Archive for the ‘Paper Organizing’ Category

Paper you can toss (or shred) today without fear

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Even if you do everything on your smart phone, paper is still a fact of life, as is identity theft. Knowing what paper is safe to toss is not only a good habit, it will help minimize your chances of being a victim of identity fraud and make it easier for you to know just what to keep (e.g., for tax purposes) for when you want to get organized.

TIP: If you don’t have a shredder, use a black marker to hide any confidential information on documents that contain an account number, medical record number or social security number before you toss. Items that may include this information are noted below with the word shred.

TIP: Be sure you keep and regularly empty a recycling bin in the area where you do your paperwork.

 *These are general recommendations for household paper. If you own a business or have extenuating circumstances, such as you owe back-taxes, consult with your tax preparer or consult an attorney about your specific situation.

 What to toss…

Pages you’ve printed off the Internet that don’t contain anything about you personally

Online account information you can easily find on the Internet

Brochures, flyers or marketing material for events or products that don’t interest you anymore

Outer envelopes of mail you’ve received, even if it has your address.

Paid bills after one year if you are not claiming them on your taxes (shred).

Business cards for people or companies you would never do business with or meet for coffee.

Loan documents when your loan has been sold or paid off (shred).

Closed bank account statements and checks (shred).

Greeting cards from people you don’t like or remember (Recycle)

Your child’s scribbles and instead curate and take photos of your favorite artwork and rotate their latest creation as part of your “collection.”

Investment statements, excepting your year-end statement and any records of trades (shred).

Bank statements after one year unless they contain expenses you’ve claimed on your taxes (shred).

Prescription receipts unless you claim them on your taxes (shred).

Credit card statements after one year unless they contain expenses you claim on your taxes (shred).

ATM and store receipts more than 30 days old.

Paycheck stubs more after one year. Keep your W2 and tax return instead (shred).

Copyright: Lis McKinley, 2017


Lis McKinley, M.A., is the owner of LET’S MAKE ROOM based in Oakland, California. She is a Certified Professional Organizer and Move Manager specializing in helping homeowners and other residential clients get organized to move, remodel or simply enjoy their homes more with less of what they don’t need.

3 hogs taking up space in your home (and they’re not your family)

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Are you moving, getting ready for a remodel or simply want more room in your home with less clutter? Here are three common space hogs and what you can do about them.

  1. Other people’s stuff. Did you agree to store things for your kids, relatives or friends for a few months but now those months have become years? Tell your kids or your Aunt Sadie you are moving or remodeling (even if you aren’t) and kindly ask them to arrange to get their items since you will need the space yourself. Set a firm deadline – a month is reasonable in most cases – and ask for their permission to sell or donate them — at your discretion — by a certain date if they don’t respond by that date.  That way you’ve done your due-diligence.

  2. Boxes from your last move (and likely the one before) that never got unpacked. Remember those boxes? I’m guessing you don’t but apparently they were so important that you bothered to move them at all. Chances are they contain one of the following:  Old papers, memorabilia, holiday supplies, stuff belonging to your parents (or kids)  that you just couldn’t face, or all those items that you don’t use but couldn’t throw away at the time.

    If you are moving, are you really going to pay to have those boxes moved again?!

    Here’s what to do about them starting with old papers: Unless you ran a small business, and they contain your tax records for the past seven years, get rid of them. Arrange to have a local shredding company pick them up  or take them there yourself but don’t waste your time shredding them. Memorabilia: We keep memories for just this moment. No one else cares about these memories except you. If you want to leave a legacy for your children, don’t make it those boxes that have gathered dust in your garage or attic. Holiday supplies: Unless you used them last year, donate them to a charity that accepts art supplies. Stuff that belonged to your parents (or kids) that you coudn’t face: Refer to #1 above.

  3. Magazines and old mail.  There are certain magazines I love to read but once I’ve read them, they get recycled. Except in rare cases such as vintage out-of-print magazines, most collectors and charities don’t take old magazines.  If you want to get rid of them, gather them up in small book boxes (so you can lift them) and carry them to your home’s recycling area. Most municipal recyclers won’t charge for paper recycling.  As for old mail, you have three options: 1) pay to have it all shred. Depending upon how much you have, this could be costly but it will be the most timesaving approach and insure your identity will be safe.  2) Have a sorting party. Invite two or more people to help you sort your piles into keep, shred or toss. Keep includes “vital records” such as original birth and death certificates or personal memories that can’t easily be replaced. Shred includes any document, opened or not, from a banking or financial institution if it’s not obvious junk mail. Don’t waste time opening them if you’re not sure. Toss is everything else. 3) Hire a professional organizer or productivity specialist that specializes in residential or home office organizing. They can advise you about what to keep and help you sort and dispose of your unwanted paper safely.

What to do with your stuff when later becomes now

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When it comes to the stuff in our homes, I believe a  continuum exists between two points  –  keep everything and save nothing. Most people fall somewhere in between.  Yes, there are extremes at both ends – those with a tendency to acquire an excessive amount and those with an equally extreme tendency to rid themselves of anything of value, sentimental or otherwise. But for most people, myself included, we all have sentimental attachments.

The other day I was wandering through my home and thinking about what I absolutely had to keep if I ever had to make the choice. As a professional organizer, it’s an exercise I practice regularly as a way to empathize with my clients.

It turned out the things I really felt strongly about were the items I have the most sentimental attachment to.  None of it was furniture, thankfully.  Mostly letters from my parents and close friends that could never be replaced. Photographs (the paper kind) from my childhood and “keepsakes” that I don’t need but that don’t take up much space either. I also have some written work that would be difficult to replace unless I took the time to scan it and for me, that’s not worth my time.

My husband has a box of important stuff related to his daughter, my step-daughter. And of course, I have a small  “treasure box” of memorabilia from our life together.

The only time I know I would go through this stuff is if I were moving or downsizing. Otherwise it stays hidden, for the most part.   But what does it mean not to have these things? Would it feel like my life had ended? What happens when you keep things with the intention of looking at them later and then find later is now?

Even if it comes unexpectedly, now should be when you get to re-read the letters, sort through the photos, recall the memories and maybe even tell the stories.  But now is often competing with time itself. The house has to be sold. The move has to happen. The remodel is about to start.  Sometimes, sadly, the owner of these things is no longer around for the task.

As an organizer, this is the most poignant part of my work; When I realize the meaning of that photo, award or stuffed animal toy only exists because of the person who imparted that meaning.  When it belongs to someone else, you can impart your own meaning, but then you are left with the same dilemma: Keep it or let it go?

I find it’s useful to consider the truth of these questions when later suddenly becomes now.

  • Would my life really be over if I let these things go or would I just feel that way?
  • Is everything meaningful or could I pick out just the things that are most important to me?
  • By keeping everything, am I placing a significant burden on my family to deal with later?
  • Am I keeping everything as an excuse to avoid creating new memories?
  • If this or that item should disappear would I miss it or attempt to replace it if I could?
  • Would taking a picture of it allow me to let it go if I had to?
  • Is there anyone who I know for certain who would want it (be careful with this one since you don’t want to obligate someone to take something they really don’t want).
  • Do I really love it or am I keeping it to satisfy someone else’s (perceived) need – such as when you keep it not because you like it but because it was a gift from someone you care about.

Life is like walking through a wonderful art museum. You get to admire and spend a little time with the art work that resonates the most with you. You may even be able to take pictures or buy postcards. But at the end of the day, you don’t get to keep what you saw. You do however get to remember how you felt.

3 Short Answers to Solve Your Office Organizing Problem

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Editor’s Note: This is an introduction to the system I created to help people who struggle with too much paper. White desktop computer on Tidy Desk

Believe it or not, there are only three kinds of paper.

It doesn’t matter if it’s your first novel, your 2009 taxes or a bubble gum wrapper. The key to organizing paper is to remember these three types and know the difference between them. They are:

Paper you Act on

Paper you Contain

Paper you Toss.

Most people get stuck in paper clutter for three reasons.

  1. They don’t have a system for organizing and managing it
  2. They are afraid of accidentally tossing something important so they hold on to it “just in case.”
  3. They hold on to it with the intention of doing something with it “someday” but never do.

Unless you take some kind of comfort from having a lot of paper around you, I’m going to assume you would prefer to have less.

The ACT system is actually quite simple. It just takes a little practice. The key to it is remembering that the goal of the system is to minimize the amount of paper you actually keep. If that’s not your goal, then consider what value all that paper has in your life now?

The ACT system is an acronym for Action, Contain, Toss.

Paper you act on is either a task or a project that’s worth your time to complete.

Paper you contain will likely be referred to again, or you are required to keep. (Everything else is optional!)

Paper that has no value to you should be tossed or safely disposed of.

Here’s how to use the ACT system to organize your paper:

For every piece of paper that comes across your desk, whether it be a business card, a magazine, a contract, a pad of paper, an invitation, notes to yourself, etc., you should ask yourself these three questions in successive order:

  1. Is there an IMPORTANT Action I need to take with this piece of paper that is worth my time? (Reading and filing don’t count.)  If your answer is no, then before you toss it, ask the next question:
  1. Is it LIKELY I will need to refer back to this piece of paper again and would it be difficult to find it elsewhere? If yes keep and Contain it. Otherwise, go on to the next question:
  1. Does it display any personal or confidential information that I would not want others to see? If not, then you can Toss it.  Otherwise shred it.

The key to taming your paper monster is making the ACT system a regular habit.

  • Spend a few minutes each week sorting your incoming paper, mail and other documents according to the ACT system
  • Take action on those tasks and projects that you decide are worth your time
  • Contain only what you are likely to refer to again and can’t find elsewhere
  • Minimize the amount of paper you keep – what may have been important last year may not be now. It’s okay to let it go.
  • Maximize the amount of paper you toss – and protect your identity as you go. If you’re not sure, ask a professional.
  • Make peace with your paper piles by incorporating desktop containers, files and other organizing products that fit your own personality and style.

For more help on how to get organized at home, call us to schedule a visit.


1 word to help you organize your paper and get more done

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Paper clutter. It’s like death and taxes. We all experience it but no one seems to know what to do about it.

First, the bad news. Despite all the hype about how we’re all going to be paperless in the 21st century, the reality is paper is not going away anytime soon.Leaning-stack-of-papers-and-files

Here’s the good news. Most of what you keep, buried in your file cabinets or piled on your desk, you can probably toss. The challenge is knowing exactly what paper that is. In general the conventional wisdom states: keep the paper that would be difficult to replace if you lost it or if it’s likely you will need or want to refer to again. Everything else is optional.

If you still feel stuck,  I’ve created a little memory device to help you manage and organize your paper so you can more easily find what you need when you need it and feel less stressed or fearful of overlooking – or tossing –  something important.

Just remember the word ACT.

It’s actually an acronym for the guiding principle I use when working with clients overwhelmed by their paper piles.  Here’s what it means:

All paper, no matter what it is —  the bill from your plumber, last weeks newspaper, a grocery receipt, your Will — falls into only one of three categories: paper you act on, paper you contain, or paper you tossAction. Contain. Toss.  ACT for short.  So what does this mean?

  1. ACTION: These are documents that prompt you to do something that’s worth your time and adds value to your life or protects you from consequence. It’s the paper that you decide is worth your time to attend to. Examples are bills to pay, checks to deposit,  invitations to respond to, applications to complete, contracts to send, receipts to total for tax purposes,  a document you need to discuss with someone.  If there is no action needed then it falls into one of the next two categories. Contain or Toss.
  2. CONTAIN: These are documents you keep because you believe it’s likely you will read them, need to access them sooner or later or because they can’t be easily replaced. These can be anything from a business contract to a love letter.  It includes all of the following:
    • Assets such as property, stock certificates, receipts for high value items you own
    • Liabilities such as bills you owe or your tax returns and supporting documents
    • Insurance documents for your home, auto, other property you own or for you or your family’s health

Other than these you may also choose to keep the following but they are optional:

  • Sentiments such as love letters, family photos, your children’s artwork or your 3rd grade report card
  • Reading material such as current magazines, newsletters or books.
  • Personal papers that are unique to you such as your lab results, articles about you or something you’ve written longhand

Everything else, TOSS. Be sure you safely toss or shred anything that has private or confidential information such as your social security number or an account number. The rest recycle: Examples include, empty envelopes, junk mail, old magazines and catalogs, expired coupons and anything not included in the first two categories.

The nice thing about this simple system is that you can organize your paper according to this same principle.

Paper you ACT on should be right where you can see it. In a tray or vertical file holder on your desk.  This is especially true for paper bills.  Keep your bills separate and visible. If you have paper that ‘s related to a larger project, such as an “Idea Book” for your kitchen remodel, keep that somewhere handy for quick reference.

Incoming paper such as mail should go into an “in-box” or tray big enough to hold it and small enough to remind you it’s time to look at it.

Paper you CONTAIN lives in different places depending upon how frequently you will need to access it – right away, sooner or later or rarely.  Keep your “right away paper” such as frequently called numbers, a coupon you want to use that expires soon or a blank note pad on your desk or in your top desk drawer.

Paper you need to refer to “sooner or later” such as recently paid bills or records of your insurance from the current year, should be kept in a nearby file drawer or rolling file cabinet if you prefer. Most of this paper will eventually get tossed so don’t bother scanning it. Condense it as much as possible into the categories mentioned above: Assets, Liabilities, Insurance, Sentiments, Reading, Personal.

Paper you need to keep but “rarely” refer to can be kept accessible but doesn’t have to be within arms reach.  This could be in a file box in your closet or even in another storage area of your home.

Finally, paper you toss should, be, well… tossed.

Keep at least one receptacle or trash can nearby for your recycled paper. Be careful to safely toss or shred any paper containing confidential information such as your social security number or an account number.  If you have a lot of paper to shred, put it in a box for destruction and take it to a local shredding company. Alternately use an ink stamp to black out your confidential information. Then just toss.

That’s it. ACT – Act, Contain, Toss. Apply it to every piece of paper you pick up and you will never be overwhelmed by paper again.








Confronting our monsters

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At 8:00 this morning, I had my own private celebration. It took place in my head.

An hour earlier I was driving and thinking about how terrifying it must be for some of my clients to do the one thing that scares them the most; To finally confront what’s kept them from moving forward in their lives because they feel overwhelmed and stuck and it’s showing up as piles of papers, boxes and who knows what else, on their desks, on the floor, in their drawers, everywhere.

I was thinking about what it means to do the one thing that scares you the most and to have the courage to do it anyway because you know you have to. Because you know not doing so will have far greater consequences.

For people who are chronically disorganized, the consequence of not facing their fears can be enormous.  For some it’s a loss of control over their lives. For others, it’s isolation. I know people who have lost their children, their spouses and their very security because of their inability to face their fears head on.  I also know people who have shown great courage and have discovered the meaning of making room in their lives.

My fears are about public speaking. And yet, as a small business person I know the value it brings to others in the form of information and sometimes even inspiration. But I do it quite frankly because I have to. Working with people in their homes and in their offices or helping them move is tactical but it’s also very personal. I know that if people see me and feel I am someone they can trust, and recognize I  have the expertise to help them, then they often will remember me when it comes time to organize their offices, or their bedrooms or help them plan and oversee their move to a new home.

The Paper MonsterThis is what I was thinking at seven o’clock this morning, on my way to speak to a group of fifty small business owners and entrepreneurs about how to face their fears, specifically about how to confront their own Paper Monsters.  I did this presentation a few weeks earlier and it had not lived up to my expectations  – perfectionism, my monster, rearing it’s ugly head, yet again –  and now I was getting ready to face him again.  Was I scared? Petrified, which is why at that moment I started thinking about my clients.

“If  they can have the courage to hire me, then I can damn well find the courage to face my fears as well, ” I thought.  And so I did. And it went fine. It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. And that’s good enough. But to be honest, I’m glad it’s over. At least for today I can celebrate.

Tomorrow, I do it again.

Are You A Hider or A Piler?

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Is your stuff – paper, possessions, or supplies – out in the open where you can see it?
Do you forget, ignore or lose what you can’t see?
For you, is out of sight is out of mind?’

On the other hand do you prefer to have everything you own tucked away  – in a drawer, cabinet, or closet?
Do you feel unsettled, anxious or out-of-control when things are not stored, stowed or put away?
Do people always remark at how tidy your home looks?

If the first example sounds more like you, consider yourself a Piler.  On the other hand, if the second example resonates more strongly with you, you are probably a Hider.

The terms Hider and Piler represent two types on an organizing continuum. Generally people fall somewhere along the continuum preferring one kind of organizing habit over another. These are not absolutes. Understanding your – and others – preferred type can help you learn ways to be and stay organized as well as to help you better understand the habits of others. For couples, its common for one partner to be a Hider and the other a Piler. Understanding your partner’s style and how they think about organizing will help keep the peace at home.

The most important thing to know is that both Hiders and Pilers can be equally organized or disorganized.

Take a look at the pictures below:

The column on the left represents two versions of a Piler organizing style: An organized Piler, as represented by the store that sells beads and other jewelry making s

upplies and a disorganized Piler  as illustrated by the photo of the cluttered office.

The column on the right represents two versions of a Hider organizing stye – an organized Hider as  represented by the physician’s examination room and a disorganized Hider as exemplified by the cluttered drawer.

Organizing styles can be dictated by function – such as the need for safe and sanitary conditions as in a doctor’s office or the need for customers to find what they are looking for quickly and easily as in the bead store example. For most people, however, organizing styles emerge from our individual personalities, learned habits or in some cases, physical or emotional conditions.

It’s helpful to think of Hider and Piler as preferences, rather than extremes, with most people falling somewhere between them but leaning towards one or another at varying degrees.

While I have not conducted a scientific study about organizing preferences, in my experience as a professional organizer, I have found that Hiders and Pilers also share some other characteristics.

For example, Pilers, because they like items out where they can seem them, may not benefit as much from conventional organizing methods.  An example of this is a standard two-drawer file cabinet.  A better solution for a Piler is an open file drawer on wheels that allows them to see and file their papers and then stow them away as needed.

Many of my clients who I would consider Pilers are artists, creative types or visual learners. They are stimulated by various forms of color, design, objects, and words. A Piler who does not feel comfortable expressing himself in a particular environment may find substitutes for filling the space in other ways.

An example of this are artists who earn income in an office setting. To compensate for the design of a standard office cubicle – with things like closed, overhead bins – artists and other Pilers often fill their surfaces with paper, piles or other bulky supplies. When I notice a client doing this, once we’ve worked together on organizing the paper,  I often recommend they find objects, artwork or photographs to fill the space (in lieu of the paper) that inspire them.

Conversely, a Hider may feel torn between her need for order and the desire to consume, purchase or own items of perceived value.  From the outside, everything looks fine, even beautiful. Until you open a drawer, cabinet or closet.  Then suddenly everything spills out in a jumble.   This is what I call the “Jack-in-the-box” phenomenon.

Typically hiders call me when their clutter starts creeping out from the drawers, cabinets and closets because they’ve run out of room.  I often recommend to Hiders that they examine their beliefs about what they value so that they can begin to edit down what they have.  I also remind them that storage areas are valuable ‘real estate.’ If they want to cut down on the clutter-creep they are either going to have to maximize the real estate, through editing, or else be at risk of spending more to house thier stuff. The worst case scenario is when people buy bigger homes or invest in expensive storage units to accommodate items they don’t use, want or need.

A hider can also lean towards the other extreme, purging themselves of all but the minimum necessities, sometimes prematurely, maintaining a tidy space albeit a bit sterile or overly staged.

In the fall I will be conducting an online seminar about Hiders and Pilers. If you are interested or want more information, email me at


4 Steps to Plow Through Those Paper Piles

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Paper. No matter how much we hear about going paperless, it’s still a fact of life that paper in every form whether it be junk mail, supermarket coupons, business cards, magazine clippings, bills or receipts will continue to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

There are really only four ways you can manage the inflow of paper:

1. Stop it before it starts
2. Determine if you must act on it
3. Determine if you must or need to hold on to it (or really want to)
4. Toss it

Stopping it before it starts. This is akin to the prevention approach. Depending upon the type of paper you have, you may want to consider some of the following approaches
Get off mailing lists. Contact the Direct Marketing Association at
Stop printing website pages from the Internet. Of if you must, only print those that are associated with a task or action you plan to take.
Don’t take what you don’t need. Just because they hand it to you doesn’t mean you keep it. If your local supermarket hands you a coupon at the register, unless it’s an item you know you will buy don’t keep it and ask the cashier to dispose of it.
Be a business card snob. Only take business cards for those people and organizations that you probably (not maybe) would do business with. If someone hands you their card that you know you will never refer to, politely decline by saying, “I know how valuable these are to you, please share it with someone who can benefit from your expertise.” Or a more direct approach, “Thank you for offering but in my effort to go paperless, please save this for someone else.”
Stop clipping magazine and newspaper articles. Seriously, when was the last time you actually looked in that file and did something with that article? When you clip an article you are actually contracting for your own time. What is your time worth? With everything else you have to do, are you really going to make this recipe? Are you really going to going to invest in a marble countertop? It’s great to keep a single file or box of images that inspire you, but rather than keep every picture related to the hobby you think you plan to do “some day” – use the time instead to focus on ways you can actually do that hobby today!

For all other pieces of paper, you should ask yourself, “Is there a necessary action I need to take with this?” If so, then take the action and dispose of it or file it if you’ve been advised to when you’re done.

If there is no necessary action associated with that piece of paper, then you should be keeping it for one of the following reasons only:
1. You have been advised to by a financial professional. Examples would be your tax return or record of business expenses.
2. It would be difficult to replace such as a passport, birth certificate or deed.
3. It’s a record of where your money comes from and goes to such as an unpaid bill or a recent investment statement.
4. You know you will reference it again and probably more than once such as frequently called numbers, vendor information or mailing labels.
5. It has strong emotional value such as a cherished photograph or sentiment from a loved one AND would be dearly missed if lost.

Whatever is left over, according to to the National Association of Professional Organizers, there is an 80 percent chance you will probably never refer to it again except when you decide it’s time to purge your files.

This is the very definition of paper clutter. You keep it but it serves no purpose for you. If this is the case for you then ask yourself, “If this piece of paper were to disappear, what would it cost me in terms of lost time, money or information?” If the answer is nothing or probably nothing, then it’s time for the shred or recycle bin.

For more practical tips on organizing your life at home or at work, subscribe to Back On Track, the e-guide to organizing living from LET’S MAKE ROOM.