Saturday, December 29, 2007

how to organize a pile of papers (and other stuff)

I cleaned off my fridge earlier today, and was left with a pile of photographs, papers and Christmas cards that I needed to put away. While I was at it, I also decided to tackle another pile of stuff that needed filing or organizing.

Check out this Facebook album for photographs which illustrate this entire post. You don't need to be a Facebook member to view the album.*

First I put everything on top of my kitchen table. Professional organizers call this a "staging area". Make sure you have a large, clear space to sort your stuff, or you'll get frustrated much more quickly.

Then (and this is the easiest part), sort everything into smaller piles of similar items.

WARNING: This is where most people stop. They sort their piles, and then - overwhelmed by the work involved in actually doing something with each pile - they simply re-pile everything and call it a day. Do yourself a favour, and move on to the next step in the process.

This part is infinitely more challenging: Take each individual pile and DEAL WTH IT. It will help if you have another large, clear surface on which to do the sub-sorting. (In my case, my (large and normally spotless) desk is just steps from my kitchen table. I live in a bachelor apartment, which sometimes has its advantages.)

My first pile of paper was a bunch of letter-sized paper that needed to be recycled - except that each page was printed on only one side, and so would be great to use for scrap paper in my printer when I'm running off rough drafts of documents.

Luckily I have a spot for this kind of thing - in a magazine box near my printer, where I also store plain white paper and a specialty paper I frequently use.

The second "pile" of stuff was actually just one page - a template I use when cutting out the business cards that I print myself. I have a guillotine paper cutter that gives a professional edge - but I need to know how much to cut off. This page got stored in the magazine box with the printer paper.

The third pile was actually a bunch of piles of stuff that simply needed to be filed away in my filing cabinet. I have places for all of it - I was just lazy about doing the actual filing.

My filing system isn't fancy. I have six deep drawers for files, and I use hanging file folders to keep things neat. Each drawer is sorted roughly by category, and within each drawer the files are organized alphabetically or by subject.

Another pile - of church bulletins - needed filing. I have a bad habit of carrying church bulletins home with me rather than leaving them behind at the church. Most of them are actually headed for the blue box.

Ah, Christmas cards. I actually save Christmas cards - on purpose. I reuse them in handmade cards that I sell for charity each Christmas season. I even encourage other people to give me their old cards.

Cards that I'm going to reuse get their fronts torn away from the backs - I only save the fronts. They go in a file folder in one of my filing cabinets.

Cards that I'm going to save because they have special notes in them go in a keepsake box. I also collect stamps for art projects; they go in another keepsake box. The keepsake boxes (as well as sewing and craft supplies) are kept in a large locker which also stores my t-shirts and sweaters, some shoes, and my yoga mats.

There was a small pile of stuff that belonged in my wallet. I wasn't going to clean out my wallet at this time, but as I went to put a Starbucks gift card in one of the credit card slots, I realized I had a bunch of used-up gift cards and expired membership cards.

It's a good thing I started sorting through my wallet - I also found an expired insurance card for my car. Oops!

The expired cards were cut up, and the rest were sorted and put in their proper slots.

My fridge is often a gallery space for drawings that I or my niece and nephew make. I have a file folder in one of my filing cabinets for small artwork like this.

Dad gave me a Sudoku calendar a year or two ago, and I usually tear off a few puzzles every month or so to stick in my date book or my car to solve when I have some time to kill. The Sudoku pad goes back where it came from, into one of the magazine boxes.

I had a bunch more stuff that needed filing, as well as some papers with phone numbers and other time-sensitive info that I usually put into a spiral-bound notebook that I carry with me everywhere. I date the pages as I write lists or staple scraps of paper into it. It's a great, centralized place to keep all those stray bits of information that I need.

I should have mentioned earlier that, when working on my piles, I chose the easiest ones first and left some of the most challenging (or time-consuming) ones for last. Receipts are the bane of my existence. I have to keep many of them to claim for business expenses on my income tax, and normally I try to keep on top of them so they don't pile up.

This year they've piled up. (Somewhat.)

I created four new piles: bank slips, and piles of receipts for October, November and December. These piles of receipts also have a home in one of my filing cabinets - categorized by month. Sometime before I do my income tax return I'll sift through them again and weed out the ones that I don't need.

I got two cameras for Christmas - one an inexpensive "accident reporting" kit, the other a more-expensive Kodak. I can't install on my computer the disc for the cheap one, so I need to ask the person who gave it to me what she would prefer I do with it (return it to the store where she bought it, give it away...?)

I tore down the box for the Kodak (it went in my blue box), and collected into one small plastic baggie all the pertinent bits and pieces that I'm keeping. I store electronic stuff like this in a basket on one of my shelves. The other camera got put in my "holding area," where I store stuff before returning it or donating it.

My biggest chore was sorting a bunch of photographs that I've had out all fall. Now that I have a digital camera, I can file these snapshots away. I have a bankers box where I keep all my photos, and it was actually less of a chore than I'd thought to quickly sort all the photos into their proper envelopes, labeling the ones that didn't yet have labels. The bankers box of photos is stored on another one of my shelves.

At the end of the job I had recyclables and garbage left over. I shred anything with my name and address on it, or anything to do with my finances.

My shelves are once again tidy, and ready for the next onslaught of paper clutter...

*Instructions for viewing the album on Facebook: Click on the first photograph to read the description of that photo. To proceed to the next photo in the series, simply click on the current photo, or click on "Next" in top right corner of the page.