July 14, 2002

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10 solutions for taming the paper tiger

By Lisa Skolnik
Published July 14, 2002

We live in homes filled with paper--financial records, bills, receipts and warranties we have to keep and cards, letters, photos and memorabilia we want to keep. And every day there is more mail, more magazines, more stuff.

Given this paper flow, it's easy to see how things pile up and become impossible to find when you want them. But "piles aren't really the problem," says Harriet Schechter, organizing expert and on-line advice columnist. "There's nothing wrong with having them, as long as they're piles with purpose. You should know where things are and be able to reach anything you need in less than 30 seconds."

Anyone can "take a desk that looks like a toxic waste dump and transform it into something that looks like the deck of an aircraft carrier," contends Jeffrey Mayer, Chicago-based business growth strategist and author of the e-book "Winning the Fight Between You and Your Desk" (available at www.succeedinginbusiness.com).

No prescribed method works for everyone, and it's always "an incredibly overwhelming job," notes Julie Morgenstern, author of "Organizing From the Inside Out" and head of Task Masters, a Manhattan consulting firm. Every organizing expert has an ingenious system, but there are a number of universals that apply to us all.

First of all, the things we used to keep for reference are no longer relevant, thanks to the search engines on our computers, says Mayer.

Also, according to Schechter, anything on paper falls into two categories: records and resources. In both cases, "People keep all this stuff, but if they really knew the guidelines for record-keeping or thought about it, they wouldn't," she maintains. (These guidelines are delineated in her book or available for free from the IRS.) Research shows that we only use 20 percent of what we file, says Morgenstern.

If you want to take a stab at getting organized, here are some tips distilled from these experts to help you get your papers in shape and keep them that way.

1. Schedule an appointment with yourself: "Commit a block of time to the job or it won't get done. That means no interruptions of any kind, even the phone," cautions Mayer. Estimate how long it will take, and schedule your sessions in blocks of time to keep yourself moving forward, notes Morgenstern. For example, if you know something will take a lot of hours, break it down on a daily basis and stick to the sessions you've scheduled.

2. Be realistic about how long it will take: "If you don't allow enough time, you'll get frustrated and abandon the project," warns Morgenstern. She estimates that to organize papers, you'll need two to four hours per file drawer; one whole day for household papers; and three solid days to do an entire office.

3. Don't dive in: "Resist the knee-jerk impulse to attack and start throwing things out," says Morgenstern. Instead, step back, survey everything, strategize and analyze. "Envision what your system should look like when it's done," she says.

4. Give everything a quick once-over: Before committing to a system, Mayer suggests going through every single piece of paper you have--including scraps--with a wastebasket, a pad of paper and a stack of plain manila files at hand. If a piece of paper contains information about something to do or attend, jot it down, then toss the paper. If you need to keep something, put it in a file folder, grouping similar things together. Throw everything else out. You're left with a master list of what you need to do, and folders to file as is or work into a system.

5. Computerize your lists: Put your master to-do list on the computer, as well as all your contacts. Any contact-management program will work, and be much easier and faster to maintain than handwritten ones, says Mayer.

6. Categorize: Group the papers or files that are left into broad categories, then use those categories to determine a structure for your filing system. "The files you use most often should be most accessible and easily identifiable," says Schechter. Morgenstern notes that your papers will fall into three to five broad categories, such as family, financial, household or work. It's most helpful to color-code these files and get away from the A-Z system, which actually separates documents.

7. Use the right tools and keep them close at hand: For instance, "we tend to respect labels that are neatly written instead of scrawled, so get a label maker for your files," suggests Morgenstern. Or heed Schechter's advice that "your wastebaskets are like babies. Always keep them close, feed them frequently and change them often."

8. Process mail immediately: Schechter's mantra is "from mail to pail." Don't even sit down. Stand next to the wastebasket, immediately discard all junk mail--especially anything stamped "urgent"--use a quick-slit letter opener on what's left and categorize into your paper-flow system, Schechter advises, adding that you should get rid of catalogs as quickly as possible.

9. Control the flow: Papers, projects and engagements never stop coming in, so always keep your systems going to control the flood, advises Schechter, who mentions three to use in tandem--a time-management system for obligations and deadlines; a paper-flow system that keeps active papers at hand (in trays, wall pockets or whatever works for you); and a filing system for papers you're not working on but need to refer to. Avoid a big general pile or file marked "urgent" or "pending." "You spend 15 minutes looking through them just to figure out what you have to do. Each tray or file should be one specific action," says Morgenstern.

10. Don't let it all fall apart: "You have to figure out how much time it takes you to do your paperwork, and build it into your day," Morgenstern says. Adds Schechter, "Weed file contents regularly and discard or archive inactive files to keep your system working smoothly."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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