Week 6 – Home Office, Command Center, and Paper!
It’s Week 6 of the 2024 Clever Girl Organizing Challenge! It’s another big week here in The Challenge, so this is another MEATY e-mail! Take small bites to swallow, if necessary.
It’s time to address those piles, papers, and the supplies that go along with the administration of our homes (and, for some, our professional lives-happening-at-home). At the heart of this topic: Paper.
PAPER. Paper comes in our lives every day, and it’s easy to fall behind and get buried. It’s easy to lose sight of action items, bills to pay, important documents inside a sea of junk mail, coupons, catalogs, magazines, and so on. The papers that can come home from school in backpacks and bookbags are another influx of important information in a sea of unimportant papers.
Once the pile becomes large, and the pile becomes piles, people can dream of waving the white flag in surrender and tossing the whole thing in the fireplace. This week, we change that. You’re diving in, and you’re going to address those piles, and maybe even your deeper files. You’re taking back your counter space and your bins and baskets.
Keep in mind, this week may need a comprehensive approach. One session probably isn’t going to cut it. You might have to make a few spots on your calendar to work through all this and get it to a point you’re happy with at the end of the week. Make space to work, get your tunes ready, and remember that every bit of effort gets you closer to your goals. (Plus, next week, #Week7, is a Break Week, so perhaps you’ll use that as spillover time.)
Don’t forget the guidelines I’d love for you to keep in mind before you start your work:
1) Have the tools you need before you get started — trash bags, recycling, donate box, and “goes somewhere else” box (so you can set things aside and keep going, not be tempted to return things to a different space while you’re working). This week could also use a SHRED box or bag.
2) Keep taking those BEFORE and AFTER photos, either for your own ability to see your progress, to to share your accomplishments and encourage others in the Facebook Group.
PS – don’t forget to review the Products and Solutions pages for some inspiration!
THIS WEEK’S ASSIGNMENT
This week, we’re going to go through the paper in your house. It could be in piles, baskets, bins, drawers, boxes in closets… you know where your papers are stashed! We’re also going to go through your office supplies and the stuff you have stashed in what might be your home office / command center / home hub… wherever work gets done, or, wherever the stuff you use to get work done lives!
But first, the paper. First step in getting a handle on paper is really scrutinizing what you need to keep, and what you don’t. This may mean gathering piles from around your home, as well as going through your existing files, to rethink what you’re keeping, why you’re keeping it, and how long you need to keep it. This can certainly be an “it gets worse before it gets better” project. This multi-step process is geared towards helping you tackle whatever is in front of you.
Dealing with paper can be overwhelming for a lot of people. So often, I hear “I don’t know what to do with it“… which is often code for “I’m afraid I’m going to make the wrong choice, and get rid of something I wasn’t supposed to, and I’ll regret it.“
The fact is, we need to rely on paper so much less than ever before in life. That isn’t to say some of it isn’t important; it definitely is! But most of it can probably leave your life just as soon as it entered it. I want you to think about what has changed in your lifetime in regard to paper records. So much of what is important today is available electronically. This wasn’t the case when many of us began learning the guidelines about what to keep and how long to keep them. Credit card statement, bank statements, mortgage statements… these are all available online, and you can get them on the chance you actually need to refer to them after paying it.
The two questions to help you guide through the “I don’t know what to do with this” sticky moments are:
1) What is the situation that will come up that will require me to present this information again? This one really goes to NEED.
2) Can I get this again elsewhere if I didn’t have the paper? This one is about ACCESS.
When you can identify a need that tells you that keeping it is important, and a lack of access to replace it, it’s probably a “keep”. If you can’t really identify under what situation you’d need the paper, you might consider it a candidate for an exit. And if it’s something you know you could access online (even if it takes a little extra effort or even a financial cost to get it), you might consider it a candidate, as well.
You may decide you want to start with the loose, unfiled papers you have around your home, and THEN focus on the papers you have filed already. Or you may do it the other way around, thereby making room for filing once you’re done with the unfiled papers. There is no right answer. Just keep in mind you may need to do BOTH sets.
Review and start your sort paper in your piles, a handful at a time.
Set a goal in how you manage your time this week on this project, where you’re able to work through a specific pile in each sitting. this work can get boring, but getting in a zone over an hour or so can help you move through a lot of it. As you start sorting you’ll minimally have these categories, based on verbs:
- Act: This is the “ooh, I need to do something with this paper” trigger that comes when we go through piles. It could be something like a bill to pay, an invitation to respond to, a receipt you might be holding onto because you’re planning to return something, or even a piece of paper that isn’t an action itself, but it REMINDS you of the action (“Order more of this thing“). Keep your ACT papers in a new pile so you can focus on them appropriately.
- Keep/No Action: The papers you *know* you need to hold onto for short or long term filing, but no further immediate action is required. This could be functional paper (documents, bills, ID, etc.) or memorabilia paper (certificates, greeting cards, etc.) (IF YOU WANT TO START SORTING THESE INTO FINER CATEGORIES ALREADY, THAT’S FINE! Otherwise, set aside for the second “KEEP” sort, below)
- Recycle: There are going to be pages you come across that you will know instantly (or with a little review) that you don’t need to keep, and you can put them in a recycling bag or pile right after touching it
- Shred: You don’t need it anymore, but it has Personal Identifying Information (PII) like your Social Security number, complete information regarding financial account numbers, sensitive health information, etc.
Understand your KEEP categories so you can build a good system
When you know your KEEP categories, this will help inform your filing system or help you edit your existing files. It also helps you create how you should think about your future incoming paperwork for where and how long it will need to be stored. Your system will have 3 components as you create it:
1) Your first sort is for Major Category: Think things like “House”, “Car”, “Utilities”, “Financial Information”, “Career”, “Insurance”, “Health Information”, “Pets”, etc.
2) You may have a second sort, Minor Category: Subdivisions within Major Category. “House” may have subcategories like “Mortgage”, “Home Equity Line”, “Renovations”, “Furniture and Decor”, “Appliances”, “Vendors”, etc.
3) Finally, consider the Length of Storage. This guides how long you believe you need to keep information.
- Short term (maybe a month or so) – these things may not even get into a file, but need a way for you to know it’s time to toss.
- Midterm (up to a year). This might be (for you) bank statements, utility bills of particular importance, this year’s insurance policy, etc.
- Long term (Several years, for the life of an obligation). Mortgage information, credit card terms, auto loans, student loans, etc.
- Permanent (forever, like Identification, Marriage Certificates or Divorce Settlements, Adoption records, Tax Returns, etc.)
You might also use this week as an opportunity to organize and edit your office/school supplies. If there’s one thing I know for sure about being 2 years into a pandemic, what we all used to think was important in this category (for work or for school) has changed. Think about what your REAL needs are to hold onto, what you continue to make space for, and what you really need to have on hand for at-your-fingertips needs.
Some examples: Printer paper, notebooks, stationery/greeting cards, pens, pencils, markers, staples, highlighters, staplers and staples, scissors, tape, glue, rubber bands, binder clips, paper clips, envelopes, sticky notes, etc.
You’re also going to spend time this week to address your work space — whether you’re working from home or it is an “Admin Hub” for you to get things done. Look at surfaces on your desks, shelves, and of course, any piles on the floor that have gathered in your work spaces. Oh, and take this week to take advantage of cleaning off bulletin boards/white boards/magnetic boards and notes you have hanging around in wherever your office or command center is!
1) Clean out and Edit several categories or spaces (for desktop, counters where piles gather, boxes or bins you have neglected paper in, desk drawers, command center area, etc.) – Prioritize the spaces that feel the most overwhelming and the ones you *know* deserve a real edit. Do one category at a time. Make sure you have the space to work AND the space to set aside things that aren’t going back in the same space (time for a relo?) or aren’t staying with you at all. Start one shelf at a time, one drawer at a time. Pace yourself!
2) Wipe Down or wash out surfaces as necessary – These spots can get dusty, so just stay on top of giving it a nice wipe down or whatever the space needs.
3) Consider the Organization of Keepers – Where things go doesn’t have to be where things have been! Are there different ways to set up your system that better serve who you are today? Is your prime real estate — what really needs to live on a desktop or counter or on a bulletin board for easy/immediate access?
4) Create Exits for what’s going – This week probably has a fair amount of recycling and shredding! Make a plan for how that shredding is going to happen! Spring (March, April May) is a heavy season for free shredding days because of tax time. BTW – #LOCAL Melrose people — May 18th is a DPW Free Shred Day)
MINI-CHALLENGE THIS WEEK:
Can’t quite take on this week’s full assignment? You might not have the time, energy, or need. That’s okay! Try to set up at least two 30-minute sessions where you can focus on a critical area in this space or category. Set a timer, stay focused, and see what you can accomplish in less time than it would take to watch a sitcom!
PICK AT LEAST TWO:
Clean off the bulletin board, dry erase board, and other “command center” spots you’re using and make sure all the info is up-to-date and RELEVANT
Deal with the ALL on-the-surface paper piles in your house, triage for ACT/ KEEP/ RECYCLE/ SHRED
Deal with the papers stored in bins, boxes, and filing cabinets
Go through your office/school supplies to organize/tidy what you have, and let go of obvious “we don’t need these” or “We don’t need this many” categories
RETURNING CHALLENGERS FOCUS:
If you’re a Returning Challenger, or if your a First timer looking to go deeper: If you’re ready for a deeper exploration, think about a few different areas maybe you haven’t explored before:
If you are someone who has been focusing in the past on functional papers, consider going deeper into those other types of paper — Sentimental/Memorabilia (yours, your kids’, your parents’, etc.) or that “I might want to read this some day” resources you haven’t gotten back around to.
If you have been ADDING to your files/filing cabinet, but not EDITING/DELETING from your file cabinets, it’s time to review what you’re keeping and why
If you’ve been promising to yourself that “someday, I’ll scan all this stuff“, is that now? Can you get that plan started?
What about those other papers… your old greeting cards, letters, kid’s artwork… you know… THOSE papers?
STUFF TO KNOW:
You may ask “how long should I keep things?”, especially tax info. I don’t give advice on that as people’s tax situations are different, so I definitely encourage you to ask your tax preparer who knows your situation. For instance, there’s this sense out there that you’re supposed to keep tax return info for seven years. There is actually no IRS guidance or rule that says that, but it’s a common belief with no backing to it. For instance, IRS.gov says: “Generally, the IRS can include returns filed within the last three years in an audit. If we identify a substantial error, we may add additional years. We usually don’t go back more than the last six years. The IRS tries to audit tax returns as soon as possible after they are filed.”
WHY IS THIS SO HARD?
Paperwork, either in paper or digital form, is a necessity in life. There’s little getting around that. However, the answers to the “keep” questions – what do we keep, why do we keep it, how do we keep it, and for how long do we keep it – are very different today than it was in the 20th century. With the common technology in our lives today, email, electronic banking, scanners, and online accounts, the many ways we can access information today mean all of those “keep” questions may deserve new answers.
Paperwork is also one of the biggest complaints that professional organizers hear about when we speak with people about what isn’t working in their home, or what drives them crazy. Here are some of the top problems I hear about when they’re complaining about paper:
- You can’t find what you need, when you need it.
- You are incurring late fees and penalties from unpaid bills because you didn’t keep track of the paper or the task.
- You miss important dates or opportunities because you’ve lost track of your paper.
- You have run out of space for how much paper you can save.
- Your management of paperwork is creating stress for your relationship or career.
When these problems exist, it can be a call to action that it is time to edit down your piles of paperwork and change your paper processing system. Again, some barriers arrive, just in time to stop you in your tracks:
Future Fear: “But what if I need this someday?” is the most common barrier when it comes to paperwork and files. We imagine that someday we might need something and that this is the only source for it.
Sentimentality: “These are all my old birthday cards/ school papers/ report cards/ kids’ artwork” and so on. The collection of papers serves only to represent or document our past.
Want to Dispose of Safely or Smartly: “Does this need to be shredded?
Purposeless Practicality: “This coupon is still good” or “I might want to look into this someday.”
All of these are surmountable barriers, and you can tame or even conquer each one as you face them. It may require a closer look at your specific “why” when it comes to holding onto different categories of paper. Here are a few examples:
Some people keep paper because they don’t trust institutions. They believe that if they let go of a piece of paper and a company comes back to them and says they owe money or didn’t do something they were supposed to do, they can’t prove it isn’t true.
The truth is very rarely do those “what if?” events come up, and certainly not in proportion to the amount of paper people still hold. The problem situation exists when someone’s instinct tends to be, “I’d rather hold onto 1,000 pieces of paper, if it justifies that I had the one that I needed in the pile,” and paper takes over the house.
Some people keep paper because they fear being audited, when someone proclaims that you must provide evidence that you didn’t do anything wrong. They will keep everything, even if it’s not tax-related, out of fear that EVERY piece of paper that has to do with money that was spent is critical. Again, if someone is saving items from an overabundance of fear, and papers that aren’t even helpful for an audit, it can be a problem. Sitting with a tax accountant to review the situation can help dissect irrational fear from a smart and safe plan.
Sometimes, people keep paper because it helps them be a resource of information, either because they want to be helpful, or maybe because they want to be proven right and think of paper as evidence. They keep things to get their hands on it “just in case” they want to refer to it again if a topic comes up. Their personal library is there to tap into if they ever need it again, or because they think they should or might want to read it someday! These kinds of papers include recipe files, home improvement ideas, workout plans, medical advice, magazine articles, appliance manuals, etc.
Many keep paper because it genuinely comforts them to see the life they have lived. It is more of a museum than a functional system. It may even be hyper-organized, and they can tell you everything about it. It is a badge of honor for them.
Finally, some people keep paper because they believe every scrap of paper is equally important to the next, and all are of critical importance. This knocks on the door of hoarding behavior, and if you think it might apply to you and want more insight, let’s talk.
Whatever you discover as YOU are going through your papers is something to help you keep in mind to keep paper at bay before it even gets into your piles or filing systems! When you dive in, it’s bound to be stressful, overwhelming, and it will get worse before it gets better. Just keep in mind the key questions we’re always asking ourselves in this Challenge:
What is the real role these items play in my life today, and in my foreseeable future? Why am I valuing these items as more important than the other things I’ve been working hard on all this time, struggling with storage space, cleaning, maintenance of spaces? What am I gaining TODAY by keeping these items?
Remember: You’re here because you made a choice to bring your head, heart, and body all in the same direction: to let go of things and have smoother systems in your home. If it was easy, you’d be done by now.
I have a secret: I don’t keep a lot of paper. You could probably pile all the paper I keep in a given year to a stack no more than an inch high, not including my tax returns. But what that also means is I don’t have a strong need to do any filing more than once a year, and this is my time!
But if that’s not where you are, I’m inviting you this week to think about the paper you’re holding onto and why… I look forward to exploring this with you in the Facebook Group this week!
Kathy (aka Clever Girl)
SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE
Week 1 – Jan 8: Kitchen: Food – Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer
Week 2 – Jan 15: Kitchen/Dining: What we use to prep, cook, serve, eat, store & clean!
Week 3 – Jan 22: Bath and Bed: Medicines, Toiletries, Cosmetics, Personal Items, etc.
Week 4 – Jan 29: BREAK – take a break, catch up, or sneak ahead
Week 5 – Feb 5: Clothes, shoes, accessories
Week 6 – Feb 12: Home Office/Papers
Week 7 – Feb 19: BREAK – take a break, catch up, or sneak ahead
Week 8 – Feb 26: Living / Family Room spaces
Week 9 – Mar 4: Memorabilia
Week 10 – Mar 11: Hobbies / Arts and Crafts / Sporting Goods
Week 11 – Mar 18: Kid stuff / Holiday Decor / Pet stuff / Other Clutter Traps!