Thursday, June 24, 2010

De-Cluttering Your Digital Photos


Easily organize your digital photos in 4 easy steps!

Digital cameras make it easy and fun to capture your memories. Many digital cameras can store hundreds of photos at a time – many more than the 24 or 36 that film cameras can. Organizing the sheer number of photos that can come from one memory card can be a challenge. Managing your digital photos can be easy – and fun – with a few simple tips:

1. Toss the junk. Unflattering photos, bad camera angles, and just plain awful shots can take up lots of space on your hard drive. Before organizing your photos, go through your digital photo collection with a fine-toothed comb, and make sure that you’re only keeping photos that you like. Not only will you free up space on your computer, you’ll make it easier to organize your photos by reducing the number of photos that need to be sorted.

2. Sort and separate. If you’ve been keeping all of your photos in one folder on your hard drive, it can be tough to find the one that you’re looking for. Instead of using just one folder, create multiple folders by month and year, or by month/year and subject or event. Once you have your folders set up, them sort your photos into their new, separated homes. As you take new photos, create folders in the same manner to store your new shots. This will make it easy to find your photos later on when you’re looking for them.

3. Software makes it a snap. Once you’ve set up your folders, managing your photos is easy, using readily available software. On a Mac, iPhoto is the standard, and on the PC, I usually recommend Picasa or Adobe Photoshop Elements. These software tools are designed to make it easy for you to organize, fix, search, and print your digital photo collection. Using software, you can browse your photos in various thumbnail sizes, repair the dreaded red-eye effect, add tags to your photos to make them searchable, and create slideshows to share with your friends and family.

4. Backup for safety. Losing all of your memories if your computer crashed could be disastrous. For that reason, I always suggest backing up your digital photos to CD or DVD (preferably the rewritable variety, so you can reuse your discs again and again). Many of the software programs used for organizing digital photos have a backup feature built-in, which can make the process of storing you files for safekeeping very easy.

Photos (digital and traditional) are meant to be seen. Once you’ve organized your photos, it’s easy to share those memories in photo albums, prints, and slideshows. Spending a little time organizing your photo collection can make sharing your memories easy and fun once again.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Organizing Details – What to do with Receipts


Receipts - everyone has them, but nobody wants them. As with most things organizing-related, most of us are never really taught what to do with those pesky slips of paper, so they tend to get pretty messy and out of control. Here are a few ideas for how to deal with receipts:

Don’t take them. At almost every purchase we make, we’re offered a receipt, even when it’s completely unneeded. Of course, once it’s offered to us, we usually take the receipt and then have to deal with it once we get back to our home or office. Unless you’re expensing or deducting a purchase and need the receipt for documentation or recordkeeping, try to not take it from the cashier. If you’re quick, you can even tell them to not print a receipt at all. The fewer receipts you take, the less you’ll have to process later – and your pockets will be less cluttered!

Recycle or discard. But what if you do bring receipts back with you – what do you do with them then? Most of the time, I see clients’ receipts get stuffed in a bag, box, or drawer and they are never seen or heard from again. Instead of cramming them away, as soon as you get back to your office or home, immediately look at your receipts and decide which ones to keep (if any), and recycle or shred the rest. It’s a pretty safe bet that you’re keeping way, way more receipts than you actually need. Ask yourself what you’re keeping each receipt for. Is it for a tax deduction? Keep it. Is it because you need it for a work expense? Again, keep it. But do you really need those old grocery receipts and movie stubs? Probably not. Be ruthless when going through your receipts.

What to keep – and how. Of course, there are certain receipts that are worth keeping. Typically, this list includes things you are planning on returning, items that have warranties, artwork, and other things that you want the cost documented for insurance purposes. One way to store these receipts is in an expandable wallet file, which can be separated by vendor, date of purchase, or category. This method is really easy and very quick. Another method that I use with clients is to scan receipts, using a tool like Neat Receipts or a service like Pixily, both of which help facilitate the process of getting your receipts onto your computer. Once the receipts are safely stored on your computer, you can then usually recycle or shred the actual paper receipt.

Of course, there are more ways to deal with receipts than what’s listed here. What are some of your favorite strategies for managing receipts?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

3 Steps to Going Paperless


One of my areas of specialty in my productivity and organizing consulting work is paper management – helping my clients determine the best ways to process, manage and store the paper in their lives and in their work. I actually enjoy working with paper and processing information (hey, I’m a professional organizer, right?), but I know most people out there simply don’t. Many clients over the years have asked me about “going paperless,” without really knowing what that means. It’s something I’ve always been curious about, but needed an excuse to try and implement.

Paperless means processing and storing less paper than one had previously. Paper-free means, well, being completely free of paper – something I think is pretty tough to do with the sheer amounts of paper that seem to flow into our mailboxes no matter what we do. Going paperless, however, is absolutely doable, and not all that hard, as I’ve discovered first-hand.

At the beginning of 2009, I started the year with a fair amount of paper in my office - three file drawers full of important documents, and about fifteen binders of materials from seminars, classes and conferences. To some, a few file drawers of paper and some assorted binders may not be much at all, while to others, it may seem like a mountain of paper! For me, much of that paper was archival, and a great candidate for paperless reduction. So this January, I made a resolution to go as paper-less as possible, with a goal of reducing my stored paper by 75% or more. But how? Here are the steps I used to reduce my paper:

Whittle it. I’m pretty good about keeping my files down to the essentials, but even I was able to clear out about 15% of my stored paper by weeding through my old documents and removing what was no longer useful or relevant. It’s easiest to work on one drawer (or even one part of a drawer) at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed. Keep a recycle bin and a bag or box for shredding handy, and go through each file, folder, binder or document with a cold, hard eye and keep only what you really need – and toss the rest. You should be left with only your key documents. Put aside any unusual docs like official government notices (deeds, birth/death/marriage/divorce certificates).

Scan it. Keeping the paper that’s left simply isn’t necessary if you can find alternate ways of storing the information – it’s the information that’s valuable, not necessarily the paper. Especially in the age of easy searches on our computers, sometimes it makes perfect sense to centralize your information on your computer as much as possible. For me, I decided that while much of the information I wanted to keep was extremely valuable, the actual paper needed to go – so scanning was the answer. To facilitate the process, I chose a high-speed scanner/software solution from The Neat Company, called NeatWorks ADF. When you’re doing a major scanning project such as this one, you really need a scanner designed to scan multi-page documents, as well as software that can help facilitate the process. I recommend a solution that can scan to PDF in addition to a proprietary database. Once the documents are scanned and backed up, you can shred or recycle the originals.

Store it. Remember the unusual docs we set aside earlier, like government certificates, home loan docs, and other errata? Definitely scan those too, but I suggest keeping the originals somewhere safe, like a lockbox or safety deposit box. While you can get copies of them again from the agencies responsible, it’s usually a lot of trouble to do so, and simply easier to keep a small amount of these papers on hand.

By doing what I’ve described, I was able to dramatically reduce the amount of paper that I’m storing. In fact, everything has been edited down to one desktop file box about seven inches deep – that’s it. No big file drawers or boxes, no stacks of papers. One box, no more – all the old papers are gone now, with empty space left in their wake.

What are your paper reduction strategies? Have you tried going paperless?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

4 Super Summer Organizing Tips


Summer… ahhh. When summertime comes, there’s a palpable change in the air – a feeling of fun, relaxation, and freedom from worry. Or at least, that’s how it can seem! Of course, the details of life and work don’t just go away with the change of the seasons. Especially if you’ll be traveling this summer, things can get pretty complicated. That said, there’s plenty you can do to prepare yourself for maximum summertime fun! Here’s a few ideas:

Forget about your bills. Are you spending time sitting down to pay your paper bills? This is probably one of the last things you’d want to spend your time on during the summer when you’re trying to relax. If you haven’t already, pull out each of your monthly bills, and set them up for automatic payment (wherever it makes sense to do so). What I typically recommend to my clients is to choose one of your credit cards to charge all your bills to via auto-payment, and then you only have to worry about paying one bill instead of several. I think this is a lot better than having your bills deducted from your checking account – if there’s an error, your credit card company can go to bat for you. Of course, this system works best if you pay your credit card off in full each month.

Plan ahead for maximum discounts. If you plan ahead, you can save a ton on summer travel. Use fare finders like Kayak (www.kayak.com) to help streamline your searches, and you’ll be able to compare deals from many airlines, hotels, and rental cars at once. Although they can be somewhat annoying, e-newsletters from your favorite hotels and airlines do sometimes feature sales and other bargains, so if you are planning on traveling using one of those vendors, you may want to sign up for their newsletters and then unsubscribe when you are done booking your travel – otherwise they can just end up as clutter in your inbox. If you’re not a big planner but still want to find great deals on last-minute travel, try Lastminute.com (www.lastminute.com). To maximize your time actually spent at your destination rather than your time getting there, look for direct flights, and try to travel with only a carry-on.

Dining on a dime. Once you’re at your destination, use a site like Restaurant.com (www.restaurant.com) for significant savings on dining out. With this site, you select the coupons you want from a list of restaurants, and buy just those. For instance, you can buy a $25 off certificate for around $10 – but if you use a discount code found on sites like CurrentCodes.com (www.currentcodes.com), you can get a discount off your discount – essentially bringing the price of a $25 off coupon to just a few dollars. Using these coupons, I’ve dined at some amazing restaurants with my friends and family, for a fraction of the cost of the people sitting a table away from me. What’s also great is that most of the restaurants on the site are small, independent venues, so you get to support local merchants while saving money on a fantastic meal!

Double your pleasure… by getting duplicates of the things you regularly need to travel with. For instance, instead of packing and then unpacking a toiletries kit, purchase duplicate items of all the lotions and potions you need, and keep a fully stocked kit in your bathroom. When you’re ready to travel, you won’t have to scramble to re-create the kit for every trip. Same is true for your electronics. If you have to unplug your laptop, cell phone and mp3 chargers every time you travel, it’s a huge timesaver to just get a second set of these gizmos, and keep them in a pouch or bag that can easily be grabbed and slipped into your luggage. I like the travel charger organizers from Kanagraoom Storage (www.kangaroomstorage.com).

Of course, there are many other ways to get organized to save time and stress during the summer. What are some of your ideas for having a simply organized summer?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Choosing a Professional Organizer


With the incredible explosion of organizing TV shows, books, and magazine articles, many people are taking active steps to combat clutter in their homes, offices, and lives. Often, the easiest and most efficient way to get organized is to work with a Professional Organizer – a professional who is dedicated to helping you meet your organizing goals. Choosing the right Professional Organizer is important – this professional will be working with you in your own home or office, and will see things that most other people may not see. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering working with a Professional Organizer:

What is a Professional Organizer, anyway? According to the National Association of Professional Organizers (the industry standard professional association), a Professional Organizer helps people take control of their surroundings, their time, their paper, and their lives by using organizational principles and concepts. This usually includes developing strategies and systems for to meet your organizational challenges, and helping you learn the skills to keep up the systems on your own.

Background and experience make a difference. Professional Organizers come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and their skills and experience vary widely. It’s important to ask about your organizer’s education and professional experience, as well as whether they have any ongoing professional education related to organizing.

Are they truly a “professional?” See whether they work as an organizer full-time and how long they’ve been in business. Find out how whether their business license is valid and if they have liability insurance. Ask if they are a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, and how frequently they attend chapter meetings. The answers to these questions can give you key information about how dedicated the organizer you’re considering is to the profession of organizing and how serious they are about their business.

Know what services they provide. Organizing often bridges several related professions, such as project management, interior design, carpentry, cabinet design and personal assisting. Ask your organizer if they are qualified to do work in any of the related areas, and if not, if they have a network of professionals that they can refer you to.

Ask for testimonials or references. My clients have found that organizing has made such a difference in their lives that they have been happy to provide testimonials. Ask any organizer that you’re considering if their past clients have provided testimonials or are willing to act as references. Satisfied clients can be a great indicator of the quality of service that an organizer can bring to your projects.

Choosing the right Professional Organizer for you may seem like a complicated process, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow some of the guidelines that I’ve outlined and you’ll be on the right track to finding your partner in the fight against clutter.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Boost Focus and Productivity by Reducing Communication Distractions


During the course of a given day, think about how many different ways you might be distracted from the tasks you have in front of you – a notification pops up in the corner of your screen letting you know you have a new email, your phone vibrates to let you know you received a new message on Twitter, the phone rings… and the list goes on and on. Let’s face facts – we live in distraction oriented culture, where we’re encouraged to be in near-constant contact with the outside world.

While staying in touch is great in theory, being constantly available to the outside world can be an ongoing source of distractions and interruptions. In my work with clients, many of them say that dealing with these distractions has become a major part of daily life, and is taking a toll on their productivity. Here are some strategies for stemming the tide of interruptions and getting back on track towards being more efficient:

Prioritize your key tasks. Before you start your work each day, take a few moments to write down what your priority tasks are going to be that day. Set aside time on your calendar to work on those tasks, and make those times “communication free zones” – meaning that you won’t check email, answer calls, or instant-message during those times, unless doing so relates specifically to the project you’re working on. Setting aside this space to work on your projects will help you stay focused and get closer to your goal of finishing a given task.

Beware of “helpful” notifications. Pretty much every system we use to communicate, whether it’s instant message, email, social media, voice mail, text messaging, etc., has a way to notify us when we’ve received a new message or communication request. Ask yourself, are these notifications serving you, or are they an interruption? For most of us, the latter is the case. Instead of allowing these tech tools distract you, set specific times during the day when you will check for new messages, email, etc., and turn off the notifications. You could check your various inboxes twice a day, every few hours, or every hour, depending on the volume of communication you receive. Very, very few messages are so urgent that they can’t wait an hour or two for you to return the communication.

Don’t get sucked into the social media vortex. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace… these are all great tools, and can be a lot of fun. They can also generate a voluminous amount of messages that require your attention and time. If you’re using these tools for purely personal use, limit your use of them to outside business hours, and set some parameters about how much time you’d like to spend on them. If social media is a part of your business, make sure to set aside time on your calendar during your work day to process your new messages and friend requests. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that managing these sites is something that can be done in the ever-elusive “spare time” – keeping current with your profiles has to become part of your scheduled tasks.

These are some of my favorite ways to reduce communication-related distractions - what are some of yours?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

4 Ways to Find Hidden Money by Getting Organized


Clearing out clutter and getting more organized can have a wide variety of benefits in your work and in your life - from enjoying your space more, to helping you be more effective and productive (among many others). One frequently-overlooked benefit of getting organized is that it can actually save you money. In addition to finding cash or checks buried in a drawer, in an old bag or briefcase, or under an old stack of paper, there are multiple other ways that getting organized can help your bottom line. Here are just a few:

Ask for the discounts. Gather bills for the various utilities that you use, including cell phone, Internet, land line phone, and any others. Once you have all the bills together, set aside some time to call each vendor and ask for discounts on each of your services. Just the simple act of you calling and asking for a discount can sometimes uncover deals that you never knew existed. Don’t expect your vendors to contact you and offer you discounts - you need to ask for them. I make a practice of doing this at least every six months.

Lose the late fees. Since you just gathered all of your bills in one spot, look them over for any late fees that you might be paying. Late fees are not only an annoyance that cost you money in the short term; they can also negatively affect your credit rating, which can cost you money in the long term. To help avoid late charges and fees, take a few minutes and sign up for automatic bill payment, which will pay your bills on time every month. I recommend charging all of your bills against one credit card, rather than having your bills debited from your checking account. That way, if a billing error comes about, you can dispute it with your credit card company.

Scrap the extra storage. An offsite storage unit should be looked at as an expense of last resort, something that you pay for only when you absolutely have to. Most of the clients I work with that have storage units generally have very little sense of what’s actually being stored, and mainly keep renting their storage units out of sheer inertia. Granted, taking time to go through and organize a storage unit is not high on most people’s priorities lists, but if you are currently renting one, I urge you to set aside some time to weed through the belongings that you currently are paying to store. With some weeding and consolidation, you may be able to incorporate your belongings into storage spaces that you already have at home or in your office.

Donate for dollars. Start looking for ways to reduce the amount you owe to Uncle Sam. One possible way to save money on taxes is to donate things that you no longer want, need, or use and receive a tax deduction for your donation. Any money you can save on your taxes is like cash in your pocket!

Of course, this list is not exhaustive–but it’s a great place to start. What are some of your ideas for how to save money by getting more organized?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

4 Ways to Spend Less Time Processing Paper


Being a Certified Professional Organizer, I actually enjoy working with paper – I know, I’m strange! Even so, I don’t want to spend too much time on it; like you, I have many other tasks on my to-do list. One of my big goals for 2009 is to reduce the amount of paper that I have to process. Here are a few ways to do it:

Don’t print emails. Really, what are you going to do with that email you just printed out? Save it, maybe? Well, it’s already on your computer or on a server, so it’s already saved. If you’re worried about losing it or it being deleted, create a backup archive on your computer or an external disk. Better yet, use an online backup service like Mozy and you won’t have to worry about backups, they’ll happen automatically. If you’re printing out an email to use as a reference for an upcoming trip or event, start a small file for the trip, and when it’s over, shred or recycle the whole thing.

Don’t print web pages. Many of us print web pages for later reference, but even with the best of intentions, we may never review these documents. By printing these out, we’ve used ink and paper, spent time waiting for the page to print, and now have a new piece of paper on our desk that we need to deal with – a document that we may never even use, or may be outdated by the time we get back to it! Instead of printing, try creating folders in your web browser by topic, and bookmark pages that you’d like to revisit at some future point. If you’re worried that the page may no longer be there later, try a web page capture tool like the free Evernote Web Clipper, which lets you capture and save entire web pages for review later – without printing them out.

Don’t print your faxes. And I mean don’t print the one you’re sending OR the one you’re receiving. “But Josh,” you say, “I need to print it out in order to send it, right?” In most cases, no. If you have a printer/scanner/fax multifunction device, or a fax/modem built into your computer, you can usually “print” directly to the fax function (check your owner’s manual). Doing this bypasses the actual printer and sends your document straight to the fax function, without ever using any paper. Additionally, it takes less time since the fax doesn’t have to scan your document, and the quality is better on the recipient’s end. As far as receiving faxes, try using an internet-based service like eFax where you can view incoming faxes on your computer before you decide whether it’s worth printing.

Scan paper documents. Once you’re done working with a document or a file, studies show that once it’s in a file drawer, it’s VERY unlikely that you’re going to use it again. If that’s the case for your documents, instead of filing, you might want to scan them instead. Tools like NeatDesk can scan up to 50 pages via an automatic document feeder, and can convert those documents into searchable PDFs. What I like about this is that so many of us are used to doing searches online, that it feels really natural to search for our own documents – but this can only be done once they’re on our computer in some way, either as an entire document or as an index. I personally think scanning and automatic conversion to PDF is the easiest method.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

3 Things Every Home Office Worker Needs


When you spend as much time as I have working with different folks in their various at-home workspaces, you start to notice some of the things that consistently are important to being a successful work-at-homer. Of course, some of the things that help people do their best work are big, obvious things, like staying organized, managing one’s time well, and the like. But I’d like to shine a light on some of the things that are smaller and more easily overlooked – but are also, in my experience, very helpful. In fact, these are things I recommend to every person I work with in a home office:

- Everybody needs a label maker. Labeling files, containers, and drawers helps to define where your stuff and your paper live, and makes their homes more official. When things are clearly labeled, it’s easier to put things away and to stay organized. Label makers aren’t too expensive – some of my favorite Brother models can be found on sale at many office supply stores for under $30. Keep your label maker and extra label cassettes handy, and as soon as you create a new file folder or put stuff in a container, create a label immediately.

- Ensure the safety and security of the data in your business. Every person who uses a computer needs a system for regularly backing up their data. Imagine what would happen if your hard drive crashed or your laptop was stolen. How long would it take you to reconstruct your client database, your calendar, and your financial information – if you could even do it at all? If you’ve taken the time to create anything on your computer, it’s worth spending the time to back it up. Now, I realize that adding one more task to your already busy day isn’t the advice you were hoping for – but there is a solution. More and more, I recommend automatic online backup services, like Mozy, that work while your computer is idle and upload your data to a secure offsite server. Also consider keeping hard copies of key documents in a safe location offsite.

- Invest in insurance. This is probably the least fun thing in the world to spend your hard-earned cash on, but I believe having the right insurance is key to any business owner sleeping well at night. I’m consistently surprised how many of my clients just don’t have insurance – most just haven’t thought of it – and why should they? After all, if you already have homeowners or renters insurance, your home office is covered by your existing policy, right? In most cases, wrong. Many insurance policies require a special rider or provision for home offices and home-based businesses to cover the material owned by the business, such as inventory, computers and other equipment, and supplies. Additionally, you might want to consider general business liability insurance and/or specialized insurance for your profession. It’s a good idea to check with your insurance agent to see what can be added or modified on your existing policy to cover both you personally as well as your business.
Probably not the three things you were thinking of… but all are important to your home office. Of course, there are a great many other things that are important to creating successful home office, and they are all important to different degrees. These three are easy to take care of and can really help you create a strong foundation for your business.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Switching from Laundry Mode to Work Mode


My friends get pretty jealous about me having an office in my home, saying it must be cool to be able to sit around in my sweats and do all sorts of errands during the day. Well, while there are definite perks to working from home - spending nothing on gas (a big benefit in $4/gallon San Francisco) and eating a healthy lunch that I prepare – it’s important to remember the work part in the work-from-home equation. For most of us with home offices, it’s key to our success to find ways to put the “office” back in “home office.”

Reduce distractions. Here’s a scenario: even though you hate doing laundry, as soon as you sit down to start your workday, suddenly your laundry jumps to the top of your must-do list. You get out of your chair, collect your laundry, sort it, put it in the machine, and before you know it, you’ve lost 20 minutes that was supposed to be spent on an important project. Sound familiar? Most of us have distractions in our homes that can divert our attention from the work that we have in front of us. For us work-at-homers, it’s super-important to combat these distractions. True, we can’t make them go away, but look for ways to shift your focus back to your work. For instance, putting all non-work-related items out view of your desk, closing the door to your office, and turning off the ringer on your home phone during the day have all proven helpful to people I’ve worked with.

Set the scene. Is your home office set up to help you do your best work? If it isn’t, take some time to get the space organized, comfortable, and conducive for how you like to work. For instance, if you have trouble getting started each day because you can’t find your papers, take an afternoon and set up a paper management system. Are your frequently-used supplies all the way on the other side of the room? Move them closer so you spend less time getting up and interrupting your workflow. Does the space itself reflect your personal aesthetic? How things look and feel can play a big part in how much (or how little) we like our workspace, and when we like our space, we do better work. Spend some time “dressing up” your work area or desk with items that reflect who you are and the things you like.

Dress for work, not for home. Even though it might seem working in your home office in pajamas or sweats is a good idea (you’re already wearing them, right?), doing so doesn’t lend itself to enhancing your productivity or helping you do your best work. Your pajamas may be silk and your sweats designer, but chances are you’d never see a client or go to an office wearing these decidedly not-work garments. Dressing up helps us shift our mind into another state – in this case, dressing for work helps make the mental shift into work mode. I’ve seen people work much better when they dress as if they may be called off to a client site at any moment. For example, a client says when she puts on her shoes, she knows it’s time for her to go to work (even though her office is just down the hall from her bedroom). What outfit can you change into to signal work time?

Find the things that you can do, whether it’s putting on a dress shirt or closing your office door, to create a physical or mental “workspace” that is distinct from your home. When you do, you’ll find yourself being much more productive and enjoy your work more.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

3 Top Tips for Dealing with Noise Pollution in Your Home Office


“If I do my invoicing, I’ll be able to reach my monthly cash flow goals, but I can’t concentrate with all the traffic noise!”

“I’d love to work on that proposal, but my neighbor’s dog just won’t stop barking!”

“Is that baby STILL screaming? I need to get this project off my desk!”

If any of these sound familiar, then you’ve run into one of the unique challenges of working from home – dealing with residential noise pollution.

Home office workers face a variety of challenges related to distraction, but noise is one that is typically overlooked. Most large offices and workspaces have a symphony of office chatter, the hum of copiers and other office machines, and even the low rumble of the A/C, all of which generally become a type of “white noise” – which we can usually tune out and stop hearing. At home, however, there typically isn’t any background noise – it’s usually just you and your trusty computer – and any outside noise can be especially jarring and make it challenging for us to focus.

In order to get our work done, we home office types need to find strategies to help us manage the noise pollution that can encroach on our productivity. Here’s a few tactics that I’ve found successful with my organizing clients:

The hills are alive… Well, maybe not the hills, but your home office can be alive with the sound of music. For many people, having the right music as background noise can help to get us “into a groove” and make our tasks go faster and seem more enjoyable. I emphasize having the right music, because background music while working is not a one-genre-fits-all affair. Some people find music with lyrics can be distracting while doing verbally-related tasks such as writing, reading, and editing. For these task types, you might want to choose instrumental or electronic music, or even nature sounds. Other tasks, such as organizing your office, might be perfect for that Top 40 song you just can’t seem to get out of your head. Match the music to the task at hand, and you’ll focus less on outside-world noise distractions.

The tech. As with most things, technology is there to help us deal with noise pollution. Noise-cancelling headphones can silence all but the most piercing of outside noises, and can create a quiet zone for us to work in. Sometimes, just having “white noise” can help us ignore the more unpleasant background noises. White noise generators, which create a static-like tone, have been used in therapy offices for many years, and help to drown out or mask things we don’t want to hear. You can find both noise-cancelling headphones and white noise generators online.

Shift your space. Recognize when it might be helpful to just get out of your chair, leave your office, and go someplace else to work. A change of scenery can shift our energy and allow us to focus in a different way than when we’re at our usual workspace. This can be an especially helpful tactic when you need or want to work on a specific task. Let’s say that you need to write an article for your newsletter, but it’s simply too noisy at your home office. Try taking a trip to your local coffee shop, library or park and do your writing from there – you might just find that you write a lot better in that environment. Sometimes, tying a specific type of task to a physical location can help reduce our distraction level and help us focus on the task at hand.
As I’m writing this, two sirens went off outside my window, a dog started barking, and a plane is flying overhead. I know what I’m going to do to get my focus back – what will you do the next time you’re distracted by your noisy environment?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Terminating Your Tolerations


Four Steps for Minimizing Life’s Little (and Big!) Annoyances

Irritated. Annoyed. Frustrated. Do these words describe your daily life? If so, chances are you are putting up with a lot of tolerations – things that irk you regularly, but that consciously or unconsciously you have decided get to be a part of your life. Well, they don’t have to be! Follow these steps to reduce the amount of frustration you feel at life’s little (and big!) annoyances:

1. Make a list. Instead of feeling like you have lots of undefined things in your life that are driving you batty, start writing those daily tolerations down. Sit down for a few minutes with a notebook, and make a list of the tolerations in your life. Carry around the notebook with you for a few days and write down all those things that you regularly put up with – all the distractions, clutter, rude co-workers, the slow-draining sink – whatever is a bother to you, make a note of it. Write down not only what is bothering you, but why you feel bothered by it.

2. Evaluate and strategize. Once you’ve spent some time noticing and writing down your tolerations, it’s time to start looking at them in a proactive way. At their core, tolerations are problems waiting to be solved. The key to defeating your tolerations is to look beyond the problem, and focus on potential solutions. For instance, if you’ve grown tired of the clutter on your desk, one way of dealing with it is to get organized. The problem co-worker could be an opportunity for you to practice your communication and management skills, and so on. For each of your tolerations listed in your notebook, write down a few potential solutions.

3. Prioritize. Now that you’re solution-focused, start separating your tolerations by how easy they will be to solve. In your notebook, make one column for easy fixes (lubricating the squeaky door, taking the pile of clothes to the dry cleaner) and one column for more challenging or time-consuming ones (organizing your closet, letting go of that commitment that no longer makes sense in your life). Once you’ve done that, you can prioritize the order that you’ll attack the tolerations. The most stressful or frustrating items get top priority in each list, and the tolerations that are less annoying get lower priority.

4. Act and Eliminate. Now that you have your list of problems and solutions prioritized, it’s time to move into action. Grab your prioritized list and your calendar, and set aside time to actively work on reducing your tolerations. Begin by scheduling time to focus on getting rid of the tolerations that are at the top of your priority list –eliminating the big ones can create a tremendous sense of accomplishment. If you have just a few free minutes a day, start with the tolerations that are on your easy list. By doing so, you’ll have freed up some of your time, and soon you’ll be able to focus on your more challenging tasks.


Reducing your tolerations can be an incredibly satisfying endeavor. Moving from annoyance into action will leave you feeling empowered and in control. In time, the amount of things that you tolerate will be far fewer, because you won’t let them enter your life in the first place.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

3 Top Tips for Protecting Your Data


One of the things I frequently work with clients on is making sure that their data will be safe in the event of an emergency. Just imagine what would happen in your business or your life if you lost all your data and your key documents. Unless you’re confident that you could re-create everything from scratch, it’s essential to have a strategy for data and information backup and restoration. Here are some ideas for how to do it:

Snap it. For insurance and recordkeeping purposes, you need to have a record of all of your belongings. Start by taking your camcorder or digital camera and going through every space in your office or home, and take snapshots of the contents. I mean open every closet, ever drawer – everything. Download the photos to your computer and store them in a special folder. As your belongings change, make sure to take new photos to keep your record up-to-date.

Data backup. If you have any data on your computer that you value in any way, it’s essential to develop a backup strategy. Most businesses and individuals don’t backup their data regularly, which in our digital age is a very risky thing to do! Backup is really simple with automated tools like MOZY (http://bit.ly/cls-mozy) or Dropbox (http://bit.ly/cls-dropbox), which backup your data to a central server and keep synched copies of your data on all your computers, respectively. Whatever backup strategy you choose, just choose something and do it regularly!

Centralize your docs. In an emergency, you may need access to important documents like lease agreements, insurance papers, deeds and titles, and more. If you need to leave your home or office in a hurry, you won’t generally have time to search your files to gather everything. Use something like the Vital Records PortaVault (http://bit.ly/cls-vitalrecords) to centralize your key documents so that you can grab what you need. You may even want to keep one copy in your office and one copy in your home, so that if you can’t return to one location you can still access your documents.

There are many things you can do to help prepare yourself for an emergency at home or at work. Being prepared is all about being ready – and the more ready you are, the better you’ll fare in the event of an emergency.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Top Organizing Tips for Creative Professionals


As someone whose previous career was in the design industry, I know how much of a challenge it can be for busy, creative people to get and stay organized. When you’re faced with meeting client deadlines and marketing yourself to find your next gig, it can seem like getting organized is just “one more thing” on the ever-growing to-do list. But taking the time to get organized can help you – and your business – in a variety of ways:

Recognize the benefits of getting organized. When I work with creative professionals of any stripe, one of the concerns they raise is that getting organized could stifle their creativity. In fact, what I’ve seen with my clients is that getting organized can enhance creativity by letting you focus on what’s important to you – rather than the details of “where’s that important client file” or “under which pile of stuff is my extra printer ink.” Getting organized takes a little time and focus up front, but can save you lots of time and stress down the road.

Set aside time to organize. I know you’re busy with design projects for your clients, but remember, taking care of the administrative end of your business, including managing paperwork, billing, and email, is critical to the success of any endeavor. Unfortunately, your admin and organizing-related work won’t do itself, so schedule time to work on your organizing projects. Once they’re completed, build a regular appointment with yourself into your calendar to maintain your systems. One rule of thumb – it takes about 15-30 minutes each day to deal with that day’s worth of new paper. Make sure you have enough time set aside to process your paper – especially client billing!

Get creative with your organizing tools. When I’m working with designers and other creative folks, I frequently hear this refrain: “but the organizing tools are so ugly!” Unfortunately, it’s mostly true – many of the containers and other organizing gizmos out there are pretty bare-bones and focus on functionality over form. That said, there are ways to make sure that your organizing tools match your aesthetic sense. One technique I like to use is to get clear containers, and then line them with decorative paper from a high-end paper store. By doing this, you can completely customize the look of your storage, rather than trying to find an off-the shelf solution that fits. Look for organizing tools that you can customize in various ways – either by decorating, painting, or using in new and unexpected ways.

Give things a home. One of the most important concepts when you’re organizing is to recognize when your supplies, files, and other stuff don’t have assigned homes, they simply can’t be put away – they have no homes to go back to, and they become clutter (or “homeless stuff,” as I like to think of them). Make sure to take the time to assign homes for each of the things that are around your design studio or office. That way, when it’s time to find things, it’s easy to do so – and it’s equally easy to put things away when you’re done with them.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

What to Do with Your Unwanted Stuff


A frequent by-product of the organizing process is usually a bunch of stuff you’ve decided you no longer want, love, or use. Getting rid of all this stuff can sometimes be a challenge – but don’t let that stymie your progress! Here are three ideas of what to do with your castoffs:

Sell them. If your belongings still have financial value – for instance, electronics in good condition, designer clothes, or antiques – you might be able to recoup some of their cost by selling them. While having a garage sale might seem like the easiest way to sell your stuff, I generally don’t recommend it. Garage sales take a lot of prep work and planning, not to mention the time you have to spend staffing the sale. Unless you live in a densely populated area and expect most of the stuff you’re putting out will sell, skip the garage sale. Instead, try posting your most valuable items on eBay or Craigslist. You can do some research online to see how much you can expect your goods to sell for – helping you decide whether it’s worth your time to sell them or not.

Give them away. For stuff that isn’t saleable but is still in perfectly good condition – clothes that no longer fit, the extra microwave that’s been sitting in the garage, etc. – it’s best to donate them so someone else can use them. Your local Salvation Army or Goodwill are great places to start, as they generally accept a variety of items – call them before driving over to see what they’re currently accepting. For things they won’t accept, get creative – other places may still value your stuff. For instance, if you’re getting rid of stacks of magazines, why not drop a few off at the gym or at a hospital waiting room? Have extra TVs or VCRs? See if a local shelter could use them. Many things that you think aren’t valuable may in fact be desired by someone else – try posting on Craigslist in the “free” section or on Freecycle – the results may surprise you! With clients, I’ve found that when we match their donations to places which will actually use them, they feel much better about letting those things go.

Recycle them. Some of your stuff may not have any more useful life left and should be discarded in an environmentally-friendly manner. In many communities, recycling options abound for items like paper, plastic and aluminum, but what can you do with the rest of the stuff you want to recycle? This is where you have to get creative and do a little legwork. For electronics, some Goodwill locations and places like GreenCitizen will recycle your goods (sometimes for a small fee). See if old clothes can be used as art scraps at a local sewing center or school. Try calling your garbage company and see if they offer any resources or referrals for recycling beyond what they regularly pickup. Your local NAPO-affiliated Professional Organizer can also be a great resource for recycling and reuse ideas.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

4 Tips for Easier Emailing

Do you feel like email has taken over your life? Well, you're not alone - in a recent study by Information Week, over three-quarters of the people surveyed said that email is essential to their lives - and an additional 15% say they'd rather lose their spouse than give up email! It's important to remember that email is a tool that we can control - one that is meant to improve communication and make our lives easier. To that end, here are four top tips to wrangle that inbox:

• Smarten up your subject line. Put as much descriptive information in the subject line as possible, and your recipient will know what your message is about without having to even open your email. For instance, "Rescheduling Meeting: Orig. 6/1/07 3PM - New 6/1/07 5PM" is a lot better than "Meeting time changed" - the more descriptive, the better.

• Don't use your inbox as a filing cabinet. Instead, create descriptive folders in your email program - by topic, client, vendor, etc. As you're finished reading your messages, file them accordingly.

• Filter your messages to save a step. Once you've set up some folders, you can then tell your email program to automatically put messages from specific senders or with specific subject lines into the folders where they belong. For instance, if you're receiving dozens of newsletters, create a "Newsletters" folder, and have your email program filter those emails right into the folder, bypassing your inbox entirely. In your email program, search the help for "rules" or "filters" for more instructions.

• Beware the 4000-message inbox. Instead of letting emails "pile up" in your inbox indefinitely, set a limit for how many messages you want to have sit in there at any given time - I recommend no more than 25 or so (once you have more than that, it's hard to actually see what's in there). Once your messages start growing past the limit that you set, schedule some time to process your email.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Moving Towards Effectiveness

It’s more than just being productive!

I recently met with a new client at her office, whose stated goal was to feel like she spent each day being very productive – that she got a lot of things done that day. In our culture of production and consumption, being “very productive” has become a goal unto itself. As a Professional Organizer, I encourage clients to look beyond just getting a lot of things done; rather, I believe you are better served striving for effectiveness rather than just productivity. Let’s look at a few ways to make that happen:

Know your goal. Before you sit down to work on a task, decide whether your goal is to be productive, efficient, or effective. When you’re productive, more often than not you’ll have completed a number of tasks, but your focus may not be on completing each task particularly well – checking them off your list is your priority. You’ll get a feeling of accomplishment, but it will be more about how many tasks you’ve completed rather than about the tasks themselves. A cousin of productivity is efficiency – getting this done expediently or in a streamlined way. Both productivity and efficiency can lead you toward overall effectiveness. Effectiveness means that your tasks are not only getting completed, but they are completed well. When you’re effective at work (or at home), you’ll know it – you’ll have that unmistakable “job well done” feeling, an intangible reward for completing your work.

Don’t multitask. People frequently trick themselves into thinking that they are being particularly productive by multitasking, or doing more than one task at once. It may seem like you’re getting much more done by multitasking, but in most cases it is just not so. Studies have shown that when you multitask, each individual task can take up to four times longer than if it had simply been completed on its own. Additionally, by definition multitasking means you are splitting your focus among two, three, four, or more tasks at once. When we are unable to focus on a task, the quality of our work usually suffers. Multitasking also can contribute to a sense of overwhelm or of doing too much.

Block out time. Instead of multitasking, it’s better to create blocks of time on your calendar for the various tasks that you have to do. Give each task the time that it requires to get completed well. For most people, when things are put onto the calendar, they become “official,” and thereby get done. Here’s a tip when blocking out time: always overestimate how long tasks take to complete. Most people underestimate task time, so they end up always feeling rushed. Build a little breathing room into your calendar, and you’ll be much better off.

As with all things that are worthwhile, building your effectiveness habit takes time and effort – but it’s worth it. Over time, you’ll notice yourself feeling more satisfied with your work and more in control of your day.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The 3 Secrets to Getting – And STAYING – Organized


When it comes to organizing, routine does matter!

Organizing is about so much more than developing the right systems to meet your needs or buying the latest organizing gizmo. While those things are undoubtedly important, the most critical factor of whether your organizing projects will be successful is how well you integrate organizing into your life. Here are a few tips to build new routines around organizing:

Start small. The biggest organizing mistake that people make is to set unrealistic expectations for how much time and effort organizing takes. The tendency for many people is to say, “this weekend, I’m going to organize the whole house” or “I’m going to purge my 20-year paper backlog today.” Projects like these are big, and need to be broken down into smaller mini-projects that are more easily completed. Take these larger projects apart, and you’ll see there are smaller tasks within them – for instance, organizing just one kitchen cabinet, or purging just one part of one file drawer. It’s far better to start with a small project that you can make immediate, visible progress on, instead of a large, nebulous, undefined project. Start doing smaller projects regularly and you’re guaranteed to see continual progress.

Do a little each day. Organizing doesn’t have to be a quarterly or annual event – in fact, it is a lot better to build organizing into your life on a daily or weekly basis. If you can devote fifteen minutes a day toward clearing clutter, you’ll help ensure that those areas you so carefully organized will stay clutter-free. For most people, it’s easier (and more enjoyable) to spend a few minutes a day on organizing, rather than blocking out an hour or two once a week. Organizing won’t become such a chore, and you’ll be reinforcing the habit that living without clutter is a priority for you.

Remember, organizing is a process. Organizing is not a do-it-once task; rather, it can be helpful to think of it more as a lifestyle change. There may be a big push to complete a particular project, but it’s the maintenance that happens afterward that helps ensure success – and that maintenance is all about your habits. I’ve worked with lots of clients, and the ones who are most successful realize that while certain projects might have defined completion parameters, there is no “end point” for being organized. It’s a skill you can develop and grow throughout your life.

Getting your office or home organized is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your space. You’ve spent time and resources to get organized, and by using some of these tips, you’ll be able to stay organized for the long term.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What is a Professional Organizer, Anyway?


With the incredible explosion of organizing TV shows, books, and magazine articles, many people are taking active steps to combat clutter in their homes, offices and lives. Often, the easiest and most effective way to get organized is to work with a Professional Organizer – a professional who is dedicated to helping you meet your organizing goals. Choosing the right Professional Organizer is important – this professional will be working with you in your own home or office, and will see things that most other people may not see.

According to the National Association of Professional Organizers (with nearly 3000 members, it’s the industry standard professional association), a Professional Organizer helps people take control of their surroundings, their time, their paper and their lives by using organizational principles, concepts and products. This usually includes developing strategies and systems to meet your organizational challenges, and helping you learn the skills to keep up the systems on your own. Professional Organizers come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and their skills and experience vary widely. For most of the field’s 20+ year history, many organizers came out of the corporate world, where they previously may have been in systems administration or administrative/office manager types of positions; now, it’s increasingly common to see newcomers to the profession choose organizing as their first job. When choosing a prospective organizer to work with, it’s important to ask about their education and professional experience, as well as whether they have any ongoing professional education related to organizing.

While many organizers are generalists and work in many home and office settings, some find a niche within the field and serve a particular subset of the population. Some organizers specialize in areas like estate organizing (dealing with the belongings of the deceased), financial organizing (setting up bill payment systems, managing tax-related paperwork, etc.), or working with seniors (downsizing or preparing to move to assisted living). One of the areas I specialize in is working with entrepreneurs in small and home-based businesses, who often need systems developed to manage their businesses flow of information, paper, and time management.

On TV, organizing shows often portray the Professional Organizer as a taskmaster, forcefully “encouraging” clients to get rid of their stuff and chiding them when they don’t want to let go (hey, it makes for good TV). In reality, we usually help clients look at what they value and what they don’t – what they don’t value might go away. For what stays, we’ll help them develop storage strategies and systems. If you really want to keep Grandma’s broken pie plate and the resumes from when you were 22, it’s my job to help you find the most effective way to store them.

In reality, a typical session might start by identifying what project we’d be tackling during the session – for instance, setting up a filing system or editing one section of a closet. We’d then work side-by-side on actually doing the work – setting up the categories, files and folders in a paper management system or reviewing the articles of clothing in a closet and deciding what to do with each. Finally, we would end by cleaning up the area we’ve been working in, then reviewing what we’ve accomplished and what the next steps might be.

Pretty organized, right? Well, that’s the idea. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, disorganized, or maybe that things just aren’t working as well as they could, working with a Professional Organizer could help you bridge the gap between how things are, and how you’d like them to be.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Strategies for Success


Reach your organizing goals with these easy tips!

The prospect of getting organized at home or at work can seem pretty daunting. Working towards your organizing goals can be energized with anticipation and effort, or can be derailed by frustration and confusion. It’s critical to understand that getting organized is a process – and as such, it will have its highs and lows. Whether your goal is to clear that pile off of your desk, to organize your computer files, or to finally see the floor in your closet, here are some strategies to help you to hit your target:

Have a plan. The most common downfall that people who try to get organized run into is they haven’t planned out their project. Often, they’ll begin without first defining the smaller tasks in the project, and how they will recognize when they are finally finished. Before you start your organizing project, take a few minutes to write down your plan of attack – your goal for the project, the steps involved in getting the project completed, and what some important milestones are. This way, as you complete each task, you can check it off and visually see the progress that you’ve made. And if you run into trouble, a good Professional Organizer can help you develop an organizing plan that’s right for you.

Set aside time. Take a look at your calendar for the month. Do you have an extra 15 minutes each day, or a free hour on the weekend? Those might be good times for you to schedule time to make progress with your organizing. Once you find the right time in your schedule, make sure you write it down as “organizing time.” The simple act of setting time aside for working on your project can go a long way towards your success, because you’ve just let yourself know that organizing is a priority that has earned time in your schedule.

Enlist help. Organizing can be a solitary activity, and if you’re a social person, getting organized alone can be torturous. If you enjoy having another person around to bounce organizing ideas off of, work with a Professional Organizer, or get an “organizing buddy.” You and your organizing buddy can put your heads together on each other’s organizing projects, and can share that extra bit of support when it’s needed.

Reward yourself. As you make progress on your organizing plan, give yourself a treat for reaching important milestones. You don’t have to wait until you’ve completed your project to sit back and enjoy the work that you’ve done! Some great times to reward yourself might be when you can finally see the top of your desk, when you have just gathered a bag of unused clothes to donate, or when you’ve got that undeniable feeling that things are starting to get “under control.” You get to choose your reward for reaching those important milestones!

Remember, getting organized is a process, one that can help you build skills that will last for a lifetime. Individual projects can take awhile, so be patient and don’t get mired down in the day-to-day ups and downs of your organizing. Try the strategies mentioned above and you’ll be well on your way to success!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ch-Ch-Changes


Meeting Life’s Changes Head-On

A wise person once said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We organizers work with our clients on transforming their lives by making changes to their habits and their environments. If a client truly wants their lives to become more organized and to effect a deep, profound, and long-lasting transformation, then they have to be open to change – sometimes big changes, sometimes small ones. Opening up to change can sometimes be tough, but here are a few ideas to make the process a little easier:

Look at the big picture. When changes occur in our lives and our environments, it can be stressful and scary – or fun and exciting, depending on the circumstance and your perspective. As something in your world is going through a change, take a step back and assess the bigger picture. What positive things might come out of this change? What new challenges come about because of this? Most importantly, changes usually signal an opportunity to grow – but you have to be willing to do it.

Bend, don’t break. Avoiding or fighting the changes in your life can be much more difficult than adapting to meet them. Trying to keep things from changing and holding on to past goals and idealized histories can keep you from moving forward. As difficult as it may be at first, learning to be adaptable and flexible can help you meet life’s changes with aplomb and poise.

Pick your battles. Not every change is one worth making, and some things are better left unchanged. The key is learning which is which – and putting your energies into making the right changes, not every change. When you notice that a change is about to occur in your life, try to think about the potential effects that it might have on you, and how you can best use your energies and resources to meet it.

Learning to adapt to changes in your life and your environment is an ongoing part of the human experience. Life is full of changes large and small. How you meet them can be a key factor in determining how much you get out of life. Chances are that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice adapting to change – as change is truly the only constant in life!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Spring Cleaning Project – 4 Steps for Clearing Out Paper Clutter


For many of us, spring is the time when a certain activity comes to mind – the annual clearing out of clutter that collects in our homes and offices. While it’s easy to focus on getting rid of “stuff” clutter – actual physical things – it’s important to look for ways to clear out the other types of clutter in our lives that can also get in our way. One of the big ones that I help clients get rid of is paper – we all have it, we all need to deal with it, and wouldn’t it be nice if we had less of it? Here’s how:

Get rid of what you don’t need. In my experience, people I work with usually have been keeping far, far more documents than they need, or could ever find useful. Paper can take up a lot of space, can get messy really quickly, and can feel overwhelming when it’s stacked and piled all around you. A great way to start reducing your existing paper is by setting some retention guidelines for what you want to keep and for how long. Do you really need your junior-high reports? Probably not. Last year’s medical records? Quite possibly. The government’s information site has some helpful retention guidelines (online at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/cic_text/money/keeprecords/keeprecords.htm). You can customize these guidelines for what fits your life and your retention needs.

Go electronic. So much paper comes into our lives that may be available in electronic form. For instance, a little-used feature on most computers is the ability to send and receive faxes on-screen, without even printing out a document (check your computer’s instructions for how to do this). If there are documents you want the information from but don’t need the paper version of, try scanning them using a tool like the Neat family of scanners (www.neatco.com).

Do you really need those bills? I’m thinking bills from cable or satellite TV, your cell phone, garbage bill, and the like. Most vendors are happy to help you go paperless – just visit the website for each vendor and sign up for paperless billing. When your bill comes due, you’ll receive an email instead of a paper notice. You’ll be able to pay online if you so choose, saving you stamps and checks. Less paper all around!

Stop the influx. If you’re receiving a lot of junk mail, use a service like Tonic Mailstopper (http://mailstopper.tonic.com) to do the work of getting you off junk mail lists. If you get catalogs, judiciously choose which ones to receive, and which ones will get the boot. Call the numbers on each catalog that you no longer want, and ask to be taken off their list and the lists of their partners.

Once you’re done discarding your paper, make sure to dispose of it securely and responsibly, by shredding and/or recycling as appropriate.

What are your strategies for getting rid of your paper clutter?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Organizing Your Personal Finances


4 Steps to Getting Control of Your Receipts, Statements, and Bills

One of my top requests as a Professional Organizer is to help clients organize their personal finances. For many of us, the myriad bills, receipts, and statements that enter our homes are quickly overwhelming us. It’s hard to keep track of all that information if you don’t have a good system in place to manage it. Here are four simple steps to help you get your personal financial papers organized:

1. Gather it up. The first step to organizing your finances is to get all financial-related information in one place. If your personal financial papers are currently piled into paper bags, stuffed in shoeboxes, and dominating your desk, start by putting all the various bills, receipts, and statements in a box or pile. It’s much easier to organize when all your information is in one spot!

2. Sort and separate. Now that your papers are all together, it’s time to sort them into categories. The simplest way to organize personal finances is to separate tax-related items from ones that you won’t be claiming (ask your tax preparer for more information about your specific situation). From those two main financial types – tax/non-tax, your papers will start giving you clues to some broad categories – utilities, electronics, auto, home, etc. Create piles for each of those categories.

3. Find homes. Now it’s time to create dedicated spaces where your financial papers can live. Purchase an accordion folder and some hanging files. Into the accordion goes your tax-related info – one tab for each sub-category. The benefit of the accordion folder is that it can be easily stored for safekeeping when the tax year is over. Your non-tax-related financial information goes into the hanging files – one file for each of non-tax-related category. Continue filing receipts, statements and bills into their new homes as they come in.

4. Track it. Once you have all your financial information sorted, separated, and filed, it’s easy to take the next step and track where your hard-earned cash is going. Easy-to-use computer programs like Quicken or Money take your previously-organized financial information and let you generate budgets, reports, and projections – letting you stay in control of your financial life.

If it’s been awhile since you last organized your finances, or if it’s your first time doing so, I know the process can seem daunting – but it can be simple if you take it step-by-step. Getting your finances organized can be incredibly empowering – and the process can be easy if you follow the guidelines above.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Organizing for Taxes


Take the stress out of tax time with a few simple tips!

Does the thought of preparing for tax time fill you with dread? Tax time can make anyone stressed out – but there’s hope! By using a few easy organizing techniques, you can sail through your taxes this month.

Plan in advance. Don’t wait until the tax deadline looms near if you know that your receipts need organizing and that you haven’t kept track of your expenses. Spend one or two hours a week (or just 15 minutes a day) sorting your documentation. This will save you lots of time and stress when you or a professional are actually preparing your taxes.

Who’s preparing your taxes? Think about who will be preparing your taxes, and what sort of information they’ll need. Preparing your own taxes is a lot easier if you make a checklist of what documents (W2s, bank statements, etc.) are needed. With a checklist, you’ll know if any important information is missing when you sit down to prepare your taxes. If you’re going to be giving your information to a tax preparer or CPA, ask them how they would like to receive your information. Some tax preparers want a list of expenses, while others are happy to take receipts and do the totaling for you.

Record your expenses. If you don’t have an organized way of keeping track of your deductible expenses, you may be missing out on big savings come tax time. Create a list of your expense categories using a simple list, a ledger, or a computer-based system. As your expenses accumulate, add to your category totals so you can see where your money is going.

Keep everything together. Scattered receipts and expenses can lead to lost deductions. Instead of losing your receipts or keeping them in a shoebox, purchase an inexpensive accordion folder. Label the folder with your expense categories, and as you get a receipt, drop it into the corresponding slot. Totaling your expenses for each category at tax time will be a breeze!

What about next year? Don’t wait until next year’s tax time rolls around to start thinking about your 2010 taxes. Create an accordion folder for next year, along with your category list. Keeping track of receipts and expenses throughout the year can eliminate tax-prep related stress.

Paying taxes is a fact of life, but the stress surrounding tax preparation doesn’t have to be! By using some of the simple strategies I’ve described, preparing this year’s taxes can be quick and painless.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

4 Tips for Eco-Friendly Organizing


Simplify your life while being environmentally responsible!

Getting organized can be a fantastic way to simplify and streamline your busy life. The process of getting organized can involve weeding through (and discarding) some of the belongings that have been keeping you from living how you want to live, and finding other products that can help you live in more comfortable, effective way. Tossing some things out while also potentially getting new things may seem to be at odds with eco-friendly living, but there ARE ways to be eco-friendly while getting organized. Here are four things to keep in mind:

1. Repurpose what you have. Before getting rid of your stuff, see if you can use what you have in new and different ways. Turn things on their sides, take them to different rooms, and match things up in unusual ways. For instance, an extra bowl from the kitchen can make a great “key-catcher” by the front door. Checkbook boxes transform into drawer dividers, and plastic trays that fancy chocolate comes in are great for organizing earrings. Another example: I have a client who is a scrapbook artist. We used transparent plastic bins to store her supplies, which were functional but not very attractive. Instead of buying new bins, we used some of her extra decorative paper to line the bins and hide the contents. Look around your space – what can use differently?

2. Buy eco-friendly products. You may need to buy specialized organizing products, such as desk accessories, drawer dividers, and other things that will help you get and stay organized. Stores such as Good Girl Goods (goodgirlgoods.com) and the Container Store (containerstore.com) carry many products that are made from recycled or natural materials. Consider products that will make it easier for you to recycle, such as sorters that can help you separate glass, paper, compost, etc.

3. Store the right way. Store your items in a way that will best preserve them. First, make sure you have the right containers. If you’re storing photos or documents, choose acid-free boxes, not plastic bins. Keep clothes in a sealed container, not in a suitcase. Second, be conscious of the location where things are stored. Keep issues such as moisture, light, and temperature fluctuations in mind. A damp garage isn’t the right spot for paper, and a bookshelf in direct sunlight will quickly fade your precious photos.

4. Discard responsibly. After weeding through your stuff, you’ll probably be left with lots of things that need to find new homes and some that can be recycled. When working with clients, I usually recommend that they get rid of things in this order: sell, donate, and recycle. Items of value can be sold on eBay (ebay.com), Craigslist (craigslist.org), at a garage sale, or in your local paper. Call your favorite charities and see what items they are accepting – frequently charities will come and pick up your donations for you, saving you time. Items that are left over after selling or donating can often be given away via Freecycle (freecycle.org). Finally, the items that have no value to you or others can be responsibly recycled.

Simplifying and organizing your life while being environmentally responsible is possible! When embarking on your next organizing project, keep these four tips in mind. You’ll be able to feel good about taking steps toward living the life you want in an eco-friendly way.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Managing Your Time


Master your calendar with a few easy ideas!

Time flies when you’re having fun, but what if you’re not having fun and your time still seems to “fly away?” Do you ever feel like your schedule runs you, rather than the other way around? Maybe you’re feeling like you can’t get everything done, or that you don’t really know where your time goes. Sound familiar? If so, a “time makeover” might be just what you need! Here are some simple strategies to help get your calendar under control:

Take stock. To truly maximize your use of time, it’s helpful to first find out how you’re currently spending your day. In a journal or on a notepad, write down what you’re doing from hour to hour for a few days. Note what your current daily schedule is (if you have one), what’s working, and what isn’t. Also notice what your energy rhythms are – are you more “up” in the evening, or are you more of a night owl?

Check it out. After keeping a log for a few days, start looking for patterns. Are you spending most of your time on the things that you want or need to do, or are you wasting lots of time procrastinating or surfing the web? Where is time being used well, and where do you see room for improvement? Also see whether the things that are most important to you are synchronized with when you are the most “up.”

Build blocks. Group your different daily tasks into categories, and then make the categories into “time blocks.” Common categories are work time (time you spend at your job or business), admin tasks (paying bills, processing paper, etc.), pleasure time (breaks and other downtime), and kid-related time (carpooling, getting the kids ready for school).

Fill it in.
Look at a blank calendar, and start setting up your revised schedule. Put your time blocks onto your calendar, based on how much time the tasks within each category take up. As things come up during your day or your week, you’ll now have time literally “blocked out” for the tasks to fit into. Try to group related tasks together – for instance, if you noted in your logs that you were paying bills online on Tuesday and writing checks on Friday, try to group those together on your calendar. Every process that you can group or streamline will make a difference in how efficient you can be.

Keep at it. After you’ve filled in your time blocks with tasks, you’ll be left with a revamped schedule. Try implementing your new schedule slowly – that way you can make adjustments and tweaks. If something works well – great! If not, see if you can shift a task to another time block or shift the blocks around. Keep with it until you find the mix that works for you.

You CAN get control over your schedule! With a little advance planning and a few of my tips, you’ll soon be master of your day once more.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

3 Steps to Your Organized Kitchen


It’s a space most of us use every single day, but few of us take time out to make our kitchens the efficient, organized spaces they could be. By taking a few simple steps, we can create efficient areas for storage, food prep, and we can even save money in the process!

Edit it all. Kitchens have a tendency to become storage areas for the unused and the unwanted, which can end up taking up valuable storage and food prep space. Sometimes, it’s easier to simply push the things we don’t use to the back of the shelf, rather than decide that we don’t need them at all and then get rid of them. Because of this, it’s a smart idea to take a detailed pass through every cupboard, cabinet and shelf in your kitchen and make sure that you’re keeping only the things you need, use and eat. A few helpful questions to ask when editing through the items in your kitchen:

 Have I used this tool/gizmo in the past 6 months to a year?
 Is this food expired?
 Did I (or someone else in my home) like this food the last time we ate it?
 Does this food align with my current eating goals (lower cholesterol foods, healthy eating, etc.)?

Kitchen gizmos in particular have a tendency to accumulate, so take a realistic look at these items and make sure you have used them recently - or have even opened them in the first place!

Keep it close. Once you’ve edited through the food and food prep tools you’re currently storing in your kitchen, then it’s time to reorganize things a bit to make them easier to use. At this point, you’ll want to take everything out of your cabinets and start moving them to storage spaces that make more sense for how you’ll actually be using your stuff. One of the basic tenets of organizing is to keep things close to where you’ll be using them. In this case, you’ll want to keep the food prep items and food that you use all the time in areas that are nearby where you’re likely to use them - for instance, your frequently used pots, pans, and utensils should be close to the stove and oven, and the ones you use less frequently should be stored a little further away.

Eat it up. When I’ve helped clients organize their kitchens in the past, we are often surprised at how much unused and uneaten food is filling up their storage. When we buy food at the store and then put it away after we get home, it’s so easy to forget that we have it - the old “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome. Especially when we are in a hurry, it’s hard to remember that polenta that in the cupboard or the ground turkey in the back of the freezer - all of which we intended to eat, but simply just forgot about. Before you go shopping next time, take a pass through what you already have on the shelf - you may already have what you need, or you may just need to “fill in the blanks” with produce or other fresh items. You can also try rotating the food that’s in the back of your shelves and bring those items to the front of the shelves, making it easier to see what you have. Studies have shown that if we actually ate all the food that’s in our storage, the average home could save hundreds of dollars a month over going out to buy new food at the store. What a bonus for getting organized!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reducing Paper Clutter


We’ve got way to go to reach the paperless future shown in The Jetsons and Star Trek. During the course of daily life, many of us are faced with a deluge of paper, all of which needs to be dealt with in some way. Many people I’ve worked with are drowning in stacks, piles, and desks full of paper, and want to gain control over the paper in their lives. If this rings true with you, read on for some tips on how to begin to turn off the “paper faucet.”

Many people get far more paper coming in than they want or know what to do with, so the first step in managing paper is to reduce the amount that comes in. Start with your mail. Junk mail, which is still filling up many mailboxes and creating tons of waste and clutter, can be stopped, or at least reduced. Get your name off of junk mailing lists by going to the Direct Marketing Association’s web site at http://www.dmaconsumers.org/consumerassistance.html. Call your credit card company and tell them not to share your name or your information with third parties. Do the same with your magazine subscriptions, utilities, and other organizations that send you mail. Try to refrain from signing up for contests and other freebies, as these types of promotions frequently share names with junk mailers. The goal is to try and have your name and information in as few databases as possible – the fewer companies that have your name, the less junk mail you’ll find in your mailbox.

Computers were supposed to solve the “paper problem” – or so we were led to believe. In reality, computers tend to generate far more paper than they conserve – the article you printed out, the emails you decided to make hard copies of, etc. I’ve found that many people that print out information from the internet and email do not really have a clear idea of why they are printing it out, other than that they are saving it “for later.” Nor do they have a specific place to put this printed information, so it tends to end up buried under a pile or hidden in a drawer “somewhere.” Here’s a handy guideline: print web pages or emails ONLY when you know exactly where and to who they are going – if you can’t answer those questions, then there’s no need to have a hard copy. Instead, create a system of bookmarks in your web browser, which will help you find the articles that you’d like to read or refer to later. You can create bookmarks by topic, by site, by date…whatever makes the most sense for your purposes. Likewise, as an alternative to printing out emails, create folders in your email program to store your old email messages, or offload them onto a CD or removable disk.

Trying just a couple of these simple ideas can dramatically reduce the amount of paper that you have to wrestle with. In time, your freely flowing “paper faucet” will be reduced to a trickle.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Controlling Your Closet


San Francisco living is great – many of us are fortunate to live in beautiful, historic buildings that are just bursting with character. Another thing that’s bursting is our closets. With more clothing and belongings than ever before, it can be a constant struggle to find places to put all our “stuff,” especially in closets that were designed twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years ago. Our lives, and our storage needs, are very different than our predecessors, yet if we want to live in San Francisco, we have to devise ways to shoehorn our belongings into closets that were designed for wardrobes from a bygone era. But how do you fit a modern wardrobe into a Victorian-era closet? I’ve got a few ideas for you.

The first step is to get rid of what you don’t need – that way, you can see exactly what you need to find storage space for. One of the best ways to do this is to take everything out of your closet, and start sorting it into piles. I like to recommend that my clients create piles for “Keep” (things you definitely wear), “Sell” (things that you can probably make money by selling at used clothing stores), “Donate” (things that are usable but that you probably can’t sell), “Trash” (things that nobody will want or be able to use), and finally a “Don’t Know” pile, for things you’re not sure what to do with. The “Keep,” “Sell,” “Donate,” and “Trash” piles are pretty straightforward, but what about the “Don’t Know” pile?

“Don’t Know” is for items that you like, but never wear or use. If you really can’t part with that $300 dress that you never wore, and you can’t bear to give up those soccer cleats for that league you were planning on joining two years ago, put those items into a box, and seal the box with tape. If you haven’t opened the box to use those items in six months, it’s time to sell, donate or trash those items, because chances are you won’t be using them anytime soon.

So how do you store everything that went into your “Keep” pile effectively in your tiny San Francisco closet? The key is to maximize every available inch of storage space in the closet. Look up, look down, look all around, and you’ll find that there just might be a lot more potential storage space in your closet than you originally may have thought. I’m often surprised at just how much storage space there can be in a closet – you just have to be creative about how you use it.

For instance, if your closet has only one rod, you can gain 50% more storage space by hanging another rod. Closet rods are available inexpensively at local hardware stores, and if you don’t want to install one permanently, you can get a removable secondary rod that hangs down off of your primary rod (I often suggest these to renters). No space in your room for a traditional dresser? Try some plastic, stackable drawers that you can use to fit in the floor space under where your clothes hang. I highly recommend the transparent or semi-transparent drawers rather than the opaque ones, because it’s very convenient to be able to see what’s in your drawers without having to actually open them up. If you have shelves above your closet rod, you can fold and stack sweaters and shirts, or use the space for transparent shoe boxes, which stack nicely. Don’t ignore the space behind the closet door, which can be a great spot for hanging a shoe rack, accessories organizer, or for installing a hook to hang long items such as coats and dresses.

So if your closet is currently on overflow, don’t despair. Use a few tips that I’ve suggested, and your closet will soon be your friend.