of my agenda is to get them to keep less paper because paper takes up space, space that could be used better by more useful items. Another agenda I have reflects my attitude toward filing: I hate it. So it naturally follows that the less one needs to file, the better.

Are you with me on that?

Yes, I hate filing. I have a perfectly serviceable system and I can find things in it. That’s not the problem.

I’m not sure why I hate it so much, but let me explore. One reason is that I often am pretty sure that I will not look at a piece of paper again, ever, but it’s hard to get rid of. I just don’t want to make that decision. There’s a little cloud of uncertainty that I don’t want to investigate. 

A related reason is that I don’t like opening those drawers full of paper I haven’t looked at in forever. I feel burdened by having all that paper, and by not wanting to deal with it. Putting more in there makes me feel guilty. 

Here are some less hateful strategies for keeping files in decent shape:

  • Have a filing in box. With all your to-be-filed papers in one spot, you’ll still be able to find things even if you haven’t filed them yet. 😉
  • Look in the back of some over-stuffed folders. If you file with current items in front, the oldest stuff will be in back. That’s the paper that’s most likely to be unneeded.
     
  • Go though some folders where decision making will be easy, such as one for instruction manuals. Find manuals for appliances that you no longer own and toss them. 

Do you have any great file taming ideas? Let me know!

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.

Elephant
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!

Procras
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.

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!