Most people would rather have a root canal than organize their paper. I have yet to find anyone who likes to organize their paper clutter.
Bills, documents, notes on old legal pads, mysterious receipts, birthday cards from people you do and don’t remember, even something pleasurable such as photos of your family can feel like an insurmountable chore to organize.
Plowing through piles or bins of paper is different from other types of organizing. It requires a whole different set of decisions and brain skills and unlike organizing 3-dimensional objects such as your clothes or dishes, paper is often fraught with all kinds of meaning – most typically fear and anxiety and to a lesser degree, sentiment and confusion.
Paper doesn’t have the same qualities that other objects have in our lives. It’s not pretty or shiny or useful, except in its blank (note pads) or decorative (wrapping paper) form. Organizing paper won’t make it more possible for you to entertain, unless it’s covering your dining room table.
Face it, for most people, organizing paper is boring.
Complicating the process is age. The older we get, the harder it is to focus on the task of organizing paper. It takes all kinds of executive functioning skills that get harder as we age. It’s more than just a matter of know what to keep and what to toss.
The moment we look at our paper piles, our brains become Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. “I can’t think about it now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
Paper organizing requires careful review. You can look at a piece of clothing and know it’s a piece of clothing. With paper you have to study it. Is it a bill? A statement? An insurance policy? Is it something important? Do I need to act on it? Will I need it later?
With paper, you are already exhausted by the time you figure out what it is.
It’s no wonder that even in the age of going “paperless” we still have so much paper.
During my career as a professional organizer, move manager and now organizer coach, I have encountered virtually every type of paper and document that exists. I have also written extensively on the process of organizing your paper. But it doesn’t matter how well its sorted into tidy little piles. If you don’t or can’t make a decision about it, it probably won’t get put away.
Here’s the good news about paper organizing.
In most cases, if you never organize your paper, nothing really bad will happen. The sky won’t fall. You won’t go to jail. Your children won’t be hurt. You won’t get sick, at least not from the paper. Will it cost you? Maybe, if you forget to pay a bill, or don’t do your taxes or forget your daughter’s birthday (God forbid!). Even if you forget to pay your electricity bill, don’t worry, you’ll get another reminder, and another.
Would it be inconvenient or possibly stressful to forget to pay your electricity bill? Yes, but it’s not life threatening unless you are on life support and if so, organizing your paper is not going to be top of mind.
The worst part about paper clutter is that it’s often a reflection of our state of mind The more clutter, the more we realize we’re feeling confused, overwhelmed or neglectful. This creates more anxiety and confusion and the cycle repeats.
It’s better to have a system for managing your mail, paying your bills, filing important documents or knowing what you should shred to protect your identity. These are all habits and elements of life that make us feel calmer, lighter and in control of our lives. But if you don’t already have these habits, and are not inclined to learn them now, you can still feel less stressed about your paper clutter.
Here are some ways you can manage your guilt or alleviate your anxiety about your paper piles.
You know all those saved letters and greeting cards you’ve kept over the years? You’re not likely to ever look at them unless you’re moving or downsizing your home and probably not even then. If you never look at them again, it’s not a problem. Your adult children will have to at some point but that’s another story.
If you overlook a bill, you’ll get another. Don’t sweat it.
You don’t have to support every charity that keeps mailing you solicitations for donations. This is true especially if you have a limited income. Seniors are their favorite customers since they count on you forgetting that you donated last month or last year. When you get them in the mail, toss them.
If you feel strongly about supporting your favorite charity allocate no more than 1% of your total income and divide that up between your five favorite charities. Let’s say you earn $75,000 a year. 75,000 x 1% = 750. 750/5=150. Donate no more than $150 to your favorite charities.
If you didn’t order something from that catalog when you got it, you probably won’t. Recycle it.
Keep your family photos. Even if you never look at them. They don’t take up that much space.
If you have more than a grocery bags worth of documents to be shredded, take them to be shredded. It’s not worth your time to do it yourself.
Stop ripping up envelopes with your name and address – unless doing so gives you satisfaction. Your name and address are public information. An identity thief can’t hurt you with just your name and address.
If you see your complete social security number on anything, shred it!
Keep a bin near where you open your mail. That way all the junk can get tossed right away.
Empty your mailbox daily. A stuffed mailbox is a sign that something is wrong in your home.
The IRS will never call you. Open anything that comes from them.
Stop saving investment statements. They are obsolete from the moment you get them.
If you can easily find it in your email or online, you don’t need to keep the paper copy.
If you have more than 1 or 2 boxes of unsorted paper that you have not looked at in more than six months, you probably won’t.
There is an 80 percent chance that anything you file you will never look at again.
If you want to find something really important, chances are you can request a copy, unless of course it’s a love letter or your 6th grade report card.
Don’t spend your retirement years going through your files unless you really want to.
If you have paper on nearly every surface in your home, including floors, near your stove or on your bed, then it’s time to call in a professional, for your safety.
If you have any reason to believe you’ve been a victim of fraud or if you suspect someone has access to your credit information without your consent, contact all three credit reporting agencies immediately and submit a fraud alert.
Have an organizing question or need help getting organized to move or want to schedule a coaching session? Schedule a free, no obligation phone chat with me using this link. https://calendly.com/letsmakeroom/30min
After living in the same home for 35 years, you’ve decided to sell your house to move into a smaller home that better fits your plans for the future.
Now the bad news.
After living in the same home for 35 years, you’ve decided to sell your house to move into a smaller home but now you have to decide what you want to take with you to your new home and then figure out what to do with everything else.
Here’s the ugly truth. You’ll have to get past the overwhelm if you want to make this happen. Action in the form of decisions is the best antidote. However, if you need help, consider hiring a professional organizer or move manager, especially if you are a senior or not as strong as you used to be. Breaking your back or leg should not be a part of your moving plan.
Start by looking around. Every room in your home has surfaces, drawers, closets and cabinets containing – dare I say filled with – a lifetime of objects and memories – enjoyed, received, purchased, stored, used, never used, never discarded.
You suddenly think, what am I going to do with all this stuff? You wonder if anyone wants your ten year old sleeper sofa, the one you bought so your grandkids could sleep over but now those kids are in high school or college and they’ve moved to new cities.
You think about the china and the silver that you haven’t used in years and that your kids have outright told you, “thanks Mom but no thanks, I have no place to put it and and even if I did, we’d never use it. I can’t even put it in the dishwasher!”
You’re not alone. It’s a dilemma faced by millions of people retiring or nearing retirement, every year.
So what do you do?
Start by getting clear about why you are moving.
Perhaps, you’re going to be closer to your grandkids. Or, you’re leaving the suburbs, and selling the house that’s outgrown you to return to downtown so you can walk to the stores you love and be closer to things you enjoy.
Maybe you’re moving into a condo or a smaller one-story home so you don’t have to deal with three flights of stairs anymore.
Maybe you’re moving back to your hometown where the air is cleaner and life is simpler.
Whatever the reason, get a crystal clear picture of what your future could look like and how you’ll know you got there.
Picture yourself playing with your grandkids, sharing coffee with a friend or taking a walk down that old familiar road with your dog.
You’ll need to have this picture fixed in your mind. Why? Because getting downsized and organized to move, and then planning and executing the move can at times be a mind-numbing, physically taxing and even tedious process. Add to that the time it takes to get unpacked, settled and adjusted to your new home, neighborhood or community. It’s hard adjusting to your new life… even when it’s the one you chose to have!
Once you’ve prepared yourself mentally, it’s time to start making some big decisions. If you’ve already found a new home, that will make downsizing and planning for your move predictable since you’ll know ahead of time how much space you have to move into.
But let’s say you want to start downsizing now, even though you don’t know where you’re moving. You just know you want less in your life and to be free of the burden of all the stuff!
First, start with what you know. Decide and mark (with bright green or blue painter’s tape) the items in your house that you know, for certain, you are taking with you. Make the labels as visible as possible. Go through room by room and “read the room” like you read a book, from left to right. Mark each furniture item that takes up floor space from the left side of the door or entry way until you reach the right side of the door or entry way. Ignore the household items, just do furniture, large lamps and hung art work for now.
If you have an extremely cluttered room such as a garage or office or an old bedroom that has become a “dumping ground” for undecided items, don’t tackle these first. That’s like expecting to press a 500lb weight when you haven’t worked out in years. You’ll hurt yourself!
Build your decision-making muscles slowly. Instead, start with a reasonably uncluttered area and make decisions about items contained in these rooms first.
Sort usable items you don’t want and could be donated, from trash. Use white, tall kitchen plastic bags for soft items you no longer want like clothing, purses, and belts and “banker” or file storage size boxes for heavier or fragile items. If possible, use boxes with cut out handles. It makes it easier to transport donated items to your car or to another part of your home for staging. Never use large boxes for donations. (Leave those for the movers).
Use tall paper lawn bags (available at most hardware stores) for recycling paper and heavyweight plastic bags for trash and non-usable or broken items. Get the trash out as soon as the bags are full to make space for your next task. Seeing empty space is a great motivator!
Old blankets and linens can be donated to a local animal shelter. Used bed pillows are generally not donate-able and should be trashed unless your city (few do) offers a fabric recycling program.
Moving is probably the only time when you will finally look at the paper you have been saving.
Don’t even think about tackling paper until you’ve first downsized your household items. If you do have a large quantity of paper – several file cabinets worth — consider the fact that 80% of what most people keep they never look at again.
If possible peruse your cabinets by file, not by document. If you’re concerned you may accidentally toss something confidential, err on the side of placing the entire file in a file-storage sized box marked “shred.” Set all your “shred” boxes aside and either arrange for them to be picked up by a local shredding company or you can search “free shredding events near me” online. Insurance agents and banks often sponsor free, public shredding events, for promotional purposes.
Time will determine just how and where your unwanted items get disbursed. In other words, the longer lead time you have, the more thoughtful you can be about where your discarded items end up.
If you’ve lived in your home for more than ten years, expect to pay for hauling or trash removal. Take advantage of your local waste management company’s free bulky item pick-up service if available but keep in mind you may still have to pay someone to help you get large and heavy items such as old appliances, mattresses and un-donateable furniture to your curb for pick up.
Save your back! Take advantage of whatever charities in your area offer truck pick-up but keep in mind you may have to book up to several weeks in advance and what is taken is always at the driver’s discretion. Check out DonationTown.org to schedule a truck pick up in your area.
Most household items will be accepted but furniture is more difficult to donate unless it’s collectible or in demand (e.g., mid-century modern) in good condition and less than 5 years old. If you have time, you can try posting items on free web-based sites such as Craigslist, Nextdoor, Facebook Marketplace, Freecycle.org, LetGo etc. Check to see if there is a “free stuff” group on your favorite social media site, if you use one, such as Facebook or Instagram.
There are also services like MaxSold which is an online auction site that will provide local help to get almost all your household items sold at below-market prices and picked up in a day or two.
The biggest advantage of selling or donating your large furniture is you don’t have to pay to have these items moved. Add to that, they are being purchased, presumably, by someone who wants them. The disadvantage is that you will have to be okay with prospective buyers coming to your home but you can either be there or agree to have representatives manage the sale for you.
Once your house is emptied of all sold and donated items as well as debris, your move will be much simpler. Contact one or two reputable movers in your area to get onsite estimates for packing, moving and insuring your move.
If possible, take advantage of their packing services, at least for your high value and fragile items, especially if you are moving out of state or more than 50 miles away. It’s well worth the added expense since it’s less likely things will arrive damaged if packed professionally. In the event that something does break, the liability rests with the movers, not you, and therefore you can file a claim with your mover’s insurance company or your own homeowners insurance if they cover your move.
After your items are moved, you can now turn the house over to your real estate agent to reap the most value from your home’s sale and begin living out the the vision you imagined! Chances are, it will be even better than you expected.
Teachers. What would you have done without that one special teacher in your life? Who was s/he? What did they teach you? What special influence did they have on your life? Wouldn’t you like to show them how much they mean or meant to you? This month you can! Read on…
I’ll be honoring a special teacher in my life, my husband, who has been teaching for more than 30 years! Here at LET’S MAKE ROOM, we will also be honoring teachers with a special offer (see below).
For practically his entire career, he’s taught elementary school kids with specific learning challenges to read, write and and do math. He loves his job as much as he did when he started, though it hasn’t always been easy.
Many of his students are from broken homes or have survived terrible trauma. Many experience a lot more than learning challenges. We were both humbled by the support he and 3,000 of his colleagues received, here in Oakland, California, from parents and other members of our community when they were on strike earlier this year (#unite4oaklandkids) fighting for fair pay, reduced class sizes and more student services such as nurses and school counselors.
Even at a time when education is under siege in this country, due in great part to horrifyingly naive and destructive policies, teachers stay focused, committed and passionate about their mission. Many have “seen it all” and thankfully, take the long view that education will survive, no matter who is in office.
Many of my clients are teachers, retired teachers and a few retired principals. What I’ve noticed is they all have one thing in common. Pride in the work they do or did before they retired. For many, being a teacher is more than a profession. It’s a calling. Especially for those who, like my husband, have dedicated their adult lives to educating children.
I love it when my teacher-clients pull out their bins of hand-drawn cards given to them by former students. Or they show me the training guides and class notes they kept that helped them become better teachers. Almost all have photographs from their years of teaching showing them with children who have long since grown into adulthood.
Get my special #ThankATeacher Offer
If you are a teacher (or know someone who is), either new to the profession or or a seasoned, veteran teacher, this month – May 2019 – say thank you to the teacher in your life (even if it’s you) by giving them the gift of organization. You’ll receive a 60-minute consultation to address any organizing challenge in your home, home office or even your classroom, absolutely FREE! Then if you decide to work with me, I will offer you an additional 20% off your first organizing session ($120 value).
Even if you are not physically located near me, we can still work together via Skype, FaceTime or by phone. But don’t wait! This offer will end May 31st and appointments are limited. To schedule time to chat about your project click here.
How to keep your office organized when it’s is in your bedroom
You are finally in bed after a long day. You cover yourself with a blanket; feel the warm comfort of your pillow beneath your head and the soft, cool sheets against your tired body. You begin to relax into a night of slumber when you are suddenly startled by the pinging sounds of your computer sending notifications about tomorrow’s busy day. You get up and turn down the volume and get back in bed. That’s when you notice the pile of papers strewn across your desk, in varying heights and reminding you of a slew of unfinished tasks, unpaid bills and projects still yet to be started. You shut your light out, hoping in darkness you will forget the site of all that you have left undone. All of a sudden you see the blinking of all your devices in random rhythms, your router, your modem, your phone. Your room lights up with a blue blinking glow. You cover your face with a pillow and somehow manage to fall into an exhausted sleep.
In general, I don’t think a bedroom is a great place for your office. Your bedroom should be a place of respite, relaxation and most of all sleep. Yet sometimes, there is no choice. Space is at a premium. You share a home or an apartment and there is no other available space to work.
This doesn’t mean you should lose sleep when your office is in your bedroom. Here are some ways you can minimize those distractions without sacrificing your personal productivity.
Hide your desk. Space permitting, hide your desk behind a free-standing, decorative folding screen or room divider. You can buy them online or in most home decor stores. When it’s time to leave work, simply pull the screen around your desk.
Shut out and shut down. Turn off or block digital noise and distractions. If you can’t hide your electronic equipment, things like your modem, router, or fax/printer behind or under your desk, place a small piece of dark blue painter’s tape over the lights that blink. Painter’s tape will not harm your equipment and can be easily removed or re-placed. This is especially recommended if you use a guest room for your office. You don’t want your guests losing sleep from all the pings and blinking lights.
Re-purpose and reposition. If your room is configured for it, why not turn your desk into a combination bedside table-workspace. That way, you are no longer looking at the desk from your bed. You’ll need a lamp on your desk anyway, so why not make it your bedside lamp. You can also leave a little room nearest your bed for a book or notepad, a place to put your reading glasses, a small plant or decorative item, and a clock or device with an alarm. In other words, all the things you would need nearby while you’re working.
Clear the decks. Surfaces are notorious clutter catchers. No matter what size the surface, they have a way of getting covered with things. Just like you have a home, everything in your home should have a home. Take the time each day to survey what you have on your desk or work surface and decide 1) Can I toss it? 2) Does it need to live on my desk? 3) where else could it live in my home? Then toss it, move it or take it back to where it lives. No more homeless items!
Create vertical storage. Install simple bracket or wall-shelves above your desk area for less frequently used items, books, or reference materials. Use decorative boxes in like colors to contain surplus office supplies. Get these all off your desk and on to a shelf to free up space for working, creating and being more productive.
Equalize your workspace. Before leaving your desk for bed, take 60 seconds to put loose items in drawers, loose papers in a stack or contain them in a shallow box (e.g. an “in-box”). Review your calendar and most important to-dos for the next day. Then shut off your computer (or put it in “sleep mode”) along with all other unnecessary electronics. You’ll save money on your electric bill and may even get a few more Zs tonight.
Personal and home organizing is a hot topic and almost everyone has an opinion about what works. Here are ten beliefs about organizing that I have heard numerous times in my ten years as a professional organizer and move manager. Ask yourself, have I heard myself think or say any of these? If so, read why I think you’d be better off tossing out these beliefs next time you decide to get organized at home.
Myth #1 If it’s visible I can see it. (Also known as, I will remember I have this if I put it here.)
If everything is visible, nothing is. Your eye doesn’t know where to focus. Picture things in a pile. They might be visible but good luck finding what you need in a hurry. If you find yourself saying, “I will remember it if I just put it here,” in my industry we jokingly refer to that as the FHS system of organizing, as in First Horizontal Space.
Myth #2 Just touch the paper once.
I’ve heard clients repeat this back to me dozens of times but it never made sense to me, especially for paper that is prompting you to do something – such as pay a bill – or paper that is likely you will look at again – such as your credit card bill. The only paper I can see looking at once is the paper you toss (or shred) like your junk mail.
Myth #3 It will just take me a day to get organized Unless you make a living as a professional organizer, I would never recommend you spend an entire day on an organizing project unless you have a lot of energy! Organizing is both a physical and mental task. Spending eight hours sorting, purging, assigning homes to items, then containing them in a way that makes sense, not to mention shopping for the right organizing products and labeling them, is a lot or work! Most of my clients consistently underestimate the time it takes to organize a space. Organizing a room includes not just what you can see, but what you can’t see (hidden on shelves, in cabinets and drawers). If you are motivated to get organized, pick a day and time frame when you are feeling normally energetic or when you do other types of household tasks. Don’t spend more than 3-4 hours working. Do you really want to spend your precious days off organizing your garage if what you really want to do is tend to your garden, take a walk with your dog or have brunch with a friend? One more tip: Never use your vacation time to get organized if you don’t have to.
Myth #4 Containers, bins and labels will get me organized That of course is what many stores carrying organizing products and systems will want you to believe. Don’t get me wrong, many of these products are great and I would be the first to recommend a good storage bin to a client when it calls for one. Just buying products and having them collect dust in your home will never get you more organized. Plan on using them for a specific set of items that you have already sorted through and decided to keep because you use them.
Myth #5 Organized people are dull Dull no. Passionate, creative, caring, quirky, friendly, obsessive (sometimes). If you like your “messy” side and have no reason to be “tidy” then embrace that part of yourself if it doesn’t cause pain for you or your loved ones. That being said, I’ve always believed that when you create more physical space in your life, it gives you the room to focus on or discover what truly gives you joy.
Myth #6 I am hopeless when it comes to getting organized The messages we give ourselves often manifest as reality. But just because you don’t have the expertise, skill, “mindset” or intention to get organized doesn’t mean you can’t be me more organized. I understand not everyone is cut out to be better at something they wish they were. No amount of effort will ever turn me into a marathon runner but I did once complete a marathon-walk. It took months of training every weekend, motivation and a plan. If you want to learn to be better organized, you can do it
Myth #7 I just need time to do some filing
Several years ago, I started a new personal productivity service for my clients who were struggling with too much paper.
I was inspired to do this after I heard so many of them say that the answer to their paper piles was filing. It’s not! The answer to your paper piles is less paper! But knowing what paper to keep, how and why, and having a simple system for organizing and managing new paper as it comes in to your life, does work. Learn more about my personal productivity service here.
Myth #8 I just need more storage space The famous comedian, George Carlin, had a great routine about why people buy homes (as a “place to put their stuff.”) Check it out here for a good laugh: https://youtu.be/MvgN5gCuLac. While storage or lack thereof may be a contributing factor to your disorganization, buying or building shelves will not make the clutter go away. It will just “contain” it. But buying shelving just to contain your “stuff” is like, as Mr. Carlin said, like buying a house just to have a place to put your stuff.
Myth #9 Live minimally While I love to watch the shows about Tiny Houses, not everyone is cut out to live in a 200 square foot home. I know I’m not! When I was in college, I had a boyfriend who literally had one knife, one fork, and one spoon. At dinner we used to playfully compete for who got the fork at dinner! It may have seemed romantic at the time, but you don’t have to live this minimally to enjoy your life. There is a grey area in between. When it comes to deciding what you really need, I prefer to use the word “curate” as it implies keeping only what supports you. Curate comes from the Latin word Cur or care. Thus we keep what we care about and anything left that is still useful, finds new life in the care of someone else. Living in a consumer and technological culture has made that very difficult. Sadly there is so much I see that can’t be re-used or recycled. Choose carefully what you bring into your life. Everytime you are tempted to buy something new, consider that the day may come when you will want to part with it. Will it be usable or trash?
Myth #10 Having a place for everything I own will make me more organized. Having a home for what you use, love and need is important but having a home for your stuff alone does not make you more organized. It won’t help you, for example, if you have used your space so efficiently that every square inch of your home contains things that you’ve never used, exist in quantities that exceed what you need or you are keeping for sentimental reasons that never honor the person who gave them to you. What’s the point of holding on to your grandmother’s china if you never use it! In her day, she probably kept it as an heirloom for you and chances are she used it because in her day, China was part of her lifestyle the way mugs and plates we own are part of ours. If you are keeping something for sentimental reasons, use it to bring back memories otherwise release it for someone else to enjoy. Just keep in mind, to someone else it’s just a plate and saucer.
The other day I decided to organize my one and only recipe binder. Most recipes I look up online. A few I take from cherished cookbooks and an old 3-ring, 1-inch recipe binder I’ve had for years. I found myself wanting to organize the binder recently after it took me a little too long find a recipe I needed.
When I started the process of organizing the binder- emptying the contents, sorting each recipe by category, disposing of the ones I knew I would never make again, then putting them back in order – I thought to myself, “I really don’t feel like doing this right now.”
Being organized is all about developing an organizing habit. It requires a thought, a motivation, an acton and a result.
Developing an organizing habit comes from a desire to continually survey your environment and be willing to improve your surroundings so you can function on a day to day basis with more ease.
It takes a willingness to regularly decide whether or not this thing or that still serves you or adds value to your life. Once decided, it then should be followed up with action – a choice to retain and store it logically and aesthetically, or to let it go to to find a new life somewhere else or to dispose of it safely and conscientiously. It’s not easy. Even sometimes for an organizer.
I had no strong motivation, nothing forcing me to undertake this little project. I also realized if I wanted to find a recipe in the binder, I still could, if I was willing to tolerate the inconvenience of looking for it (I was). There were other more pressing priorities in my life. I’d just returned from a trip to New York and was still adjusting to the time change and catching up on my to-do list.
Now back home, I realized, “I’m tired.” I thought it would be nice to get this done, but it wasn’t really necessary right now. I can live with it the way it is. Further, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to make decisions or take on any actions. This, I thought, is just how my clients feel.
It’s nice to be organized but let’s face it, it’s not always easy to get organized. When do you really have to get organized? It differs for everyone but in general here are some reasons you don’t have to get organized:
If what you want to organize is good enough and still usable (like my recipe binder)
If you (and your family or housemates) can still find what you need when you need it without too much effort
If you are okay with your home looking “lived in” and doesn’t have to look like it’s staged for sale
If you are not regularly losing things, paying bills late, incurring late fees, or paying for things you already own and can’t find
If you and your family are not fighting over the clutter in your home
If you are not feeling stressed every time you open your closet
If you are enjoying your life to the fullest
Here’s when you probably should think about getting organized:
When you are selling your home or moving
When you are planning a remodel
When you or a member of your family has to downsize for their own safety
When you feel the stress of your paper or physical clutter impacting your wellbeing or mood more days than not
When you and your family are arguing over the clutter in your home
When you realize you feel ashamed or embarrassed to have people into your home when you otherwise would
When you’ve used up your storage space or can’t use your storage the way it was intended (e.g., parking your car in the garage)
When you find yourself renting storage units for more than a year (this is a very costly way to defer organizing)
I frequently meet people who when they find out I’m a professional organizer will say, “oh, I need you!” but in fact they really don’t because they’ve learned to live with and tolerate their cluttered closets and messy garages. They put up with the fights with their kids or their spouses. Or they just don’t feel like doing it even when someone can do it for them because it’s one more thing on their to-do list.
Most people realize the time to get help is when the disorder exceeds their ability to tolerate the consequence. It’s when it costs them more in money or peace of mind to do nothing. Sadly, this is also when they are least equipped to take on the task. Like me in that moment with recipe binder, they are just too tired and there’s too much else they have to get done first.
Think you want to organize your office? What’s it costing you not to? What can’t you do now? How would it help you if you could find what you need when you needed it?
Want to organize your kitchen, living room or closets? What’s it costing you not to? Are you unable to prepare a meal? Are you fighting with your spouse because there’s no place to sit and play with your kids in your living room?
Are you feeling sick to your stomach every time you open a closet, cabinet or cupboard because the mess is unbearable?
Are you moving and waking up nights thinking about how the heck you’re going to get all the stuff from your 2,500 square-foot home into a 1,200 square-foot condo with no garage!?
I often say to my clients, don’t let the small stuff get in the way of the big stuff. What I mean by this is consider the cost of not taking action.
If it’s small, like my deciding not to organize my recipe binder right now, there is relatively little consequence. But if you defer taking action or decide you can do it all yourself, consider the cost to your health, your marriage, even your dreams and goals. For those large painful organizing projects that are impeding your life or causing you great stress, it’s not whether you can afford to do it, it’s whether you can afford not to.
This year, why not give your Mom what she really wants for Mother’s day.
More time to spend with her family, and less time to feel overwhelmed by her clutter, especially all that paper!
Here’s what you can do: Suggest to Mom that you’d like to give her the gift of organization so she can feel more in control of her life and less stressed by all the paper clutter in her home. You can help her yourself or better yet, hire a Certified Professional Organizer, who can quickly identify and sort all it all. Once sorted, you can purge what’s no longer needed and contain what’s left either in labeled paper or digital files according to your mother’s preference and ability.
If you decide to do this yourself, make it a time not just to plow through those piles but also to share the memories with Mom. Whatever you do though, don’t chastise Mom for keeping everything. No one was born with an “organizing gene” and the rules around paper have changed considerably since she was young, especially now that we are in a digital age though she may not be.
Most of what we keep, as much as 80% according to several studies, we never refer to again. Old bills, especially utility bills, make up the bulk of what I’ve seen the most of when helping my clients tame their paper piles.
I’ve seen floors literally buckle under the weight of boxes upon boxes of retained paper.
Even if all the paper in these boxes were accidentally tossed the chances of needing anything in them is statistically small. That being said, there is always a chance that those boxes contain confidential information so to protect your Mom’s identity I recommend you arrange to have it picked up by a residential document destruction company in your area.
Shredding these papers protects your Mom from others using her confidential information fraudulently. If you chose to to this yourself, be especially mindful when you are tossing documents containing the following:
Social Security Number (in full)
Credit Card Account Number (in full)
Driver’s License Number (in full)
Medical Record Number (in full)
Account Number (in full)
In recent years the practice of including full account numbers has changed to protect individual identities but that has not always been the case. If your Mom has kept documents for more than 10-15 years, it’s possible some contain this type of confidential information. Note however, documents that contain just a name, address and phone number are part of public record (remember old phone books?) and nothing can be done with this information alone so it’s safe to recycle these.
To get started, you will need a cardboard or plastic box labeled “SHRED” to contain documents for destruction. You will also need a supply of paper bags or boxes labeled “RECYCLE” and a smaller receptacle for “TRASH” such as the plastic that contains magazines and other junk mail. Lastly, you will also need a work surface. If table space is scarce, use a folding table or large ironing board if available. Use a “sharpie” for labeling if needed.
These record retention and destruction recommendations are general best practices and not intended to replace the advice for you or your Mother’s specific situation, especially if she is ill, disabled, or in dispute with the IRS. In these cases, consult with your tax preparer or another legal professional.
To get you started, start with whatever loose paper is most visible on surfaces, tables, desks or the floor. Open all mail and sort all items, including individual files and documents into the following 5 categories:
Financial includes: old and unpaid bills, store receipts paid in cash (if you are tracking your mother’s cash expenditures), bank statements, investment statements, tax returns, pension documents, social security information
Medical includes: Medical history, prescription records, explanations of benefits, prescription receipts, and health insurance and/or Medicare documents specific to your Mom
Legal includes: Life insurance policies, veteran records, estate planning documents such as wills, trusts, power of attorney, health proxies or living wills, birth, adoption, marriage and death certificates
Home includes: Property insurance records such as home and auto, mortgage records including records of satisfied mortgages, appliance warrenties
Personal includes: Educational and work history, cards, letters and other correspondence, general reference such as “project” or “idea” files. Binders that contain old training material, photographs, professional or published papers written or contributed to by your Mom and anything of a personal nature that could not be replaced if lost.
As you do this you can toss the following: empty mailing envelopes, obvious junk mail, expired coupons, store receipts paid by by credit or debit card and old user guides or warranty information for products or appliances no longer owned. Keeping a focus on sorting will make purging later go that much faster.
Next purge (shred or recycle) the following from each of the five piles:
Financial: Old paid bills, store receipts for low value items, checks from closed accounts, investment statements except current month or quarter, tax returns from more than seven years ago. ATM receipts – unless tracking cash withdrawals
Medical: Outdated medical information, explanations of benefits, receipts for prescriptions paid by insurance, any documents not specific to your Mom such as marketing and general information
Legal: Cancelled life insurance policies, cancelled or expired contracts
Home: Cancelled insurance policies, repair records for cars no longer owned, mortgage bills already paid, any reference material not referred to in over a year or that can easily be found elsewhere or online. Anything printed off the internet.
Personal: Any personal reference material that has not been referred to in over a year (such as old recipes, remodel ideas, maps, wellness or hobby information, old magazines, binders containing old training material, greeting cards signed by unknown people, out-dated resumes, any document that can be easily found online. Children’s school records and drawings if not displayed. Take a digital photo instead. Personal papers such as these will most likely take up the bulk of your Mom’s paper files.
KEEP and CONTAIN (either file or scan)
Use this as a guide for setting up your paper or or electronic file system
Tax returns and current tax information including receipts used for deductions for future tax returns
Bank statements and investment statements by account name and last 4 digits of account number – most recent three months unless your Mom will be applying for assistance under Medicaid or MediCal. In this case she will need the last 5 years of bank statements.
Credit card statements by account name and last 4 digits of account number – last three months only
Life insurance by policy name – keep while active
Social security account information
Records of health history, prescriptions taken and major conditions
Lists of physicians, specialists and other providers seen or consulted with
Insurance/Medicare/MediCaid account information
Estate planning documents (birth, adoption, marriage, death certificates)
Heath proxies, power of attorney documents
Records of satisfied contracts or any current contracts
Mortgage documents for current home
Records of recently paid household bills (less than one year) – if possible, set up auto pay and have bills issued paperlessly via email.
Records of property insurance (home, auto, other assets)
Warranties, appraisals or certificates for high value items (value greater than $100 per pound)
School transcripts/Official records such as diplomas
Records of work history (most current)
Cards, letters and other correspondence if it has historical or resale value (emotional value is optional)
Professional, written or published work if it has historic importance to the general public or a particular industry for archiving purposes
Anything that could not be easily replaced with strong emotional value
TO-DO or ACTION Paper
Finally, identify any documents that require some kind of ACTION or to-dos that your mother feels are worth her time such as bills to be paid, forms to be filled out, greeting cards to be mailed, or items she wants to discuss with another professional. Put these items in a separate mail sorter on her desk or workspace, keeping the bills separate from everything else. Don’t put anything here that needs to be filed or contained. Any retained magazines should be placed where your Mom likes to read them. Once she is done with these items they can be filed, contained or tossed as needed.
After you spend a few hours helping her, then take her out for lunch or dinner so you can both relax and enjoy some quality time together, knowing that you’ve made some room in your lives for what matters most.
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 (shred).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.