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.

Podcast 052: Give uncluttery gifts

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You can leave a review here!

In this episode, I’ll talk about how to give and receive gifts that don’t just become clutter in your home. Part of that is refocusing on the experience of giving and receiving instead of the object itself.

Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

If you’d like to comment on the podcast, you can leave a review on iTunes. I read all your reviews, and  your positive, creative comments help others find my podcast.

If you have a question for me that you’d like me to address on the podcast, please post it on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.

Start organizing with the easy stuff

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You may be having trouble making much progress with getting organized because you’re starting in the wrong place. 

I recently talked with a client about his frustration that he wasn’t getting anywhere even though he purged and organized regularly. After some discussion, it came out that he was focusing on the things that were hardest to make decisions about.

He works at home, for himself, so he’s used to having to plan his own time and get things done without much external accountability. He’s good at prioritizing the truly important work, even if it’s difficult, and leave the simpler tasks for later.

This is exactly the formula for business success (and critical to master if you work alone), but it doesn’t work for organizing your home. What works is the opposite. 

Start with the easy stuff.

This is not cheating! Making decisions is tough work but you get better at it the more you do it. 

  • Doing the easy stuff gives you that sense of accomplishment and progress
  • You can move quickly and blaze through a big chunk of the organizing project
  • Easy decisions have small consequences, so you can be braver
  • You become more aware of what you want and don’t want so decision making is faster
  • You become convinced that the world will not fall apart if you make a wrong decision

You may even find your world comes completely together once all the clutter is gone.

Podcast 051: You get to choose

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You can leave a review here!

In this episode, I’ll talk about how important it is to embrace decision making and take control of it back, if you’ve lost it. It’s always you who’s choosing, so make the good choices.


Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

If you’d like to comment on the podcast, you can leave a review on iTunes. I read all your reviews, and  your positive, creative comments help others find my podcast.

If you have a question for me that you’d like me to address on the podcast, please post it on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.

When Do You Need Slow Mode?

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Last month I included a blog post by Leo Babauta who writes Zen Habits. This time I’ll write about slow mode; what it is and when you need it.

To start with, here’s some wisdom from the International Institute of Not Doing Much. 

  1. Put your feet up, and stare idly out of the window. Warning: Do not attempt this while driving.
  2. Do one thing at a time. Remember multitasking is a moral weakness (except for women, who have superior brain function).
  3. Ponder, take your time. Do not be pushed into answering questions. A response is not the same as an answer.
  4. Slowly learn our Slow Manifesto.
  5. Yawn often. Medical studies have shown lots of things, and possibly that yawning may be good for you.
  6. Spend more time in bed. You have a better chance of cultivating your dreams (not your aspirations.)
  7. Read the slow stories.
  8. Spend more time in the bathtub. (See letter from Major Smythe-Blunder.)
  9. Practice doing nothing. (Yes, this is the difficult one.)
  10. Avoid too much seriousness. Laugh, because you’re only alive on Planet Earth for a limited time.

After you’ve refreshed yourself with some slowed down time, you need to add slow mode to your life.

Slow mode is for times when you need to give serious thought to something, or do in-depth planning or start creating something that’s large scale. Slow mode is akin to the important but not urgent tasks that Stephen Covey has written about. Here’s why it’s tough to do these tasks.

  • They don’t supply the satisfaction of crossing a task off a list
  • They generally don’t have a deadline to spur you on
  • They don’t give you immediate results you can point to

Yet these accomplishments are often the ones that have the greatest impact on our lives and our careers.

They are the ones we plug away at year after year and only later look back and see how valuable they were.

They are the ones that contribute directly to our feelings of fulfillment and having done something worth while with our lives.

So, slow down.

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!

The seductive organizing system

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Sometimes just making a to-do list makes you feel so productive that you give yourself a break from doing anything on the list. I’m a big fan of to do lists and I encourage people to acknowledge their progress in order to stay on track.

But that’s not always fruitful.

Sometimes looking at the progress we’ve make seduces us into believing we’re done. We look at all the tasks crossed off the to-do list and feel good about ourselves. That’s not a problem usually, but in this case it is because we then let ourselves off the hook, even in pursuing a goal we’ve already identified that we want.

This kind of thinking shows up when people get excited about a new organizing system or a new app. Well, new anything, really. Something bright and shiny.

But there’s a difference when this new organizing system requires putting together and setting up. We get lost in the details of what part goes where and what the sequence is and how it all fits together.

Once it is put together, there’s the further seduction of tweaking. It’s sort of like poking the fire. There’s always more prodding and shifting you can do to a fire to get it perfect.

Then there’s more. And it’s so satisfying! Tweaking a fire is harmless though. The fire is just there for you to enjoy.

When you get stuck in tweaking mode for a productivity app, well, you can see the irony. You aren’t actually using the app. You’re not getting to the productivity part of it.

So, be wary when you get excited about a brand new thingamajig that’s going to streamline your work and skyrocket your efficiency. Read the reviews. Read the good and the bad ones!

Pay attention to what the people who like it are using it for. Maybe it’s great for Task A, but makes little difference for Task B, which is your task. In that case, who cares how great it is? It’s not going to help you enough to be worthwhile.

Be mindful of how much time you need to take away from other tasks to get this puppy up and running. What’s going to languish in the meantime? Is that worth it?

If you are looking at a substitute for something (or various things) you currently do, you need a transition plan. How will things not fall through the cracks? Sometimes people take on a new system just partially.

It’s great, but they still do one part of their work the old way, because it’s familiar and they can do it quickly and easily. Is that going to impair the system as a whole, having this one outlier being done the old way?

New and shiny isn’t necessarily better. Caveat emptor.

Podcast 050: Stay focused on you

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Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

You can leave a review here!

In this episode, I’ll talk about how the only good reasons to get and stay organized are the ones that matter to you, Staying focused on those in a positive way is what gets you there.

Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

If you’d like to comment on the podcast, you can leave a review on iTunes. I read all your reviews, and  your positive, creative comments help others find my podcast.

If you have a question for me that you’d like me to address on the podcast, please post it on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.

Podcast 049: Organizing is a journey

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Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

You can leave a review here!

In this episode, I’ll talk about how organizing is a way of life. It’s something you do everyday, not something you spend all weekend on and then it’s done for good.

Subscribe:  iTunes  ⋅  Stitcher  ⋅  Soundcloud ⋅  YouTube  ⋅  Google Play

This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

If you’d like to comment on the podcast, you can leave a review on iTunes. I read all your reviews, and  your positive, creative comments help others find my podcast.

If you have a question for me that you’d like me to address on the podcast, please post it on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.

Photo: tom_bullock

In box zero: yea or nay?

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If you’re new to the productivity game, you may not know about Merlin Mann, who invented the game. Well, not exactly. But he did coin “in box zero,” which went viral.

His idea was that instead of idly perusing your email in box, you do it with intent. Answer what needs to be answered. File what needs to be filed. Act on what needs to be acted on. And delete the rest. That’s pretty much it.

Unfortunately, many people interpreted the concept to be that you must never let email build up in your in box at all. That meant they checked email constantly to get it back to zero. As you might imagine, they spent MORE time on email that way.

In favor of in box zero:

  • You don’t waste time just looking; you do something
  • You don’t use your in box as a to do list or a file cabinet
  • You’re decisive about deleting emails
  • You set aside time to deal with email so you don’t have to do it all day

Against in box zero:

  • It takes too long. I have room, but not time
  • Some emails need to hang on for awhile till something else happens
  • Many email problems will go away on their own if you do nothing
  • It’s handy to search for items with keywords

I’m in the nay camp. I have 14,000 emails in my in box and I don’t care.

I do spend time unsubscribing to newsletters when I realize I’ve deleted the fifth one in a row. I keep emails that have to do with an upcoming event in case I need to refer back. Once its past, they can just be subsumed into the pile.

I star emails that may require something from me and then I scroll back and look at them when I have time to take action. If I don’t, I usually get another email. I know, that sounds lazy and inconsiderate, but everyone is busy and forgetful. It’s also true that the problem can get solved without me.

I hate folders. I keep forgetting I have them, so I don’t look in them. It works much better for me simply to search for what I need using the senders name or a keyword. Now, that’s just me. If I had large projects to keep track of, I’d probably use folders. The point is, don’t over organize. Don’t organize stuff that’s fine the way it is.

What you really want is to be productive.

That means having criteria in place to let you know what email to respond to now, what to respond to later, what to delegate and what to just ignore. Don’t get hung up on a number.

My recommendation is to use in box zero but leave out the zero part. Answer what needs to be answered. File what needs to be filed. Act on what needs to be acted on. Then just scroll past the rest.

The other essential element is to look at email when you have time to do those actions listed above. The real reason email is such a time suck is that people glance through it constantly in between other activities, not when they have quality time dedicated to taking care of the important items they receive.

Call it “In box 15.” Don’t even open it unless you have 15 minutes to do something with what you find.